Links to the previous installments of the series:
As you’re already aware, this is the final part in a series of letter from a reader named Bill. The advice in this series is specifically meant for people with codependent tendencies, so keep that in mind as you read through, although I think people with other neurotic tendencies can also definitely benefit from it. I hope you enjoy.
[Once again this is a long post, so you may want to make it more readable by clicking this link for the print-friendly version.]
I was going through a down period a little over a year ago where I was just overcome with an overwhelming malaise. Not quite a depression, just a type of listless apathy. A numbness where I couldn’t even muster up enough emotion to get depressed. I decided to throw myself into activity to get over it. Yoga, buddhism classes, language classes, and other activities. My idea was that if I could just act happy and interested in life, the feeling would follow. The old “fake it till you make it” philosophy.
The other motivation for this to me was this idea of no longer collecting “someday/maybe” activities that I never acted upon in the real world, and they were piling up. It was a growing bucket list of activities that I tried to impress people with by mentioning in conversations my intention to pursue them, but I never started or if I did start I never followed through. It made me feel like a phony. So I started attacking them three at a time, and I was determined to do it not to impress others but for the enriching experiences and the people I would meet.
To backtrack on what motivated me to make this change: I made friends with an emotional vampire in my workplace. Everything she did in her life was a calculated attempt to impress people and get positive attention (narcissistic supply), and it was so ugly a trait to see in someone else she became like a harsh, funhouse mirror to me. You know how a funhouse mirror might take a part of your reflection that looks harmless and exaggerate it until it looks grotesque? I feel like there are people who come into our lives to act like our psychic harsh funhouse mirrors by being such grotesque, exaggerated reflections of our shortcomings that they shock us into self-awareness. This vampire did that service for me, and I’m forever grateful to her for it. She was incredibly draining, evil, and toxic, and I’d like to say our friendship ended, but looking back it never actually began because you can’t be friends with a false self. Like everything else about an emotional vampire, the connections are always a calculated illusion.
One of the things she did was always name-drop interesting, highbrow books, movies, places, and hobbies, but she never had more than a cursory knowledge of them, and it was always just enough to bluff and impress people, but never enough to actually discuss them insightfully with anyone who was acquainted with the topics on a deep level. Also, she was an “about to” person, as in always “about to” start a hobby, “considering” a personal growth endeavor, “thinking of” writing a book, “about to” make a life-affirming change, but would never actually follow through and do anything. She just liked the narcissistic supply she got from the positive feedback others gave her when she made the announcements. Like all narcissists, she preferred to be judged on intentions rather than actions. But after knowing her for a while and seeing how ugly her behavior was, I decided I was going to do my best not to be an “about to” guy, and I started a flurry of activity on my bucket list.
The first three areas I decided to tackle were French language, yoga, and buddhism, focusing on Vipassana or Insight meditation. I told very few people I was doing these things, unless they came up organically in conversation. The first couple of weeks of Buddhist meditation classes were okay, but didn’t feel groundbreaking. I got frustrated. I approached it too intellectually, because intellect was always my way of attacking everything. I treated it like something to study for, just memorizing buddhist terms and concepts like I was studying for a test. Totally missing the point.
Also, there were a few suck-ups who pretended to ask sincere questions, but the questions were clearly calculated to impress with their level of pseudoinsight and false humility. For example, much of the subject matter and readings had been about letting go of ego, and there would always be some guy who would ask some question that was really just a self-aggrandizing speech about how much ego he realized he had after meditating. It was a type of humblebrag that wasn’t really asking for any particular answer to any particular question, but rather was just a speech designed to show off how insightful and deep he was. This would then spark competitive follow-up “questions” from other students that were also disguised humblebrags. I started finding the Q&As tiresome and found myself tuning out whenever a question was asked.
One day, though, a girl finally came forward and asked the teacher a sincere, vulnerable question. She said “I hear all of this about letting go of the ego and the false self and not being a perfectionist, but I don’t live in an ashram or a monastery or a temple. I live in the big city. And I really want to embrace this, I really do, but a big part of me is afraid to let go of my ego, because if I do I keep thinking it’s the same as embracing mediocrity. How do I let go of this harsh false self, this ego, this part of me that keeps beating myself up and comparing myself to others, yet still keep striving to improve myself? Once I give it up, will all the drive I need to succeed just evaporate too?”
I thought to myself, “Damn, finally, a good question.” I had given up on ever hearing a good question in the class. I looked at the teacher and she just had this expression of warm, compassionate bemusement that somehow reminded me of a warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookie and really struck an emotional chord with me. It felt like a loving parent who sees her child struggling and getting frustrated with something that the parent knows is not as insurmountable a problem as it seems to the child in that present moment, but nonetheless she wants to be sympathetic to the plight and not belittle it. The look on the teacher’s face made it obvious she heard this question countless times in the past and that she at one point was in the same position.
She simply responded to the girl, “There is one thing you have to keep telling yourself throughout this process, and it’s something I continue to tell myself to this day: ‘You are fine just the way you are…and there’s always room for improvement’.” Those words were like a sledgehammer to my chest that knocked the wind out of me. So direct and so simple. The most important part to me was that she said “and there’s always room for improvement,” rather than “but there’s always room for improvement” which would make the acceptance feel a lot more false and conditional.
From that point on, every piece of personal growth I pursued, everything I read, every piece of advice I got from people, every goal I set, every memory I recollected, every emotion I processed through meditation…I processed all of it through the filter of that mantra: “You are fine just the way you are…and there’s always room for improvement.”
You don’t need self-hatred and shame to fuel your self-improvement. In fact, using the false self and the ego and the shame and self-loathing that inevitably accompanies them to fuel your self-improvement always ends up sabotaging you and making you fall into ego traps. It makes you create new false selves to replace old false selves, new faulty coping mechanisms to replace old faulty coping mechanisms, new defense mechanisms to replace old defense mechanisms, and worst of all it encourages you to play it safe by choosing to go through ego protection measures rather than the deep pain that accompanies deep awareness.
Albert Einstein once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you can’t solve a problem using the same level of awareness that created the problem. Most of our problems with self-sabotage, pain, unhappiness and unhealthy attachments came about because of points in our life where we absorbed messages about conditional love (we’re only lovable so long as we’re pleasing someone else, usually our parents) and because we developed self-hate (usually through the critical voices, even when well-intended, of parents and authority figures). Trying to fix these things through more conditional love (this time from ourselves) and through more self-loathing is trying to solve a problem using the same level of awareness that created the problem to begin with. This is a perfect example of what Einstein was warning against. We’ll discuss awareness more in depth later on.
Most people are stuck in the black-and-white, all-or-nothing destructive thinking pattern where they’re either mired in self-hatred and telling themselves “I’m a disgusting piece of shit if I’m not perfect, so I’m going to do everything I can to be the best and if I fail I’m worthless” (the faulty coping strategy of overcompensation) or they go to another opposite extreme of magical Pollyannaish thinking and say “I’m perfectly fine and have no issues and don’t care about anything and I don’t need to change anything about myself” (the faulty coping strategy of avoidance) or they choose yet another extreme and say “You know what, I feel like a piece of shit, and it’s because I really am a piece of shit. I accept it, that’s never going to change, I know I’m fundamentally flawed and unlovable so why even pretend I can change?” (the faulty coping strategy of surrender). The three coping strategies are primal, animal coping strategies. We see them in nature all the time, and in evolutionary discussions they’re often referred to as the fight, flight or freeze response (more accurate than calling it the “fight or flight response”).
Just like our lizard brain tells us to fight, flee or freeze in the face of physical danger, we also have a tendency to do the same thing when faced with emotional annhilation: we fight (overcompensate), freeze (surrender), or flee (avoidance). However, because human beings are not animals and have more evolved mental and emotional functions, we have additional, healthier coping strategy available to us. We can transcend the primal fight, freeze or flight response we instinctively revert to when faced with emotional threats, and using awareness we can choose a fourth coping strategy called the healthy coping strategy.
The healthy coping strategy consists of :
- self-acceptance, where we make unconditional peace with our shortcomings, meaning we stop exaggerating them and being paralyzed by them, and we make peace with our strengths, meaning we stop downplaying them and refusing to use them to their fullest. This means accepting our true self, not accepting our old false self (surrender), avoiding our old false self (avoidance), or developing a new and improved badass false self (overcompensation). The old you you hate and want to get away from is no more your true self than the new you you’re aspiring to become is.
- self-awareness, where we become aware of what issues are going on with us as deeply (depth of understanding, qualitative) and widely (breadth of understanding, quantitative) as possible and formulate our larger values, principles, goals and strategies for dealing with these big picture problems. We try to identify as many issues as we can, then we try to understand these issues as deeply as we can. Here is the catch though: if the awareness is purely intellectual, if it doesn’t come with the deep pain that comes with emotional awareness, then it’s not true awareness. It’s actually another defense mechanism in disguise called intellectualization, and it’s actually a pseudo self-awareness. And if our strategies for dealing with these issues are just more forms of intellectual introspection and more “brain hacks,” the progress is an illusion. That’s why you can meet people who can verbalize all their issues very well, and may even have been in therapy for years, yet they never improve. They never gain emotional awareness to accompany their newfound intellectual awareness, and they never form concrete action strategies to eventually implement their insights.
