Critical symptoms of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Benign neglect is still neglect, it is something therapist Jonice Webb addresses in depth in her book Running on Empty. Many of us could say that we came from loving homes or homes that to all appearances seemed okay or functional from an objective external point of reference and yet something was still missing at the core of such families, a critical sense of warmth, emotional resonance, parental presence, availability and connection which can be hard to articulate. Feelings of emptiness haunt the soul who suffered CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) and the pervasive if unspoken feeling ‘there is something wrong with me’ may dog many of us well into adulthood, it is one of the critical symptoms of CEN. It is not based on any objective truth though, the truth was we never got adequate care and then internalised the belief it was somehow our fault. Our responsibility in the present rests in recognising levels of wounding and trying to find ways to get valid needs met we did not feel allowed to have at the time, rather than internalising self blame.

I shared a lot from Jonice’s book a while back, you will find links to these posts below when I manage to find them back. It took me until I read her book to really get a true handle on what haunted me many years in sobriety when I felt I should be doing a lot better than I was, never the less I was still attracted to dysfunctional emotionally absent relationships and I suffered profoundly mixed feelings of sadness, anger, pain and confusion, I also see now I struggled with critical issues of boundaries and self care.

CEN sufferers often blame themselves when things go wrong or for our suffering and we often don’t know how to take care of ourselves across many levels. For example the child who is left alone a lot may look to comfort from substances like food or drink, seeking the missing love that would come from an emotionally present, warm, available, engaged parent.

I was triggered to break down in tears when watching a programme about latch key children about a month ago. The film showed a little boy going to a fridge to take out some food with a lonely and forlorn look on his face. As I think about this now after just having met up with a close family friend to my mother, an image of her as a child comes to mind. I love the Louise Hay evening meditation in which she asks us to visualise in our mind’s eye both our parents as small children, taking them with love into our hearts. I think of my Mum sitting all alone on the back step after school with no mother at home looking longingly at the neighbourhood kids playing with siblings and longing for a brother and/or sister. I think too of how when she had kids were born too far apart in age to really be able to play like this, something my siblings and I sometimes talk of.

It came up in conversation with my friend earlier how my sister wished not to have a bar of me when I was about 8 to 14. I remember clearly getting my period while Mum and Dad were on a trip away and I had never been told what period was, I went to my sister crying with bloody underpants and got fobbed off in some way. I remember the mix of shame and aloneness and confusion I felt. I don’t remember how it was addressed when Mum and Dad got back home.

Another symptom of CEN is that we feel we must be independent. We learned early on that it was not possible to reach out, open up or rely on anyone. We learn to keep our cards close to our chest, we feel we should manage things that others naturally need help with, the list can go on. I see how this manifests now in the life of my other sister and I see how self contained my brother stays remaining perpetually self focused on work work work and not engaging emotionally AT ANY TIME. The exception was at my older sister’s funeral when he broke down giving the eulogy. He rarely went to visit her in the care home where she lived in the later years with Complex PTSD and acquired brain injury (incorrectly diagnosed bi polar disorder, I feel). His wife told my mother years ago she never wanted her daughter anywhere near my older sister who flipped out and tried to take her life after her husband abandoned her. Guess what? My niece ended up in the psyche ward AT THE EXACT AGE MY OLDER SISTER HAD HER CEREBRAL BLEED AND RESULTING PSYCHOSIS.

I think while writing this of my own struggle with addiction, about how silent I used to believe I must be, how I must try never to be ‘too much trouble’ and sadly remember it was because of this my mother eventually had the final fall that ended her life, she drove herself all alone to a doctors appointment then went to do shopping when she was struggling with walking and chronic back pain because she ‘didn’t want to bother me or my sister!’

