Psychological Damage and Emotional Transformation

A recent comment by ‘TB’ on my post about my inner brat, along with this piece on resentment forwarded to me by Marla Estes, got me thinking about authentic change and how to describe it.  As I discussed in my earlier post about change, most people want to believe that insight and understanding produce a transformation that can make you
into a different person. The language current in the self-help field uses words such as “triumphing” over this problem, or “conquering” that issue.  As the author of the linked article makes clear, however, self-knowledge really means you have a choice about whether to express or inhibit certain tendencies that will always be with you.

It’s difficult to describe what this choice involves, but I’ve come up with two examples that demonstrate the real, in-the-moment process of putting self-knowledge to work in a way that transforms emotional experience.  One comes from my own internal world, an everyday process for me; the other from one of my clients.

If you’ve read that post about my inner brat, you know that a spoiled, very demanding and unreasonable child lives inside of me.  I have to deal with him most days in one way or another, unless I’m on vacation or everything just happens to be going my way.  One of the worst days of the week is housecleaning day.  Let me perfectly clear about this:  I HATE CLEANING THE HOUSE!  If I lived alone, my house would probably be more or less tidy, but if you looked closely, you’d notice the dust and dirt everywhere. The toilets might gross you out.   Since I don’t live alone, I have to participate in cleaning our house more thoroughly than I’d otherwise do.  It’s usually Saturday mornings.

About a year ago, I tuned into my thoughts while mopping the kitchen floor.  The brat was raging in there.  The rant went on and on about how unfair it was that I had to clean my house, how unfair it was that the economic downturn meant we had to tighten our belts and let the once-every-two-weeks cleaning woman go, how unfair it was that other people could afford …  you get the picture.  I had worked myself into a terrible mood; it was fortunate that nobody in my family came near because I might have bitten someone’s head off.

(By the way, have you ever noticed that children often say, “That is so unfair!” when they really mean, “I hate that!”  I stopped trying to reason with my kids when I understood this and starting responding with, “Gee, I’m sorry you feel that way.”)

I chose to keep this rage to myself — that was the first and easier choice to make.  The harder choice was whether to stop destroying my own state of mind with this rant about so-called injustice.  It was very repetitive and unrelenting; if I let it go on, my mental state would have deteriorated to the point where I’d be miserable and unhappy with everything around me.  Or I could try to stop it.

“Shhh,” I told myself.  “Just breathe.”  I was able to silence the tirade … for about 5 seconds.  Then it started up again.  “Shh.”  Over and over, imperfectly and with limited success, but I kept trying.  By the time I’d finished with cleaning, I felt much calmer and less agitated.  The rage was still there but no longer dominating me.  It was very difficult and unremitting work; I felt better for having done it.

Every time Saturday rolls around, I have to confront the brat again.  After years in treatment and continuing to do the work alone once my therapy ended, this is the change that is possible for me.  It’s far from ideal, but I’m very grateful to have this ability.

With one my long-term clients, we’d done a lot of work over the years about her refusal to acknowledge her limitations.  She’d come from a very disturbed background; as a result, disintegration anxiety was always a threat, and she needed to be careful not to overburden herself with commitments. There was a predictable cycle in her states of mind:  as our sessions helped her emerge from fragmented, almost paranoid states of mind, she’d start to feel better.  Soon, the pain and chaos of her prior state of mind would fade from memory.  She used to be that way, she’d tell herself, but now she’d really changed.  She could do so much more than before.  In fact, she was truly amazing! Why, she could do just about anything if she put her mind to it!  In this state of mind, she’d over-schedule herself, take on far more than she could manage and fall apart under the pressure.  I’d been through the cycle with her many times, helped her see the point where she made bad choices that disregarded her limitations, driving herself into a state of collapse.

In a recent session, she was discussing all the commitments coming up — a physical therapy appointment for her daughter, her own professional meeting, an important dinner with her husband’s colleagues.  She found herself wondering whether to schedule a trip to Costco later that afternoon (“It’s only a trip to Costco, what’s the big deal?”) and to fit in a yoga class (“After all, yoga’s good for you, right?”).  She imagined what would happen to her if she did, chose to reject the lies she was telling herself, and opted not to do either of them.  It wasn’t an easy choice.  She was enraged at having to acknowledge her limitations because she so badly wanted to believe she was evolving into Ideal Janice, as we referred to her– that highly competent Winner who could take on the world.   The lies kept right on, trying to persuade her that she really could do everything, — go to Costco, hit that yoga class and probably weed the backyard that afternoon as well, but she’d learned enough from her experience to recognize the lies.  With great effort, she made a better choice for herself based on acknowledging her own damage.