- self-disciplined action, where we take the insights and feelings we gain from the first two elements of the healthy coping strategy and transform them into Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Sensitive action items, also known as the S.M.A.R.T. criteria. Without this final element, the other ones are doomed to become mental masturbation. Without the insight of the other two elements, this one over time just becomes busy work and prolonged time wasting in the guise of self-improvement. This is the stage where we sometimes have to “fake it til we make it.”
All of it is important, the big picture conceptualizing and strategy stages and the small picture stage where we deal with methods, tactics and immediate actions. Sun Tzu said “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.” That means all the self-awareness and self-acceptance in the world without disciplined action Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
Top-down or bottom-up?
Looking at the elements of the healthy coping strategy, you need the top levels of self-acceptance and self-awareness in order to do the big-picture stuff like defining values, purpose, principles, goals and grand vision. Self-discipline is the ground level you have to master in order to carry out the heavy lifting, to stick to your plan, to fight the procrastination and mental masturbation, to implement tactics, to react to unexpected urgent curveballs that pop up, and to do the concrete, daily tasks and actions needed to keep your immediate comfort concerns met.
A big question that comes up a lot when deciding to work on organizing ourselves in any way is the question, should I start from the top-down, working on the big picture by defining principles and goals first then working my way down to the little picture by defining my tactics and short-term actions, or should I do a bottom-up approach, where I do the exact reverse? Or to put it another way, strategy first followed by tactics, or tactics first followed by strategy?
In the first four parts of this series, I spoke a lot about not looking using tactics as quick fixes to core issues. I spoke at length about how being hypertactical and not going for deep insights just makes you worse. So I’m sure many of you assume I’m going to tell you the way to go is top-down, right?
I did once believe that the more enlightened way was to start with the top-down approach of defining your larger values first and working on specific tactics and actions later, but I now think the opposite. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s not. I still believe that our core issues are the most important targets to tackle when improving ourselves. I still believe that focusing solely or primarily on tactics and manipulations and actions at the expense of deeper insight is a fool’s mission. The problem is, sometimes we need to get the small things under control in order to get the distance and time perspective necessary to properly evaluate and tackle the big picture. We need to develop good short-term tactics and rituals to make our daily lives manageable enough to allow us to move on to tackling bigger stuff.
I realized the superiority of the bottom-up approach after reading the personal organization book Getting Things Done by David Allen.
Here’s an analogy to illustrate the problem with the top-down approach:
Imagine there’s a new leak that suddenly pops up through a spot in the ceiling in your basement. The source of the plumbing problem that caused the leak is somewhere in the pipes deep in the walls of the house and could be originating on any floor. Your house is huge, so you can’t find the plumbing problem easily, and walls may even have to be broken and torn down. It could take weeks or even months to not only find the source of the plumbing problem but also take stock of all the damage the leak has caused behind the scenes while it went unnoticed.
So say you decide to focus on spending the days, weeks, or even months it will take to find the source of the plumbing problem on your own. You’re going to read plumbing books, break walls, trace the leak back to the source if you can, find the parts you need, consult experts, and whatever else it will take. You’re determined to treat the core of the problem and not the symptoms, because if you treat the core, the symptoms will automatically be fixed, right? So you ignore all the basement water damage in the meantime.
While you’re setting up to do all this, all the furniture in your basement is getting waterlogged. So you’re forced to take a break from finding the source of the problem to go downstairs and remove all your furniture from the basement. Okay, the furniture has been removed. Now you can go back upstairs to try to focus on the big problem of tracking down the source of the leak.
Suddenly a family member calls upstairs to you to let you know the water level is rising in the basement thanks to the leak, so the tiles and hardwood are getting soaked and may end up permanently ruined. So you have to go back downstairs, mop up all the water, go to Home Depot to buy some supplies, drive back home and put plastic tarp over the tiles and the hardwood to protect them from water damage, and then you set up a giant tub to catch all the water.
Now that all this is set up in the basement, you try to go back to looking for the source of the problem, but new emergencies keep popping up in the basement that you have to attend to. You never get enough peace of mind and spare time to really focus on hitting the problem at the source, because the immediate emergencies and minute-to-minute chaos in the basement keep you occupied and your attention divided. Yes the basement leak is actually just a symptom of a bigger problem and not the actual source of the problem, but sometimes you need to focus on getting symptoms under control first so that you can be in the right frame of mind and properly implement the strategy needed to tackle the core problem. Otherwise while you’re busy trying to fix the main pipe stoppage, you’re house has become flooded and you’ve accumulated tens of thousands of dollars of totally avoidable damage.
Self-improvement is similar. When the small, trivial matters accumulate and spiral out of control, it keeps you too busy and frazzled and distracted to ever muster up enough resources and focus to really tackle the big, core problems properly. You have to get the small, day-to-day emergencies and your smaller obstacles (like finances and time management for example) at a workable level so that you can move on to tackling larger core issues.
Here is the trap, however, when you choose to work on the small stuff like symptoms before tackling the big stuff. Sometimes you work on the small, immediate stuff first and get a good routine down and you get some immediate and initially positive results and then you start fooling yourself that maybe symptom treatment really is enough. You even start thinking “Maybe there really is no core problem to address.”
Going back to the plumbing example, you don’t just get the superficial, small stuff down to a workable level. You go above and beyond. You replace the basement ceiling with a more waterproof ceiling that water will have more trouble getting through. You replace all the water damaged flooring and walls with brand new, more water resistant materials. You clean up any sign of water damage, and the basement now looks brand new. You get so impressed by how great and improved your new basement looks, you start to forget about finding the source of the previous water problem. You even start convincing yourself that maybe it never really existed.
You’re so proud of how your new basement looks that you go as far as to put even more furniture and appliances in it, more expensive than the stuff that was in there before it got water-damaged the first time. Every now and then you get a sign something isn’t right. A section of the wall or ceiling is soft and spongy, but you apply a quick fix. There is a weird moldy smell, but you buy better air fresheners and exotic, aromatic plants. After a while you get into a cycle of endless quick fixes and superficial improvements, all the time denying the severity of the core water problem.
You just keep having a ball and ignoring warning signs until WOOOOSHH!! a whole section of the ceiling collapses in the basement from all that accumulated water building up on top of it. The water is rotten, dirty, stinky and putrid and a bunch of moldy, rotted material falls out of the hole in the ceiling and ruins everything. Or a whole other part of the house ends up getting destroyed as the water pressure that used to come out of the leak in the ceiling now finds another route and explodes out of a different wall of the house.
The point is, you have to implement just enough short-term solutions and tactics to get the chaos of your daily life and moods under control, but not get carried away to the point that you never move past that level. Sometimes people, when they see the immediate results they get from implementing some quick-fixes and a collection of methods, get cocky and become sidetracked, believing they can just stay at the level of short-term fixes and tactics forever. They get addicted to tactics, easy fixes, and rituals, using them as mood-changers and ways to dodge tackling core problems, the way a junkie uses his drugs. The tactics and short-term fixes get him so overconfident he even starts tackling bigger life decisions. He feels confident enough to pursue relationships, get married, or even have kids, just armed with his arsenal of short-term tactics. Then like the plumbing problem in the previous example, the ceiling comes collapsing down and the core problem rears its head again when least expected, except it’s even worse than it was before. Like Sun Tzu said, tactics without strategy are just the noise before the fall.
So in summation, the first step of using the healthy coping strategy is to work from the bottom up by first developing self-disciplined actions. That way you get the physical, emotional and intellectual chaos of your life manageable and under control enough to allow you to focus on those big-picture core issues. Once you get those big picture core issues under control and get your vision and life strategies settled, then you can switch to a top-down approach. When you form your self-disciplined actions this time around using the top-down approach, your tactics won’t be just about getting the chaos of your life to manageable levels, they will be about converting your new found core values into tangible, positive real world results.
[I want to point out an important exception to everything I’ve laid out so far, however. This article is specifically directed to a letter from a specific reader named Bill, who I describe in the earlier installments. He had pronounced codependent tendencies, and for codependents, eventual core issue work is a must. However there are some people who actually don’t have that many major core issues, but instead have just picked up some bad thinking and behavioral habits along the way in life that are self-sabotaging. For people like this, some of the quick fixes and tactics can actually be enough. They just need a little bit of course correction rather than an overhaul of their whole life navigation system.]
Clearing the Runway
In David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, Allen calls the process of using a bottom-up approach to personal organization by getting the chaos of everyday life under control first before approaching the big-picture issues “clearing the runway.” You’re basically making sure the runway is free of debris and obstacles before you start trying to take off.
