Lifelong feelings of shame and deficiency are typically found to accompany the distress states caused by early trauma. Children cannot experience themselves as being a good person in a bad situation. Failure of the holding environment (family) is experienced as failure of the self. Later thoughts like, ‘there is something wrong with me’, or, ‘I am not worthy or bad’, are built upon early sensations in the body of ‘I feel bad’. Simply understanding that your shame reflects the environmental failure you experienced rather than who you really are can help shift lifelong patterns of low self esteem, shame and a sense of worthlessness and help you see yourself in a new, more compassionate way. Paraphrased from Healing Developmental Trauma with Laurence Heller, PHD
Have you experienced extreme highs when something good happens to you and extreme lows or deflation when facing something bad or a disappointment? Do you feel like you are bouncing up and down, dependent on outside forces? If things are going really well and you are making your goals, do you still have a nagging feeling that you are not enough? Do you sense an emptiness that does not respond to how much you fill your life or even how happy you seem to be? Even as your confidence grows, and your accomplishments pile up, do you notice you are afraid that failure could be lurking right around the next corner? Or do you feel that, no matter how successful you are, you are just fooling everyone—playing a charade of a confident, accomplished person; that you’re a fake?
If you can relate to any of these questions, then there may be something helpful for you here.
We are usually not conscious of breathing since it is an involuntary activity of the body. But when we slow down and breathe deliberately there is so much to observe about the breath. Each breath feels differently. One is shallow, one may be deep. There is a world of sensations that accompany each breath. They usually live in the background of our lives. Our thoughts that speak to us, as words inside, also take on this “involuntary quality”, particularly our less conscious background thoughts. They just become like the air we breathe, and we do not hear them or pay any attention to the power they wield over our lives. Most of the time we are too busy to hear all this back-ground noise. If we do learn to listen to these thoughts in the background what we will learn is this: there is an inner tyrant inside each of us. It began so early in our lives we may not have even been talking yet. This is the one who drives us to be perfect and thus avoids the painful recriminations we suffered as children. It is often not our own voice, but the critical or harsh voice or environment of our family or parents. This is called introjection: the unconscious adoption of the ideas or attitudes of others. We all introject the worst admonitions from our families so as to try and protect ourselves from having to endure them again. “If I say it to myself, then I will never get caught doing [whatever] and have to endure this punishment again.”
The process of unearthing these strong demands and background thoughts does not make them go away, even though we begin to see how irrational, unrealistic and self-defeating they are. Some part of us knows that you cannot ALWAYS be kind and please everyone, but that rational part does not win out, does not silence the voice of the tyrant. Beyond the messages that demand perfection are also accompanying beliefs that are mostly unconscious but exert a strong influence on our thinking and actions. But as we follow this process below the surface, we will begin to have more control over this inner struggle and begin to find more inner connections to what is the real good inside of us that is not dictated by outside forces or our inner critic.
The more conscious we become of these buried parts of us, the better we know ourselves. When the hidden parts become known they have much less power to influence our lives.
The Inner Critic
Since inner critical words are introjected (literally put in us by others), they are actually alien and don’t actually belong to us. These early messages contradict our present sane beliefs about who we really are. We can easily see the falseness of them at the intellectual level and replace them with more sane and accurate assessments, but our young belief system keeps us stuck in them. The part of us that knows better, our adult logical self, joined in the developmental process rather late. The more primitive inner-child part of us already believes firmly in the messages that came from our parents, no matter how offensive or life-effacing they are such as:
- Don’t show yourself to anyone.
- Don’t think a man or a women will want you.
- Don’t let anyone know what you are thinking.
- Don’t let anyone get too close.
- Don’t let anyone go too far away.
- Don’t be enthusiastic about anything.
- Don’t be quiet.
- Don’t think you are important.
- Don’t underestimate yourself.
- Don’t be arrogant or proud.
- Don’t be just pretty.
- Don’t be just smart.
- Don’t be assertive.
- You are inadequate, ineffective, weak, failing, doomed – don’t be.
When these “dont’s” are internalized they can become rigid, self-defeating mind sets. These critical voices are so ingrained and insidious because they come from our family. Our instinct is to trust our families, so it is frightening to contradict or challenge those early injunctive voices of authority. Our discernment is not yet formed so these messages go unchallenged. (Paraphrased from Shadow Dance—Liberating the Power and Creativity of the Dark Side, by David Richo.)
Here are some practical ways to get down into the material of our background thoughts. Those inner voices that control our our inner life.
Observe Yourself. You will probably be surprised at how many negative judgments you produce during a day.
