Every day we are bombarded with messages about improving ourselves. Talk shows tell us how to lose weight, make more money or have more successful relationships. Advertising offers us the latest cars, phones and gadgets, suggesting that the old ones are not good enough anymore. Models and movie stars show us how we should aspire to look. We put ourselves under social pressure to show how ‘together’ we are; for example, by posting impressive photographs of ourselves and our loved ones on Facebook. Children are expected to excel academically and physically – often remedial help is suggested if they are not keeping up with their peers. The underlying theme is: strive for the best and whatever is not good enough must be fixed or changed or thrown away.
Of course it can be fun and enormously rewarding to work hard at improving something. But sometimes the pressure can eat away at our self-confidence and self-esteem, particularly if it is repeating messages that we have heard earlier in our lives.
A lot of the pressure to be perfect focuses on the external, on how things look on the outside. There is such a preoccupation with appearances in our culture that for many people it is a constant source of doubt and anxiety. We live with impossible ideals of physical beauty that can make an eight year old feel fat and a seventy year old feel invisible. In fact, it is difficult to be human without feeling insecure about at least some part of our bodies. Depending on what is valued in our particular social world, it might be: ‘My thighs are too big,’ or ‘My biceps are too small,’ ‘My teeth are skew’ or ‘I can’t stand my baldness!’ There are endless variations. And the judging of our appearances easily extends to the way we feel about our homes, our jobs, cars, partners or children.
This striving for external perfection is echoed in subtle and not so subtle pressure to improve ourselves on the inside. This may have different meanings for each of us, depending on what we have learnt from our environments growing up. But we are likely to carry an awareness of some part of ourselves that does not feel good enough. For someone from a family where good manners and calm are valued, having an outburst of rage might feel unacceptable. For someone who comes from a community where vulnerability is not easily expressed, it may feel messy and excessive to grieve over a loss. For someone from a background where confidence and success are highly valued, feeling anxious in social situations may be deeply shaming. Shame or less defined feelings of ‘badness’ are often the common denominator of these experiences.
Hiding and avoiding
It is a natural human defence to try very hard to prevent situations where our most shameful secrets may be revealed. Someone who is secretly afraid of the emotional chaos inside herself or himself may be dressed immaculately and have a pristine house. Or someone who fears being helpless will go to great lengths to wield control. This is not always conscious. We might also, without being aware of it, find our own most despised qualities intolerable in other people. If I fear my own out-of-control ‘greedy’ appetite, I might ridicule people who are obese. If I have had unbearable feelings of weakness, it might make me very uncomfortable to see someone who is blatantly emotionally needy and demanding. If my own sexuality is frightening to me, I might disapprove of someone who flaunts their sexuality.
Getting rid of it
A common response to our own unacceptable feelings is to exhort ourselves to ‘get rid of’ them. For instance, there may be an inner dialogue that goes something like this:
‘Why do I get so nervous when I have to chair a meeting? That’s not who I am. I’m supposed to be strong and decisive. I know what I’m doing and most of the time I do a good job, so why can’t I just stop worrying about what other people think? I wish I could just cut out those shaky feelings. What’s wrong with me?’
These kinds of internal voices are very powerful. Self-critical voices usually come from repetitive messages learned in childhood, which become deeply ingrained inside us and part of who we are. Sometimes the voices themselves are so familiar that we can’t even ‘hear’ them anymore. They are also very difficult to shift.
So it is understandable that many people seek psychotherapy with the wish and the hope of ‘getting rid of’ their unacceptable feelings. It can be a painful disappointment to discover that we cannot get rid of what is inside us. As human beings we are all equipped with a wide range of feelings and we cannot choose to bypass some of them. Fortunately or unfortunately, the thing that we believe is ‘not me’ turns out to be inextricably a part of ourselves, albeit a shunned or hidden away part. The complex challenge is to find ways to live with and to manage these feelings.
Understanding the roots
One of the steps in finding ways to live with unwanted feelings is to understand where they came from. It can be a relief to discover that a despised feeling is not a character flaw or proof of our own inherent inadequacies, but arose out of a specific set of life circumstances. It can also be helpful to give something overwhelming a name or a description. This process of understanding the roots of feelings is difficult to do completely alone – it can be fruitful to do it in the company of another person – like a therapist, partner, or close friend.
What is felt in the present to be an extreme or unacceptable emotion usually has its beginnings in the past as perfectly ordinary human emotion like sadness, anger, fear, need, pride or excitement – feelings that we all have and cannot help having. The way that the original childhood feeling was related to by our significant others, especially if repeated and reinforced over a period of time, can cause that feeling to become distorted or judged, or to go underground.
Here is an example of a therapy process which tried to make sense of the origins of feelings*:
When he was a baby Bheki’s mother was very young and struggled to cope with the responsibility of looking after him. She was heavily involved in her work and often when she was exhausted, she would ignore him when he cried. As he grew older his grandparents told him to keep himself busy and not bother his mother too much. He got this message from his aunt as well, over and over again. Over time Bheki learned that if he felt sad it would not help to cry. And it was better not to express any strong emotions when his mother was around because she would get irritable or upset. He only saw his father very occasionally as he lived in a different town. Bheki got the feeling that if he wanted his father’s approval, he had to earn it. So they bonded infrequently over sports and Bheki’s academic achievements.
