Learning to Love Our Loathed "Selves"
As therapists, we often encounter clients who are so mired in self-hatred that our best efforts to support a sense of self-worth only seem to dig the hole of judgment and self-loathing deeper. For some, the very prospect of self-acceptance can feel repulsive and deeply anxiety provoking. In these cases, an intense battle is often going on deep within. The client comes to therapy hoping to feel better, safer, more fulfilled, only to find that emotional vulnerability, self-acceptance, and pleasure or spontaneity feel frightening or shameful. Every step forward leads to a step back-the therapist's compassion and encouragement of self-acceptance is regularly met by the client's "default setting" of alienation and self-hatred. Sometimes the war may be literally between life and death-as when part of the client wants to live while another lobbies for suicide as the ultimate protection against overwhelming feelings.
When clients' stuckness could be repeatedly traced back to these kinds of internal conflicts, I began to wonder if the resulting clinical quagmire might be a reflection of a kind of "internal attachment disorder" mirroring the emotional injuries of early childhood. Was it possible that alienation from self and others had become an essential survival strategy early in life? If we start to look at where these internal battles still leave clients, we typically discover that alienation from self has a crucial adaptive function: by disowning the part of themselves holding the pain of rejection or physical and sexual abuse, or distancing from the part that was too emotional or free-spirited to be tolerated in their families of origin, they could more easily display just those aspects of self likely to win any available crumbs of attachment or praise from their caretakers.
This coping approach is practical during childhood, but it eventually comes up short once the demands of adult life call for qualities and behaviors that couldn't be part of our earlier repertoire. Worse yet, we later pay an even more insidious price for this self-alienation. It means that inside us, the seeds of a pervasive and enduring sense of danger have been laid-a profound, nonverbal sense that some parts of us are to be feared and would be totally unacceptable if anyone knew about them. No matter what's happening on the outside, no matter how much we're loved and valued in our adult lives, judgmental parts within us are standing ready to condemn us as inadequate or undeserving, feeding a global sense of anxiety and shame, filling us with the constant expectation that rejection, defeat, and humiliation lie ahead. Inaccessible to reason or reassurance, our inner parts that are primed for shame stand in fear of the parts conditioned to condemn them.
A Crisis from Out of Nowhere
Marcia didn't know that her childhood experience of abuse and neglect had led to the self-alienation that was now causing mayhem in her otherwise normal suburban life. She arrived in my office as a 29-year-old housewife with an announcement that jolted even a long-time therapist like me: "I want to give up my children and leave my husband."
Ten years before, after graduating from high school, marrying her childhood sweetheart, and having three children in quick succession, she thought she'd arrived at a happily-ever-after life. Then without warning, after the birth of her youngest daughter, she suddenly became someone she didn't know anymore, and certainly didn't like. She'd erupt with rage at her children one day, hide in the closet or be unable to get out of bed the following day, drink too much the next. She had no way to know that giving birth to a youngest girl, the role she'd occupied in her own family of origin, would trigger deeply unsettling feelings and sensations she thought she'd left behind-"where they belong," as she said. Appalled by her behavior, she sought my help because, as she put it, she was becoming "as crazy as the family who raised her."
As I listened to her story, I could hear the attachment-related internal conflicts as different "voices" in her narrative. As she talked about her drinking, her body language projected rebellious teenager, while a judgmental voice was horrified by the behavior. This voice was quickly followed by a sense of deep shame and the thought that she should "give up the children" as an act of penance. There was another voice, too: the angry part, which periodically erupted at her husband, perceiving him as a "user."