Coping with that Savage Inner Voice

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, when we emerge from our childhood with a profound sense of damage and the shame that goes with it, when we feel hopeless about ever getting better, we tend to long for perfect and magical solutions instead.  At the same time, a part of us comes to expect that we will become perfect and berates us brutally if we fall short of expectation.  I’m sure many of you know exactly what I’m talking about:  that savage inner voice that can make our life an ongoing misery.

In my own practice, the majority of my clients have suffered from such savagery, as I myself have done.  Even in the best of therapeutic outcomes, this voice never goes away entirely.  What we can hope to do is to free ourselves from its domination, to recognize it quickly and sideline the cruelty, moving on to more productive ways of thinking.  The first step involves some techniques that can be worked on and mastered, in keeping with behavioral modification techniques as well as meditation; the latter part takes time and involves building mental muscle, the ability to think clearly and exercise non-harsh judgment.

In an early post on the importance of mental silence, I described ways to put a stop to verbal thought and focus instead on breathing, much as advocated by Eastern meditative practice.  This becomes especially important in dealing with the savage inner voice.  To this day, I regularly have the experience of recalling something I may have said or done and feeling my entire body flinch; I’ll close my eyes tight and clench my muscles, as if somebody very strong were about to strike me.  If I’m not paying enough attention, I might then start to tell myself what an idiot I was to have done such-and-such, or how stupid I am to act in so narcissistic a way.  I think you know what I mean.  Then I have to force myself to relax, to silence the words and focus instead on my breathing.

Behavioral modification refers to this as “thought-stopping,” a useful technique.  I do not, however, go on to voice self-affirmations instead.  I don’t believe in the lasting value of self-affirmations because they do nothing to promote real thought or to develop discernment.  The truth is that my savage attacks often contain an element of truth to them.  If I simply tell myself that I’m a good person, I’m strong and sensitive, that everyone makes mistakes, etc., I will have learned nothing from the experience.  The goal is not to substitute a non-reflective positive judgment for a harshly negative one, but rather to develop a more nuanced capacity for discernment.

Let me give an example, one I’ve referred to in other posts, especially this one abut how to make an apology.  Many years ago, I said something hurtful to a friend at a dinner party.  It took me a long time to recognize that I had misbehaved; once I did, I came down very hard, berating myself for behaving in a thoughtless and hurtful way.  I was brutalizing myself.  The solution was not to start telling myself that I was actually a good, thoughtful person, or to tell myself it’s okay to make mistakes; what was needed was to remove the savery from the self-criticism.  Once I did, I was able to understand the envy that drove me to misbehave, to make an apology (though not as genuine a one as I should have given), and to pay more attention to my own frustrated longing.  In the process, I moved from viewing myself as a contemptible loser to a frustrated writer with painful feelings of envy for a successful friend.  This didn’t excuse my behavior but made it understandable.  I learned something from the experience.

It takes a long time to develop the capacity to make such a transformation.  What we try to do is evolve a better internal parent, one who doesn’t simply attack you because you made a mistake or lie to you about how “good” you are, but might help you understand why you made such an error and how you might learn from your experience in order to avoid such an error in future.  In my experience, it’s difficult to make this change alone.  You may need to work this through in the context of regular psychotherapy, with a person who you respect.  Even then, it’s not easy.  With my clients, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how difficult it is to clear a space where we can think together about something the client did, without feeling crushed with humiliating shame on the one hand or taking flight from it on the other.  For such clients, as discussed in my last post, any attempt to exercise discernmnent feels like harsh judgment.   It takes a long time to transform black-and-white thinking into a process with shades of gray.

Without such a thoughtful internal parent, only two options exist:  either you’re wonderful and everything is fine, or you’re a contemptible fuck-up and you’ll never be any different.  This dynamic leads to a cycle of crime and punishment, as discussed elsewhere, where nothing can be learned and we’re condemned to repeat the same behaviors again and again.

Finding Your Own Way:

Think of something  you did or felt for which you’ve criticized yourself harshly.  It may be something that happened long ago that you’ve never gotten over.  Maybe the memory of it makes you cringe, as some of my recollections do.  Don’t run away from it or attempt to put it out of your mind, but focus on your breath and work for mental silence.  See if you can keep the idea in mind without berating yourself.