In the areas of self-improvement and psychology, one way to clear the runway are methods like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a method created by Aaron Beck. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is very different from Psychodynamic therapy, as you can see here in this comparison. Psychodynamic therapy is about going deep into core issues, and figuring out the unconscious motivations that may you act the way you do, and getting insights into your family, your upbringing, your childhood traumas, and your formative experiences. Another major feature of the psychodynamic style is that the relationship of the client to the therapist is a major element, as the therapist often tries to force the client to transfer any unresolved parental issues onto the therapist so that the client can work them out properly this time around.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is not about going deep into core issues, childhood traumas, and family psychological dynamics. It primarily focuses on getting quick, immediate results by changing patterns of thinking (the “cognitive” part of the name) and changing patterns of behaving (the “behavioral” part of the name). It is not as time-intensive as most psychodynamic treatments, it is less concerned with the roots of the psychological problems, and it is more concerned with immediate results through thought and behavior tactics. CBT also assigns a lot of homework. In fact, when you buy a CBT self-help book, you can usually expect to see a lot of exercises and thought experiments for you to complete.
CBT does things like identify the most common faulty thinking and behavioral patterns, then teaches you to recognize them when they arise, and then challenge them using evidence and observations, and then practice thinking healthier thoughts and acting out healthier behaviors.
For example the book Boost Your Self-Esteem with CBT by Wilding and Palmer identifies some of the most common distorted thinking patterns like:
Generalizing the specific: We come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. We use words such as “always,” “never,” “nobody” and “everyone” to make a general rule out of a specific situation.
Mind reading: Mind reading is one of the commonest thinking errors we make when our self-esteem is low. This is fatal to self-esteem because we think that everyone agrees with our negative opinion of ourselves.
Filtering: We take the negative details from a situation and then magnify them, while at the same time filtering out the positive aspects.
Polarized thinking: We think of situations, people or the world in extremes such as good or bad: ‘I must be perfect or I am a failure.’ The problem is that we usually find ourselves on the negative end of our polarized extremes.
Catastrophizing: We predict and expect disaster. We notice or hear about a problem and immediately decide that if this terrible thing did happen to us, we would not be able to cope.
Personalization: This involves thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to us; we instantly decide that a comment is really directed at us personally.
Blaming: This is the opposite of personalization. We hold other people, organizations or even the universe responsible for our problems: “It’s all her fault we lost that contract.”
It’s all my fault: Instead of feeling a victim, we feel responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around us.
Fallacy of fairness: We feel resentful because we think we know what’s fair, but other people won’t agree with us.
Wilding and Palmer point out that much of these faulty thinking patterns come from a harsh critic inside us they name the Personal Fault Finder (PFF). They then go into ways to silence the PFF and challenge it whenever possible.
The book also goes into self-acceptance, and differentiates healthy self-acceptance from the unhealthy variety:
Self-acceptance enables you to conquer your Personal Fault Finder by saying: “That’s fine. I don’t mind about these particular things I am no good at. I can accept my shortcomings without diminishing myself.”
If you can learn to do this with calm, inner peace – and even a little humor – the results can be quite spectacular…
“We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.” – Carl Gustav Jung
For many people, the idea that they can accept themselves, warts and all, and not stay plunged in low self-esteem seems a paradox. If you already think you are a loser, then surely accepting this is simply throwing in the towel?
Well, that depends. What is described above is unhealthy self-acceptance. Healthy self-acceptance differs from this in several important ways.
Healthy self-acceptance encourages you to accept specific weaknesses about yourself – while at the same time rejecting the idea that having these weaknesses makes you an overall no-hoper. People suffering from depression tend to have an unhealthy lack of self-acceptance, and see themselves as generally worthless. A more optimistic personality will reflect only on specific areas of weakness, and not see these weaknesses as meaning that they are not “up to scratch” in general terms.
Someone with an unhealthy lack of self-acceptance will consider their weaknesses untenable, and revert to the idea of global uselessness. Healthy self-acceptance embraces acknowledging your weaknesses while not writing yourself off because of them. You understand that it is okay to have skills deficits, make mistakes, get things wrong or not have the strengths of the next person. You say, “This is called being human, as we all are” and you retain your self-respect.
An unhealthy lack of self-acceptance does not encourage change. It allows its followers to stay as they are, lost in self-criticism and low self-esteem. Their ideas conform to the view that there is no point in trying when failure is a certainty. Or they are “all talk” – the diet/exercise regime/study course starts tomorrow, and tomorrow never comes. Healthy self-acceptance gives you energy and motivation to change. Accepting weaknesses does not mean retaining weaknesses. Change is seen as positive, and accepting your shortcomings without any loss of self-esteem will enable you to meet the challenges it provides you with.
Insight: It is extremely important to grasp the difference between healthy and unhealthy self-acceptance. Make sure you understand it.
God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
CBT on “faking it until you make it”:
…A good way to improve your self-esteem is to pretend to have it. Your PFF will encourage you to look around at others and point out how confident they are – and how lacking in self-esteem you are in comparison. You are not going to teach yourself now how to check the validity of those thoughts – you have hopefully already done a lot of work on that – but rather to learn how to appear just as confident as everyone else – many of whom will be “faking it” successfully, just as you will be.
A plus of pretending is that, after a while, we don’t have to pretend any more. It becomes natural. We occasionally hear the comment “He/she has told that story so many times now that he/she actually believes it.” This is a version of that. Telling yourself you are confident when you are not is an untruth. But the more you tell it – and in this case, practice it – the more you will believe it. You will gradually find it easier and easier, and feel less and less self-conscious. So let’s start pretending…
CBT on external validation:
A common problem is that, where our self-esteem is low, we look for someone else to make us feel better. We decide that if we are liked and loved by others, then we will like and love ourselves.
This thinking error is what leads to relationship failure. For if we don’t like ourselves, why would we expect others to like us?
As you can see, there isn’t much analysis of childhood trauma or roots of core issues. It’s mostly new ways to reframe thoughts and new behaviors to replace old behaviors. I think if you have hardcore codependency issues and unhealed core trauma, these tactics won’t be enough to give you the deep, long-term healing you need to have a truly healthy life. I think like in the plumbing example above they’re just a really good way to fix the “symptom” leaks and remodel that basement.
That’s not a bad thing though. CBT is still very valuable. Doing a lot of this stuff is great for “clearing the runway” by using tactics and quick fixes to get our day-to-day lives under control and getting us in a good mental space for attacking deeper, fundamental core issues. I just wouldn’t recommend staying stuck at this level of self-improvement if you have deep issues.
Other possible options for clearing the runway could include hypnotherapy or the Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) books of Albert Ellis. Or an exercise regimen, a supportive religious group, a Buddhist retreat, reading organization books like 4 Hour Work Week or trying minimalism through books like Leo Babauta’s Power of Less or reading books and taking classes revolving around dating tips and getting rid of social anxiety, making friends by taking classes, joining a community garden, or whatever works for you at giving you an immediate sense of inner peace and mental clarity. What works for one person when aiming to clear the runway may not work for another, and there are no right or wrong answers.
Now that we’ve discussed the tactics and short term fixes, let’s move on to the bigger picture of core issues, awareness and strategies for the rest of this piece.
Core Issues: The Easy Fix Mentality
So now, what to do about the core issues after the runway is clear? This is going to sound like quite the copout but at the end of the day, only you can decide that. I can tell you things I found helpful in my life, but part of the cure is figuring out your own journey for yourself, so if you look for me or anyone else to spoon-feed every last detail of the journey for you step by step, you’re missing a lot of the point, and you won’t get as strong as if you do your own search through trial and error.
See, one of the biggest problems we as a society have is the addiction to the “easy fix method.” We want 5-minute abs, we want liposuction and plastic surgery, we want master cleanse crash diets, we want study cram sessions, we want to get absolutely ripped in 90 days, we want an exercise regimen spoon-fed to us, describing every last exercise and rep that doesn’t require us to do any thinking of our own.
Some people call it the “quick fix” method, but I think that “quick fixes” are just a smaller subcategory of a bigger, problematic mindset I prefer to call the “easy fix” mindset. The easy fix mindset comes in several forms:
- the quick fix: this is when a fix is expected to work instantly with just a short-term burst of work
- the low-pain fix: this fix may not be quick, and in fact may be grueling and time consuming in some ways, either because of the physical exertion required or the long hours demanded, but this fix is actually an easy fix in disguise because it allows us to avoid the type of hard work that we’re afraid will cause us deeper psychic pain. For example we may rather work 80 hours a week in an underachieving job that doesn’t mentally challenge us because we have a deep-seated fear of both success and failure, because we are perfectionists who fear trying something challenging and failing at it, thereby ruining our ego-preserving illusions of perfection, or because we fear our work is of low quality and don’t want to be revealed as a fraud. The pain of working 80 hours in underachieving, mindless work may be time-consuming but it’s far less painful to us than doing the hard work of figuring out what we really want to do in life, trying hard to actually accomplish it, and risking the blow to our ego we’d receive if we gave our all to a goal we really valued and still came up short.
