On compulsive repetition in the life of Rimbaud : Alice Miller

The following quote is taken from Alice Miller’s book The Body Never Lies :  The Lingering Affects of Childhood Trauma in which she addressed the subject of repressed childhood trauma.   Miller has written many books and they include biographical details from the lives of famous adults abused in childhood who then either re-enacted that abuse whole sale (Hilter and Sadam Hussein for example) becoming perpetrators in later life or decended into addiction or repression, many taking their own lives in the process (Virginina Woolf).   In the following extract which I found on Goodreads she addresses the life of the poet Rimbaud whose entire journey was a quest to seek the lost sustenance of a loving emotionally available mother.

“To salvage the genuine love he was deprived of in childhood, Rimbaud turned to the idea of love embodied in Christian charity and in understanding and compassion for others. He set out to give others what he himself had never received. He tried to understand his friend and to help Verlaine understand himself, but the repressed emotions from his childhood repeatedly interfered with this attempt. He sought redemption in Christian charity, but his implacably perspicacious intelligence would allow him no self-deception. Thus he spent his whole life searching for his own truth, but it remained hidden to him because he had learned at a very early age to hate himself for what his mother had done to him. He experienced himself as a monster, his homosexuality as a vice (this was easy to do given Victorian attitudes toward homosexuality), his despair as a sin. But not once did he allow himself to direct his endless, justified rage at the true culprit, the woman who had kept him locked up in her prison for as long as she could. All his life he attempted to free himself of that prison, with the help of drugs, travel, illusions, and above all poetry. But in all these desperate efforts to open the doors that would have led to liberation, one of them remained obstinately shut, the most important one: the door to the emotional reality of his childhood, to the feelings of the little child who was forced to grow up with a severely disturbed, malevolent woman, with no father to protect him from her. Rimbaud’s biography is a telling instance of how the body cannot but seek desperately for the early nourishment it has been denied. Rimbaud was driven to assuage a deficiency, a hunger that could never be stilled. His drug addiction, his compulsive travels, and his friendship with Verlaine can be interpreted not merely as attempts to flee from his mother, but also as a quest for the nourishment she had withheld from him. As his internal reality inevitably remained unconscious, Rimbaud’s life was marked by compulsive repetition.”

The following quote also expresses how we may try to compensate for the love and emotional availability we never attained.   Miller explains that it is only when our body knows the emotional truth has been understood that we can find release from what she calls the lingering effects of cruel parenting or emotional neglect.

“In his famous novel Fateless, the Hungarian writer and Nobel laureate Imre Kertész describes his arrival at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He was fifteen years old at the time, and he tells us in great detail how he attempted to interpret the many grotesque and appalling things he encountered on his arrival there as something positive and favorable for him. Otherwise he would not have survived his own mortal fear. Probably every child who has suffered abuse must assume an attitude like this in order to survive. These children reinterpret their perceptions in a desperate attempt to see as good and beneficial things that outside observers would immediately classify as crimes. Children have no choice. They must repress their true feelings if they have no “helping witness” to turn to and are helplessly exposed to their persecutors. Later, as adults lucky enough to encounter “enlightened witnesses,” they do have a choice. Then they can admit the truth, their truth; they can stop pitying and “understanding” their persecutors, stop trying to feel their unsustainable, disassociated emotions, and roundly denounce the things that have been done to them. This step brings immense relief for the body. It no longer has to forcibly remind the adult self of the tragic history it went through as a child. Once the adult self has decided to find out the whole truth about itself, the body feels understood, respected, and protected. ”

“But it is one thing to complain about one’s parents deeds and quite another to take the facts of the matter fully and completely seriously. The latter course arouses the infant’s fear of punishment. Accordingly, many prefer to leave their earliest perceptions in a state of repression, to avoid looking the truth in the face, to extenuate their parents’ deeds, and to reconcile themselves with the idea of forgiveness. But this attitude merely serves to perpetuate the futile expectations we have entertained since our childhood. ”

The following extract pertains to the life of Virginia Wolfe who took her life on 28 March, 1941.  Miller addresses in her book the repressed trauma and abuse she suffered and that Miller beleives contributed to her suicide.

