I wrote a post earlier today about self-acceptance and love. In it I discussed the conclusions we draw about ourselves as children, when we feel invalidated by a parent. This invalidation might come in the form of discipline for something we have done, or it may just be that our parents were not present with us physically or emotionally when we needed them. We may then conclude that we are not good enough, that there’s something wrong with us, or in some cases, that we shouldn’t exist. A few readers felt worried and even guilty about potentially damaging their children's developing sense of self. They raised questions about how to avoid this, how to be there for their own children, how to protect them from these experiences.
Unfortunately, the answer is – you can’t. Sadness, stress and fear are a part of life. Luckily, so is resilience. Resilience is the capacity to rebound from these emotions and return to a state of equilibrium and peace.
A psychoanalyst named Winnicott theorised that we can never protect our children from the harshness of life (including the way we parent), but what we can do is be a “good enough” parent. A good enough parent is one who provides a loving and nurturing environment for the child, but also one where there is room for the child to feel disillusioned with their parents and the world, without destroying their appetite for life and their ability to accept reality. If the parents are able to tolerate their children’s experiences of anger, frustration and sadness, and support them (i.e cuddle a sad and crying child without necessarily fixing the problem), children are more likely to maintain a realistic and ongoing relationship with their parents. If a parent strives to make everything perfect for their child and protect them from unpleasant emotions, the parent only serves to foster in the child, a “false self” – one where the child is not able to accept reality as it is, and therefore has a very hard time coping in the world.
This good enough parenting builds resilience. Even for a very sensitive child, sadness, disappointment, anger or fear is an opportunity for parents to give them an experience of feeling supported in that state, thus fostering the feeling that everything is ok even when they are upset, and therefore helping them bounce back without lasting damage and trauma. Eventually this belief that everything is ok will be internalised and they will develop resilience, and have a strong ongoing sense that all is well. How often a child becomes upset is not the main issue, it’s how supported they feel in handling those emotions and whether or not they bounce back.
All children truly need is love and support. You give parenting everything you’ve got. You do the best with what you know, and the mere fact that you’re reading this post means you’re really making an effort to be the best parent you can possibly be. The reality is that we all have our own journeys. Yes, your children might end up struggling, they might even end up talking about your parenting in the therapy room. All you need to have done is to have made it ok for them to feel bad sometimes, and to have provided enough experiences of receiving support, that they won’t be afraid to ask for it.
Do you accept yourself as you are? In truth, it's something we all struggle with. Throughout our lives, especially when we are very young, we depend on love for survival. We reach for connection and safety as soon as we are born. As we grow and our brain develops, we start to discern what behaviors bring us more love and attention (which we associate with safety and survival), and so we try to include more of that. To us, our parents are like the sun, and every time they shine on us, we flourish.
As well as receiving countless hours of sunshine, there will always be times when we get the message that we are not good enough, that we belong in the shade. Maybe we are told that our behavior is not good enough, that we are naughty or bad, and we believe it. Perhaps the more damaging instances happen more subtly, often by accident. When we are overlooked, abandoned, forgotten (even if it's only for a few minutes). If our parents (or their attention) are elsewhere at a critical emotional moment for us, as children, we feel unloved. Given that to us as small children, our parents seem like the greatest beings that could ever exist, we can't imagine faulting them for how we feel and so the only logical conclusion is that it is our own fault. "Mum forgot me because I'm not good enough." Of course that's not the reality - mum was god damned BUSY, but our little minds can't help but take these things personally and attribute blame to ourselves.
I can hear the parents reading this, thinking "Oh god! That would mean I can't even get dinner made without someone's self esteem being damaged" and it's true - you can't be there and present with each child, every moment of the day - all you can be is what psychotherapists call a "good enough parent". It's also a natural part of our development, many of these moments build resilience, it's just a few that wound us. I'll write another post about this shortly.
But back to you.
So at many points in our lives, we all got the feeling that if we were just a little better, cuter, nicer or more well behaved, we would be truly lovable. In perhaps just a few pivotal moments, we came to believe that when others withdraw their love, it's because we are not good enough. We then carry this into our adult relationships and feel deep shame and grief whenever someone withdraws, because they're actually digging into an old childhood wound.
So, what can you do about it?
The reason that these old wounds are so powerful is because they're out of our awareness. It seems as though we are feeling so hurt because of something our partner did, but actually the cause is deeply buried. These old wounds need to be brought into awareness. In therapy, you have the opportunity to safely visit these seemingly dark places and shine a light on them - actually you can be your own sun now that you're an adult and change the experience of a difficult memory. You don't have to know where these memories lie, it the therapist's job to guide you there. This new awareness and acceptance of what was, diffuses the pain. You can now see the real meaning of the situation (eg: mum was grieving/busy/stressed, dad was shut down/away for work/an alcoholic). You can remind yourself that you are loved and safe and good enough. You'll see yourself with love and compassion and have the opportunity to give yourself exactly what you need when these feelings arise. Going forward, you'll have a greater understanding of yourself and feel more self-love, self-acceptance and compassion.
