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. 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?
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. 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.
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.
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."
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." 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.
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.
Awakening the Inner Adult
The next week, it was a much softer Marcia who arrived for our appointment, with none of the usual depression, wary resignation, or bitterness I'd become accustomed to seeing in her. When I reported on my immediate impression of the shift in her, Marcia laughed and drew the outline of a baby carrier across the front of her body: "Think it might have anything to do with the fact I've been carrying the little part with me all week? She's always right here now---over my heart."
Despite days when her judgmental part berated her efforts to connect to the child part and others when the teenager thought this whole baby carrier thing was "bullshit," Marcia continued when she could to imagine carrying her younger self across her heart day after day, and a gradual transformation unfolded. Rather than being traumatically triggered by her husband and children, her family now evoked a new level of gratitude and caring. Embracing the most wounded part of her had transformed her relationship to herself and those she loved.
When we're clear that self-hatred and alienation from ourselves is nothing more than a survival strategy held by younger selves, that deep within us lives a compassionate heart and a wise mind, capable of embracing these wounded parts, most of us can be gradually persuaded. In the meantime, I patiently model warmth and openness to each and every part, even the ones who threaten, like suicidal or devaluing parts, welcoming all their voices in therapy like honored guests.
This blog is excerpted from “The Anatomy of Self-Hatred." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!
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internal family systems