“Can we say that she had no courage? No, we can’t; she showed more courage than most people in denouncing lies, but her family could not come to terms with such honesty. This is not surprising. The little girl continued to live in an adult woman’s body, fearing her molesting half-brothers and her beloved parents, who remained silent. Had she been able to listen to her body, the true Virginia would certainly have spoken up. In order to do so, however, she needed someone to say to her: “Open your eyes! They didn’t protect you when you were in danger of losing your health and your mind, and now they refuse to see what has been done to you. How can you love them so much after all that?” No one offered that kind of support. Nor can anyone stand up to that kind of abuse alone, not even Virginia Woolf. ”

Miller consistently makes the point of how essential validation of early abuse is for survivors to get free of suffering and their symptoms.   We need someone who can support us and believes what bodies and souls knew most deeply was true,  without this support and belief so many lose the fight or remain endlessly trapped on the hamster wheel of repetition compulsion.

The mental confusion of early childhood trauma

When there is not as much going on in my life I want to share information from Tian Dayton’s book Emotional Sobriety on the effects of relational trauma, that is the damage that happens to us when we are affected by early childhood abuse, trauma or lack of mirroring and empathy.  However today one of the key symptoms that is capturing my attention is distorted reasoning.  Tian writes :

Many people experience trauma within their family unit, rather than from an external source  When one’s family unit is spinning out of control, people are prone to adapt all methods of coping mechanisms – whatever they have to do to maintain feelings of connection.  Distorted reasoning – which may take the form of rationalizing and justifying bizarre or unusual forms of behavior and relations – can be immature and can also produce core beliefs about life upon which even more distorted reasoning is based.  For example “he is only hitting me because he loves me.”

I am thinking of this today as my Mum lies so ill and pumped full of chemicals in hospital.  I am thinking of how with no father she had to suffer aloneness and then be pushed to clean and clean.  Down on her kness in the bathroom she was told to ‘polish that floor until it shines’  and then she was hit or forced into domestic service.   With all this unprocessed trauma was it any wonder it was passed on to us all in different ways.  My older sister worked and worked and then drank and drank until the cerebral bleed took her down, my brother in law who eventually abandoned her was the evil one, but he too was scrambling to survive.   Amidst all of the following trauma I was scrambling to make sense of it, seeing my sister in a mythological light or struggling to understand the truth, caught up but not able to see clearly, carrying terror of abandonment into all subsequent relationships.

Lats night as I sat by my mother’s bedside and held her hand in the darkened room, an ocean of peace opened up between us.   I wept to the depths of my being as she told me she loved me.  She is very heavily drugged at the moment and chock full of toxins.  She also knows she hurt me and that we struggled at times, but what I really felt so deeply last night was the love that she tried to express in the only way she knew how.  Her own mother never once tole her she loved her, in later years she would push my mother out of the way in her desire to see my father, who she adored.   I know at times as a patriarchial Dad, my father frustrated all three of his daughers and there were a lot of times he could not give my mother the understanding she needed.   I see how my Mum was as a young person so focused on survival that emotions had to take a back seat.  Now its so sad to witness the years of trauma she has lived through as the result of her earlier emotional neglect richocheting over three generations.  My nephew made a lightening visit to see her yesterday morning driving four hours and weeping so intensely.   My heart goes out to him really, he has been through so much in past weeks all in an effort to fill the gaping mother wound in his heart (Saturn in Cancer).   He is carrying pain of many generations, that much is clear to me, as the very sensitive one.

Two other symptoms of early relational trauma are also somatic disturbances as well as memory disturbances and dissociation.  The continuity of time is warped in trauma, we don’t remember key events but they are held deep in somatic memory, however they are obscured and disjointed and may make so sense.   Due to dissociation we experience reactions to events that mirror earlier ones that may seem out of control or order.  We are then judged or judge ourselves for suffering, not fully understanding the extent of our suffering.  Re-enactment patterns and relationship issues are also a result of relational trauma in early life.   We will try in any way to make the the unconscious conscious in order to feel and heal it, but so often that involves experiencing more pain in order to connect to the original cause that my lay deeply obscured within us.   Maybe triggering traumatic events and disturbances in later relationships are ‘wake up calls’ trying to draw us towards understanding, healing and feeling.   It major work and we need so much help along the way.  We cannot do it alone and we need positive connections to heal but making them is hard when we are often attracted to what is bad for us.

