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.
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."
Once I'd begun to form a coherent picture of the turmoil Marcia was experiencing, I gave her both the "good news and the bad news." The good news was that she didn't have to give up her children to save them, and the bad news was that the trauma she thought she'd left behind was still very much with her, manifesting in a furious inner battle being waged by her various "parts." I began to explore with her how unresolved internal attachment issues can surface as otherwise normal life stresses evoke the fears and feelings of our disowned, abandoned inner parts.
Using Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, the bedrock of my therapeutic work, I began to help Marcia differentiate between the impulses, thoughts, and feelings of her traumatized inner parts and the actions and reactions of her "wise adult self." The felt sense of "who I am" as a compassionate, thoughtful adult is palpably different from the experience of a hard, scathingly judgmental part or a young child yearning for care or an angry part fighting for justice. I began by focusing Marcia on sensing those differences and mindfully noticing the parts within her rather than reacting to them. From there, I began to guide her in "befriending" the parts she'd unconsciously disowned so many years ago, even as they were causing havoc in her current life.
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But how do we actually "befriend" parts of ourselves? The answer is: the same way we befriend anyone else. We show interest and curiosity. I invited Marcia to learn what made her parts tick as if they were people she was getting to know for the first time. What were their likes and dislikes, fears and fantasies, habits and growing edges? That meant teaching her to listen, to really hear what these parts were trying to tell her, even though that meant making a radical leap of faith, believing that all these distressing feelings, thoughts, behavior, impulses, images, and dreams represented communications from parts of her own self. In doing this kind of work, I find myself repeating certain phrases and instructions again and again: "Notice that feeling of shame as the ashamed part is trying to talk to you. Notice what she's trying to tell you. Is she feeling responsible for the angry part? Or is the judgmental part making her feel bad about herself? What is she saying? If that dream were a communication from some part of you, what would that part be trying to say?"
The image that came up was a childhood scene: her father and brothers are watching a football game while she and her two younger sisters are playing together. Perhaps uninhibited in their play, perhaps wanting attention from someone, they inadvertently run in front of the television. There's a shout that startles them, then her father grabs a piece of plastic pipe from under the sofa and starts to beat them with it, and the older brothers join in. Suddenly, it's much more exciting for these men to listen to the screams of three little girls than to watch the football game.
"And when you see that scene, what happens in your feelings and your body?"
"I feel scared, but even more, hurt. Why do they hate me so much?"
"Notice that feeling of scared and hurt and the question, 'Why?' coming from this young girl. Where do you feel it in your body?"
"Around my heart. It's so heavy and sad."
I asked her to notice what happened if she placed her hand just where she could feel the heaviness and sadness. "Notice what happens when she feels your hand there. Let that little girl know you're here with her." Her tears began to flow.
"She was so alone. My mother and older sisters just tried to placate them. No one was there for her."
"Yes, no one was there: she was so little and so alone," I echo, "and what happens inside if you turn toward your heart and say the words, 'I'm here now'?"
"Do I say that to myself? Or to her?"
"See what happens if you say it to her directly so she knows you're really there."
Marcia turned slightly as if talking to the child and then said, "I can feel her relaxing-not so tight. Before, she was so tense-scared, I guess."
"Yes, it was pretty scary to be a little girl all on her own in your family." By echoing her words in a tone of warmth and compassion, I helped her connect to her innate capacity for care and connection. By helping her find the words and gestures that "speak" to this child part, I helped her deepen the capacity to connect internally to disowned parts that would otherwise act out or "act in" (implode). Her face was soft as she continued to sit with her hand over her heart, lost in conversation with her little-girl self, whose normal needs for loving attention had become so dangerous in her troubled family.
We ended the session with some "parenting tips" from me about the importance of thinking of this part like a small foster child she'd just taken into her home. I reminded Marcia that if she were this child's foster parent, she'd be continuously aware of her vulnerability to feeling frightened and alone, and would keep her close by at all times. To capitalize on her motivation to work with the anger, I emphasized that the angry part wouldn't have to come to the little girl's defense, like a protective older sibling, as long as Marcia was taking care of her.
Marcia's story tells us much about what can happen when we welcome parts we've disowned, dissociated, or designated as enemies. Perhaps because she was a mother, it was easier to attune to the attachment needs of her parts and meet them.
But whatever the range of variation among clients in their resilience and ability to make use of the transformational possibilities of therapy, experience has shown me that when it comes to awakening self-compassion and self-love, simpler and more repetitive is usually better.
Janina Fisher, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, assistant director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, and instructor at the Trauma Center. Her forthcoming book is Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors.
This blog is excerpted from "The Anatomy of Self-Hatred" by Janina Fisher. The full version is available in the July/August 2012 issue, Ethics in the Digital Age: How Casual is Too Casual?
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