The low-pain fix is incredibly deceptive because on the surface it’s often time-intensive and looks like a lot of hard work and appears to be the polar opposite of the quick fix. But both the quick fix and the low-pain fix fall under the bigger category of “easy fix” because they represent the easy way out, meaning the least personally painful fix for you in terms of potential ego damage.
To give an example from college, I knew a guy who would go through extraordinary lengths to either cheat on exams and assignments or come up with the most unproductive methods of what I call “pseudostudying,” which was just loads of time dedicated to unproductive busywork for most of the semester (like making huge piles of index cards for months on end that he never reviewed), topped off with a high-pressure cram session the night before the tests. If you looked at the sheer amount of time and effort he spent coming up with methods to cheat or doing the unproductive busywork of pseudostudying that never really challenged him to learn the material, you’d realize he actually put in a lot more time and work-hours than the A-students. But all of these approaches, despite how labor-intensive they seemed on the surface, were actually easy fixes because he was too scared of the challenge of figuring out how to get disciplined and study productively and properly.
He couldn’t figure out how to work consistently, efficiently, productively and diligently, and that caused him pain and bruised his ego and made him feel like a loser. Constantly testing himself on his grasp on the material throughout the semester and challenging himself to engage the material on a deeper level through study groups and teacher-hours put him at risk of realizing how inadequate he was, thereby bruising his ego, so instead he wasted time creating piles of piles of flashcards he never reviewed, doing last-minute cram sessions and making cheat notes.
He got to preserve his ego by saying he never had a chance to review those flashcards, but if he did review those flashcards he surely would have memorized it all. He could preserve his ego by saying that he was forced to cram, but if he started studying earlier he surely would have mastered the material. Classic self-handicapping.
When I discussed the seduction community in Part 4, many of the people attracted to it are into easy fixes. Some expect to read one book or attend one boot camp and become instant master seducers. Others don’t expect a quick fix, but instead expect an easy fix in the form of a low-pain fix. These are the guys who expect that they will have to work hard, that they will have to do a lot of reading of seduction books, that they will have to approach woman after woman and get rejected, but what they don’t realize is that although it looks like on the surface they are the opposite of the quick-fix guy, they are actually doing the closely related activity of using a low-pain fix: it’s less painful to their ego to do all this work of reading manuals and approaching women than it is to really face their core, emotional self-worth issues head on and heal them. They are taking the easy way out with all that labor-intensive stuff because years of going through those motions is much less challenging and painful to their ego than even one hour of really working through their inner demons head on and unflinchingly. They’d rather go through the motions than go through the emotions.
This is why intellectualization and mental masturbation, two forms of pseudoawareness, often don’t bring about lasting change. They’re easy fixes. It’s pain avoidance disguised by hours and hours of a form of hard work that’s ego-protecting, pain free, and therefore “safe.”
Both types of easy fixes, whether the quick fix or the low-pain fix, are forms of procrastination through unproductive activity. They are both examples of choosing forms of pain, sacrifice, and work you don’t fear and doesn’t threaten your ego and your need to appear perfect over choosing forms of pain, sacrifice, and work you do fear and does threaten your ego and your need to appear perfect.
Steven Pressfield wrote a book called The War of Art, a great self-help book all about the psychology of procrastination, which he calls “Resistance.” In it he drops a bombshell notion about Hitler:
You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.
Again, the irony of the low-pain fix. It may not be quick, it may not be simple, it may be more draining and more time intensive, but in mind of the neurotic person determined to protect his ego at any cost, it’s definitely an easier fix than approaching what he fears most head on: being proven a failure in an endeavor that really matters to his ego.
Pressfield has more to say about the courses of action our egos fear:
Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign.
Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.
Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates t the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that the enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance…
The more Resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you – and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it…
The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.
What Henry Fonda does, after puking into the toilet in his dressing room, is to clean up and march out onstage. He’s still terrified but he forces himself forward in spite of his terror. He knows that once he gets out into the action, his fear will recede and he’ll be okay.
In this case, for the codependent, the project is self-actualization. People choose quick fixes and low-pain fixes because they fear the pain of dealing with something head on, and that something is usually a form of rejection and ego-bruising. Once we identify what this is we fear, it’s essential that we face it. In the case of Bill, the original letter writer at the beginning of this series, every counterproductive and neurotic life strategy he had was centered around his fear of being rejected in the present and risking reliving the rejection he felt at the hands of parents that new rejection could cause. Therefore the most important thing Bill can do is face his fear of rejection head on and make peace with it. Pursuing easy fixes like the seduction community and Machiavellian dating strategies are just more manifestations of the easy fix mentality.
Building Awareness: Narcissists and Codependents Are Both Addicts
If you ever want to really understand narcissism and codependency, one of the best ways is to educate yourself on addiction. The dynamics of addiction are incredibly similar to the dynamics of narcissism. In fact, the term codependent was first used in relation to the loved ones of alcoholics. Later on social science researchers realized that the loved ones and children of narcissists shared many of the same traits and family dynamics as the loved ones and children of alcoholics, and the term codependent was expanded to include the people in the lives of narcissists as well.
I think this makes sense because a narcissist is not just like an addict, but rather the narcissist actually is an addict. The narcissist is addicted to narcissistic supply, and will do many of the same things to get it that a junkie will do to get a fix or an alcoholic will do to get a drink.
On the other hand, while the narcissist is an addict whose drug is narcissistic supply, the codependent is also an addict, and his drug is the narcissist.
I’m going to take some insights from a great addiction book called Willpower’s Not Enough by Arnold M. Washton to illustrate how narcissists and codependents are addicts. First off, throughout the book Washton emphasizes repeatedly that at the heart of all addictions is the easy fix mentality, which is why the concept of mood changers hold such an appeal to an addict. The narcissist uses the drug of narcissistic supply as a mood changer, and the codependent uses his own drug, which is the actual narcissist, as a mood changer:
What Mood Changers Do For Us
To understand why addictions are so epidemic, we must examine what mood-changers do for us, what are the payoffs? After all, they must be meeting some of our needs – however self-defeating – or we wouldn’t keep turning to them, risking our careers, health, family life, and peace of mind.
Superficially it seems that people engage in addictive behaviors because they find them fun, pleasurable – at least in the beginning. But when a person’s drug has potentially negative consequences and he continues using it anyway, we must conclude that he is deriving deeper, unacknowledged payoffs from it – secondary gains for which he is willing to risk a lot.
Let’s look at what – collectively – we may be getting out of our mood-changers, at some of the ways they “serve” us. This will help us understand the persistence of the addictions epidemic and why current approaches to it (like the War on Drugs) are unlikely to work.
Relief from Isolation
In a society where people have a lot of trouble with intimate relationships and lack a sense of community support, drugs and other mood changers provide welcome relief. Although in the long run addiction causes greater isolation, in the short run it provides contact and often camaraderie with other addicts – or numbs feelings of loneliness. Thus, the addictive involvement creates its own sense of belonging and community, albeit a self-destructive one.
Distraction from Feelings
Addictions provide activity and rituals that keep us busy so we don’t have to feel our feelings or the emptiness inside. They insulate us from despair, from the lack of deeper meaning and purpose in our lives, and from the feelings and conflicts that we may fear may overwhelm us.
In a society where work values have heavily invaded recreation (making it goal-oriented, rather than creative or fun), mood-changers give us a chance to “lose ourselves,” to be temporarily released from self-consciousness and time-consciousness. They keep us from confronting just how little genuine pleasure and joy we actually have in our lives.
Illusion of Control
In a technological society in which people feel they have less and less control over the conditions of their lives, and yet revere power and “performance,” many of our mood-changers prop up feelings of being in control, competent, and powerful – or numb us from feelings of impotence and helplessness. Addiction is a sign that we are “looking for power in all the wrong places.”
Addiction-prone people don’t want to feel their real feelings but at the same time don’t want to experience the emotional “deadness” inside that results from repressing these feelings. Addictions provide constant excitement and crisis, substituting for a real sense of being full alive.
The ritual of drug use and its dependable outcome eliminate choices and make life simpler and more predictable, which is particularly appealing for people who feel unable to cope with current stresses and responsibilities. Instead of achieving a simpler, saner life, we turn to addictive behaviors of all kinds.
In a society based largely on projecting an image that is acceptable to others rather than on being honest and authentic, mood-changers help us feel more acceptable to others, mask fears that we are not enough as we are, or numb us from painful feelings of self-judgment and measurement. They substitute, then, for self-acceptance.
In the trance of the high, the addict is frozen in time. The past cannot haunt him nor the future worry him. There is just the here and now of the drug experience. With so many people lacking the skills to face normal life problems, mood-changers put life back on hold, thereby substituting for problem-solving skills…
Then Washton describes the Addictive Belief System:
“I Should Be Perfect (and Perfection Is Possible)”
Our increasing belief that perfection is attainable is at the core of our addictions explosion. If we truly believe that perfection is possible, then we can never measure up…
“I Should Be All-Powerful”
Someone who is vulnerable to addiction also has severe delusions about the limits of his power, believing that he should be able to control not only himself but other people, too, and just about everything else.…
“I Should Always Get What I Want”…
“Life Should Be Without Pain and Require No Effort”
The core of addictive thinking is inherent in this belief. If we insist on avoiding emotional pain, on being comfortable all the time, we will have to seek ways to avoid reality, to escape our mood. That is what the addictive person is saying through his behavior. “If reality is not what I want it to be, I will simply refuse to see it.”…
“I Am Not Enough”
Perhaps no single belief is more painful and more central to the development of addiction than this one. It amounts to a total rejection of the self, to the destructive conclusion that “Who I am is unlovable, unworthy, and undeserving and if this is discovered I will be abandoned.”