Study how you react when something unpleasant happens. If you experience a break-up of a relationship, or get fired, or have a nasty falling out with a friend, what thoughts do you have about this? If you feel bitter and resentful— “I just knew it. This is the way it always turns out. To hell with it!”—you can be sure there is belief at work. An equally good indication is if you feel self-pity: “This always happens to me. I’m so tired of being disappointed!” Study this in yourself. Try to get to the root of the negative feeling and define the belief as clearly as possible.
Look at your behavior patterns. If, for example, you believe that relationships will never work out, you won’t try to give them your best. You may avoid relationships altogether or be so guarded that they never have a chance to get very deep and eventually die away. At the other extreme, you may get into a relationship and very soon begin to make yourself disagreeable and pick fights, resulting in the other person leaving you. What do these behaviors indicate regarding your beliefs about intimate relationships or about yourself? Are you passive and indifferent? Impatient and rushed? Study your day-to-day behavior to see what you can learn about your thoughts and beliefs.
Analyze your fantasies. Most people cherish one or more fantasies, which they use repetitively to amuse, calm or console themselves. What are yours? Do you play scenes in your mind of winning someone’s undying love after undergoing much suffering? Do you cherish a fantasy of yourself doing something heroic that will gain people’s respect once and for all? Do you repeatedly play a scene of getting even with someone for hurting or betraying you? These little stories are based on strong underlying beliefs and assumptions about how the world works. Explore these fantasies and work on putting into words the underlying beliefs that drive them.
Look at your family stories. Most families have a standard set of seemingly fond stories that they reminisce about and share with new acquaintances: “Yes, Ruth was an ugly little baby, but we were sure glad to get her.” “Our Jimmy has always been the wild one; he just drove his father and me crazy when he was little.” “Andy and Liz could never get along—they were like oil and water.” On one level these may be endearing anecdotes that serve to bond the family. But they can also be potent indicators of underlying negative currents in the family and in your own personal history that may have been invisible to you when you were a child. What are your family’s favorite stories and statements about itself? How does this relate to you own beliefs about yourself?
Study the times when you feel a deep sense of shame. It is natural to feel remorseful at times about your flaws and shortcomings. It’s not unusual to get momentarily annoyed with yourself after doing something that was not conscious or appropriate. However, if you find yourself going to a place of deep, paralyzing shame about something you’ve said or done, this almost always points toward a belief formed in very young childhood. This feeling of intrinsic badness becomes frozen as a belief that can keep influencing us as adults years later.
After reading carefully some of the examples and concepts above, spend some time listening inside yourself. See if you catch any words you speak that you have not heard before, because they slip so far into the background of who you are and what it is like to be you. What are some of the negative, critical, judgmental, and positive, supportive comments that you tell yourself? Spend some time on this and come up with some specific words.
What are images and visuals that accompany the words? What is the fantasy that frequently plays in your head?
There is no amount of outer accomplishment or outer recognition that touches the critical inner voices. As we begin to hear these voices out loud and let them be really known to us, we befriend a long, lost part of ourselves. As we welcome these parts home and hear them clearly, it is like welcoming back an old friend after a long separation.
Shifting Identification and ownership
As we hear more clearly and consciously what we are speaking to ourselves, every minute of every day, we can begin to make choices. Is this voice really mine or maybe it belongs to one or both of my parents? We can imagine the tone of this voice and all it’s admonition as a mass of energy — like the red energetic mass in the photo above. As we locate and feel this actually energy in our bodies we can gather it up and literally return it where it belongs. One client did this and both her parents (now deceased) said they were sorry (in her minds eye) something she had never heard while they were alive. It was a moment of healing.
We can also find an older and wiser part of ourselves and begin to challenge the validity of these voices. We can emulate the kind voices of the ones who loved us the best as children. We can literally say to ourselves, “Oh sweetheart, it is not really true that you are lazy, fat, stupid or [fill in the blank]”.
I sometimes say this out loud for emphasis—if no one is near.
A miracle begins to happen slowly. Our inside voice becomes kind and quiet. We begin to be good friends with ourselves. We consciously shift our identification from the one who believes these voices and speaks them constantly and unconsciously, to the one who can hold with tenderness and understanding this misguided historic part of ourselves. Then real change begins to happen.
In this shift of identification, we can begin to shift our whole lives. We make the leap from experiencing the effect of our inner lives to being the cause. Our inner perpetrator finally gets returned to where it belongs and also gets the attention and care it has been screaming for all our lives. Nothing we have done in our outside world has been able to hear this plea.