That’s what real change looks like.

Finding Your Own Way:

I’ll bet you’ve got some similar processes going on.  Maybe you have to struggle with your inner brat, too; if you do, find a situation that really sets him or her off and confront the tantrum.  Listen for the complaints, or the lies you tell yourself; feel how incredibly hard it is to gain control of your thoughts.  Strive for mental quiet and see just how difficult it is to achieve silence, even for a few seconds at a time.

That’s what change actually means: admitting who you really are, to begin with; then in the moment, struggling against the familiar childish and destructive forces within you to make a better choice.  It isn’t a one-time event, either; you have to confront the same problems over and over.  Each time you have to struggle once more to make a better choice.  It does get easier over time as you grow stronger and more skilled, but you’ll never be finished with the job.

Sorry for the bad news.  It’s far from ideal, but in my experience, it’s the only kind of change that’s possible.

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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Self-Love and the Sense of Well-Being

Self-love does not mean feeling the emotion love for oneself as an object, but rather reflects a state of wholeness and integration, where we accept the entire range of our emotions but feel driven by neither narcissistic defenses nor the demands of our superego.

The Interpretation of a Dream

An example of dream interpretation with a client in psychotherapy, with some thoughts about Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.


    Wow, several things popped into my head while reading this new post…While on this journey of healing, I’ve done quite a bit of spiritual work. I find that whenever I’m trying to push through that “wall of resistance”, what comes to mind for me is “mindfulness”…There has been much written about this by various authors, but my favorite is Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk. In essence, it is a form of meditation…but not sitting and listening for the Divine… but to completely focus every bit of your attention and execution on the particular task at hand, not allowing any other thoughts to distract you. For instance washing dishes is an example he gave; wash each and every dish with your full attention and effort..taking your time to be thorough and never rushing. I know this may sound preposterous..but it really can work….
    And secondly, regarding your client’s tendency to overdue….this actually reminds me of my issue with “all or none” thinking and acting. When I go into the “all” mode, I absolutely must do EVERYTHING and do it perfectly..How absurd …. only to fail and then fall right back into doing “nothing”..

    I agree, Betty. I think mindfulness meditation is extremely useful, and while I don’t pursue it as its own discipline, I do try to incorporate a lot of its teachings into the way I work, with myself and with my clients. Personally, I try to cultivate a quiet watchfulness so that I can see the familiar feelings and reactions passing through myself, and not to “think” about them, to engage my thought-words, but to let them rise up and pass through. Thanks for commenting!

    I didn’t precisely enjoy this post, because like all of us I’d like to believe that becoming the person I might have been under better circumstances is possible. I did, however, find validation in it–I’ve come to believe that that mindset is very destructive; essentially, what it calls for is unmaking one’s life, rather than facing it and understanding the forces that shaped the soul.

    For years, I was told that I had the seeds of great professional success within me–that the only thing standing in my way was myself. And for years, I felt incredible guilt about not measuring up to my potential–working in a corporate office was simply impossible for me. The day-to-day stresses and battles exhausted me to the point where I became incredibly depressed.

    I was incredibly fortunate to become a single mother. Though I would never recommend that as a solution for anyone in the emotional state I was in, the challenge of knowing that I was responsible not only for our financial well-being but our emotional well-being gave me the key I needed to finally look at myself and understand that while raw talent might equip me for a great deal, the counselor was right–because of my past, many of the doors to success had been boarded up.

    Which didn’t excuse me from life–I still had a son to support and nurture. I had to find the doors that still remained open to me. I ended up starting my own business offering the professional services I had been doing for others. I worked from the safety of my home. I raised my son. On snowy days we took walks, and then napped. Recognizing that the the accepted wisdom (“You have no choice–you have to put him in daycare and work fulltime”) was absolutely wrong for me was easy. Bucking that advice was far harder; I heard a lot about being “lazy,” “irresponsible,” and “unrealistic.” There were many hints about how foolish I had been to get pregnant in the first place (and I was–it was an incredibly foolish thing to do–and it was the saving of me).

    It still makes me angry when I butt up against the soul limitations my past has imposed. It makes me sad to know that I will most likely never have a healthy adult relationship, that I will never trust easily or completely, that I will never believe in myself, that I will never have a warm, supportive family, that I will never feel really good about how I look, and so on and so on. But those things are there. They are real, and they were ground into the foundations of my soul. I can look at them, see them for what they are, and to some degree choose how I allow them to shape my life. I just can’t pretend that they’re not there.

