The brave face, the disarming smile. On paper Ellie* has a lot going for her. She’s the kind of person everyone wants to be friends with. People gravitate to her and have done throughout her life. She describes herself as driven, in all she does.
Work has gone well. She studied hard at school and college and her career has been fast moving and high achieving. There have been partners along the way. She falls in love quickly but gets restless and moves on, or quickly finds fault in her boyfriends or girlfriends and tends to end things suddenly.
We’ve been meeting in counselling for some time, and I’m waiting for her to share her secret. I’ve made an educated guess it’s coming. And there it is, almost whispered, eyes down, tearful.
‘The thing is I don’t really like myself.’I’m guessing that’s the mild version at this point. For not liking, read, hate, despise, loathe. I feel a wave of compassion and sadness sweep over me for what Ellie has come to believe about herself. Her self-esteem is so low. Her workaholism has become a mask for her anxiety and poor self-image.When I hear that statement about self-hatred or dislike, I wonder what happened in this person’s life that something in themselves became hateful? What part of them has become hateful?And of course my thinking goes back to their childhood experience. As children we start to internalise the experience of emotional life with our parent figures. Those experiences become imprinted inside and are still held onto, long after we have grown up and stopped living with parents / parent figures.Are you loved for who you are?
Sometimes, when we don’t experience being loved for who we are, for example if parent figures reject our anger, sadness, fear, messiness, spontaneity those feelings don’t go away.
They tend to get buried and hidden, becoming loathsome in ourselves and intolerable in others. We start to develop compensating strategies.
When I hear a parent say ‘Don’t be stupid, it’s not scary’ ‘Or don’t be sad, there’s nothing to cry about’ I wonder if those messages are being internalised and then cemented into beliefs, so that child will learn that being sad isn’t ok, being scared isn’t ok. Bravery and cheerfulness must be shown to be accepted by the parents figures in their lives. Or they start to feel that success and achievement buy love, rather than being loved just for who they are.
With that belief, you start to chase more and more achievements but part of you is confused, bewildered, angry even that whatever it is you do, it never seems enough to get the approval or recognition you want from one or both parent figures. You drive yourself on regardless, hoping that the restless pursuit of something, will bring you what you desperately crave.
Sometime later, often in your 30s or 40s, the pressure of maintaining that facade becomes unbearable. Cracks start to appear. You may find yourself, depressed, or flying off the handle at the smallest thing. In Ellie’s case, it’s working hard to achieve and be recognised but not being able to sustain intimate, lasting relationships.
She doesn’t trust or believe she deserves love, because that was what she experienced as a child. Her workaholism and struggles with relationships are both symptoms of the same thing: a fleeing of her inner experience, of shame and self-loathing.
Shoulds and musts
Counselling can start to shine a light on that experience so you can begin to understand where all the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ come from in your life.
And with time, as that way of being which was constructed to keep feeling loved by a parent figure, fades back into a less prominent place, a more real you can emerge. A you who starts to explore a life and world that was meant for you, not one that was built in another’s image.
This week’s Lifeline is about starting that process of investigation into what’s true for you vs what was learnt.
This week’s Lifeline
Find some time free of interruption.
Breathe into a quiet inner space so you feel a stillness within.
Call to mind all the ‘shoulds’ you experience in your life ‘Eg I should be respectful, I should be dutiful, I should be perfect’ etc
Keep going as long as you can.
Once you have written your list, re-read it and notice how you feel with each statement.
Now take the list and write from the opposite position. Eg ‘I should be carefree, I should be rude, I should be angry.’
Go right to the end of the list and reread all your statements.
Then go back to the original list and see which if any, feel redundant or in need of modification. Do they still hold true for you? Mark the ones that don’t and see if you can find a skilful medium between that statement and it’s opposite pair partner.
Keep the list in mind over the next few days and listen out for ‘shoulds’ in your internal monologue.
Want to explore your relationship with yourself further?
If you’ve been driving yourself hard through your life but are starting to wonder why that is and what the cost is, why not get in touch to book a first counselling appointment?
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*By the way, Ellie isn’t a real client, but a composite of many clients I have seen. The confidentiality of individuals is paramount in my work and I would never divulge what they share. Just wanted to be clear about that!