Most of the time, of course, the addictive person doesn’t walk around saying this to himself. But this underlying belief gets expressed through various self-rejecting thoughts such as “I’m no good,” “I’m bad,” “I’m selfish,” “I’m stupid.” He then filters everything that happens to him through this core mistaken belief and bases his behavior on it…
“I Am Unable to Have an Impact on My World”…
“Externals Can Give Me the Power I Lack”…
“Feelings Are Dangerous”…
“Image Is Everything”
The addictive person erects an image, a false self, that he hopes will be acceptable. In most cases, though, he doesn’t even know that he has done this, for the image he projects has become second nature, an automatic reflex. He has merged with the mask.
Many of the most popular mood-changers help to prop up these false images…
The addiction-prone person will go to any lengths and risk almost any negative consequence to self and others to maintain this all-important image. It is his ticket to acceptance. [For the codependent, this false self is the white knight rescuer, for the narcissist this false self is the flawless superstar. – T.]
“I Should Be Able to Meet My Needs Indirectly”
If I can’t be me (because doing so might get me rejected and abandoned) then I might as well just give up and meet my needs indirectly—through those people, substances, and other sources outside myself. This is a belief in the efficacy of the quick-fix.
The quick-fix takes many forms. For example, a teenager downs several beers in the school parking lot before going in to the dance in order to “fix” his nervousness and make it easier for him to approach girls and talk to them. It’s quicker and easier than the long-term solution that would involve learning social skills to increase confidence and self-esteem. But because he doesn’t know how to do this (and probably hasn’t been helped to learn), he turns to the quick-fix instead.
But the quick-fix mentality involves more than always taking the short-cut to solving problems. It is a posture, an orientation toward life. It’s a passive way of relating to the world. It stems from a belief that long-term gratification can’t be found. It seems futile even to try, so we opt to at least get something while we can and a quick-fix makes us feel better today, even if it causes misery tomorrow.
Washton then goes through a list of traits to describe people the addictive personality: Self-obsessed, lacking knowledge of their true self due to overidentification with idealized, false self for so long, inner emptiness, without meaning and purpose, excessive approval-seeking, self-censoring, guilt-ridden, trouble managing anger (the narcissist can’t restrain it while the codependent can’t express it properly), underlying depression, emotional numbness, inner tension,afraid of taking appropriate risks, hidden dependency needs, trouble with authority figures, poor coping skills, wishful thinking, never wanting to grow up, without boundaries, need for immediate gratification, no internalized “good parent” voice, intimacy problems, and trouble having real pleasure.
Additionally, Washton goes through a description of codependency:
WHAT IS CODEPENDENCY?
Codependency is a serious problem that results from being obsessively involved with an addict’s problems. Codependents are typically so preoccupied with and so totally wrapped up in trying to rescue, protect, or cure the addict that they send their own lives into chaos in the process. The addict is addicted to mood-changers, while the codependent is addicted to the addict. A phenomenon usually seen in family members (parents, spouses, siblings) of addicts, codependency must be distinguished from a normal, temporary crisis response in people who genuinely care about the addict and try to help, although often unsuccessfully. Codependency occurs when the helping boomerangs into hurting for both the “helper” and the addict, but with the helper continuing this destructive behavior anyway. Codependents become trapped in a vicious cycle. It is an addictive loop where well-intentioned efforts to help only perpetuate the problem by enabling the addict, although all of the alternatives appear to be more frightening or hurtful.
Features of codependency follow:
1. In codependency the chief impetus for one’s behavior comes from the addict rather than oneself. The codependent lives by reacting to the addict rather than by acting from his own center.
2. Codependency is an addiction of its own. The codependent is addicted to the addict, just as the addict is addicted to the mood-changing drug or activity. It has the same symptoms as other addictions: obsession; loss of control over behavior; continuing codependent behavior despite negative consequences; and denial that one’s behavior is a problem (see Table 3).
3. Codependency, like other addictions, is progressive. Unless treated, it becomes worse.
4. At greatest risk for codependency are individuals who already suffer from low self-esteem and who look to the addict (or others in general) for confirmation of their self-worth. Children of addicts (ACOAs) as well as those who have been sexually or physically abused are typically prime candidates for developing codependency problems.
5. Codependency is encouraged to some extent by our culture. The wife who picks up the pieces behind her alcoholic partner, for example, covering up the problem while holding the family together financially and emotionally, often wins the admiration of other relatives and friends. People may say about her, “What a saint!” Her addictive illusion of being all-powerful and always in control helps bolster her own sagging self-esteem.
Washton then gives this advice for codependents:
- Learn to put the focus of your attention and the bulk of your energy back into your own life. Detach from the addict with love.
- Examine your own behavior and attitudes. You are the only person you can change, so put your effort there.
- Maintain your dignity.
- Forgive yourself. Even if you have made mistakes in the past in dealing with the addict in your life, you didn’t any differently then. Have compassion for yourself.
- Live in the present. Don’t anticipate problems or dwell on the past, as doing so drains energy from dealing effectively with today’s problems.
- Get support in your life, too. Don’t remain isolated in your singular focus on the abuser.
- Create a satisfying life of your own, one that includes recreation, hobbies, and plain old fun.
I can’t recommend this book enough for people who fear they may either be codependents or emotional vampires, although the latter are unlikely to ever be self-aware enough to purchase such a book. Even though it is technically an addiction book, it has given me more insights into the roots of narcissism and codependency than just about any book explicitly about narcissism and codependency.
The reasons why narcissism, codependency, drug addictions, shopping addictions, sex addictions, gambling addictions, and relationship addictions have so many similarities in the ways they’re dysfunctional and in the ways they engage in disordered thinking is because they all have toxic shame at their core, and they all focus on building false selves as ways to cope with the toxic shame.
It’s important to understand the concept of toxic shame if you want to fix any of these patterns within yourself. If your idea to cure codependency is to form a new overcompensating grandiose false self or if your idea to cure your narcissism is to create a new super-humble, enlightened-seeming false self that is the opposite of your old grandiose false self, either way you’re still being motivated by toxic shame and the addictive thinking patterns described in the previous sections. You are doing what Einstein warned about, and trying to solve problems using the same level of awareness that created the problems.
An essential book for understanding the phenomenon of toxic shame is John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You. Bradshaw describes the way shame can become one’s whole identity:
[S]hame as a healthy human emotion [humility] can be transformed into shame as a state of being. As a state of being shame takes over one’s whole identity. To have shame as an identity is to believe that one’s being is flawed, that one is defective as a human being. Once shame is transformed into an identity, it becomes toxic and dehumanizing.
Toxic shame is unbearable and always necessitates a cover-up, a false self. Since one feels his true self is defective and flawed, one needs a false self that is not defective and flawed. Once one becomes a false self, once ceases to exist psychologically. To be a false self is to cease being an authentic human being. The process of false self-formation is what Alice Miller calls “soul murder.” As a false self, one tries to be more than human or less than human.
I want to take some time to discuss this more than human or less than human phenomenon. I find a lot of people who are shame-based have very black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. When they’re feeling good, they are grandiose and the best who ever lived, and when they are feeling bad, they are the lowest who ever existed. Either way, whether they’re acting narcissistically or like codependents, their shame still leaves them self-obsessed and engaging in distorted thinking.
I can’t stress enough how related and similar codependency and narcissism are. That’s how they’re able to form lasting relationships with each other and it’s also how a codependent can behave like a narcissist under the right conditions and vice versa. Even when beating themselves up, the shame-based person is engaging in a type of disguised narcissism. They’re saying, “I’m so bad, I’m worse than anyone who ever existed. My pain is so much bigger, so much realer, so much more unhelpable and unfixable than the pain of anyone who ever existed. Even how I’m messed up is bigger and better, I am a one-in-a-million level of screw up. The way I’m screwed up is uniquely bad. I’m one of the worst sob stories in the history of sob stories.” I call this mindset “The Superiority of My Inferiority.” It’s a type of disguised grandiosity and superiority.
