Ever eat a piece of cake when you knew you shouldn’t? Did you ever start a new diet only to fall off the wagon a couple of months in? How about getting into a wonderful relationship only to see yourself destroy it with pettiness and jealousy?
On the surface, it makes no sense. Why would we sabotage our best efforts like this?
The problem is that we are adults. We think we can apply our normal problem-solving approach to our inner problems. We think that with a bit of self-discipline and hard work, we can dominate our self-sabotage and brute force our way into the ideal version of ourselves we know we are capable of being.
Have you tried this?
How did it go for you?
How did it go long term?
If you are reading this I am guessing not so well. I certainly haven’t found it to be sustainable over the long haul. It can work short term but as time drags on the self-sabotage presents itself in another way.
To get to the root of the issue we need to start from the premise that our behaviours are not actually irrational. They have their own internal logic and our job is to find out what that logic is.
To begin we need to think like a child and for that we need to understand a some things about the way we saw the world when we were children.
Firstly, everything was viewed through the lens of survival. Our primary goal as children was to survive childhood. It was triage right from the word go – survive first and deal with the fallout later.
Also, no matter what injustice happened to us as children we always decided it was our fault and there was a very good survival reason for this.
Let us say you are an 18-month-old baby. Your parents are the sole providers of your safety, nourishment, and love.
They are also human beings with their own issues, but you don’t know that yet.
As is the way of human beings, their issues can sometimes get in the way of being perfect parents. Sometimes they ignore you, or worse still frighten you unintentionally. You don’t know it is unintentional yet either.
You are in turmoil and must resolve this situation immediately because your survival is at stake.
In your little mind there are only two explanations for what has happened.
1. Your parents are irrational and inconsistent and could stop providing you with nourishment and love whenever the mood takes them.
2. The problem lies with you. You have done something, or are a particular way, that has caused your parents to behave the way they have.
We always go for the second option and here is why.
Option one is too terrifying and will ultimately destroy us.
If we have to live with the knowledge that our parents are inconsistent and could in fact stop nourishing us, or loving us, we would be in a perpetual state of anxiety because we have no control over the outcome.
It is the ultimate feeling of waking up in an asylum that the lunatics are running.
Option two is so much more manageable, because if the problem lies with us, then we can do something about it. We can spend all our energy fixing our problems.
So we take it all on, the smallness, the inhibitions, the badness, the sexual abuse, the verbal abuse, the belittling, the lack of attention, the neglect . . .
We take it all on and assume that we are responsible for it all, that there is a flaw in us that we need to discover and fix.
We take it all on so we can survive.
We grow into adults forgetting that parts of us are still in there trying to solve the problem of our flaws. We feel very adult and sophisticated and polished until they take us over and we find ourselves in front of the refrigerator at 2 am.
“I don’t deserve the cake, but I’m going to eat it anyway.”
or lashing out at our partner,
“I don’t deserve their love so I’m going to attack them before they attack me.”
or finishing the second bottle of wine alone watching TV.
“I need the wine to dull the pain of all my wounds and give me a little window of happiness.”
How does this knowledge help?
The wounded child parts of us are all to familiar with neglect and abuse. They have survived it. So no amount of willpower, inner tantrums or verbal abuse is going to change them. If anything it pushes them deeper inside.
Real change begins with acknowledgment. Recognising that they got you through, that you survived because of them. Knowing there is a logic to our seemingly irrational behaviors is a big shift in focus. It is the beginning of understanding and in time gives way to attention and love.
In a way, we take on the role of parent to these wounded parts of us. We coax them out of the dark so that instead of taking us over, they come to us when they are triggered.
They come out of the dark and sit on our lap. They tell us their sad story and we fill the gaps in their parenting as we listen to them. We give them what we can and we help them to trust us and ultimately to heal.