With Mercury planet of mind and communications moving backward through the meaning making sign of Sagittarius this month and back towards a confusing square (or crisis aspect) with the planet of distorting Neptune, issues of mental confusion may be highlighted but the unconscious which Neptune also rules may be trying to get our attention in all kinds of ways.  Who can we trust for validation when our thinking and ability to make sense of our experience may be essentially wounded or thwarted and distorted in some way by past relational trauma or lack of mirroring?   It is so important that we find the right avenues to deepen in understanding and heal our minds as well as our hearts, souls and bodies.

Mars the planet of self assertion is moving into trine Neptune over the next two weeks or so, so a flow of healing may open up in many of our lives, a push to move forward in love and compassion in order to find freedom from past hurt, its what I am feeling very deeply this morning.   We cannot avoid the mental distortions that are a part of trauma but we can, in later life work for more clarity and insight.    Information on how trauma can discombobulate us is essential for our emotional recovery.

Understanding self absorbed behaviors

Lack of clear perception into our selves often comes from our early environment and deficits in mirroring.  If we consider generational and collective impacts too many of our parents and their parents and parents parents were engaged in a process of survival.  Attention was tied up with outer, rather than inner concerns and losses may have made one parent less emotionally available to them, leaving psychic and emotional deficits and burdens.  The research and work I have quoted from in previous posts from Mark Wolynn on multi generational trauma(It Didn’t Start With You)  addresses these issues in some way and shows how people tend to disconnect from parents in this situation, feeling hurt, betrayed abandoned or let down, often rightly so.  However there may be so much more to their story we never get to know.

Once we become more aware that our emotionally unavailable parents laboured under very real deficits, deficits that they passed down to us we can begin to take steps to address what we carry and hopefully become more aware of when and how we may have become self absorbed ourselves.

According to Nina Brown, author of Children of the Self Absorbed, the first step to reduce self absorbed behaviors is to accept that we may have absorbed some of them from our parents.  She outlines ten key behaviors associated with self absorption we may need to address or work upon as follows :