People like this are often what therapists call help-rejecting complainers: those frustrating people who always spill their guts to you and ask for advice, but never want to take it or claim that it won’t work for them or take it in a self-sabotaging way so that they can tell you “I told you so! I told you I’m beyond redemption!” The payoff for these shame-based people is that they get the payoff of getting people invested in trying to solve their problems. This investment and attention is a form of narcissistic supply. But in their mind being so screwed up is a warped way of feeling unique and special. Subconsciously it’s something that gives them a perverse pride and identity because it’s something they feel they’re better at than other people. If they turn out to be fixable, their dysfunction is not so special and one in a million after all. If it’s easily fixable it’s just average, so their inferiority is not actually superior to all other inferiorities. Also, if the other person is allowed to fix them in a meaningful way, the superstar and center of attention becomes the helper and his incredible skills and advice, and not the help-rejecting complainer. This counterintuitive conception of superiority is why they choose to stay broken, or why when they do decide to improve themselves they go overboard with compensatory narcissism, switching from the codependent mindset of “the superiority of my inferiority” to the narcissistic mindset of “the superiority of my superiority.”
This all-or-nothing, black-and-white, champion-or-worm mindset is what Bradshaw describes when he refers to shame-based people always being compelled to feel either more than human or less than human through false self creation. This is why shame-based people balk at the idea of letting go of their false self and letting go of their egos. This is why shame-based people think that without self-loathing, lack of self-acceptance, and overcompensation, they will lose the will to improve themselves and become losers. It’s because to them, their only choices for identity are the more than human grandiose self or the less than human wormlike self. So in their minds, rejecting the former means accepting the latter. What they don’t realize is that both selves are false selves. One was a dysfunctional false self that got them through childhood and family and the other is a dysfunctional false self they created to get them through adulthood.
Bradshaw goes into more detail:
Unconditional love and acceptance of self seems to be the hardest task for all humankind. Refusing to accept our “real selves,” we try to create more powerful false selves, or we give up and become less than human. This results in a lifetime of cover-up and secrecy. This secrecy and hiding is the basic cause of human suffering…
A toxically shamed person is divided within himself and must create a false-self cover-up to hide his sense of being flawed and defective. You cannot offer yourself to another person if you do not know who you really are…
Toxically shamed people tend to become more and more stagnant as life goes on. They live in a guarded, secretive and defensive way. Then try to be more than human (perfect and controlling) or less than human (losing interest in life or stagnated in some addictive behavior)…
As the shame-based child forms her primitive conscience, shame becomes immorality or neurotic guilt. The conforming child believes he can do nothing right, and the rebellious child believes that whatever she does is right and everyone else is to blame. This is the beginning of either a neurotic or character-disordered lifestyle…
The character-disordered try to be more than human. Since being grounded in healthy shame is the permission to be human, the toxically shamed become polarized trying to be more than human or giving up and becoming less than human…Either side of the polarity is shameless. The more-than-human have to be perfect to cover up their feelings of being flawed and defective. The less-than-human feel flawed and defective and act accordingly…
Scott Peck describes both neuroses and character disorders as disorders of responsibility. In The Road Less Traveled, Peck writes:
The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with a character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in conflict with the world, they automatically assume that they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict wit the world, they automatically assume the world is at fault.
All of us have a smattering of neurotic and character disordered personality traits. The major problem in our lives is to decide and clarify our responsibilities. To be truly committed to a life of honesty, love and discipline, we must be willing to commit ourselves to reality. This commitment, according to Peck, “requires the willingness and the capacity to suffer continual self-examination.” Such an ability requires a good relationship with oneself. This is precisely what no shame-based person has. In fact, a toxically shamed person has an adversarial relationship with himself…
It is crucial to see that the false self may be as polar opposite as a superachieving perfectionist or an addict in an alley. Both are driven to cover up their deep sense of self-rupture, the hole in their soul. They may cover up in ways that look polar opposite, but each is still driven by neurotic shame. In fact, the most paradoxical aspect of neurotic shame is that it is the core motivator of the superachieved and the underachieved, the star and the scapegoat, the righteous and the wretched, the powerful and the pathetic.
In earlier installments of this series, I described primary and secondary inferiorities. Primary inferiorities describe those childhood wounds that we allow to define us and that we spend most of our lives reliving in some effort to finally get them right and get closure on them. Many of our adult goals and attempts at superiority in the here and now are ways we’ve created to “cure” whatever our primary inferiority was. Whenever we fail or get frustrated in our adult goals, this creates bad feelings known as secondary inferiorities, and the more our secondary inferiorities mirror and echo our primary inferiority, the more painful it feels. This is because we wind up not only reliving the pain that came from the original primary inferiority feeling we’ve been trying to escape our whole lives, but now we also have the feelings of inadequacy from our secondary inferiorities to add to the mix. The new pain gets added to the original, deep childhood pain feeling it triggered.
Bradshaw describes the role of toxic shame in creating this dynamic of primary and secondary inferiorities:
Shame is internalized when one is abandoned. Abandonment is the precise term to describe how one loses one’s authentic self and ceases to exist psychologically. Children cannot know who they are without reflective mirrors. Mirroring is done by one’s primary caregivers and is crucial in the first years of life. Abandonment includes the loss of mirroring. Parents who are shut down emotionally (all shame-based parents) cannot mirror and affirm their children’s emotions.
Since the earliest period of our life was preverbal, everything depended on emotional interaction. Without someone to reflect our emotions, we had no way of knowing who we were. Mirroring remains important during our entire lives. Think of the frustrating experience which most of us have had, of talking to someone who is not looking at us. While you are speaking, they are fidgeting around or reading something. Our identity demands a significant other whose eyes see us pretty much as we see ourselves…
As shaming experiences accrue and are defended against, the images created by those experiences are recorded in a person’s memory bank. Because the victim has no time or support to grieve the pain of the broken mutuality, his emotions are repressed and the grief is unresolved. The verbal (auditory) imprints remain in the memory, as do the visual images form a scene that becomes attached to the existing ones to form collages of shaming memories.
Children record their parents’ actions at their worst. When Mom and Dad, or stepparent or caregiver, are most out of control, they are the most threatening to the child’s survival. The child’s amygdala, the survival alarm center int heir brain, registers these behaviors most deeply. Any subsequent shame experience that even vaguely resembles that past trauma can easily trigger the words and scenes of the original trauma. What are then recorded are the new experiences and the old. Over time, an accumulation of shame scenes is attached. Each new scene potentiates the old, sort of like a snowball rolling downthe hill, getting larger and larger as it picks up snow.
As the years go on, very little is needed to trigger these collages of shame memories. A word, a similar facial expression or a scene can set it off. Sometimes an external stimulus is not even necessary. Just going back to an old memory can trigger an enormously painful experience. Shame as an emotion has become and embedded into the core of the person’s identity. Shame is deeply internalized.
This relationship between shame, primary inferiorities, and secondary inferiorities form the foundation of what are known as repetition compulsions.
“But What Do I Do?”
From an article that describes repetition compulsion, a phenomenon that I described in the previous installments although I didn’t use the official clinical term:
But there is another insidious phenomenon frequently afoot. It is a variety of what Freud called a “repetition compulsion.” A repetition compulsion is a neurotic defense mechanism. Here’s how it works: The repetition compulsion is an attempt to rewrite history. The history we try to rewrite is typically the troubled relationship with our parents, particularly the opposite sex parent. When the early parental relationship is fraught with frustration, disappointment, rejection, abandonment, neglect or abuse, the child is in a precarious spot psychologically. In order to survive these narcissistic insults, children must deny the reality of their predicament, as well as their intense anger, depression and despair. Instead, we cling to hope: childish hope that, if only we can be good, perfect, smart, quiet, funny enough, etc., that will win over mom or dad and they will finally love us as we need them to–as we are, unconditionally. The child mistakenly believes the problem with the parental interaction resides with them–an archetypal developmental misinterpretation–and that, therefore, they have the power to control and rectify it by changing into someone more acceptable. And so we try desperately to do so, over and over again, but to no avail. Because the reality is, the problem lies not with the child, but with the parent, who, because of his or her own psychological or situational limitations, is unable or unwilling to provide the love, structure and acceptance all children require to thrive–and deserve.
Naturally, no parents are perfect, and so we all go through this in one way or another. Just as our parents did. The hope of being able to change the parent’s response by becoming what we perceive he and/or she want us to become wards off what psychoanalyst James Masterson (1990) terms the “abandonment depression.” So long as we cling to hope, we avoid sinking into despair, which, particularly for a child, would be devastating. In adulthood, this childhood scenario is unconsciously and compulsively recapitulated by most of us to some extent. Our “inner child” (see myprevious post) is still active, and still seeking to turn the rejecting or ambivalent or emotionally unavailable or abusive adult into a loving one. Only now, it is no longer only the parent of the opposite sex, but potential love interests of the opposite sex that are targeted. Symbolic stand-ins for the parent. Most adults have an uncanny attraction, a kind of unconscious “radar,” for members of the opposite sex (or, in some cases, same sex) who, in ways often initially imperceptible, resemble–psychologically if not physically–the parent with whom we had difficulties. And these are the people we tend to “fall in love” with or with whom we get involved. We choose them unconsciously, of course. That is the nature of a neurosis. It’s a “blind spot.” Who would consciously choose—and often remain–with a partner who is rejecting, unavailable, or emotionally/physically abusive? That would be pure masochism. But it is not mere masochism in this case. It is a powerful repetition compulsion at play.