I just broke down with our family friend. She told me I am a cry baby but this is the real pain and struggle of my entire family with CEN that I am realising now after almost 26 years of active sobriety. My so called defects of character could read like a skit from British comic act Monty Python : fear, surprise, a ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope (just joshing!!!) But the perfectionism (ruthless efficiency) as well as ruthless self sufficiency defects could be primary ones. That said there are times we need to take the bull by the horns and do it ourselves if we want to truly recover and own our power, but never the less being forced at times to cope on all alone, put on a good front and ask nothing of anyone IS NOT GOOD FOR US. And often it may also come from never having felt truly safe, validated or ‘got’. As a default the sense that if we are to get attention or be considered ‘good enough’ we must always be there for others and never demand too much also sets in making us codependent in an attempt to win the missing love.

Well I am glad I could shed the tears anyway. I know the cure to what ails my sister is not an easy one and I honestly never believed it lay in medication nor in some of the so called ‘strategies’ they are trying to arm her with for about the 8th similar hospitalisation. My sister’s heart is lonely and she may feel there is definitely ‘something wrong with her’, a person who tried all her life to be there for others and not expect or ask too much. But my heart knows the true pain lies deeper and cannot ever be fully addressed by band aids or medications.

Many CEN sufferers do end up ending their lives, like Robin Williams they may have had to put on funny or happy mask but never the less what they were forced to face deep in the lonely privacy of their own hearts and souls may in the end being far far too difficult to come to grips with or digest, inner disparaging voices of self blame also dog many CEN survivors marking us in many places with deeply inarticulate wound which may seem impossible to fully make sense of or bear.

https://emergingfromthedarknight.wordpress.com/2018/03/16/who-are-we-really-the-lost-feeling-self-and-its-role-in-suicidal-ideation/

https://emergingfromthedarknight.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/signs-you-may-have-been-emotionally-neglected/

Further travels with my inner persecutor!

I have been reading Donald Kalsched’s book on the Inner World of Trauma again today. A lot of it is about what happens to those of us raised in a situation in which personal assertion and aggression or self defence had to be cut off or revert back inside the self. In this situation when the parent won’t allow the child action, assertion, anger or personal boundaries to be defended the energy reverts within to become an inner archetype or figure that Kalsched Elaine Aron and other analysts refer to as the persecutor/protector. Kalsched explains in his book how when this killing voice becomes really extreme it will often organise the person to take their own life. The anger they should have had to confront an abuser or violator will be turned back in upon the self.

It is an issue also addressed at length by Jungian analyst Sylvia Bretton Perrera in her book on the scapegoat complex. I went to see the PreRaphelite exhibition at the National Gallery in Canberra last week an there is a painting in that exhibition which shows the scapegoat sent out to the desert. Its only a small painting. The exile that goes on is not just an exile from others, it is a cutting of from our deepest most personal and genuine self.

As kids we need to hear the loving words of parents, we also need their loving gaze but what happens when we get the eyes of terror or disapproval or distain turned upon us in childhood? This used to happen for me all the time growing up. Feeling safe in our home rested upon keeping it all together, not making a mess, getting all the chores done, not making too much noise, being able amuse ourselves and not express any needs much. Is it any wonder I became an alcoholic? As my first Jungian therapist said when I told her of a dream I had in which I was hitting this figure over the head with a bottle, I used alcohol to shut the voice up. Only then could I relax be real, messy, honest and sexual and have ‘fun’ but the so called fun rapidly deescalated into a black out or nightmare which I would wake up from in horror!

Its very very hard to live with an persecutor voice turned upon you day in day out, you don’t have the freedom just to kick back and relax or goof off. You can only feel comfortable after you’ve done what it told you it needed you to do to feel safe, in control, loved and approved of. Luckily these days I can see more quickly when that voice has taken over control within me. I am learning to affirm myself for pure sake of ‘being’ not just ‘doing’ these days. I have to be very aware of what the persecutor says to me not only about myself but about others too. He may be trying to cut off really good things happening in my life. He may try to suck all the joy out of everything. These days I am trying to do my best to just let him yammer on and say thanks for that Mr A but don’t you think you might feel a little better if you just had a little rest!!!

