As a therapist, I am often faced with people who struggle with feeling essentially flawed in some way. They are quick to take responsibility for their errors or to blame themselves for problems with friends. And, they experience their struggles, mistakes, and imperfections as proof that they are lesser as a person.
As I listen to them, I know that when they look in the mirror, they do not see the value in them that I see. It is this negative self-perception that is the real source of their torture, not the daily issues that loom so large for them. Being overweight, shy, depressed, or socially awkward may cause them great pain; but I see this pain as a distress that requires caring – not condemnation. Making mistakes at work or becoming upset with your children is just part of life. After all, there’s a reason that “It’s only human” has come to be an expression. No one – and I mean no one – handles everything well all the time. And everyone – and, again, I mean everyone – has things they really struggle with.
When I have patients who view their weaknesses or mistakes as flaws in their very humanity, I often suggest that they do the following: Imagine watching babies in a nursery – sleeping, crying, having their diapers changed, etc. Now, imagine picking out one and saying, “This baby is flawed as a person and has no value.” It doesn’t really work, does it? How about if one is crying or has some physical problem? No doubt, it’s still hard to imagine rejecting the child. You might feel sad for them, but you would have a sense of them as being valuable people. You would also probably feel an inner pull to care for the babies. After doing this exercise, I encourage my patients to apply this thinking to themselves – it generally does not happen easily or quickly, but it does get them to pause and think, opening the door to more positive self-evaluations.
I recently came across a study that provides some insight into how this is often helpful. Researchers from Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States collaborated to determine what seeing images of infants evokes in adult brains (Brain Imaging Study Finds Evidence of Basis for Caregiving Impulse). They found that it triggers activity in the part of the brain responsible for premotor (e.g. before picking up a baby) and preverbal (e.g. before talking in a soothing way) activity, facial recognition, and emotion and reward. Subjects also reported that they felt happier and inclined to approach, smile at, and interact with the infants. So, it’s understandable that, in the above exercise, my patients feel positively about the mental image of infants in a nursery; and that they reject the idea of them being essentially flawed.
In another similar exercise, I’ve suggested patients do the following: Imagine watching children play at a park – going down slides, swinging, chasing after each other, etc. After doing this, imagine picking out one and saying, “This one is flawed as a person and has no value.” Patients always acknowledge that this doesn’t feel right. Even when children behave badly or cry too easily, they still have a sense of them as valuable people.
If you haven’t already done so, try the above exercises for yourself. If they feel helpful to you, you might also want to try this: Imagine yourself as a young child. Even better, get out pictures of you as a baby and a young child. Really look at them. If your instinctive reaction is to reject that younger version of you (seeing that child as essentially flawed), ask yourself what your reaction would be for any other child. Practice seeing the humanity and value in your younger self, just as you would see them in anyone else. If you struggled in any significant way as a child, you might find that you also feel sympathy and compassion for that child.
After doing these exercises, you will still struggle with being hard on yourself in the present. But, keep doing them; and applying that nurtured compassionate perspective to your current self. This will begin your journey of questioning and then challenging your current negative view of yourself. With time and practice, you will open to the possibility of seeing your imperfect self as wonderful.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.
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