That wounded, rejected, abandoned little boy or girl is still trying to win mommy or daddy’s love. In order for the repetition compulsion to play out, the love interest must, by definition, possess at least some of the emotional deficits or traits as did the original parent. Indeed, that is what the repetition compulsion is all about: a recreation of these relationship dynamics, so as to provide an opportunity to, this time, change the outcome. The inner child thinks: “This time will be different. I will get this person to love me. I can change him or her, if I only try hard enough. I won’t fail again. Then I will feel loveable.” But tragically, this futile effort is doomed to failure. For if, as part of the repetition compulsion, we specifically choose individuals who cannot love us because of their own limitations and problems, what are the odds of making them do so? Can we “fix” them? Force them? Transform them? Cure them? Not very likely. The rational adult part of ourselves knows that. But the wounded little boy or girl within is still trying, just as he or she did with the parents, each inevitable failure reinforcing feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and unlovability. And so it goes.
So what is the answer to all this? One of the big problems I got during this series was constant emails saying “But what do I do?! All this awareness is fine, but where do I go from here? What do I do?!”
“What do I do?!” is a very common reaction. We feel like we need to do something active to erase the pain as soon as we start feeling it. This rush to do something feels very admirable and impressive because it sounds so noble and proactive, but this rush to action is not as good as it often seems.
There are many times where I read a great book with a lot of insight, then I’ll go on Amazon to read reviews and I’ll see negative reviews along the lines of “This book was very enlightening and told me everything wrong about myself and showed me why I’m screwed up, but it didn’t tell me what to do! One star!” And I think to myself, how can you just brush aside something as major as awareness? Why do so many people just brush aside deep levels of emotional awareness as casually as if someone just informed them of the weather and immediately ask for someone to spoon feed them what to do next?
I realized that the act of brushing aside deep emotional awareness and asking “Awareness is fine, but what do I do?” is a disguised version of the easy fix mindset. It’s very similar to the addictive thinking described above. It says “I feel bad, I feel inadequate, I feel pain and shame, and I need a mood changer.” Read the section about about addictive mindsets and belief systems and you’ll see what you mean. The brushing aside of deep emotional awareness and the obsession with doing something, anything, immediately in order to dispel the pain that comes from deep emotional awareness is a form of the quick-fix mindset, a desire to be perfect, an inability to accept one’s own flaws and an inability to tolerate frustration and pain, traits which get people into these emotional messes in the first place.
Deep emotional awareness is a huge deal. Don’t underestimate how important it is. Don’t try to shortchange it or sweep it under the rug. There’s a reason why I wrote the first four parts of this series in as emotionally brutal and blunt and upfront a manner as I could. I wanted to knock the emotional wind out of people. I wanted to dredge up all the nasty emotional pain and awful memories they’ve been keeping suppressed and bring them into conscious awareness and force them to marinate in the pain a little bit.
Far too often when we are faced with emotional truths or dangerous ideas that threaten our self-image and have the potential to bruise and annihilate our egos, our first response is to resort to our favorite faulty coping mechanism and our most familiar defense mechanisms. As Bradshaw describes:
The pain and suffering of shame generate automatic and unconscious defenses. Freud called these defenses by various names: denial, idealization of parents, repression of emotions and dissociation from emotions. What is important to note is that we can’t know what we don’t know. Denial, idealization, repression and dissociation are unconscious survival mechanisms. Because they are unconscious, we lose touch with the shame, hurt and pain they cover up. We cannot heal what we cannot feel. So without recovery, our toxic shame gets carried for generations.
Since we can’t heal what we can’t feel, this is why the defense mechanism of intellectualization doesn’t work for inspiring lasting change. Intellectualization is described as below:
Intellectualization is the overemphasis on thinking when confronted with an unacceptable impulse, situation or behavior without employing any emotions whatsoever to help mediate and place the thoughts into an emotional, human context. Rather than deal with the painful associated emotions, a person might employ intellectualization to distance themselves from the impulse, event or behavior. For instance, a person who has just been given a terminal medical diagnosis, instead of expressing their sadness and grief, focuses instead on the details of all possible fruitless medical procedures.
Mental masturbation is a form of intellectualization, which is why it doesn’t ever lead to deep, lasting improvement. It’s a way of using intellectual insights as a way to avoid the deep pain of emotional awareness, and as I repeat, you can’t heal what you can’t feel.
Don’t run from emotional awareness, and don’t underestimate how important it is to your growth. Eckhart Tolle said in A New Earth that “Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” And he also explained:
To recognize one’s own insanity is, of course, the arising of sanity, the beginning of healing and transcendence…
The good news is: If you can recognize illusion, it dissolves. The recognition of illusion is also its ending. Its survival depends on your mistaking it for reality. In the seeing of who you are not, the reality of who you are emerges by itself…
The moment you become aware of the ego in you, it is strictly speaking no longer the ego, but just an old, conditioned mind-pattern. Ego implies unawareness. Awareness and ego cannot coexist. The old mind-pattern or mental habit may still survive and reoccur for a while because it has the moment of thousands of years of collective human unconsciousness behind it, but every time it is recognized, it is weakened.
When you get deep emotional awareness, your job isn’t to immediately find self-improvement activities so that you can distract yourself from the pain as quickly as possible. Your job isn’t to use defense mechanisms to protect your ego. Your job is to increase the pain, to push deeper into the pain and follow it to its source and process all those emotions.
But how do you process this pain?
What you have to do with the emotional awareness you gain from this process in order to push deeper into it and fully process it is to mourn what you lost. And I’m being literal. You have to mourn it.
Therapist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross created a model for understanding the grieving process we go through when we suffer from a terminal illness or a loved one dies. These were called the Five Stages of Grief (described here, here, and here) and are as follows:
- Denial – A refusal to accept the truth. “It’s just not true.” “This can’t be happening.” “I feel fine.”
- Anger – Looking for someone to blame and be mad at. “Why? It’s not fair!” ” How could this have happened! I can’t believe it!” How could they do this to me?”
- Bargaining – Looking futilely for ways to feel in control. “I’ll do anything for a few more years.” “If only I got her medical attention sooner.” “God, please let me wake up and see it was all a bad dream.”
- Depression – “I’m so sad. Why bother with anything?” “Things will never get better.” “My life is over.”
- Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.” “I can’t fight it, so I may as well prepare for it.” “I hit rock bottom, but now I can see the way out and I’m on the way back up.”
Kubler-Ross eventually expanded this model to include not just terminal illness and death but any form of catastrophic personal loss, including careers, breakups, divorces, or an infertility diagnosis. What you have to do as a codependent in order to push through and process the emotional pain that awareness gives you is to apply the 5 stages of grief model to your childhood injuries and losses.
With death and illness, nature itself forces us to go through all the five stages, because death is such an undeniable part of existence. We have no choice but to stop denying, rationalizing and bargaining. The physical reality is of death is so undeniable we simply have to reach acceptance.
However psychological losses are much, much trickier, and we can use defense mechanisms until the day we die to keep ourselves from reaching the acceptance stage when it comes to these emotional injuries. Denial, regression, acting out, dissociation, compartmentalization, projection, reaction formation, repression, displacement, intellectualization, rationalization, undoing…the available ego tricks our mind uses to keep us stuck in the denial and bargaining stages can seem endless. Jumping into distracting activity, “doing” something, is yet another defense mechanism we can add to the list, and it’s especially insidious because it feels like it’s mature and emotionally healthy.
An important thing to realize is that while we all have certain needs that we need to have filled, some needs can only be filled during certain periods and by certain people. These needs are context-specific. Childhood needs are an example of this. Childhood needs can only be met in childhood, and they can only be filled by our parents or caretakers.
Have you ever seen the cliche of old man in the club? That guy who looks way too old to be in the nightclub wearing a muscle shirt and trying to mack on young chicks and looking like a laughing stock? Or the tacky cougar looking like a hot mess and stank dancing at the club? Or the guy who didn’t sow his oats by getting laid in high school and college, and now spends decades trying to make up for it, except no amount of women ever seems enough? What happened with these examples is that they had a need that should have been met at a certain period of their lives and from certain people. The old man in the club needed to complete his party stage when he was younger, with people his age. The tacky cougar needed to complete her attention whore stage when younger, with guys her age and older, not college kids younger than her. The guy trying to find completion through endless sex needed to complete his player stage in high school or college, with girls his age.
When you try to fill needs that should have been filled during a specific bygone period of your life, by specific people, your chasing a lost cause. You’re trying to fill a void that can’t be filled. You’re chasing a ghost. You lost your chance to have those specific needs filled, and you have to mourn that loss, accept it and move on.
The same principle applies to the type of emotional support and mirroring you needed in your childhood from your parents. It’s a shame you didn’t get it during your childhood, but it’s too late to get it now. Even if the right people,your parents, tried to give it to you now, it would provide some closure, but it still won’t quite get the job done because the period when you most needed it, your childhood, has passed. It would be like if you were starved for years as a child so you grew up short and underdeveloped. Then at 30 you try to stuff your face nonstop in hopes that you’ll reverse it and now grow tall and strong.
