Maybe because there is only one more session left after the last one, or maybe I am just clearer in my own mind, but some things came out in therapy yesterday.
We talked–briefly, it was brief but revealing–about how we see reality. For my therapist, there is a single reality, and our minds sometimes distort it. For me, each of us is actively constructing our understanding of reality and whatever is in our minds at the moment is merely our best guess about it. Over time, we might revise our guess about reality as we get new information. We may compare our understanding of reality with others and decide we like someone else’s idea about it better than our own. But because we are constructing an understanding of reality rather than holding reality itself within our minds, it’s fluid and shifts over time.
The same is true of our self-views. My view of myself is partly the result of how other people see me. (This is Cooley’s Looking Glass self. It seems to be where psychology and sociology part ways.) If the people around me are fairly similar to one another and tend to be fairly consistent in how they see things, my sense of myself is likely to be stable unless I have some kind of life-changing event (have children, lose my mobility, have a brain injury). If the people around me see things very differently from one another or are themselves unstable, I may see myself differently at different times, because they see me differently. I myself have not changed, but the lens has changed–the lens being the people looking at me.
She does not see things this way. Most therapists don’t. One is not supposed to imagine how other people view one, and yet we ought to know that people do, that this is a part of how one’s sense of self is formed.
This really struck home to me, for two main reasons. One of them is that the way I view the self helps me to understand my childhood. My mother’s problems with regulation caused her to see the world–and me–as very different at different times. I am not stupid and I knew this. As a child forming an identity, it made my very self feel unpredictable and dangerous. It also set me up as an adult to cling frantically to a positive, fragile view of myself. I could not tolerate the normal ups and downs in how we see ourselves as we experience failures and successes in life that I think people normally manage without noticing very much. I think I could not grasp when I don’t have a positive view of myself, I am still me. It felt to me like I had become someone else.
The thing is that I believe we regulate our social selves in the same way we regulate our emotions. If I am not naturally skilled at doing something, I am likely to do less of it, not just because it frustrates me, but because I don’t like the view of myself that I have when I do it. I might avoid a bully or a critical person, because I don’t like how I feel about myself when I am around them.
But children who were emotionally abused have learned they cannot and will not be allowed to regulate their self-esteem. They cannot move away from things or people that cause them to feel they are less competent or valuable or important. They could not move away from a parent who belittled or demeaned them, and so as adults they don’t feel allowed to move away from negative, critical or downright abusive people. They were not allowed to choose activities that made them feel competent or successful or joyful.
My therapist would have me do what I tried unsuccessfully for decades to do, which is to believe in some kind of always-good self that does not change, rather than in a self that is fluid, but always still me–always my responsibility and always of value to me.
I was taking a walk yesterday–I had to wait on something for a couple of hours and I spent some of that time taking a walk–and I thought as I was walking that I would care for myself whether I am a good person or a bad person. This does not sound so great written down, but my care for myself is unconditional. I don’t stop caring for myself when I have failures in virtue or in self esteem. Whatever I think about myself in the moment, I am still willing to help myself. I don’t need to worry about whether that help is deserved or not, because I am willing to give it unconditionally.
For me, this is important because it links back to a parent who cared about me only in very conditional ways, where I needed to be obedient or virtuous or meet her needs in order to get the care that I needed. If I could not keep it together and lost my self-control, the care evaporated and I would no longer be helped.
My therapist has quite the opposite view, which is that I must believe I am always good: the inference is that I only deserve care if I am good. Her view creates rules around what I must believe, and the way we feel when we break rules is shame or guilt, so every time I have self-doubt, I will be aware that my mind broke this rule around what I am allowed to believe about myself, and I will feel more negative emotions on top of whatever I am struggling with in the first place. For someone with regulation challenges, this is not a good strategy.
I imagine my therapist thinks it’s a good strategy, because it builds on the foundation of what someone from an abusive background already believes: love is conditional. People can only be helped if they are good. It doesn’t require a massive overhaul of one’s belief system to think my parents simply did not see my goodness. It’s easier than thinking just as parents care unconditionally for their children, I can care unconditionally for myself. Regardless of my feeling state or my current view of myself, I can still try to help myself.
At the core of my parents’ abuse of me is the idea that I wasn’t cared for because I didn’t deserve care, but parents care for their children because their children need care–not because their children have earned it. Believing that I do not need to be good to care for myself takes the legs out from under my parents’ excuse for abusing me. I wasn’t always good as a child. Sometimes I was terrible. But what I see from some parents now is that they still care for their children even when they are terrible.
I didn’t need to be good to be loved.