When you can’t get rid of your dreaded self

Turid Suzanne Berg-Nielsen

Imagine the following advertisement: “Pamper yourself with an Acem retreat and meet dreaded parts of yourself”. One thing is certain: it would be a quiet, peaceful retreat with very few participants! But is it true that when we close our eyes, turn our attention inwards and Acem-meditate, they’ll emerge from the deep, dark inner corners of ourselves – the awful self-images, like ghosts from our childhood (because that’s where they usually come from)? The answer is yes and no.

To meditate is to open doors inwards. If we have feelings of inferiority hidden deeply away in some inner closet, we may stumble upon them when we meditate.

Psychological maturity has a lot to do with how we handle unforeseen encounters with aspects of ourselves we like the least. Correspondingly, psychological immaturity or stagnation can manifest itself in the various ways we avoid just such confrontations. Why is this the case? Doesn’t it contradict much of popular psychology to cling to positive thoughts about ourselves and others? On the other hand, is there really any point in seeing our own shortcomings eye-to-eye?

Yes. And no.

Yes, because a mature person is capable of acknowledging their own shortcomings (as well as their strengths), accepting and learning from criticism without taking offence or feeling, and seeing themselves as others see them. A psychologically mature person doesn’t need to overcompensate, or strive to be more than they are. Everybody has an ideal self-image, but not everyone can live up to it.

The answer is also an obvious no, because some of us can be far too self-critical and get bogged down by painful feelings of being stupid, ugly, unwanted, abandoned or worthless. We all need a certain amount of self-criticism in order to mature and develop, but not to the point where it becomes self-loathing.

Acem Meditation isn’t only about stirring up the skeletons in the cupboard. The free mental attitude we gain through Acem Meditation also gives us access to the positive sides of our inner life. Something lively and vital awakens as well – a voice that whispers of an unlived life. But the fear of failure, of making fools of ourselves, too often makes us wary of doing anything new or different, so we ignore the voice and stick to our current course.

This little essay is primarily about how “everyday” feelings of inferiority can stop us fulfilling our potential in life, and why these feelings, despite being both unpleasant and unwished for, can be so difficult to change. Three possible reasons are considered below.

Firstly: The ghosts develop early in life

babyThe human brain is less developed at birth than the brains of other mammals. Researchers call the brain a social organ; it needs particular types of positive and predictable stimuli from others in order to grow.
An enormous growth of brain cells takes place during the first year of life. The brain doubles its weight during this time. Positive experiences stimulate the growth potential of nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex. This is also the main area of the brain that is activated during meditation.
Early stress changes the brain
Early experiences that seem to have a particularly negative influence on brain development in foetuses, babies, and small children are reactions to stress. The inner activation of stress hormones is one of the most fundamental challenges that human beings, child or adult, must learn to cope with. This ability to cope is the foundation of our mental health. Synapses in the brain are connections between nerve cells. The development of these is directly related to stress and the nurturing we experience, particularly in the course of our first year of life. An excessive stress level early in life can create permanent changes in the biochemical reactions in the brain in such a way that one has a lower stress tolerance in adulthood. Fewer cortisol receptors develop, which may result in reduced capacity to cope with pressure and stressful situations in adult life.

Recent research has shown that stress, anxiety and depression in expectant mothers have a negative influence on prenatal brain development. This can manifest itself after birth in a smaller head circumference, more frequent crying, a difficult temperament and a lower tolerance for frustration in the newborn baby. The newborn’s stress level is easily activated, much more easily than in older children or adults. Small children need soothing and comforting from caring and predictable adults in order to cope with their cortisol level or stress reactions. Hence, parents’ behaviour can be decisive in the development of the child’s ability to cope with stress.

How we cope with adversity
Stress reactivity is closely related to anxiety. Difficult feelings such as anger and depression can activate stress reactions. Stress is not just stress. It is a basic biological reactivity that says something about how we deal with adversity in life. This is why it is so important to find effective ways of reducing stress.

When a child is overwhelmed by difficult feelings, and the adults in the child’s environment are not sufficiently attentive, understanding or capable of comforting the child, this causes an increased stress reactivity in the child and fewer cortisol receptors in the brain, which in turn gives the child’s reactivity little chance of calming down. Coping with adversity thus becomes problematic, and this in turn may encourage the formation of self-critical self-images or dreaded selves. Feelings of inferiority nearly always go a long way back. They sit ”deep in the synapses” and cannot be fixed quickly. Change will always take time. Before more is said about how such change can be brought about, we must mention two more good reasons as to why feelings of inferiority are so difficult to get rid of.

