Many of us treat others better than we treat ourselves. In fact, we often treat perfect strangers better than we do ourselves. Why is this?
It’s because of a fundamental shift that happened early on. You see, we are all born into this world with an inherent sense of value, a feeling of original worthiness. This feeling is deep, as if it were embedded in our bone marrow. This feeling is what had us jumping into laps without holding back as we knew we were loved. We knew we were cherished. The world was a big playground and it belonged to us.
Then, for many of us, there was a shift. We were gradually seduced away from this feeling of knowing we were "enough" by harmful messages, and into a place where we began to question our own value.
For many of us who grew up in addicted families, this happened right out of the gate, as shame was like a poltergeist living in the attic, inherited by all who lived there. Shame is the single, most excruciating emotion a human being can feel — that feeling of somehow being flawed and defective. This is why addicted and dysfunctional parents so often unknowingly project this feeling onto their children, as it is intolerable. Shame is the spiritual and emotional equivalent of drinking turpentine for breakfast instead of OJ.
This gradual shift has children first learning to carry their parents’ shame until they eventually internalize it and it becomes part of who they are. The shift is complete when these external messages become internal, and the adult-child now unconsciously and actively seeks to reaffirm these. They have become shame-based.
We now learn to get our self-worth externally from seeking the approval of others in relationships, jobs, caretaking, or by running ourselves into the ground for the PTO’s bake sale. And, we then get resentful when people don’t appreciate all we have done. People-pleasing is highly rewarding in the short-term, though it eventually leads to emotional fatigue and a plummet in self-esteem. We learn that we are only valuable when we do for others.
Especially for us first-borns of addicted families, the responsible ones, we often wind up in careers that involve uniforms such as firefighters, policemen, or the military. This is because most addicted families have experienced embarrassment and humiliation. They lack a sense of honor. It makes perfect sense why we would need to wear our honor on the outside so that everyone can see our value.
The “helping” professions attract scapegoats like a magnet. In fact, when I first started college I had set out to be a surgeon, not realizing back then what the real drive was behind this ambition. It was shame. My inner dialogue was, “You may not want me, but you’re sure as hell going to need me.” I needed to accomplish to feel good about myself.
Still many of us may set out to rescue as therapists, ER nurses, or ambulance drivers. We also rescue in relationships, wondering why we continually date jerks who don’t treat us well. We break up with him and then another one shows up a few weeks later wearing a different outfit.
This is certainly not to say that this original drive cannot become healthy, as it can. It can even become an asset, as adversity typically brings with it a deeper sense of empathy. It also brings resilience. We just need to do some work with ourselves to get there.
We must begin by realizing our patterns of shame-based distorted thinking and then:
- Challenge your toxic inner hamster wheel. As a grown-up, the only approval I need is my own. I can talk back to these voices with facts and my own truth.
- Repeat: “I am ‘enough.” My personal value does not depend on what I accomplish or do for others.
- Repeat: “I am safe.” They cannot hurt me anymore. I can now protect myself.
- Reframe failure. It’s ok to make mistakes and this does not mean I am a loser. It's merely pointing me in a new direction. Most successes originate from failures.
- Delete polarized words. Words such as always, everything, nobody, and never do not exist in reality. To hear, “You’ll never be _________ enough,” means every milli-second of every day. Impossible.
- Delete shoulds and ought-tos. These words bring rigidity. Flexibility brings freedom and is the mark of mental health.
- Set the bar at "do your best." This is all anyone can ask or do.
As we regain our own sense of original worthiness, we will become naturally inclined to treat ourselves with the love and kindness we so easily give others. It's got to happen on the inside first.
Bradshaw, J. (1988). Healing the shame that binds you. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications.