What it Really Looks Like to Rebuild Your Soul

Why it’s so hard to change your character, and why you might still want to try.

Posted Jul 27, 2020

In my previous post I discussed my view that all successful therapy shares two ingredients: a goal of increasing agency over one's life, and a recognition that this is done primarily by gaining and internalizing knowledge. Lest you think this latter process is a straightforward intellectual exercise, I want to make real just how messy, excruciating, and ultimately exultant a process it can be. Especially when the knowledge you need to internalize concerns fundamental questions about what you can expect from life.

I know this, not only based on science and clinical experience, but because I’ve lived it.

From my earliest memories as a clumsy, neurotic, socially ostracized immigrant child, my character was defined by a virulent mix of beliefs, only some of which I had consciously articulated: that I was helpless against my circumstances, that mistakes were fatal, that other people would inevitably reject or betray me, and so on. All these beliefs flowed from each other and formed a common theme I call the “doomsday premise”: the deeply internalized conviction that I could never find love or fulfillment in this world.

If you had stated this premise to my 18-year-old self and asked if I believed it, I would’ve emphatically responded “no.” Yet it showed up in every aspect of my life:

  • in my internal mental dialogue, which oscillated between self-loathing (“you stupid idiot!”) and self-pity (“I’m surrounded by fools!”); 
  • in my emotional states, which kept returning to a panicked or hopeless set point anytime a friend didn’t sit with me at lunch or I made a careless mistake on an exam;
  • in my relationships, which played out like textbook illustrations of an anxious attachment pattern: I jumped in too fast, sought reassurance too often, made excuses for staying with abusive boyfriends—all to avoid the dreaded eventuality of being alone;
  • in my studies, which were fraught with procrastination, avoidance, and other forms of self-handicapping designed to soften the inevitable blow of failure.

Here’s where you might think I got some therapy, realized my doomsday premise was an irrational hang-up from my childhood, and got on with my life. But that’s not how it happened.

Correcting a basic premise is hard. Our basic premises—variously termed “schemas,” “internal working models,” or “core conflictual relationship themes”—determine how we see ourselves, other people, and the world. They serve as guides to action and lenses through which we interpret our experiences. They gives rise to complex homeostatic systems keeping all of our beliefs, emotions, and actions in equilibrium. They are so entrenched and self-reinforcing that it can take years of effort and energy to weaken their pull and internalize a new, reality-based belief system in their place. Whether it’s worth the investment for you is a personal decision only you can make. My goal here is to give you some idea of what you’d be getting into, and the kinds of rewards you might expect.

In my case, the desire for love and fulfillment—and the conscious knowledge that they were, in principle, possible to me—were enough to motivate the work. Still, it took several therapists, an undergraduate psychology major, a lot of written self-reflection, and some costly blunders at my first post-college job before I even identified the implicit “doomsday premise” that had been pulling my strings for so long. And that was just the beginning of a 15-year campaign to push against its influence while accumulating a critical mass of corrective experiences to make the contrary conviction fully real and accessible to myself. These efforts included:

  • numerous forms of healthy and unhealthy help-seeking, gradually calibrated to include more of the healthy and fewer of the unhealthy kinds;
  • numerous swings between neediness and detachment in my relationships, before finally refraining from both forms of escape long enough to run some honest tests of whether love could last;
  • numerous backslides and overcorrections, as when I thought I’d finally kicked my procrastination habit only to realize it had morphed into neurotic obsessiveness (both driven by the same underlying fear of failure);
  • starting ADHD medication (which has been a game-changer, insofar as it’s helped me realize what I’m capable of when my brain is working properly);
  • getting a Ph.D. in clinical psychology;
  • gradually seeing how my mistakes not only failed to destroy me but actually made me better at my work;
  • insinuating myself into an amazing group of friends and colleagues who refused to reject or disappoint me, despite the many opportunities I gave them.

So complex and non-linear was this process that I can’t really pinpoint when my new knowledge finally “sank in.” But I do know it’s much more my default now. I reflexively feel more hopeful than scared when new opportunities come along; it’s easier to trust the important people in my life than to distrust them. I'm in a new state of equilibrium.

To be sure, my doomsday premise still shows up from time to time. For instance, when I hear my infant’s joyous laughter and feel a reflexive lurch of dread, as if bracing for some inevitable disaster; or when my husband goes back to work after joining me for a coffee break, and I smile at my own passing feeling of abandonment. These feelings are more like memories than feelings now: they have no credibility with me, and no power to make me act.

Other times it pulls me back in less ignorable ways. Last week I nearly broke into panicked sobs upon realizing I’d missed a call from my daughter’s early childhood center requesting that she be picked up because a teacher had tested positive for COVID. Everything turned out fine, but it took several hours to break free of the familiar oscillation between feeling that I’d failed as a mother and that the world is an incomprehensible hell where nothing good can survive.

Happily, I now recognize these feelings for what they are, and my new knowledge is built of stronger stuff. I can easily look to it for reminders of the tougher times I’ve weathered, and for the tried-and-tested resolve to focus on problem-solving even as I’m tempted to retreat into wallowing.

Just as importantly, I know not to beat myself up about getting pulled back again. If there’s one thing I've learned from these 15 years, it’s to embrace the vestiges of my old doomsday soul as charming variegations in the marble out of which I’ve rebuilt myself.