As a young adult he didn’t have serious relationships but when he was 28 he fell desperately in love. Bheki was astonished and humiliated to find how much he needed his girlfriend’s attention. He felt jealous when she went out with her girlfriends. He wanted to be with her all the time and couldn’t concentrate on his work. He couldn’t stand feeling so out of control. Bheki wondered if the only way out was to break up with his girlfriend, but he didn’t want that either. Most of all he couldn’t understand what was happening and came to psychotherapy saying: ‘This is not me. Please help me to stop feeling like this. I want to be the strong independent Bheki again.’
As part of Bheki’s therapy, he and his therapist explored the deeply ingrained lessons he had learned as a child, not to rely much on anyone for emotional support. Memories surfaced that he had not thought about for years. For example, how he fell out of a tree and broke his arm, but only got to the doctor two days later because nobody realised how sore it really was. He also remembered seemingly trivial incidents that carried great emotional weight, like when he went to show his mother an essay he was very proud of and her first response was to point out the spelling mistakes. It was striking that Bheki could hardly ever remember feeling afraid as a child. He guessed that he would have dealt with his anxiety by going out to play a noisy game with the neighbourhood children, or watching lots of TV.
It was difficult for him to talk about his childhood self as it felt so far away and irrelevant to the adult Bheki; but also because the feelings themselves were frightening and strange. Even in therapy, he expected to be told to ‘keep it together’, ‘don’t exaggerate’ and ‘don’t be a cry-baby.’ When his therapist pointed out that all children need the close and emotionally available attention of at least one adult, he also found this strange. Gradually Bheki came to realise that his girlfriend had awakened long-buried needs in him, for closeness and tenderness. These were completely legitimate for a child (and an adult) to have, but which felt understandably alien and out-of-control.
One of the things that Bheki struggled with most was in accepting his own emotional needs, as he thought they were ‘pathetic’ and ‘weak.’ He also started to understand how, when there was not enough of a safe outlet for his feelings as a child, he had found ways of being ‘strong’. He had excelled academically, thrown himself into sport and surrounded himself with busy, popular people. The self-critical part of him that labelled his need for his girlfriend as ‘weak’ had originally come into being to make him stronger and protect him from hurt and disappointment.
Acceptance from another
It is difficult to shift such an old, entrenched idea (such as Bheki’s belief that his neediness was weak and wrong) in isolation. For such an inbuilt reaction to shift, we need to experience for ourselves that another person (such as a therapist, partner or friend) genuinely understands, accepts and even welcomes our feelings. This is so much more than an academic or cognitive exercise of agreeing that, ‘Yes, my feelings are legitimate.’ It needs to be felt and experienced, not just thought about. This can take some time to trust. Just as our early experiences took time to become ingrained in many layers of experience, we need repeated experiences of being understood by others in order to listen more compassionately to our own feelings.
Being human and flawed
Learning to live with our own most hated parts is extraordinarily challenging. It can feel completely counter-intuitive. Some unpleasant parts of ourselves may be easier to live with, but there may be other parts, murky and difficult to name, which feel impossible to own. Because it is not a rational process, the strength and intensity of our feelings can take us by surprise. There may be a backlash against change, or inbuilt resistances to change. For example, having a good day in which we are able to feel okay about our own shortcomings, but the next day the self-judgement comes back with a vengeance. What a daunting process it is, to look at one’s own self and acknowledge, ‘Yes, this is really me, this person who is ... (sad, weak, aggressive, hungry, ugly, desperate, frightened, out-of-control’ etc.).
With the help of a therapist, we can learn to tolerate our own hated parts without either immediately packing them away on the one hand, or letting them take over on the other hand. One approach is in developing a different kind of internal dialogue with the critical voice. This is obviously unique for each person, but could be something along the lines of a kind of rueful acceptance: ‘Well, this is a part of me. I don’t much like it and it makes me squirm to realise it, but it is me and how do I live with it? How do I look after myself when I am feeling like this? What do I need from others and from myself?’
The early, self-critical voices don’t disappear. Often they will reappear when we are most fragile. The challenge is to include these voices in the dialogue too, so that they also don’t get silenced or take over; but can be engaged with in a thoughtful way. For example, to be able to think: ‘Yes, I really lost it there. I was incredibly rude and abrasive and my colleague must think I’m crazy. I must be feeling especially sore about something. I wonder what that is?’ In time, we hope to be able to reach a relationship of empathy and compassion with the parts of ourselves we struggle with the most, which can lead to a sense of being one’s own ally when we need one.
But even this is a process and doesn’t have to be perfect. There is richness and relief in realising that we are all inevitably flawed – interesting, complicated, messy at times – but profoundly human.
*The examples used in this article are hypothetical and not based on any particular person but an amalgam of common human experiences.
Jane van der Riet is a clinical psychologist in Rosebank, Cape Town, who sees adults, older adolescents and couples for psychotherapy.