You find that you are in the middle of a dissatisfying life. You consistently feel betrayed. You attract chaos to yourself and cannot figure out why. There are pieces of you that scream for attention. The messages get louder and louder and show up in the form of vast self-sabotaging actions.
These actions reverberate out into your relationships at the speed of light. One relationship after another does not work out. Life is lacking in passion. Embitterment is becoming a regular state of being. The question is now: how to heal those pieces of yourself that are dark and likely to ruin your life for good if not addressed immediately?
Any negative behaviour that is active and repetitive in one’s life is there for a good reason. It is trying to tell you something; to teach you something fundamental about yourself that you are likely not even aware of. These behaviours are an unconscious attempt to bring some sort of message and benefit to you.
Most repetitive negative behaviours start in childhood. We learn during this formative time that this behaviour can somehow create a beneficial outcome. We carry this “negative behaviour = beneficial outcome” concept throughout our lives as what we learn early on tends to inform our perception for the long haul.
For example, you may have learned that a particular behaviour could bring you some sort of emotional safety, protection, love or belonging within your family dynamic. It was the only way to survive. Emotional manipulation, playing the victim, criticizing, abusive yelling, withdrawing, clinging, falling apart so someone will rescue you, bullying, rebelling, sarcasm, placating, people pleasing and more – these are all negative behaviours that you may have used in order to survive, negotiate and even succeed in the mine field of a dysfunctional family unit. Tactics that were effective in childhood will endure into adult relationships if left unchecked.
One client came in to my office with habits and addictions that had more to do with relationships than with substances, yet were much more damaging to her life. Through the course of therapy we discovered that she had a cavernous fear that she would lose love, approval, belonging and comfort if she expressed and lived authentically. She had no idea how to set clear boundaries with people. She often permitted people, friends, lovers and family members to take advantage of her financially, sexually and with her time.
Basically she was taught as a child that she had to be like a chameleon in order to get any kind of love, affection, attention or approval from them. She became extremely adept at ignoring her own value, needs and wants in favour of those of her parents.
Her mother was a perfectionist and abusive when she became frustrated with her own life. My client learned quickly how to become whatever mother wanted her to be, including her confidant. She learned to soften her by tending to her needs. At an early age, she would regularly be privy to the adult content of her mother’s various affairs.
At the same time, her father was emotionally absent and a workaholic. The only way she could get attention was to learn to speak his business language, which she managed to do by the age of 13. This wore her down and led her to abandon her own interests and her own voice as she grew older. This was her survival tactic within a family dynamic which she carried into her adult life.
At this point she felt at the mercy of the relationships in her life. She grieved for her lost authentic self which had gone down a rabbit hole. Deep fear of rejection compelled her to perform and deceive often. She engaged in affairs and battles with explosive tantrums that made her feel worse about herself. Yet therapy revealed that those tantrums were the only way her true self could make itself known. She had been ignoring other signs and messages that her core self was trying to send her. The tantrums finally made her listen. Ironically, this has been a gift in disguise as they have led her to want to understand herself for the first time.
What began the healing of these old self-sabotaging behaviours was her feeling safe and empathized with. For the first time she felt heard and seen. A compassionate environment provided the space where she dared to reveal truthful fragments of herself. This was crucial for healing that deeply hurt and deprived child within; therapy brought her that.
We discussed in depth the fact that all human beings deserve love and compassion no matter what they’ve done. We are not our actions. Blame and responsibility need to dwell on opposite sides of a spectrum. Taking responsibility for our actions does not mean we have to crucify ourselves forever.
She experienced deep healing as she digested this new perspective. She started to get in touch with who she was before the performing of her childhood began – her core self. She was surprised that she could actually touch the edge of this part of herself. It is there in everyone regardless of what has happened; it just needs to be uncovered. Therapy is not only about changing, it is about finding that part of our self that was there before the toxic emotions began their destruction. This is who we really are.
Eventually, a new understanding of her self began to emerge. She understood that she behaved that way in order to stay safe, find love and belonging. This realization caused her to find some compassion for her hurt and deprived inner child. Compassion for self is vital.
When people self-sabotage, abandon self, posture, cheat, lie, withdraw, and engage in addictions, somewhere inside they are motivated by a need for safety, protection, love, and belonging. In session, I asked her: What is your perceived benefit to abandoning yourself in life and in your relationships? What is that negative behaviour actually trying to do for you?
No one had ever asked her this. How could there be a benefit to such destructive behaviour? But in fact she would not be engaging in any of the negative pattern behaviours unless there was a benefit. The true healing and metamorphosis that can happen within the therapeutic context comes from understanding this crucial notion.
There is a perceived, often unconscious benefit to negative behaviours. We must not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. These negative behaviours are clues for us to examine. They are messages for us to listen to. Seeking love and belonging is, in and of itself a good impetus. What ever the method to get to this positive state is what needs to be looked at and replaced with a healthy way of accomplishing this.
In therapy we began to find positive and healthy ways for her to get what she needed. Step by step she started her journey of making peace with her true self. This was not an easy process because she had no memories of feeling safe in being honest, clear or unguarded. New memories needed to be created.
Her initial steps were simple but profoundly effective. She started, for the first time, to journal her feelings daily. This signalled to her being that she was listening, for the first time, to her own voice. And wow, what a voice! She discovered for the first time that she longed to explore yoga, photography and painting. It was so profound for me to witness this woman for the first time finding her own rhythm and her own sense of selfhood.
Eventually she left her destructive relationships behind. One by one, friends who once were only there to use her began to fall away as she started drawing boundaries and saying no. The void was soon filled with supportive friends and creativity as she recognized her worthiness. She started treating herself with respect and only saying yes to those things that she truly wanted. Filling her own needs was occurring for the first time in positive and healthy ways.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The case study in this article is an amalgam of several people and does not pertain to any one person. In addition, all names are fictitious, and other features, such as sex and occupation, have been changed to protect the subjects’ identities.
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