    The bottom line is that I can’t become the Ideal Bodie without destroying the person I am now, and the past who shaped her. And it seems to me that’s a definition for madness, not healing. The trick is to look at who you are, and then use the hell out of yourself in every way you safely, creatively, and responsibly can.

    I found your comment very moving. This is exactly what I’m talking about: we can never become the ideal person we’d like to be; the challenge is to figure out what is possible and make the most of it. Despite the grief and loss you’ve obviously suffered, I’m sure there are many parts of your life and your relationships that matter deeply to you, especially your relationship with your son. I understand why you sometimes feel angry; but as Marla pointed out in her comment, there’s often grief behind anger and resentment. The challenge is to grieve and mourn for what will never be without letting it invalidate the actual good in our lives.

    Came across your today, and I agree with much of what you are writing. But not fully: My experience is that choosing or willing oftentimes is more or less outside our scope. A choice,or an act of will, may be more a result of forces outside of our conscious realm. I take it that you may have read Schopenhauer who wrote that we are free to do what we want, but not to want what we want. I also recall C.G. Jung who stated that we`re being dreamt, rather than that we are dreaming.And I am inclined to think that we`re often being decided rather than really making an authentic and conscious choice.
    Sitting here pondering what to do, send or cancel, a third german-speaking comes to mind; Konrad Lorenz who in one his books is reflecting on man`s behaviour in strong moments versus when there is no reserve of strength to go on.
    Still wondering if I am to send or cancel, the former british PM, M.Thatcher poppes up in my mind: In an interview she stated how neccessary it was for her to have sufficient sleep, that her feeing of mastery of the ministry was greatly impaired with too little sleep. We are influenced by so much.

    Thanks for that very interesting comment. I agree that choosing is often dictated by forces outside consciousness. As a first step, you have to know yourself well. My familiarity with that inner brat of mine grew from hundreds of helpful interpretations made by my own therapist, who helped me become conscious of a part of myself I didn’t know. Only then did it become possible for me to choose.

    Two things get brought up for me. Thinking about Janice above, I remembered once hearing that one of the best things a parent could teach their children is that deflation is not the end of the world. It’s something I try to teach myself as an adult when I am not reaching my ego-ideal.
    The other is that, along from making different choices (breathing deeply, not reacting or displacing my moods on others etc), when things like the above examples arise for me, I am finding that often there is something I need to feel. That something is often grief. Grieving the loss of the idealized dream (e.g. someone to clean my house, that I can do everything perfectly), helps me to loosen the hold that my patterns have on me.

    Thanks, Marla. Your bringing up the concept of grief is an important addition to this topic. Grief does bring a kind of softening of the “hard” feelings of anger and resentment. I agree about grieving for the idealized dream, too, and would add grieving over our own damage and the irreparable past. It isn’t always an ideal we’re mourning; it might also be the less screwed up childhood we wish we could have had.

    I feel it is so true for me. I was thinking for myself many times about grieving over things I would never be able to change or to achieve in life, about the way my life is now and isn’t the way I want it to be. Is it possible to outline in a few words the process of what does it mean and how I can actually grieve over something (in the way that you mention it here)?

    I don’t think that one can grieve over something like this and get over it, because it’s about unrealistic expectations. If you take the examples I give, there’s nothing “unfair” about any of them … I’m just pissed off that I can’t have things the way that I want. Grieving over one’s damage and the fact that one gets enraged about unmet expectations is another matter; in my experience, it’s a lengthy process that (for me and my clients at least) has meant long-term psychotherapy.

    Therapy is a mental hardware store for me. It’s where I go to acquire the tools I need to get the job at hand done. Some of the tools are timeless multi-taskers; they never dull or rust. Some are for one purpose only, called on for a specific task and never used again. Others are tried and true; and due to constant use, they need to periodically be sharpened, calibrated or tuned-up.

    I have a rather large tool chest, and I am very proud of it. I will always be a work in progress, and that’s okay. Something I thought I fixed years ago may weaken, bow or show some other kind of distress and require digging through my tool chest. The tool I need may be in there; right where I left it, in pristine condition, and will work again beautifully – or, I may find the job requires an entirely new tool, so back to the hardware store I go.

    My last visit to the hardware store was a little over a month ago. So far, the tool chest has been adequately stocked with all of the essentials. When the day comes that warrants another shopping trip, (and I’m sure it will!) I won’t waste time beating myself up if I come up empty handed at the tool chest. Instead, I will look forward to the excitement of adding a shiny new tool to my collection.

    I loved this! As someone who is going to start therapy next week, this has made me a little less nervous and more geared up to the possibilities that I can start to do some real work.