  • An attitude of entitlement.   Feeling that you deserve preferential treatment. That you can do or say whatever you like to others and that they shoud not be upset.  The idea you deserve special consideration or treatment.  Insensitivity to others.
  • Attention seeking.  Behaviors such as talking loudly when it will disturb others.  Dressing just for attention.  Trying to distract or upstage others.  Starting fights.  Interrupting ongoing conversations.  Dropping hints and teasers.  (All with the intent to gain outside validation that you are significant, important, different to or better than others, or to reassure yourself that you are worthwhile, or to ease chronic self doubt.)
  • Admiration seeking.   Yearning for reassurance you are valued through different means including the attainment of material or ‘status’ symbols.
  • Grandiosity.  Taking over in situations where it is not called for.  Feeling you are inherently superior to others.  Arrogance.  Displaying contempt. Failure to value the opinions of others.  Acting big as a defence against feeling small or shameful inside.
  • An impoverished self.  This is the self that feels deprived, ignored, abandoned or unnurtured or treated unfairly.  And this is all a matter of perception for as Brown points out me may not have a lot of support but still feel we are supported by the Universe.   Focusing on weaknesses or what you do not have instead of what you do.  Lack of ability to take constructive action to fix or address what you can.
  • Lack of Empathy.  Restricted or limited ability to sense what another person is experiencing inwardly in a specific situation without becoming enmeshed in their feeling or experience or reactions or overwhelmed by them.  Being able to hear and sense what lies behind words and actions… the real message behind the words.  (Brown notes we cannot be empathic with everyone all of the time and at times being too open to negative or toxic feelings can be inappropriate.  Brown says “Many adults who were not subject to a parent with a Destructive Narcissistic Pattern.. are able to be empahic with many people some of the time. “)
  • Seeing Others As Extensions of Self.  According to Brown “the self absorbed person is only dimly aware of other people in the world as separate and distinct from her (or him), and at the unconscious level thinks others exist to serve her (or him).  The self absorbed person sees everything in terms of self, as if they were the only real person in the world.”  This leads to : lack of respect for other’s possessions and boundaries, making decisons that affect others without consultation, making choices and decisions for others who are able to decide for themselves, touching things that belong to others without permission.  Asking overly personal questions.
  • Needing to be  percieved as unique and special by others. Everyone needs to know they are unique, special and worthy but when self absorbed this is taken to an extreme, or acted upon in a demanding way.  This relates to having an extra high opinion of oneself that is not based in fact.  It can lead to a lack of respect for others needs and rights.  It can result in criticism of others faults and flaws.  Making comparisons that put them up and the other person down.  Blaming others for getting in the way.  Needing to be complimented or praised first.
  • Exploitation of Others  This involves using other to gain benefit, coupled with the conviction that others are not as worthy.  Taking advantage of another person’s kind, generous or caring nature, desire to please or need for approval just to serve the self.  Expecting favours without reciprocation.  Lying, cheating, misleading.  Using “if you loved me or cared about me” to manipulate others
  • Shallow Emotions.  Adults with healthy narcissism can experience and express a wide and deep variety of emotions.  In contrast, self absorbed adults are extremely limited in experiencing and expressing their feelings.  Experiencing for them seems to be mainly limited to fear and anger and while they have the words when expressing other feelings, they don’t have the accompanying emotions.  These people are not genuine in their expression of feelings, except for the variations of fear and anger.   To get an idea of your range and level for experiencing emotions Nina recommends an exercise in which you make a list of each hour in the day and beside each time portion list all the feelings you remember experiencing.  Beside the list of feelings list the names of people you expressed the feelings to.  Review how open you were in either expressing or not expressing them.  Did you have much variablity in what you felt?  Did you primarily express negative feelings?  Did you have an expansive or limited vocabulary for your emotions?
  • Emptiness at the Core of Self.  Arises when children become isolated and lack meaningful connection to others.   When we are not received as kids we don’t develop a strong connection to and faith in the Universe.   The capacity for experiencing and understanding our feelings may be severely limited as a result. If we were not shown compassion we cannot feel it for ourselves.  If we are focused on our emptiness and hurt we are robbed of seeing the beauty and wonder around us.  We feel separate and disconnected and so emptiness grows.   Experiencing ‘holes’ and then reaching to substances or unfulfilling activities to feel ‘full’.

Bear in mind when reading this list that there is a difference between being self absorbed and self reflective.  It’s only natural that when we didnt get want we needed we would dig in and come to mistrust or not understand where others are coming from.  I have written another post to follow this one soon on the distinction between self absorption and self reflection.  People with destructive or malignant narcissism cannot self reflect or introspect, they tend to attack or blame often out of the narrow range of feeling, Brown speaks about in her book.  We are, in healing and becoming more self aware learning to strike a balance, its painstaking work.

 

Why we may be more reactive if emotionally neglected.

If you were raised by narcissistic or self absorbed parents I would highly recommend Nina W. Brown’s book Children of the Self Absorbed : A Grown Ups Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents.  

CSA.jpg

When the focus is not on us in childhood or is on us in a negative way (excessive punishment or criticism) we develop certain problematic issues in our life.  Some of these are:

Low self esteem

Feeling you must be perfect to win other’s love.

Feeling you will only get love through ‘doing’ for others.

Looking for approval outside of the self.

Difficulties establishing boundaries.

Trying to ‘mind read’ others.

Hyper-vigilant, overly reactive to triggers.

Feeling the need to perform in order to win attention or approval.

Feeling you are defective or basically flawed in some way. (Excessive shame/low self esteem.)

Covering up such feelings or fear by being or acting : arrogant, superior, aggressive, rationalising, becoming indifferent, isolating and withdrawing, abusing substance to cover up painful feelings.

