Adults abused as children typically have a voice within themselves that mimics the behavior of the perpetrators. Those abused so severely abused that they went on to develop Dissociative Identity Disorder usually have at least one alter within the system that functions as a tormentor and an oppressor.
This voice is typically referred to as a “negative introject.” It is the abusive behavior of the adult internalized by the child, in the same way a child internalizes the behaviors and attitudes of more positive figures. Getting rid of this voice is the subject of numerous articles, books, threads on self-help online groups and more. The negative introject is a problem. It goes on abusing us when no one else can.
I’m not sure a lot of the advice on how to get rid of really works. I suspect if it worked well there would be less of it. We wouldn’t go on searching for answers for so long.
And that makes me think we are wrong about some of the ways we understand the negative introject.
I have one, I should tell you. Her name is Lana. Many people refer to their inner abuser by a more descriptive name. Mine is named for a little girl I was especially fond of in preschool. I suppose we must have been friends, but I actually don’t remember her that well. I just have a general, vague sense of liking her.
Internalizing abusive behaviors and attitudes is a way of responding to our inner pain, just as addictions are, or meditation. It isn’t the best or the healthiest response, but it is a response. And, like other responses, it has a function. Addressing the negative introject successfully involves recognizing its function for us.
I’m not saying we want to be nasty to ourselves, we want to keep feeling bad, or that we want to maintain low self-esteem. But the negative introject does something other than those things that causes it to continue to seem worthwhile–worthwhile enough to hang onto.
On the one hand, bullying ourselves relieves us of the sense of powerlessness that comes from being a victim. Bullying is, after all, about power. And bullying ourselves momentarily puts us in charge. Although we may immediately afterwards shift into feeling ashamed and sorrowful, acting as our own victimizer places us momentarily in control of the pain we are in. Because of that, we find other ways to manage the sense of helplessness, the need to escape it diminishes. So that’s the good news.
More importantly perhaps, the negative introject can also serve to create an illusion of predictability in our lives. Just as we may attend church services, pray, and read our Bibles to please God, get to heaven, and avoid the fires of hell, we may belittle and criticize ourselves in order to please imaginary parents and avoid the abuse they heaped on us–even if consciously we know they can’t do that to us anymore. Still, the fear can linger long after reality has changed.
This happens partly because as human beings, we are wired to recognize patterns and form mental rules regarding them. The pattern with abusive parents very often involves shame and blame in addition to other kinds of harm. Consequently, we may take it upon ourselves to feel guilt or shame in hopes of heading off abuse: the thought is more or less, “If I’m good–and ‘good’ with abusive parents is very often ashamed, guilty, and remorseful for things the child hasn’t done and flaws he doesn’t have–then maybe nothing really bad will happen.”
So we shame ourselves. We tear down our self-images. Because an ashamed child with low self-esteem seemed to be the desired outcome of the abuse. Maybe if we can get straight to that, we can skip all that other stuff in between. You know, the hitting, the throwing, the terrifying raging. That kind of thing.
It isn’t different, really, than developing other kinds of compulsive behaviors and in that regard is similar to certain aspects of OCD. As David Sedaris wrote, if I lick the doorknob, perhaps disaster can be averted. And if I tear myself a new one mentally, perhaps I won’t be beaten, humiliated, or abandoned. In a sense, the negative introject is a superstition. Its function is to ward off an even worse fate. Soothing the oppressive voice of the negative introject involves managing anxiety and coping with the helplessness of trauma, so that we don’t need to resort to magical thinking or what is, in a sense, superstition.
But I think healing the negative introject also involves accepting that it is there. It is a part of us–maybe not our best part and hopefully not a permanent part–but it has served a purpose for us for many years. It has helped us to cope, even if it hasn’t done it very painlessly.
And it is okay that we are flawed individuals, that our experiences have led to scars on our souls, and that we don’t like everything about ourselves. We can be loved in spite of this. We can love ourselves in spite of this. Because love at its best is unconditional. We can love ourselves unconditionally as well.
I think of Lana as a really difficult child–you know, the kind that is unpleasant, critical, rigid, unable to have fun or to relate to most people, awkward, ugly, and just generally not very nice. She has low self-esteem and doesn’t like anyone else much either. I do with her what I do with other difficult kids; I just love her. And that seems to help.
You can try it if you want.