His constant litany of disaster, doom and gloom needs to be arrested. I need a rest from him, he has been taking over things for far too long. I guess in the end my inner persecutor is what is labelled in the rooms of AA and Al Anon ‘the disease’. It thrives on perfectionism and control. It is fundamentally deeply critical and unloving force that functions against what Elaine Aron calls ‘linking’ : making positive connection both within and outside the self with others. It is in the end both anti life and pro death. I think just for now I really have had a gut full of the inner persecutor.

The melting of love : insights from Anam Thubten

Embracing.png

.. love melts us.  When we feel love, our entire being becomes that love and the channels in our bodies begin to open.  We have to bring our bodies into our spirituality.  The body should not be rejected.  Enlightenment, transformation, healing, whatever we are aspiring to, we cannot experience any of them without bringing the body into spirituality.  So there is healing in the body, there is enlightenment in the body.  When we become that divine love, the body literally begins to melt, the channels, the chakras within it, begin to open, and we feel more love, more courage.  When we feel this divine love, the mind begins to melt, and it undoes all the knots inside it.  There is a large mass of knots in the mind: our belief systems and the thought patterns that we are so attached to are the knots in our minds.  These knots bind, imprison, and torment us.  They take freedom and peace away from us.  This love that I am speaking about is a pure experience of melting our frozen hearts.

This true love is not the feeling that we are one with the universe.  True love embraces everything, it does not reject anything. This love that I am speaking about is something we can cultivate.  There are many methodologies to cultivate this love.   There are beautiful songs we can sing.  There are profound verses we can recite.  There are mediations we can practice as a means to cultivate this love.  Sooner or later we feel that we become this pure love, this objectless love… the very quintessence of your being is pure love.  The nature of the river is this beautiful flow, even though it sometimes freezes.  To truly realise that the very quintessence of your being is true love, you may have to have self knowledge, which is this honest and complete understanding of yourself.  It is being aware of your divinity as well as your limitations.  YOu already know that you have divinity, and you know that you have courage and love.  You know that you are generous and open hearted.  You also know that sometimes you are able to give of yourself for the well being of everyone else.  It won`t be difficult for you to own your own holiness.  At the same time you have limitations – fear, insecurity and selfishness.  Once you become aware of these limitations, don’t try to demonize or condemn them.  If you demonize your imperfections, then you may end up being more and more frozen.

Once you become aware of your coarse neuroses as well as your subtle neuroses, love them.  Love all your neuroses.  Love all your imperfections.  Learn to love your fear and your anger as well.  Always be aware of them, and they will dissolve on their own. They will keep dissolving without any effort.  As time goes by, you become more and more this melting, living mandala rather than this frozen one.  Your heart is filled with more joy and more love.  You feel more and more connected to this world as a paradise – an imperfect paradise, not a perfect paradise.  In the end, you may love everyone and everything that exists.

Being kind and patient with ourselves

Sadly in our society so few of us learn to be kind and soft towards ourselves.  We may equate this with an attitude that won’t help us to get far or achieve our goals but if we suffer from a remorseless inner critic that won’t let up (most common to suffers of PTSD and Complex PTSD or childhood trauma), its going to be harder to reach any goals anyway.

Sadly some of us were not encouraged in our childhood, we may have been shamed or blamed.  We may have learned to pretend or to put on masks, we may never have been rewarded for authenticity.  In my own childhood I was stomped on many times, or just left alone and ignored and in adulthood I have learned holding onto resentment about it isn’t going to help and if I don’t change that same internalised attitude of being too critical of myself or others I am not going to get far, in fact my perfectionism will make me too weak to even start.