Believing that others need to take care of you and your feelings and needs.

Believing it is not safe to reveal your true self to others.

Feeling helpless to make changes, collapsing.

Feeling you are less than others.

Believing you cannot get what you want or need.  Feeling helpless or hopeless.

Experiencing a high level of lack of self acceptance.

Absorbing the negative projections of others.

Taking on board other people’s feelings and emotions,  psychological enmeshment.

Each aspect is covered in full detail in Brown’s book.  What she also addresses are the issues of high sensitivity and taking things personally as well as struggling with feelings of irritation and anger which arise in response to present day triggers when you feel hurt, minimised or left out.

Tending to take things personally is a result of feeling that others are criticising you, blaming you or chastising you, or ignoring you or your feelings and needs and may be the outcome of this actually happening when you were young.  In present time we react because that criticism or feeling of being left out is triggering our original narcissistic injury which was the painful wound we were left with from childhood.    As Brown explains it, in this situation :

you are more focused on your hurt and shame than you are on rationality and logic.  Further, when someone tells you to not take it personally, that seems only to add to your distress.

This is one way that you continue to be re-injured, as there always seems to be someone to object to something, things don’t go as planned, or you are the person who receives someone’s displacement or projection.  By taking these in and always personalising them, you contribute to your re-injury.  You have not yet learned or accepted the limits of your personal responsibility, accepted your personal limitations and strengths, or developed sufficient psychological boundary strength.  This tendency also points to some self absorption, where you want control over yourself, others, and events and think that you are the centre of everyone’s attention and expectations. Taking things personally can trigger or increase your feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, and fear.

Feeling Irritated and Ignored

One characteristic you may have that helps prevent you from letting go of negative or distressing feelings is an inability to ignore minor irritations and annoyances.  Staying aware of what you are feeling can be very good for you… knowing when you are irritated or annoyed can permit you to deal with that mild feelings to prevent escalation to a more intense feeling of anger.  However, once you are aware of being irritated or annoyed, you have an opportunity to reflect on your feelings, judge the threat to yourself, and realise that you don’t have to keep feeling that way if you don’t want to.   If you don’t let go at that point, the irritations and annoyances keep building up and festering so they can jump to anger at any time.

Your inability to overlook, ignore, or let go of minor irritations and annoyances can be traced, in part, to what you think the triggering acts are saying about you.  You become irritated or annoyed when you sense a threat to yourself.   This is the first step in becoming actually angry, where the body prepares itself for fight or flight.  However, most irritating and annoying acts present no threat and can be overlooked or ignored.  For instance, your wife or husband folding your clothes in a sloppy way is not a realistic threat to your core self.  Further, holding onto these annoyances can have negative effecs on your health, sense of well being and relationships.

Brown gives an exercise in the book for unpacking the triggering incident by reflecting on it and writing it down.  She then suggests you try to divine what you feel the incident is saying about you.  Some examples are : I am not valued, I am helpless, I am hopeless, I’ll be hurt, betrayed or abandoned, I’m not good enough.

You can then evaluate how real and valid these statements are for you.  If you feel they are valid you can self improve or try your best to work on that issue.   If you feel they are not valid it will be best to let them go.

Feeling excessively vulnerable, irritated and hypersensitive to triggers is a very painful result of a difficult childhood where we absorbed a lot of hurt.  It is however an issue we need to work on if we want to lead more peaceful, happy and stress free lives.

Brown’s book is full of helpful insights, suggestions and information about how we can deal with a parent’s narcissism or excessive self involvement in such a way we are not opened yet again to more hurt, her techniques help us to understand core wounds that need to be addressed if we wish to recover.