Can you think of possible reasons for your behavior that involve no harshness, either for you or for anyone else (i.e., no shame or blame)?  Can you feel any sympathy for yourself that doesn’t excuse your behavior or make it somebody’s else’s fault?  Can you learn something about yourself from that experience that might help you to do something different next time?

The goal here is to recognize traits or feelings that might cause you trouble in future but not to judge them harshly; to take them into account and tolerate them next time, without simply acting reflexively, without understanding, and berating yourself afterward.

The Cycle of Crime and Punishment in Psychotherapy

I’m sure my fellow psychotherapists have had this same experience:  a client comes into session after having done or said something that they previously vowed not to do, or which they feel somehow damages them; they are burdened with horrible guilt.  Maybe she was trying hard not to use drugs and slipped the night before, or maybe he slept with his old girlfriend even though he knows she’s bad for him.  It could be something as simple as going off a diet.  During session, they go on about how guilty they feel and spend a lot of time berating themselves in a punitive way.  As therapists, we may try to help them understand the reasons for their behavior, or make a connection to some emotional stress that played a role.  We may feel compassion for their suffering, bringing real insight to their psychological and emotional motivations.  Several weeks later, they repeat the same behavior and return to session in the same guilty and self-punitive mindset, as if the previous session had never taken place.

My own therapist referred to this as “the cycle of crime and punishment.”  I find it a very useful concept that helps to explain why some clients don’t benefit from insight and understanding.  It’s as if they view their backsliding as a crime that must be severely punished in a self-flagellating way; once they have undergone said punishment, however, they feel that they’ve expunged all guilt for their crime and regard the subject as closed, in the past.  It is exactly analogous to our penal system, which inflicts punishment on those who commit crimes but regards them as completely free once they have paid their debt to society. The psychological cycle of crime and punishment prevents people from learning from their experience and condemns them to repeat the past, just as the over-emphasis on retribution (as opposed to rehabilitation) in our penal system does little to help incarcerated criminals avoid returning to a life of crime after their release.

Such clients are trapped in their cycle of crime and punishment because they don’t know how to learn from their experience.  They usually come from extremely impoverished backgrounds.  You might think the parents would have been harsh and perfectionistic, and sometimes this is the case; often it’s simply that they have few psychological resources and little to pass along in the way of wisdom or emotional capacity.  They generally model primitive reactions to turmoil — rage, denial, projection, etc. — and the emotional environment feels dangerously confusing to their children.  For some people who come from such families, a harsh, exacting conscience pulls them out of the chaos, painting some very black-and-white lines in order to alleviate the confusion about what’s good and what’s bad in their world.  Sometimes they can be sharply moralistic because it is their “morality” that saves them from the mess of their childhood.

While this kind of morality has its emotional survival value, people burdened with it lack the genuine capacity to bear with and understand their own experience.  They only know how to condemn it, keeping it under lock and key.  Eventually, under extreme pressure, the forbidden impulse slips out:  crime inevitably leads to punishment.  I think you can see how Catholicism might complicate this picture.  With its system of sins and penance, that religion leaves little room for an understanding of the emotional factors that might lead people to “sin” and simply specifies the means to atone for those sins, regarded as inevitable.

In working with such clients, it’s crucial to help them see and understand this dynamic.  They need to see how they allow themselves only two options:  complete success or utter failure.  No gray areas, no step-by-step growth.  That’s actually the easier part.  Then the work must help them to develop the capacity to learn from experience.  As that’s a rather large subject in itself, I’ll save it for another post.

Finding Your Own Way:

Are you the sort of person who beats yourself up when you make a mistake or slip in some way?  Do you find yourself getting extremely angry with yourself for things you do but then committing the same “crimes” again and again?  Examine your system of personal expectations.  You might find that your particular standards reflect very little understanding of the psychological and emotional reasons for doing what you do.  You probably expect yourself simply to “be different” or “stop behaving that way.”  Even if you do have some insight and understanding, you may have no idea how to make use of it; you may simply expect that insight = change and you’re a failure if it doesn’t.