So it was with a smile I read the following reading from Tian Dayton last night about patience.  Patience may be a disregarded or maligned quality in modern society but if it’s well done patience can get us much further and bring our closer to our dreams.  The following reading is about self love too and today I am sharing it as the Sun starts to move through critical Virgo and we are drawn toward noticing the earthly practical dimensions of our experience and how far we have come or not come, let’s be kind to ourselves.

Patience

Today I will be patient with myself.  When I do not do as well as I wish I would I will not make that a reason to get down on myself.  I will instead recognise that the fastest way to bring myself out of a painful funk is through understanding and being good to myself.  I get caught in my own cycle of shame, resentment and blame.  If a child is upset,  I comfort it because I understand that that is what will make things better.  Calling a child names will increase its hurt and shame.  I will not call myself names either.  Rather, I will show love and patience in every way I can.

I am patient with myself.  

Patience accomplishes its object, while hurry speeds to its ruin.

Sa’di

An attack of the ‘bad me’s’

I had a mini attack of what I call ‘the bad mes’ earlier today just after reblogging a post on narcissism and addiction.  I am beginning to see how caught up I still can get in family dysfunction and it is an ongoing challenge to walk a fine line between trying to help family members struggling with symptoms of the disease like low self worth and perfectionism and focus on my own recovery, too.  I ran around a lot for my older sister this week and to be honest I felt a bit ‘insane’ today as I didn’t sleep that well last night as I am also connecting to someone who messages me late at night.  I threw over some appointments which I think was the right thing to do as on one level I know my sister is ravaged at the moment and her self concept is weak and I want to give love but I must also recognise my limits.  And getting overly tired myself won’t help and it is how I felt to day which is  message to reign the help in a little bit.

Luckily her youngest son has decided to visit this weekend for Mother’s day.  It’s the first Mother’s day without my Mum and I haven’t been thinking about it a lot but if I do  I remember the special treats we gave to Mum on Mother’s day in past years so there is no guilt there in knowing I did all I can.  I don’t expect to be included in any family thing this weekend which I am honestly fine with.

I have been connecting with my Mum and Dad in spirit a lot lately and driving home a moment ago after dropping some books off at the library they spoke to me about how I was a part of both their hearts, they were not emotionally present as they did not really know how to be. That is a wound for me.  One that I am working my best to over come.  Is there then, any purpose in an attack of the ‘bad mes’?  Am I narcissistic at times posting and drawing on my wounds for art and poetry?  I dont think so really.  My experience in AA was of some narcissistic types though who did feel they had the answers for me at times and for others, I didn’t always see the greatest awareness in them, though of their own level of emotional neglect.  It is something I have only started to come to terms with in the past two years.

Beating myself up won’t help.  Realising I am open to criticism though and knowing there are always ways I can improve or be more teachable is important but so is knowing my own power, not in a power over others way but in an inner god centred power way is important in recovery.  I need that strong sense of a humble grounded self to maintain balance.  And lately when I feel myself loosing it I am praying more to God or higher power for my thinking to be changed and in the words of a Marianne Williamson prayer, become more full of light and hope and peace instead of criticism, shame or self blame.

On vulnerability, feelings and opening up to joy

Daring

I just finished the chapter The Vulnerability Armory in Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly.  It has reminded me how defending and protecting our selves from fear of making a mistake or looking like a mess or just opening our hearts to life and feeling and expressing our full genuine selves really ends up contracting our existence in all kinds of ways.   The main tools in the vulnerability armory according to Brown are : Foreboding Joy, Perfectionism and Numbing and my intention here is not to go into great detail about them as you can read the book or watch some of her videos on You Tube.

However just to explain a little, foreboding joy is the fear of disaster that we automatically can start to feel as soon as things feel good or seem to be going right.  In this scenario instead of opening fully to those powerful good feelings we tend to block them or divert them with thoughts of all that could go wrong.  Foreboding can close down our passion or longing in many ways and may cause us to sabotage.