Happiness. It’s an interesting one. What stands in the way of it? What do we do when we don’t have it?
We have all been in a situation where we are unhappy with some part of our lives. If you haven’t, you’re either in denial, or you’ve got this life thing down pat and you needn’t read any further – Good day to you!
But what are you supposed to do if you’re feeling unhappy, dissatisfied or unfulfilled? Change something, right? Absolutely. The only problem with this, is that we tend to see external factors as holding the keys to our happiness. “I’ll be happy when I have more money/when I have my own home/when I have a better relationship”.
Often when we are unhappy, we cover it with booze or drugs or cigarettes or chocolate. When we are aware that we need to make changes, we think that if we exercise more or get a hobby we might feel better. We think we might be happier if we move, change jobs or if we are with a different partner. What do you think is standing in the way of your happiness? Go on, name it.
Sure, maybe that jerk at work really is making your life hell, but haven’t you noticed that there’s always someone who isn’t acting the way you need them to? Maybe your job is sucking the life out of you, but will changing companies really give you lasting peace? As a mentor of mine says, changing these external things is about as effective as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic in order to avoid the iceberg. It’s all futile. It doesn’t help in the long term because the iceberg is your own creation.
In my first job as a teacher I became so stressed that I got quite sick. I changed schools and worked less. It felt like a relief for a while, but the same stress began to creep back in. No matter what job I did, I felt anxious that I wasn’t doing it well enough. I eventually learnt that this stress was mine. I realised that
I was responsible for it and the only way I was going to change it, was to understand it better. So, I studied it, in therapy and alone – where it started, what thoughts it brought, how it served me and what it cost me. I learnt what beliefs about myself lay below it. I had similar experiences with relationships, friendships and study.
A good therapist can guide you in this exploration, quickly revealing the hidden dynamics and helping you understand yourself, which gives you the opportunity to affect real and lasting change.
Learning to take responsibility for my life, instead of putting all of the blame (and all of the power) on my circumstances allowed me to find happiness in all areas of my life without changing any of my circumstances. As William Arthur Ward said, “Happiness is an inside job”, so learn to create the life that you want from the inside out.
Undoubtedly the most important thing I learnt in my journey as a client was The Work of Byron Katie. I want to share one of her main principles, the concept of staying in your own business.
We generally think that anything that has anything to do with us is our business. That’s fine, if we are prepared to live in misery, but if we want to be truly happy and free, we have some work to do.
So, there are three kinds of business – your business, other people’s business, and God/the universe’s business.
Your business consists of anything YOU do, say, think or feel, anything you are.
Other people’s business is anything that THEY do, say, think, feel, are.
The future, the past, whether it rains today, and the fact that cats meow and dogs bark is all God’s business.
Pretty straightforward, right? They key is to ONLY concern yourself with your own business.
What someone else thinks of you is none of your business.
What someone else says about you is THEIR business.
What someone else does to you is none of your business.
I know, it seems wrong. I can hear you saying “But they’re doing it TO ME – so it is my business!”.
No. It’s not. What someone else is doing is out of your control and to try to control it is not only futile, but it’s also the greatest cause of unhappiness.
You see, anytime we suffer, we are in someone else’s business.
If you are completely in your own business, only worrying about what you are doing, saying, thinking, feeling and what kind of person you are, it is impossible to be unhappy. All suffering is born of trying to control things that are not our own business.
When we try to control what happens in the future we feel anxious. When we dwell on the past and wish things were different, we become depressed. When we want others to change we are engaging in a struggle that we can’t ever truly win.
So, let’s do an experiment. Do the first part, before reading part two.
Part One: Think about a person or situation that really bothers you, really get yourself into the issue. Find where this lives in your body (maybe a tightness in your chest, a sick feeling in your stomach, a headache, a weight on you etc). Really experience this sensation. Imagine that you’re experiencing this feeling because a piece of you has been ripped out and has gone over to that other person or situation to try to resolve it. It is unpleasant, right?
Part Two: Now imagine that this piece of you, that has gone out there, is attached to a tiny thread, which you can start to pull on, gently drawing it back to you. This piece of you floats back through time and space and comes home, fitting back in like a perfect jigsaw piece. Notice how you feel. More whole, right? Peaceful? This is what it feels like to be in your own business. This is what it feels like to choose to stop suffering.
Now, I know this is an uncomfortable concept. I’m certainly not claiming that other ways of being are wrong – they’re natural reactions. This is merely an alternative to feeling as though others are the cause of our suffering. Staying in your own business takes determination and practice. Luckily, life gives us plenty of opportunities to practice this.
So next time you’re stressed, annoyed, disappointed or upset ask yourself “Whose business am I in?” Come and see me to experience this work fully, in relation to your own struggles. It’s liberating.
I’ll include some links in the comments. I’d love to hear about your experience of this, good or bad, and if you have questions, ask them below!