A negative sense of self is at the core of all mental-health struggles; the differences are only a matter of degree. For many years now, many people have attempted to remedy the problem of low self-worth with things like positive thinking, random behavioral changes, and psychotropic medications. The self-help industry continues to grow at a rapid rate, and I read recently that it’s now estimated to be a 10-billion-dollar industry. This suggests that many people are attempting to “take control” of their lives and their unhappiness—a natural step in our steadfast, “do-it-yourself” culture. These sorts of psychological problems, we assume, are problems that can be solved with sheer determination and willpower. We just need the right book, instructional video, or mantra, and from there, we will do it all by ourselves!
With a thousand or so positive affirmations a day, we are led to believe that we will finally be delivered to the Everland of Good-Enoughness. And this is often a central belief held by many authors, counselors, coaches, family members, and even our best friends, many of whom truly do want the best for us (and for us to see what they may see in us). And so… if after years of positive self-talk and the like, our self-concept hasn’t improved, well, then it is often assumed, unfortunately, that maybe we really are that damaged and undeserving; while others assume, we just don’t want it bad enough.
However, when it comes to improving our self-worth, what if most people have had the wrong strategy the whole time? What if, despite the billions of dollars invested, there was never any real way to “self-help” our way to a more positive self-concept and sense of worthiness in the first place?
I believe one reason we remain stuck has to do with how we think about and understand the problem and its origins to begin with. For starters, the way the problem is labeled is misleading. When we recognize that we suffer from having a low sense of “self-worth,” for example, it certainly sounds like it’s the “self” that is responsible for whatever level of “worth” we carry. However, the “self” is not where our sense of self-worth originates.
Instead, our sense of worth primarily comes from how we were treated by “others” during our developmental years when we were tiny, helpless, exceptionally needy little beings who couldn’t offer much to the world, and yet required tremendous amounts of patience, attention, love and understanding. If those responsible for meeting the immense amount of innate, biological and psychological demands were in anyway handicapped or limited in capacity, our neediness would have been punished or neglected at that capacity limit. When such experiences occur (as is almost universal these days, with degree being what separates us), the child comes to believe that they are too much, not wanted, or unlovable (and worse yet, also responsible for the happiness, or lack thereof, of their caregivers).
Through the ways in which we are treated and responded to in our early experiences in life, we learn through our direct experience (the most powerful method of learning) that our needs are burdensome to others, and because we have no other option but to rely on those people for our survival, we must begin the process of needing less, of being less, which requires an inner war of self-denial to begin. Essentially, we feel responsible for how others treat us during this stage of life, and if we get the message that we are too much (physically or psychologically), we end up working very hard to become less in order to keep the attachment we rely on for our survival.
This ability is a rather remarkable strategy for survival by the organism, but it’s not without significant consequences, which inevitably show up as mental-health issues in later years. If, for example, we have a psychological need that was rejected, shamed, or led us to being sent way (rejection) or abandoned (even psychologically), we must then begin suppressing that need. Unfortunately, however, while that suppression may help keep the peace and prevent the overstressing of caregivers, it does not make the need go away. Instead, that part of ourselves gets exiled and driven deep into our subconscious. In this relegation to the shadowlands of the soul, we lock that part of ourselves away from view, to ourselves and others, in an effort to ensure the minimal needs required for physical self-preservation are at least satisfactorily met, and no further damage to our soul occurs. This is an amazing psychic capacity we have, to be able to prevent additional psychological wounds from registering in the psyche at a time when we are unable to handle the emotional gravity, while not having the necessary psychological support available to us.
As a result of these types of experiences, the self-worth we carry into adulthood is a direct reflection of how effectively our initial needs were met by others early on. If our self-concept is low, it is a reflection of how little our needs (especially our psychological needs) were effectively met by others, and not in any way a marker of our actual worth. As such, a negative sense of self rarely reflects the truth of who we are; rather, it is a reflection of the limitations of our caregivers.
Once we learn that our sense of self was predominately set via “other” influences, then we can begin to understand why it’s so hard, if not impossible, to change much of it on our own. With this new understanding of the importance that another plays in the development of a healthy self-concept, we finally have a clearer path to authentic recovery; however, we are still in dangerous territory. First, we’re going to have to find another who can accept the parts of us that we have been unable to accept over the course of our lives—those parts that were previously punished, abandoned, or neglected—and if we choose the wrong person, we will invariably have our negative self-beliefs reinforced, not eradicated. This is a very inconvenient truth, and makes recovery of those buried and split off parts of ourselves a very delicate process.