Perfectionism is a huge defence which exists due to being raised in a society or family where we were not valued and loved unconditionally but on the condition of looking good, getting it right, or not provoking uncomfortable feelings that others did not really want to deal with.

And numbing, well that is just such a huge part of our culture and we now have a thousand ways or means we can stop feeling what we are feeling or have come to believe is just too much for ourselves or others to cope with.

I was thinking about this thing of defending against true feelings and feeling too much because it comes up all the time for me today and I am at the point in Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography which occurs when she seeks her adoptive mother out after a major psychological breakdown/breakthrough in which she begins to understand how much of her own life she has spent running from and defending against her feelings due to the trauma of not only being separated from her true mother at birth but raised by a religious zealot who never accepted Jeanette’s sexuality.

At this stage in her life, which occurs after a ‘breakdown’ she actually begins to fall in love with psychotherapist and author Suzie Orbach and realises how little she actually knows of what it means to truly love another human being, since such unconditional love was never mirrored to her in her childhood.

The following paragraphs really spoke to me when I read them today.

In the economy of the body, the limbic highway takes precedence over the neural pathways.  We were designed and built to feel, and there is no thought, no state of mind, that is not also a feeling state.

Nobody can feel too much, though many of us work at feeling too little.

Feeling is frightening.

Well, I find it so.

I cannot help but wonder where all our fear of feeling really comes from.  It was enlightening to me in my first few years of sobriety to read the view of the Jungian analyst and author, Robert Johnson, that our culture is a ‘feeling wounded’ culture.  Last week I was reading through some comments on another blog on thought disorders where someone was saying they had tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy but it hadn’t helped them much,  I left the reply that the wound to feeling cannot be healed by thinking and I still believe that to be true.  Fear of our feelings, being ashamed of them, being taught that there is something wrong with us for ‘feeling so (or too) much’ well its a pretty common thing that people with high sensitivity go through and if we spend a lot of our life trying techniques that don’t take that into account, that teach us to numb, or deny we are in trouble. Until we know what our deep wound are just changing our thinking or reacting patterns may not work or may only heal us superficially,

For myself I never used to know so well when I intellectualized or rationalised feelings away, it was something I was taught to do by family and religion…. it didn’t work as in the end I do believe it made me an alcoholic when I was consistently not dealing with feelings that never got recognised or seen in my family and which I was never helped to deal with.

This is not to say that we should just be acting our feelings out all over the place if we are in a difficult state of mind but even that may be necessary for a time until we get to develop some deeper mindfulness of how and why we feel the way we do.  Early childhood trauma or separations or other painful events not only in our own lives but in the lives of our parents and of their parent’s parents do affect us into the next few generations.  It is something Mark Wolynn covers in the chapter The Core Language  of Relationships in his book on multigenerational trauma It Didn’t Start With You : How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle.  

We may be carrying feelings from generations back which is really a subject for another post.  The armour we wear often exists of defences that operate unconsciously and of scripts or core beliefs that have often not originated with us but collectively and familially. The following chapter in Brown’s book asks some questions about what drives our beliefs, reactions and feelings in personal, family and cultural life and then shapes the way we react.

Getting a grip on our vulnerabilities and fears is not easy but our culture is getting a bit better at it now.  People with issues are encouraged to open up, they may not always be well received by every one as there are those who Brown identifies as Vikings who think that to show any vulnerability at all is to become a victim and there is great fear even shown in this approach.  There is a time for us to be warriors and don our armour and we do need to fight back against invalidation abuse or disempowerment, it is an essential step in our healing for many of us.  But there also comes a time to drop the armour and open our hearts to the full force power and vulnerablity of love and joy which may confront us with fears that we have to do some deep work to become fully conscious of.

 

 

Parts of my mother my living sister carries.

