Last week, we spoke about the impact of being your authentic self on the relationship with caregivers and how their response to that authentic self can impact your sense of worthiness.
This week, we get to the theme of ‘bad habits’, asking Elizabeth whether she has behaviours she would qualify as such and whether she thinks they have manifested in response to her early years’ experiences. She thinks and says: “Not apologising is definitely one I picked up at home. And once I was finally on my own abroad, substance abuse was a big theme, too: I had no experience with alcohol, and was drunk every night. Also: prejudices. I find myself unconsciously being prejudiced about a lot of things a lot of times, even though I work hard to keep an open mind. Self-righteousness is another one, this feeling of ‘I deserve to do this because I’m better and I know that…’ I would say that I’m often very judgmental.” We ask if this affects her work and she says it does. She explains how she works with many different cultures and how people have different work ethics. She gets ‘unbelievably frustrated’ when people do not deliver on time or do not communicate properly: “My immediate, knee-jerk reaction is always ‘Come on, just do the work!’ and I find it horrible to have these prejudices so quickly; I hate it, as it almost feels like racism sometimes!”
Elizabeth shows impressive and remarkable self-reflection in her words, which is a very promising route to healing. If we understand our behaviours as coping mechanisms to temporarily increase our wellbeing, we can more easily work on them and be more compassionate to ourselves, regardless of the length or duration of the healing journey. The sad part of Elizabeth’s words, however, lies in the fact that she clearly recognises that there are characteristics from her childhood years in her present life that make it hard for her to maintain an open, trusting approach towards people in her social environment, be they colleagues or others, despite her best efforts. There is a lot of self-awareness, followed by self-judgment and shame, feeding into a negative self-image, resulting in even more self-awareness. It is a vicious circle, in its double meaning.
“What do you think… what do you see as the driving force behind those thoughts? Where do they come from? What purpose does it serve to think like that?”
“Euhm…” There is a long pause while Elizabeth thinks about an answer. The seagulls fly around the house and we can hear them screaming while we sit together in intimate silence. She takes her time and then tentatively responds: “I think it comes from a place of impatience, of burying yourself and immersing yourself in your work. As a kid, I would escape in reading; I would read and read all the time, immerse myself into those worlds, to be out of my parents’ hair. I was a smart kid, always ahead of my class, and I think that now, if I feel that someone is not up to my competence, it gets frustrating. The tricky thing is…” She takes a long pause and ponders how to progress. She takes a breath, waits a bit longer and carefully continues: “… it feels almost good, feeling better than the other; it’s a frustration but a satisfying one, to feel better than other people. If I really examine it under a microscope, I think there’s an element of that, that it makes me feel good about myself to see that other people have trouble keeping up with my level of work.”
“How beautiful that you use the word ‘escapism’, because some definitions of trauma say that ‘anything that helps you temporarily relieve the pain from the lack of connection, is addiction’.”
“Hmm… you think my reading was an addiction?”
“Well, you don’t have to necessarily call it addiction, but some people say that anything at all that you cannot do without and is harmful in the long term, but will give you a temporary relief of the pain you are suffering from, could be called an addiction in the sense that it is your way of numbing your pain, of detaching and coping with the difficult situation you find yourself in and that gives you a sense of insecurity and not belonging.”
Elizabeth thinks for a moment and says: “Interesting… My parents used to take away my books as punishment. I thought that was funny, because most parents really struggle to get their kids to read, but now that you mention it… Perhaps them taking away my books was also in a sense traumatic, because it was taking away from me the one thing that would keep me sane. It’s an interesting perspective.”
“It can be very interesting to look at it like that, because it can give you a clearer view of ‘what did I need to make myself feel at least a little bit happy and okay, and what do I do to reconnect with myself to who I feel I truly am and how was that frustrated or punished or blamed or shamed by others or used to make me feel guilty?” You can always ask yourself in what way do the ‘bad habits’ serve you; what do they do for you?”
Elizabeth nods: “Yeah, I always really struggled with my self-image while growing up, as my mom would keep telling me bad things about myself that I believed 100%. This, in turn, can change into self-hatred really quickly… blazing self-hatred that I still struggle with, and that becomes a powerful feeling. I think it serves that purpose, the fact that I feel more competent than others in my work, a temporary little band-aid of ‘I’m not a loser, I’m better than them…’ and finding some comfort in that.”
“Indeed. Some trauma experts would say that if we look at our ‘bad habits’ as our own idiosyncratic way of coping, we can become much more compassionate towards ourselves and we can stop using these very negative labels for ourselves. You already mentioned quite a number of such difficult labels regarding yourself, and I recognize them because I can do that as well. Now that I’ve given this concept a lot more thought, I can recognise it better in myself, and I can also see it when other people do it to themselves: ‘I’m just lazy, I’m just confrontational, I’m just dumb…’ Being non-confrontational, for example, can be labelled as a positive characteristic, but if it’s a form of escapism, as it was for your dad, then it could be toxic as well. Therefore, it often really depends on how you label it. If you label your journey to where you are right now as having been guided by your curiosity, you get a quite different flavour to the story than when you label it as confrontational.”
“Yes… that’s very true…”
Elizabeth mentions escapism, dissociation, disconnecting from her happy self in order to prevent arguments with her parents. She also alludes to the punitive measures her parents took to try and control their daughter and take away from her what she felt really belonged to her: an inquisitive attitude, a burning desire to gain knowledge and satisfy her curiosity, ways to connect to her inner drives. The punishment, however, increases the disconnection, both to her parents and to her authentic self. What brave considerations we witness here. We listen attentively and are mentally present with her story, making it obvious that this time it is all about her views and decisions. By creating holding space for Elizabeth this way, a safe space where she is being heard and seen and where her stories are not judged or rejected, together we can take gentle steps towards reframing these behaviours as coping strategies on all parts. It is an honour to be allowed to witness her opening up and sharing her story with us. For everyone with trauma experiences, support and unconditional love are extremely valuable on the path to healing.