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.

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Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, 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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24 Responses to Psychological Damage and Emotional Transformation

  1. Betty Spence says:

    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”..

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      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!

  2. Bodie P says:

    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.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      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.

  3. A Reader says:

    Came across your Afterpsychotherapy.com 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.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      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.

  4. Marla Estes says:

    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.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      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.

      • Mark says:

        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)?

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          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.

  5. Jennifer says:

    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.

  6. Stephanie says:

    Hi Joseph
    Following what has been a difficult day I enjoyed reading your article and hearing someone else has the inner brat tantrum every time household chores come up (even though I like a clean toilet). Like you I would be amazed how angry I would get – particularly over the unjustness of it all (after all colleagues who worked as hard as me had cleaners to do their chores). Challenging the internal voice is too physically and mentally exhausting whilst doing the chore as well, so for me something that works better is to stop what I am doing sit down, calm down (have a cup of tea if necessary) and only when I feel better do I commence the chore again, if my inner child kicks off – I stop again and so on. This may sound time consuming but I soon realise that if I want to get the job done I have to desire to do it (without forcing myself- I give up the internal battle of will against desire, and with a resulting clear mind I get on with the task in had). Hope this makes sense.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Thanks Stephanie. It makes perfect sense. Each of us has to find his or her own way to cope with the tantrum, and yours sounds highly effective. I hope you enjoy a nice cup of tea after your long difficult day!

  7. Jennifer says:

    I’m a huge advocate of therapy and speak openly and passionately about it to whomever will listen. It always makes me chuckle when upon mentioning that I have a therapist or that I take medication for dysthymic disorder people always say, “YOU? But you’re always so happy and optimistic!” If I can influence even one person to change their perception about mental illness, whom it effects & show them that there’s no shame in getting the help then I’ve been successful.

    I’ll be sure to direct traffic your way. Thank you for doing what you’re doing!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Thanks so much, Jennifer. Not only do I enjoy writing the posts and thinking about all these issues, but I’m loving the interaction with readers out there. I no longer feel I’m working in a vacuum! Joe

  8. Sparrow says:

    Thank you for giving me permission to grieve the childhood I wish I’d had. I don’t want to get bogged down in grief, but I have had a hard time lately moving forward in life because of so much “unfinished business.” My mother (a Psy.D) wouldn’t discuss my childhood griefs with me and told me not to think about the bad things, just to turn them off and focus on the good memories. Maybe that works for her, but the more I tried to “stuff it down,” the more the bad memories came up in stronger force to haunt me. And the more I found myself thinking, “this isn’t the life I was supposed to have. My real life was stolen from me.”

    I think I *need* to grieve what I have lost in order to be able to work through past issues and return to moving forward. Again, thank you for validating that need in me.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You are most welcome. I suspect the challenge for you will be preventing the grief from overwhelming the goodness in your life. It’s also easy to slip into a feeling of regret akin to self-pity, where we’re so disappointed by our lives that we can’t appreciate what’s good about it.

  9. Sparrow says:

    You’re right in that I do have a hard time remembering to “count my blessing” of which I have many. As a person who spent a good deal of time homeless, I have MANY things to be grateful for in my life now.

    The twin shadows of dealing with childhood grief and coming to terms with having non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome (which has crushed my career path — I’m in graduate school right now but had to drop three classes this semester and am beginning to realize and admit that my body will not co-operate with my will) often threaten to blot out the sun in my life: roof over my head, food on the table, a partner who watches over the best he can (despite huge physical disabilities that are slowly killing him. That’s dedication to a partner! How can I not feel grateful for that?), a loving pet, a sharp mind . . . the list goes on.

    Struggling with trying to figure out how I can earn a living with non-24 and working throught he pain and disappointment of what I didn’t have in childhood that I needed and what I got that I didn’t want *do* make it hard to appreciate what I have right here and now. It’s a battle, but one I havne’t given up on.

    Thanks.