As I’ve discussed in my piece on self-criticism, this kind of conscience reflects an expectation that one shouldn’t have to struggle in order to learn and grow.  To break free of this cycle, you’ll need (for starters) to confront your unrealistic expectations and come to terms with the difficulty of genuine growth. While it’s painful to suffer from this kind of self-punishment, it’s also extremely difficult to take small steps, to recognize and value little changes along the way.  It may take years to grow the kind of emotional capacity you need, possibly in therapy.  Instead, you may simply insist that you “get over” your problem rather than growing slowly and imperfectly over time.

Think again about the penal system analogy.  It’s not enough to do your time; you have to develop some new skills in there or you’ll simply repeat the same crimes once you’ve paid off your debt to society.

Narcissism vs. Authentic Self-Esteem

You may have seen or heard about these two new studies on self-esteem in college students.  A recent New York Times article reports that, when given the choice, most college students prefer to receive a boost to their self-esteem in the form of a compliment or good grade over eating a favorite food such as pizza or having sex.  The article begins with the following question:  “Are young people addicted to feeling good about themselves?”

At first, I found this question idiotic.  I am sick and tired of how our culture has adapted the language of addiction to describe everything.  The more I thought about it, however, it did make a (limited) kind of sense to me, especially if you consider addiction to actual drugs as a means to avoid some other experience or to seek an inappropriate remedy for a very real problem.  As I’ve written elsewhere, narcissistic people crave attention and admiration in order to ward off feelings of inferiority and to  bolster a fragile sense of self.  In other words, they have no authentic self-esteem and look to others to provide a substitute for it.  The problem with external sources of self-esteem, as with all drugs, is that they wear off and you have to secure more of it to feed your habit.  As a result, those individuals without genuine self-esteem have an insatiable need for their their egos to be bolstered by the people around them.  In this sense, I suppose it makes sense to talk about them as addicts, even if “addicted to self-esteem” sounds ridiculous.  Besides, receiving a compliment has nothing to do with authentic self-esteem.

In my experience, you can’t obtain real self-esteem from the outside.  Yes, it’s important that our parents praise and encourage us as we grow up.  We internalize that praise, along with their values and standards and those of our teachers, peers and social environment; then, once they’ve become a part of us, we must live up to those standards if we’re to feel good about ourselves.  I’m not referring to perfectionistic and overly harsh standards, impossible to meet.  I mean our own ideas and expectations, evolved from the disparate influences of family, peer group and culture, about what it means to be and behave like a person we would respect.

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Envy and Self-Sabotage

I’d like to offer some reflections on the role of envy in self-sabotage based upon my personal and professional experience.  Bear with me; my conclusions might not seem obvious at first but I’ve seen them borne out again and again in my practice.  Let me start with the incident that triggered these thoughts.

Earlier this week, our friend Diane came over for dinner.  A family member had recently sold her a used Lexus sedan at a remarkably good price, a real “steal”; at the end of the evening, as we were walking her outside, I asked her how the new car was working out.  She immediately became visibly anxious and said, “I don’t have a new car.”  At that point, her significant other said, “Diane doesn’t feel comfortable having such a nice car so now we have to call it mine.”

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Compassion, Altruism and the True Spirit of Generosity

I have an ongoing debate with my oldest son about pure altruism and whether it actually exists.  He believes that nobody ever acts in a purely selfless way; part of the motivation for altruistic behavior, he argues, is to feel good about oneself as a person.  If you get some reward from the supposedly altruistic act then it can’t be purely selfless.

I go back and forth on my position.  “You haven’t had children yet,” I once told him.  “If I had to choose between us, I’d die for you.”  This was a cheap and sentimental argument, trying to use my supposedly self-sacrificial feelings as his father to win the debate.  He would have none of it. “That’s just because you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself otherwise.”  While that isn’t the only reason, of course not, it is definitely a large part of it.  This question isn’t finally settled in my mind but I think my son is winning the debate. With the Christmas holiday approaching — “the season of giving” — I’ve been thinking about compassion and self-sacrifice, and what motivates people to engage in apparently altruistic behavior.

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