Alice Miller discusses all these concepts in her book Drama of the Gifted Child:
Is it possible, then, to free ourselves altogether from illusions? History demonstrates that they sneak in everywhere, that every life is full of them – perhaps because the truth often seems unbearable to us. And yet the truth is so essential that its loss exacts a heavy toll, in the form of grave illness. In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth, a truth that may cause pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom. If we choose instead to content ourselves with intellectual “wisdom,” we will remain in the sphere of illusion and self-deception.
The damage done to us during our childhood cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in our past. We can, however, change ourselves…
Intellectualization is very commonly encountered…since it is a defense mechanism of great power. It can have disastrous results, however, when the mind ignores the vital messages of the body…
[I]t is impossible for the grandiose person to cut the tragic link between admiration and love. He seeks insatiably for admiration, of which he never gets enough because admiration is not the same thing as love. It is only a substitute gratification of the primary needs for respect, understanding, and being taken seriously – needs that have remained unconscious since early childhood. Often a whole life is devoted to this substitute. As long as the true need is not felt and understood, the struggle for the symbol of love will continue. It is for this very reason that an aging, world-famous photographer who had received many international awards could say to an interviewer, “I’ve never felt what I have done was good enough.” And he does not question why he has felt this way. Apparently, it has never occurred to him that the depression he reports could be related to his fusion with the demands of his parents…
For example, at the height of his success an actor can play before an enthusiastic audience and experience feelings of heavenly greatness and almightiness. Nevertheless, his sense of emptiness and futility, even of shame and anger, can return the next morning if his happiness the previous night was not only due to his creative activity in playing and expressing the part but was also, and above all, rooted in the substitute satisfaction of old needs for echoing, mirroring, and being seen and understood. If his success the previous night serves only to deny childhood frustrations, then, like every substitute, it can bring only momentary satisfaction. In fact , true satisfaction is no longer possible, since the right time for that now lies irrevocably in the past. The former child no longer exists, nor do the former parents. The present parents – if they are still alive – are now old and dependent; they no longer have any power over their son and are perhaps delighted with his success and with his infrequent visits. In the present, the son enjoys success and recognition, but these things cannot offer him more than their present value; they cannot fill the old gap. Again, as long as he is able to deny this need with the help of illusion – that is, with the intoxication of success – the old would cannot heal. Depression leads him close to his wounds, but only mourning for what he has missed, missed at the crucial time, can lead to real healing…
As adults, we don’t need unconditional love, not even from our therapists. This is a childhood need, one that can never be fulfilled later in life, and we are playing with illusions if we have never mourned this lost opportunity. But there are other things we can get from good therapists: reliability, honesty, respect, trust, empathy, understanding, and an ability to clarify their emotions so that they need not bother us with them. If a therapist promises unconditional love, we must protect ourselves from him, from his hypocrisy and lack of awareness…
It is precisely because a child’s feelings are so strong that they cannot be repressed without serious consequences. The stronger a prisoner is, the thicker the prison walls have to be, and unfortunately these walls also impede or completely prevent later emotional growth…
The child must adapt to ensure the illusion of love, care, and kindness, but the adult does not need this illusion to survive. He can give up his amnesia and then be in a position to determine his actions with open eyes. Only this path will free him from his depression. Both the depressive and the grandiose person completely deny their childhood reality by living as though the availability of the parents could still be salvaged: the grandiose person through the illusion of achievement, and the depressive through his constant fear of losing “love.” Neither can accept the truth that this loss or absence of love has already happened in the past, and that no effort whatsoever can change this fact…
We cannot, simply by an act of will, free ourselves from repeating the patterns of our parents’ behavior – which we had to learn very early in life. We become free of them only when we can fully feel and acknowledge the suffering they inflicted on us. We can then become fully aware of these patterns and condemn them unequivocally…
[H]is problems cannot be solved with words, but only through experience – not merely corrective experience as an adult but, above all, through a conscious experience of his early fear of his beloved mother’s contempt and is subsequent feelings of indignation and sadness. Mere words, however skilled the interpretation, will leave unchanged or even deepen the split between intellectual speculation and the knowledge of the body, the split from which he already suffers.
One can therefore hardly free an addict from the cruelty of his addiction by showing him how the absurdity, exploitation, and perversity of society cause our neuroses and perversions, however true this may be. The addict will love such explanations and eagerly believe them, because they spare him the pain of the truth. But things we can see through do not make us sick, although they may arouse our indignation, anger, sadness, or feelings of impotence. What makes us sick are those things we cannot see through, society’s constraints that we have absorbed through, society’s constraints that we have absorbed through our parents’ eyes. No amount of reading or learning can free us from those eyes…
It greatly aids the success of therapeutic work when we become aware of our parents’ destructive patterns at work within us. But to free ourselves from these patterns we need more than an intellectual awareness: we need an emotional confrontation with our parents in an inner dialogue.
When the patient has emotionally worked through the history of her childhood and has thus regained her sense of being alive, the goal of therapy has been reached. She will then be able to use the tools she has learned whenever feelings from her past are triggered by present events. As time goes on, she will use them more and more effectively and will need less time for this work. The “map” of her life will be available for her whenever she needs it…
Once we go through the five stages of the mourning process for our childhood losses, we stop denying the reality of our family dynamics and the pain they caused us. Then we allow ourselves to feel whatever anger and rage issues this awareness of our childhood creates in us. Then we allow ourselves to deal with whatever depression this causes in us in a mature way, without using quick fixes and mood changers as a way to hide from the pain. Then we refuse to bargain with reality by not using defense mechanisms or other ways to escape ego pain and preserve our false selves. Then finally, we’ll have learned to accept the childhood loss, accept the primary inferiority it caused in us, and eventually accept our imperfect true selves.
What this mourning process does for us is change our relationship to our childhood losses. And once we make peace with these childhood losses, then new setbacks in the form of secondary inferiorities won’t suddenly trigger the pain and shame of the primary inferiority anymore. When new setbacks come to us, yes they’ll still hurt, but they won’t cause a rush of repressed childhood pain, shame and self-hatred to flood our psyches and reduce us to crumbled heaps. We’ll be able to put new setbacks in their proper perspective and see that they don’t make us less than human worms. We’ll also be able to keep good things in perspective, and realize that a couple of good external things, be it new sexual notches, material possessions, money or fame, while they may feel good, don’t define us and don’t make us larger than human.
This creates the ultimate form of unconditional self-acceptance.
It’s unrealistic to tell people they can give up all forms of attachment completely, or that they should give up all appreciation of external validation and superficial ego boosts. These things aren’t always unhealthy. The key is whether you desire these things to fix a core deficiency and overcome a primary inferiority, or whether you’ve made peace with these primary inferiorities and just treat such things as enjoyable, occasional bonus in life, not as something you insatiably need just to feel any semblance of self-worth.
The Transformative Power of Social Interest and Empathy
Self-help can be masturbation, if you use it in an ego-driven way to be better than people, or if you use it in a self-obsessed way much like an addict uses mood-changers. What transforms self-help from masturbation into intercourse is social interest and empathy, as I described in my post The Theaters of Operation.
Sometimes we think we’re engaging in intercourse because we’re pursuing a pleasurable, ego-boosting experience in the company of another person, but instead what we have is pseudoconnection, and what we’re actually doing is mutually masturbating with another person’s body. This is something they often say about narcissists, that they don’t actually make love in a deep, connected way to another person, they instead just masturbate with another person’s body instead of with their hand because they want the ego boost of an audience and the gratification of external validation.
You also see this in conversations. There are conversational narcissists who just treat conversations as an opportunity for intellectual masturbation using someone else’s mind as a sounding board rather than engaging in the true connection and exchange of ideas and emotions that comes from mature, verbal intercourse.
Apply this dynamic to self-help. If we engage in self-help alone in our rooms, burying our noses in books and blogs, just remaining self-obsessed and self-conscious and fantasizing, then self-help is masturbation. If we engage in self-help with others, but in a pseudocommunity where we don’t exercise true social interest or empathy, and without connecting or ever being vulnerable, then we’re still intellectually masturbating, except now we’re doing it with other people’s minds as an audience for the ego boost and external validation. Self-help only transcends the level of masturbation if we go out there and live life, connecting to people and being vulnerable and genuine and not being ego-driven. Really trying to add value to people’s lives for it’s own sake and not for the narcissistic supply. If we try to learn as much from others as we try to teach them, and always reciprocate and be grateful. If we use what we learn to really live fully out in the real world in a way that’s not overly self-conscious, rather than live in a fantasy world in our heads where we’re self-obsessed.
Social interest and empathy transform the toxic trait of narcissism into the healthy trait of genuine self-esteem. Social interest and empathy transform the toxic trait of shame into the healthy trait of humility. Social interest and empathy transform the toxic trait of pathological guilt into the healthy trait of a good conscience. And most importantly of all, they can transform a false self into a true one.