  10. cass meyer says:

    I find this acceptance really difficult. There are times when the sense of failure and frustration at my own inner and outer disappointments can render me ‘stuck’. I came across the following quote that really resonated with me: ‎’faith is the courage to accept acceptance’ – via Brennan Manning. For me, this courage can be quite a challenge, however, I know that acceptance is part of listening to that quiet inner voice that wisely knows fighting isn’t always the most helpful approach. Grief is how I’ve come to understand the sense of loss over one’s less than ideal past and at times present. Not losing hope and not being ovewhelmed by this is the key, as you pointed out. Actually in some ways it defines us in how we are able to frame/reframe it and suffer it so to speak, without it ‘defining’ us if that makes sense? Still working on that!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yes, it makes perfect sense. You’re right that it’s a challenge to suffer our experience without being overwhelmed by it. I think it takes a kind of mental “muscle” — and like all muscles, it gets stronger over time the more we exercise it.

  11. Aunty Leroy says:

    Dear Dr Joseph,

    What a God’s breeze to have stumbled on your site. I rarely read blogs about psychiatric / mental disorders as they tend to wind me up, and I find myself, though not replying to the blogs, getting sucked into the vortex of ‘therapist bashing’ or feeling even more depressed and hopeless by some of these sufferers clubs.

    This week I had a heated discussion with my psychiatrist about being kept waiting 30 minutes for my appointment and his lack of apology for the delay. My anger/rage when it surfaces is something that terrifies me and I feel huge shame, remorse and embarrassment. I feel dreadful about showcasing it yesterday. I am much more comfortable with depression and sadness and like to think of myself as a gentle person and indeed I am consider by most who know me as gentle. However my doctor is a clued up bloke and has tried to sniff out this dark side of me for a while now, not deliberately provoking or frustrating – just doing his job. So the other day I came away thinking – ‘that’s it after 6 years I’ve gone as far as I can go … I guess I’m just looking for something in psychotherapy that just isn’t there … like I did with relationships, drugs, alcohol, travel. I’m expecting too much. My needs will never be met in this kinda forum. I’m not paying money to this guy so that we can argue like some old married couple… it’s time for me to grow up and cross the road by myself … though at times I feel so small and don’t know which road, or what to look out for’. Oh my was my inner brat throwing a tanty. So I thought I would indulge my miserable bad tempered inner brat and google ‘anger at therapist’. What an enormous help you and the people that have responded to your blog have been. I will be attending my next scheduled therapy appointment! Though I feel like I’d rather boil my head for my shame is big and talking about the ugly angry, enraged me will be terribly uncomfortable but you have illustrated for me the potential for real healing and growth. Oh by the way my therapist has not long returned from holidays. Can you imagine my ah ha moments upon reading your blogs as well as my squirming at being so text book and predictable.

    I have been trawling your site for a number of hours and as previously said I never make comments online but I am compelled by your piercing intellect, generosity of spirit, and your self disclosures that I had to speak up. Thank you so very much. This just maybe the break through.

    Oh by the way check out a website called flylady.net and reclaim your Saturdays. This a great website about housing cleaning, inner brat, perfectionism and procrastination.

    Con Carinyo (with more than like less than love)
    aunt Leroy

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words. You are not “textbook” and “predictable”; it’s just that human beings are human beings and we all tend to respond to certain experiences in very similar ways. It’s the way we’re made.

  12. Danielle Field says:

    I have emotionally unstable personality disorder. I’ve had two years of psychodynamic therapy, 2 years of Democratic Community Therapy and 6 months of CBT with a clinical psychologist. I am completely isolated as all my attempts to make connections with people have resulted in me feeling awful. Although therapy has helped me stop drinking and smoking cannabis it hasn’t, unfortunately, made me feel that life is worthwhile. I have no enthusiasm to try at anything anymore having tried so hard to get better and ending up in the same negative position. I don’t know what to do. I understand my condition very well, I don’t lash out at people the way I used to, in fact I like them, I just can’t get over the shame and the fear and being around other people just feels like a pill. If this is all that therapy can do for me then, well, it really is a whole heap of hassle for very little reward. The thing that has been keeping me going is the hope that the treatment will instill in me a will to be a part of life but it hasn’t and all my attempts to volunteer, houseshare, try harder have resulted in more pain and abandonment. I’ve had enough.

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