It’s a very interesting dynamic I have with my 8 year’s older sister.  I have shared about our relationship on here a lot before about how the close loving bond I hoped for from her never seemed to be there and I wonder how much of it comes out of fear on my part, because of all the family members she carries a lot of my Mum’s perfectionism and wariness or shyness around people.  My Mum lost her own father at 7 and had to fend a lot for herself, there was just no protective parent there to care for her as her mother had to work.  My oldest sister who died in 2014 and had the brain trauma was born when Mum was only 22, Mum was 30 when my living sister was born and 38 when I was born, so we have large gaps in ages and I know that when my two sisters were born life was very different for both parents.   My two older sisters also got to have relationships with my mother’s parents in a way I did not as my mother’s step father who married her Mum when she was 14 died when I was only one year old.  An astrologer told me years ago that as the sensitive baby I had absorbed and lot of that sadness.   As Poppa lay dying they would take me to the hospital to sit on end of his bed in my basinette.   Was it any wonder I was called ‘the tissue queen’, as I am reading sensitive kids are born with acute radar and are absorbers.

Anyway my older sis was more involved with me as Mum went out to work all the time leaving me alone, she looked at me with eyes of love.  My second sister got to be the good girl who was the one who geared herself around helping the family to function in its business drive which consumed most of every day.  She was not happy to have to take care of me after school a lot of the time and at times I got bullied.  I still longed for my sister’s love and I have realised yesterday though she sometimes says she loves me I don’t feel it and I wonder why?  As a perfectionist also when she comes over to my house I cannot but help feel she is casing the place and she told me the other day my dog is fat while another friend told me she feels he is a good weight.  I told this to my therapist yesterday and we smiling over how people’s perceptions can vary. At the same time she was kind enough to come over unannounced on Sunday with an easter bunny for me which really touched me but when I see her walking down the drive my first reaction is fear.

Thinking about it astrologically my sister has the Moon in Virgo which is where my Mum’s Venus was.  Mum’s Venus was triggered by retrograde Mercury in Sagittarius back in December when all the trauma occurred that led to her death.  This was hitting the aspects that hit my older sister’s Mercury in Sag being triggered by Neptune at the time of her cerebral bleed.   As some of you know my grand niece (her granddaughter and my Mum’s great granddaughter) ended up having a seizure during that visit while at my mother’s house and that precipitated a chain of events that led to my mother’s death 7 days later following a fall.  I know it’s all interconnected really.   My grand niece is a very sensitive little girl and I cannot help but feel she picked up on something.  After some time on medication following my Mum’s death my nephew now tells me she is fine, no more medication and no seizures which makes me realise the family unconscious is such a powerful thing and Neptune which rules the collective unconscious was opposing my grand nieces Mars in Virgo back in December during the visit and seizure time last year.

Anyway I digressed or followed a flow here as I started to write about how lately I am becoming aware of what my sister who still lives is carrying of my Mum, how it has in some way kept her a prisoner and how she longs to be more free.  This was made clear by comments she made while having a cup of tea here with me on Sunday.  I started crying while she was here and my therapist seems to think that due to the fact my sister’s emotions are repressed with medications, as a sensitive person I am picking up on her sadness.  I am not sure whether it’s that or that she just triggers my own wound when she comes around and I start to feel that carried familial anxiety and trauma.  Even when she was hospitalised several times for depression when I visited I would often cry while with her and the last time was just after my older sister died and Mum and had to clear her room from the care home alone due to lack of any other help. We then went to visit my sister whose family decided she was too ‘ill’ to attend her older sisters’ funeral… so sad….:(

With her strong Pisces I also feel my sister carries some multigenerational pain of the ancestors as her birth date is the death date of one of my great great grandmother’s baby siblings two of which had the same name Eliza Jane and died in infancy.  My sister also has a lung condition that I have felt for a long time goes back to the trauma to his lungs my grandfather suffered during his time being gassed during World War I.  I cannot prove this but intuitively I know it and Mark Wolynns’ work on ancestral trauma being carried multigenerationally shows how epigenetics affects ancestral descendents cells.  I have written several posts about his work which I will link to below later.