Tender with you

Horse Embrace

I will be tender with you

Even though your crusty outside

Belies the truth inside

Even though you look on me with a gaze

That seems to say

You are such a strange and alien creature

I will see deeper

Far beyond the defences you erect

To the frosty space inside

That contains a child in an icecube

All frozen

You were never shown tenderness

You don’t have the strength I have

To collapse into and feel a soul that aches

You take your numbing medicine

To hide from deeper truths

Why should I scorn you

Or show anger

When really that will just cause me further pain

Instead I will be tender with you

Knowing that

Even though you scorn my tenderness

Your reaction was never about me

I will not let the arrow of attack lodge

Too deep

Inside my own skin

I deserve better

And so did you

You just didn’t get it

And that is sad

Whether or not you recognise it

So I will be tender with you

Because my own wounds have taught me

To be tender with my self

So alone : reflections on awakening along the path of consciousness

Now that I feel I am finally casting off the demon of self blame I am seeing the deeper reality of my life and most particularly of my struggles after getting sober in 1993.   I was waking up, pure and simple, to the consequences of a tortured emotional past that I had buried over years and through my addiction lost the way to.  But with the surrendering of alcohol, I was finally committing to a pathway of descent and uncovery.

It has not been easy and my marriage had to go into the fire at 11 years in.   I know there are many sheddings, ending, losses deaths and surrenders me must undergo and accept as we struggle on the path to becoming more deeply conscious beings.  As we travel along the path it narrows before us as it lead us into a spiritual wilderness, we become the orphan and live out of that archetype as we are trying to birth something so deep our parents could not give us.  So many of us carry unconsciously their unintegrated children deep inside and we have the spiritual and emotional task to make something new of our ancestral legacy.  At least that is how I see the bigger picture and it is the only one that gives my life meaning.  And we have to undergo this journey alone but not necessarily without guides and companions.

I found my own guidance emerging in the final years of my addiction when my soul witness self knew something was terribly wrong with my life and my drinking.  That guidance came from people like Carl Jung, Marion Woodman and John Bradshaw who showed me my addiction was but a symptom and what I suffered was not purely personal but was strongly collective and affects so many others as we struggle under the weight of an unconscious past so spiritually bereft of the healing feminine.

My own parents had it hard.  There was no place of comfort or soothing for their inner children.  Both lives had been devastated by the impacts of World War ,I both lost their fathers as a result, not during it but in the painful aftermath.  That silent history of father absence dogged them both and has repeated its deep echo of abandonment all along our later genetic line.   I see myself as ‘the awakener’ to it all.  It took my older sister out, the pain of all of those hundred of years of trauma gone unconscious and I stood on the sidelines as the witness.   I did not know I was affected by so many larger forces and that my own struggle must, of necessity, be lonely and hard,] as I was trying to open up and break new ground in a family that in so many ways is deaf dumb and blind to deeper realities.

Kat, my therapist was saying yesterday what a lonely path the path of conscious awakening to the deep feminine soul is.  Carl Jung nearly went mad on his way to find it, if you read his autobiography and follow his journey it was just prior to the outbreak of World War One that he broke with Freud then had visions of a bloodbath in Europe and then he developed the concept of the shadow and the collective unconscious.  He could not agree with Freud that all was ruled by sex and death and that the child wanted to seduce the parents.  I am not saying that there are not valid points and great insights in Freud’s ideas and he was bringing them to birth out of Victorian times but Jung went deeper when he realised there are so many larger influences around us as individual souls which we are subject to.

Anyway, as usual I have digressed….back to the sense of being so alone.  If we don’t ‘fit in’ maybe it is because we see deeper, and this is what Kat was saying to me yesterday.  It IS a burden to see this deep but it is also a gift and a result of all we suffer in our path of being and feeling so alone yet knowing at a deeper awareness other truths we don`t fully understand yet that are emerging (if that makes sense?).  Our aloneness is a doorway into recognition of truths others may fear or shun, that they may want to turn a blind eye on and call us ‘mad’ for glimpsing.  And on the path we are not totally alone really as there are others souls who went before lighting the way.  There are also are our fellow travellers who are willing to dive below the surface to do their own deep work who we share with and recognise.  We are all in a process of waking up to what may be being asked of us as humans to recognise at this point our evolution.  Could it be an awakening to the truth of our own feelings, soul and love, to understandings of how thwarted power drives can shape and misshape us?