Secondly: Compensatory regulation

angry manAs children we are totally subject to the whims of the adults around us. Everyone else is bigger, does things better, understands more. Adults tease us, laugh at us without our understanding why, scold us when we least expect it, make us feel stupid, shameful, insignificant, worthless or even abandoned. Some children suffer these painful feelings in small doses, others in large doses, but no one escapes them altogether. As children, we have less cognitive capacity, less developed defence mechanisms, and few possibilities to distance ourselves from the pain of inferiority, uncertainty, and anxiety. It can feel unbearable. So how do we cope?

Consolation in the ideal self
We create an ideal self. If there is one thing children have more of than adults it is imagination. They lose themselves in role-play, pretending they are a knight fighting dragons with a magical sword or a princess on a winged white horse. In the world of make believe, children are in charge, triumphing over adversity and winning admiration. It is a natural stage of development for small children to fantasise about being an ideal self – a comforting, reassuring refuge from the real world.

The self-image circle
We can now construct a self-image circle, or regulation loop, to show how we regulate our self-images (on the right). We begin at the bottom of the circle with a low self-image, of the kind we have all experienced to a greater or lesser degree as children in an overwhelming adult world. At that time, we took refuge in our imaginations and play-acted an ideal self, illustrated at the top of the circle.

But many adults seem to forget that the ideal self was originally a consoling fantasy, and they still cherish the ambition of coming within reach of it. In the figure this attempt to become the ideal self is indicated by the upwards-pointing arrow on the right side of the circle. We try to regulate our self-image upwards, so that it is more like what we wish we were. This upwards adjustment is called compensatory regulation, because its function is to compensate for the underlying low self-esteem. The more the low self-image eats away at us somewhere inside, the greater the need to escape from it by attempting to become the wished-for ideal self. The more we deceive ourselves into believing that we actually are the ideal self, the more we will loathe the low self-image, illustrated by the arrow pointing downwards on the left side of the circle. We harbour this self-loathing in some forgotten corner deep within us, and so the low self-image is maintained, until eventually it becomes unbearable, and this generates an increased need to escape it by means of compensatory regulation.

To put it simply, the more useless we feel, the higher the ideals we struggle to live up to. The higher our ideals, the more useless we feel, as we can’t possibly live up to all of them. Thus we have created a self-supporting system that feeds itself, a loop that can be virtually inescapable.

Admire others
There are two small sidetracks in this loop. If we lose some of our belief that our ideal self is actually attainable, but still have the need to escape from a low self-image, we can instead idealise someone else and try to be like that person. This is illustrated on the right side of the circle. On the left side of the circle there is another sidetrack: In some people the lower part of the loop is suppressed. They live their lives in such a way that they aren’t conscious of their low self-image, often by avoiding certain situations or people. If the dreaded self does appear, the pain is perceived as something terrible that others have done to them, in some way humiliating or wronging them. What has actually happened is that a split-off, unbearable low self-image that has long lain buried has surfaced but hasn’t been acknowledged. No self-contempt is experienced because the disdain is directed towards others, so that other people’s weaknesses, shortcomings or peculiarities become objects of contempt. History and contemporary world events have shown us time and time again how far a dictator, a leader or a people is willing to go to reaffirm their own or their nation’s self-worth by heaping opprobrium on others.

It has its price
Compensation is used to escape the pain associated with low self-images. But this has its price in the form of less self-insight, a larger discrepancy between how we think we are or wish to be, and how others perceive us. This leads to poorer relationships at work and in private life. In addition, we have less empathy for others, because of the need to devalue others as a way of improving our own self-image. Compensatory regulation has the effect of conserving an immature personality.

Relinquishment and reconciliation
The path to psychological maturation almost always means giving something up: relinquishing the ideal self and reconciling ourselves to the fact that it shall never be. We can’t get rid of the low self-image without giving up our hope of becoming the ideal self, and this relinquishment is a mourning process. In addition, we must acknowledge that our life history has burdened us with a low self-esteem that we might have to carry around for some time.
Acknowledging this can be painful, but the point is not to remain in pain but to reduce the low self-esteem’s power over us by first daring to see it. Psychological maturation requires a tolerance for that which can be painful.
So much for compensatory regulation. Now let’s look at the third reason why it can be difficult to overcome a low self-image. Paradoxical as it may seem, there are actually some apparent short-term advantages of seeing oneself as stupid and worthless, and some people cling to them.