Anyway what prompted me to write this blog was reading the following excerpt in a Jungian book on the archetypal mother

the queen has divided her mother’s image into good and bad and kept the good parts for herself.  Everything that was unpleasant about that relationship she plans to give her sister, whom she already detests.   Her rejection of the bad mother is so complete, the queen even forgets to take that piece along on her trip.

It made me wonder how much of the bad mother I often project onto my own sister when I feel unseen by her and unwanted.  Is what I think I see and feel true or not, does it come out of my own psychology. Most certainly my sister keeps her emotions close to her chest and doesn’t display them readily.  I don’t really ever remember seeing her cry.  Or could it be that it is true what I am reading about in my book on high sensitivity, that as the feeling child I do give expressions to emotions my sister finds hard to feel.  My therapist was quick to point out to me yesterday how loving I am about family members even when they hurt or ignore me or sideline my feelings.   As the baby I always longed for their love but what I am learning is that no one else can help me understand my own self or heal my hurting places but me.  I dont want to make my older sister all bad because she has good parts its just that a lot of her is repressed due to the trauma she underwent through several hospitalizations and harsh shock treatment.   I treat her tenderly as I have seen all she went through and at times it really, really breaks my heart but is this sorrow mine to carry?

Perfectionism as a symptom of emotional neglect

I just came across an article on 7 signs of emotional neglect and was interested to read the following on perfectionism, it explained my Mum’s history to me, one she bequeathed to my sister and I…

If you are a perfectionist, you could have been neglected emotionally. Think about it this way, if your loved ones neglected you as a child, you could have tried almost anything to get their attention, even striving for perfection to be noticed. As an adult, this perfectionism grew and maybe, by now, you’ve become obsessed with this behavior.

Are you a neat freak, need everything to be organized perfectly, and even require perfectionist friends? You could still be trying to validate your existence. Be careful.

Links to the article can be found here:

https://www.learning-mind.com/childhood-emotional-neglect/

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.

Perfectionism as a defence

Trying to be perfect, thinking we can only win love or find acceptance if we are perfect is an illusion, one we may have bought into after a childhood where real love, affection and attention was missing.  Today I read a very good reading at my Al Anon meeting about a woman, who like me discovered as she worked the steps and looked to her inner world how she learned to use criticism and endless self judgement as a defence against being found wanting and then being emotionally abandoned.

The truth was the she suffered emotional abandonment in childhood and so sought control through perfectionism.  As I read the reading which I cannot copy here (as I don’t own that book) I could not help but think of myself and my Mum and of our honest conversation yesterday.

Emotional recovery for this person involved learning it was okay to relax and have fun. That she was still acceptable even if she could not control, fix or make things perfect.  Learning to accept her humanity and learning just to let go,  most of all of her own dysfunctional expectations.  It was a powerful reading from me to read today.

In many ways in our culture there is a cult of perfectionism that surrounds us.  We fear that if we don’t measure up we will be eliminated or lose our job (and this is probably coming to be more and more the case in an increasingly driven world) and yet our fundamental value really does not lie in outer factors.  It lies in a sense of strength inside us that rests on an unshakable foundation, that of our core essence and the value we possess as the innocent soul that we are who deserves love despite our imperfections.

This is not to say we need to excuse really shitty behaviour from ourselves or others but it does mean that we look deeper and see what feelings may underlie reactions or behaviour which causes us problems or causes ourselves or other’s pain.  Loving and accepting that we are not perfect leaves us open to make progress, rather than damn ourselves before we even try as a self protection against being emotionally abandoned as we were in the past.  Seeking perfection and criticising ourselves or others over and over means we lack a foundation of acceptance and stay barricaded within defences which only narrow and limit our lives as it simultaneously allows us to let go into the present moment through loosening frenzied attempts to hide or gain control over all those things we mayultimately be powerless over.