I do not think we should shun or stigmatise the so called ‘mentally ill’; if we are on the pathway of emotional recovery we have to go a bit mad on the way.  Our addiction or bi polar or BPD or other diagnoses are but symptoms of soul suffering that we are being asked to understand.  We are not our diagnoses and our true selves lay buried somewhere deeper inside.  All of our reactions make sense, most particularly our violent reactions to the emotional violence we are so often subjected to in childhood, which may I say has become more endemic in a technologically oriented industrialised society.  Go study the myth of the Handless Maiden if you want to see a parable or metaphor for what happens to our soul or inner feminine when it is neglected or abandoned in such a  cutlure.  We loose our hands, our access to our inner life and our emotional agency and we only grow those functioning hands back when our deep soul suffering awakens our tears which we, in crying use to wash our tortured souls clear and clean of illusions and within that seemingly powerless place, find and embrace our true soul power.  We are all in a process of awakening.  Let us remember that.

In the depths of our personal and collective dark night we fall down and struggle and awaken alone but we are also connected, nothing of our shared collective human experience is alien or strange, just our dissociation from it and from the larger awareness that we are only as separate as we believe we are at certain points along that path of awakening.  At times we are so deeply alone and yet, paradoxically, it is through that aloneness that we are also connected at deeper levels.   That said the path does narrow as we move further along it and the loneliness we feel at certain times is so acute, but my deeper experience is that as we deepen into the loneliness a great spiritual light so often is felt if we just hold fast and keep opening our hearts to the deep truths we glimpse and face and integreted the painful realities we have known inside.  Through this painful path we finally come to know what love is.   Both feeling and action.

Why self compassion helps us more than ‘self esteem’

Self esteem in later years has been touted as the be all and end all to good mental health and raising healthier children, but is it really, or in our focus on raising self esteem are we really teaching that the true basis of self worth, (which involves acceptance of the fact we cannot always be the biggest or ‘best’ someone) lies in becoming more outer directed and narcissistic rather than inwardly compassionate and empathetic to our own and other’s common humanity which involves a spectrum of all kinds of achievement and non achievement?

It’s a question I have been thinking about, now midway through Christine Neff’s book on self compassion.   She explains how self esteem is often about feeling that our worth is based on measurable things or behaviour, rather than intrinsic sense not only of our own worthiness but of our limitations and foibles as well.  If we think we need to perform in certain ways in order to raise our self esteem and be considered ‘worthy’, accepted or deserving we end up becoming quiet  outwardly oriented, rather than a inwardly focused in sense of  inward security.    We can also become less compassionate.

In counter balance to this self compassion enables us to embrace the whole of our selves even when we may fail to reach goals or act in certain ways not associated with high self esteem.  Self compassion enables us to embrace ourselves in the tough moments and surround ourselves in a blanket of care when we may feel sore or hurting.

The three foundations of self compassion, according to Neff are :

