I remember when Vanessa wowed me with this one:
“I’ve spent 30 years hating myself, and I’m tired of it. I need to learn how to love myself.”
Self-loathing wasn’t something Vanessa was born with. It was learned.
When we were babies, we had no innate sense of disgust with ourselves. If our rattle fell to the ground, we didn’t berate or despise ourselves. We didn’t suffer shame over it—shame isn’t even a reality to babies. So the incident didn’t become an indictment against our character and we weren’t left with the sense of being a bad baby . . . or bad person.
Clearly, we have a lot to learn from babies!
Yet as adults, many of us lug around a truck-load of accumulated guilt and shame—the irrational kind. It’s overkill. Yes, self-scrutiny can be a good thing, and sometimes guilt is warranted, like the guilt for being nasty to a store clerk, or breaking something we borrowed. But we shouldn’t agonize over those things.
Guilt’s function is to awaken us so that we do some healthy soul-searching, correct our behavior and make amends. But guilt shouldn’t be a weapon we use against ourselves.
When I began working with Vanessa, shaming herself was a constant occurrence. The house was never clean enough, she didn’t exercise or diet enough, she wasn’t a good enough wife, and she didn’t give Carson—her baby—enough of her time.
To make matters worse, her “internal shamer” followed her wherever she went. After hanging out with friends, heckling thoughts like, Maybe I wasn’t nice enough, or Maybe I talked too much, would torment her for hours.
Vanessa was convinced she was bad to the core. But I believed otherwise. In one of our sessions, she showed me a photo she had taken of Carson gazing at her with loving, happy eyes. That told me volumes. I couldn’t resist commenting, “Well, you’re certainly doing something right!”
Bad to the core? Hmmm. Vanessa’s negative self-appraisal just wasn’t adding up. She was just too warm-hearted, too caring, too sensitive to be a member of that club. She clearly didn’t meet the criteria.
So where did the self-loathing and irrational guilt originate? Her childhood. A steady diet of severe punishments, along with a constant barrage of critical and condemning messages took a toll. Feeling guilty and bad about herself became her normal.
In therapy, Vanessa came to see that she had been needlessly suffering all those years due to a burdensome, oppressive mental habit.
That realization is the crucial first step to freedom!
Motivation is another important factor, and Vanessa had plenty of that because of Carson. Her strong desire to raise him to feel good about himself was what nudged her into therapy in the first place.
The crux of Vanessa’s problem was her conditioning—and buying into it. She bought into a lie. The good news: if she could buy into a lie, she could buy into the truth.
The truth was found by removing the obstacles that blocked her from loving herself and by disbelieving the internal shamer.
Vanessa got there and in the process she realized that Carson’s perception of her was the simple, beautiful truth!
Love and irrational guilt cannot coexist. One cancels out the other. When we’re in a space of loving ourselves, such guilt cannot get a foothold.
Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.
(c) 2017 Salee Reese