Should we be lucky enough to eventually find someone capable of accepting the parts of us that were previously rejected (again, typically our emotionally vulnerable parts that felt deep pain, sadness, fear, anger or rage), then our core self-beliefs—initiated through the power of direct experience—are shattered. No longer watered down with wondering if we are okay as we are, we now have had the power of a fully-felt, direct experience that shows us that these previously rejected parts are not only okay, but accepted and welcomed. This is what happens in the ideal therapeutic experience. From such an experience, it is no longer possible to believe we are unlovable, because those parts were just met with unconditional love. As a result, we are forced to reconcile this new experience with those of the past: old experience meets a new experience with a different outcome—promoting growth and change.
In such an experience, our foundations will be shaken: they must be. This is usually a very destabilizing experience, for when the truth of who we are is revealed, the truth of what we missed out on is simultaneously revealed, and this invites us into deep grief. Typically, when I have witnessed or experienced this myself, there is an initial elation, a freedom, and then… the deep pain comes along with the realization of what we lost out on in this lifetime: the quality of caregiving we desperately needed but did not get years ago.
We must feel the pain of the losses as they have been true to our experience, but from here, the ability to continue helping ourselves is much easier with less external help needed. We can now begin watering and nourishing our self-concept with a little more success. At this stage, there is little need for mantras and affirmations, for the wondering (am I loveable?) has been replaced with knowing (I am loveable).
Finding this type of acceptance from another is a true blessing in this lifetime. Sadly, it’s becoming harder and harder to find in our overly wounded society, and many people will never find it during the entirety of their lives. Worse yet, some people will be seriously harmed by the actions of the others when they choose the wrong person to show their woundedness too. I am disgusted to have known of stories where “helpers,” including licensed professionals, have taken advantage of this vulnerability in others, sexually and otherwise, which is of course, one reason many people try to do their healing work alone—to minimize the risk of being further harmed. There is a point, I believe, where we can no longer afford to take the risk of being hurt by someone else. We can take only so many punches before we are knocked unconscious, never able to enter the ring again.
Many people have a serious dilemma on their hands: we are safer from additional harm while working alone, but seriously limited with how much we can influence our healing and recovery working alone as well. Yes, it is hard to find a psychologically healthy, grounded individual, who has done enough of their own recovery work to guide us into the wounded parts of our soul with honor and respect. However, there is just no decent substitute I have come across for the power that this type of healing experience offers, so I firmly believe it’s worth investing the time in it. It may take years to find this person (no, I’m not exaggerating; it’s that rare these days), but there are ways of diminishing the chances of picking the wrong person to travel to the depths of our being with, which I have discussed elsewhere. For now, please remember: It’s not a matter of desire that determines someone’s ability to be helpful, it’s a matter of capacity, which is gained from that person’s own recovery path. If they say anything other than it was the most difficult thing they’ve ever experienced, consider them unqualified for starters.
To summarize: In our work to improve our sense of self, we are looking for another to help us see ourselves as loveable. They offer this not by telling us that we are loveable, but by showing us we are loveable. In order for that to happen, two things must occur simultaneously: 1) We must eventually show them the parts that we find unacceptable in ourselves. It is not sufficient to tell them, for when we do, there is a voice in the back of the head that says, “Yeah, but they wouldn’t think that if they really knew how crazy, dramatic, pathetic, etc. I am.” And 2) we must choose a psychologically healthy individual to show those vulnerable protected parts to. If we show someone something that they haven’t accepted in themselves yet, they will almost invariably reject that part in us too, and we will be further hurt in the process. As such, when both criteria are met, healing happens, and we gain self-confidence and can continue building on that foundation. When one criterion is not met, the negative self-concept remains, at best, or, at worst, is driven deeper (in the event of rejection, abandonment, or misunderstanding).
This is why we must choose who we invite into our vulnerable woundedness with great care and discernment, and also why we cannot do it all alone. If the wound was created in relationship, healing must also happen in relationship. If in our early experience we were taught that our needs were too much, then we will continue to believe we are too much until we have an experience with someone who doesn’t react the same way. The kind of core beliefs that come from direct experience cannot be overridden through the cognitive-behavioral process alone. Such interventions are simply no match in strength to get the job done. Like a forest fire that requires water to be extinguished, it’s going to take more than standing in front of an oncoming blaze with a fully-loaded Super Soaker to get the job done: It’s going to take a powerful rainstorm to extinguish those magnificent flames. Similarly, when our core beliefs originated in a powerful, vulnerable experience, it will require an equally strong emotional experience in order for us to begin wiggling free from the old messaging rooted in past experience.