  1. Self kindness.   A sense of being gentle with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgemental.   Finding ways to self soothe and tap into what Neff calls ‘the mammalian – system’.  Doing this has been proven by research to raise oxytocin levels (the hormone of love and bonding) which also raises feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness while helping us feel warmth and compassion for ourselves.  In contrast habits of self-criticism have been shown to trigger the amygdala and raise our blood pressure, adrenaline and production of the stress hormone cortisol, in turn activating our fight flight brain.  Self criticism also lights up different areas in our brain increasing our stress levels.  Self kindness and self soothing is demonstrated by saying kind soothing things to ourselves in times of stress.  This is really hard right now.  I am with you.   This will hurt for a while but in time the hurt will pass.  It involves tuning in with awareness to how you are feeling or being triggered at that moment, what you are observing, what you are needing and what you require.  When we are not being kind we ignore or dismiss these things maybe because that is what we learned to do as kids due to emotional abandonment, disconnection or neglect.   Working to change inwardly critical self talk is also a huge part of this first component of self compassion.
  2. Recognition of our common human experience.  So often in grief or depression a huge part of our suffering relates to the feeling that we are so deeply alone in this experience and so very far from human aid or care.  This may on many levels be the truth of how it was for us as children in homes where there was not much emotional care or presence or if we are trapped in relationships with non empathic, abusive people.   Post traumatic stress and complex PTSD can also make us feel so alone and terrified at the same time, terrified to reach out only to be hurt again.   We may feel that unlike the rest of the world we are less than or not entitled to care, concern or belonging, when really the truth is that others also struggle with these same feelings as us and we are all worthy of care love and concern.  Such feelings of isolation can then go along with the development of globally negative views about humanity and the state of things.  While it is true that there is so much suffering in the world, the truth is that there is care and kindness too.  However part of a deeply depressive non self compassionate mindset is that we are alone in this, we keep our focus only on the negative as well as those things that hurt, we fail to trust and reach out and understand our interconnectedness and in this state of mind our focus on bad feelings grows.  On the other hand when we realise we are part of a wider humanity in which suffering is an intrinsic part of life we develop more radical acceptance and are more likely to take steps to improve things at the same time as being fully aware of the global nature of suffering.  In reaching out to share or care we move past our disconnection or deep feelings of not belonging.
  3. Mindfulness In self compassion practice mindfulness refers to the clear seeing and non-judgemental acceptance of what occurs in the present moment, including our so called ‘negative’ or difficult states of mind and being.  To give ourselves compassion we have to notice that we are suffering rather than be reacting to our suffering by distancing and dissociating (all of which we cannot notice when we are not being mindful).  “We often fail to recognise feelings of guilt, defectiveness, sadness, loneliness, and so on, as moments of suffering that can be responded to with compassion….When your boss calls you into his office and tells you that your job performance is below par, is your first instinct to comfort yourself?… probably not.”   Being conditioned to ignore our pain, according to Neff means that we are physiologically programmed to avoid it. “Because of our tendency to turn away from pain, it can become extremely difficult to turn toward our pain, to hold it, to be with it as it is. ” When we do this we shut ourselves off from our true emotions and we also lose our ability to learn at a deeper level about the deeper nature of our experience and reactions.  In mindfulness we develop the ability to turn toward our pain, suffering or other bodily sensations becoming aware of them while not exaggerating them.  For example, we can become aware when an emotion such as anger is occurring for us by noticing we are clenching our jaw, feeling heat rise in our body,  feeling a desire to lash out.  In her book Neff gives the example of a man who endured long term emotional abandonment by his mother.  His therapy involved becoming aware of his acceptable anger without lashing out or acting it out in rage on his mother.  With the use of mindfulness as well as the loving presence of his therapist he was able to feel and understand the basis of his anger and become attentive to what it was saying.  He was also in time able to see how his mother’s abandonment was not necessarily associated with a lack of love for him but was due to her doing what she thought was necessary.  He was able to share his real feelings with his mum in such a way that he expressed them, rather than depressed them and they were heard.  Mindfulness was central to this process.  “We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”  (Marcel Proust, quoted on P. 118 of Self Compassion)

Mindful ways of working with pain are shared in detail in chapter 5 of Christine Neff’s book, which I highly recommend, she also goes in to more detail about the two other basics of self compassion I have shared in this post.  I have been using a lot of the self compassion practices myself lately,  I used them today when I went for my yearly breast cancer follow up screen check and I was able to calm myself when the therapist left the room for a long tme leaving me alone after telling me I may have a cyst in my breast.

I do believe that self compassion in my own case is far more important to me than high self esteem.  Self compassion gives me a way to be with what is occurring in love and acceptance.  It helps me understand myself and others better.  It is a practice I am very grateful to have found.  It is a practice I want to share more about in upcoming posts.

Self compassion helps us to understand that we are lovable as we are, even if we don’t achieve big things, it teaches us that its okay not to be perfect, to mess up and make mistakes.  It isn’t an excuse for bad behaviour but it is a way of allowing ourselves to soften and go more gently not only with ourselves but also with our fellow humans as we recognise how much we all struggle in the earthly sphere of life where there is often suffering and things are far from ideal and perfect.  It can also encourage to keep growing and be kind in that process rather than self punishing.