Thirdly: Advantages gained by positioning

dirty feetJustifying needs
Depending on our life history, e.g. self-centred parents or a dominating sibling, we can go through life feeling that we lack something, that we have received too little of something. Other people seem to have self-confidence, talent or looks that we have been denied. From this position, it is easy to feel entitled to special treatment. We have special needs that others must comply with. We have the right to demand things from others, because we once experienced deprivation. Through this kind of thinking, we tend to rationalise and legitimise our demands on those around us. However, these demands are not necessarily realistic in an adult world. We cannot expect that others should compensate for what we did not receive as small children.

Evading demands
In the position where we feel small, stupid and weak, we can also evade the demands of others. ”Don’t expect anything of me, because I can’t manage it. I have enough of my own concerns. Ask somebody else.”

Avoiding responsibility
Positioning oneself as inferior and needy can also be a way of avoiding responsibility. A difficult background and a reputation for emotional instability can purchase a free pass through life, based on the reasoning that “Life has been unfair to me. I am a victim of unfortunate circumstances and have no choice.”

The advantage of such a position is that no one demands either adult responsibility of us or responsibility for the lack of self-realisation in our lives. The disadvantage is that it makes any change whatsoever highly unlikely.

Outsourcing
If we don’t accept responsibility for our own lives, then someone else must be responsible. This is quite appropriately called “outsourcing” of responsibility. Not only do others bear the responsibility, but also the blame. We ourselves are innocent, but maintain the right to complain.

Care-seeking
We should also not forget that we can awaken caring reactions in others by playing ourselves down. Seeming anxious and ineffectual can attract support and encouragement from others. Being insecure and dependent can sometimes be a safer bet for social acceptance than being assertive and self-reliant. What those around us often don’t perceive is why this extra-sensitive treatment towards an anxious person doesn’t help. It may preserve a position instead of contributing to change in a person.

Safety in a small world
There is much to be gained from staying in a position where we feel safe and unthreatened. This is why it is known as a comfort zone, because the absence of challenge can be comfortable and pleasant. The price for this security is self-imposed restriction on our own potential, which eventually produces the feeling of an unlived life. Moving beyond the boundaries we have set often gives rise to anxiety. The clue is to contain the anxiety and not let it impede us. Unfortunately for some of us, as soon as we feel a little anxious, we retreat into that secure but limiting small world.

Realistic unfolding
So how can we change the impact low self-esteem has on us? The first step in a maturation process is to acknowledge that we actually do have a low self-image. Such a dawning realisation often comes as a result of long meditations where the free mental attitude gradually dismantles habitual avoidance strategies. We do not get very far in meditation with compensatory behaviour. During meditation we encounter ideal expectations as self-devaluing meta-thoughts – what we do and are is not good enough – and gradually we relinquish them.

Psychological growth implies a form of repositioning, a small change in the regulation of our self-esteem. This is not a pronounced upwards or downwards adjustment in the regulation loop, but a nudge towards the centre of the circle, towards what is called the realistic self. Thus, we can actually realise ourselves without being hindered by a pressure to be more than we are – or on the other hand by feeling worthless. Instead we are guided towards a more realistic expression and unfolding of the self.

At the same time, through meditation, and often in the periphery of immediate comprehension, a quiet process is taking place. Alternatives to being easily stressed gradually gain footing, and the inner activation that habitually drives us too far up or down instead takes an alternative course and moves us towards a calmer keynote in our lives.

10 Comments

  1. Karan Sewani

    nice long article, explaining aspects of psychology immaturity very clearly. i really liked the last paragraph “At the same time, through meditation, and often in the periphery of immediate comprehension, a quiet process is taking place. Alternatives to being easily stressed gradually gain footing, and the inner activation that habitually drives us too far up or down instead takes an alternative course and moves us towards a calmer keynote in our lives.”

  2. I would like to know if it is posible find this article in spanish.

    Thank you. Anna

  3. It is posible to find this article in spanish?? Thank you!! Anna

  4. Josefina

    Querida Ana,
    Ha sido una sorpresa agradable ver tu comentario cuando estaba volviendo a leer este artículo tan interesante.
    Creo que sería estupendo disponer de una traducción al castellano. Ya te diré algo.
    Hasta muy pronto! Josefina

  5. Katarina

    Interesting comment about the recent norwegian TV-series about positive psychology.
    Unfortunately not in English, but very related to what Turid says here:

    http://morgenbladet.no/debatt/2013/lykkejakt_pa_villspor

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