Audio: Mistreating Ourselves
Transcript: Mistreating Ourselves
As if it weren’t bad enough that we’re faced with distressing intrusive feelings, how we usually react is to fan the flames and make them much worse.
If our situation evokes intrusive fear, we then terrorize ourselves by worrying about any and every danger, about everything that might go wrong.
If our situation evokes intrusive shame, we then punish ourselves over our perceived failings, telling ourselves how badly we screwed up, how inadequate, pitiful, horrible, or otherwise bad, that we really are.
If our situation evokes intrusive pain, we then torment ourselves by ruminating about our hurt or loss, remind ourselves over and over about what has befallen us, to the total neglect of all of the wonderful things, and fulfilling relationships, that we still have in our lives.
If anger is triggered we ruminate about how we have been mistreated, disrespected, or misunderstood.
As most psychologists will tell you, these very common ways of mistreating ourselves fuel our misery, and if we can stop doing them, we’ll feel better.
“Excellent!” you say. “All I have to do is realize that these feelings are intrusive and to stop tormenting myself over them, and then I’ll be much happier.” “True!”, I say. But there are a couple of problems.
First, the intrusive feelings are very compelling, and you are going to have a hard time believing that they are not about your current situation.
Second, as awful as it feels to torment yourself, you will be quite reluctant to give this up.
“What!”, you protest. “Of course I’ll stop tormenting myself. Now that I know it makes me miserable, why wouldn’t I stop it!”
Well, you’ll keep tormenting yourself because it actually gives you a bit of relief. Yes, it makes you miserable in the long run, but you actually get a little drop of immediate relief, so you’ll be inclined to keep doing it. Now you might be thinking that I’m the one whose crazy. How, you ask, can tormenting yourself feel even a little bit good!
If you are triggered into feeling scared, like George it will feel like you are in some kind of danger. You will then naturally search the world, and search your mind, for the source of the danger, so that you can prepare yourself to escape it or deal with it as best as possible. You become vigilant to potential threats and worry about potential dangers to protect yourself from being blindsided by something bad happening. By doing this you create the illusion that you are keeping yourself safe. And when we feel afraid, doing something that helps us to feel just a bit safer feels good!
That makes good sense, doesn’t it? If I feel like I’m in danger, then I’m going to do what I can to protect myself from potential threats. Unfortunately, as we now know, this needless worry and vigilance is also the very self-torment by which we keep ourselves afraid, how we fan the flames of our fear!
What if we are triggered into some quality of shame or guilt. In the face of feeling like we have been bad, we feel a bit virtuous if we punish or mistreat ourselves, like we’ve redeemed ourselves in some way for our transgressions. It is as if we’ve acknowledged our badness and perhaps will be forgiven, or at least punished less harshly. Think of it like a child whose parent is furious with them. When children are given the message that they are “bad”, the child is then, paradoxically, being “good” by feeling guilty and showing it. If the child, says “Sorry I’ve been bad”, the parent is likely to back off on the shaming and the punishment. So, in the face of feeling like I’m bad, if I punish myself, I feel like I’m being good, and this little bit of feeling virtuous is an antidote to my shame. Of course all of this backfires and can fan the flames of our intrusive shame into an all-consuming inferno.
Finally, if we are triggered into feeling intrusive pain, our rumination over our hurt or loss keeps us connected to the thing or person we’ve lost. Our thoughts and longing for the lover who rejected us keeps us connected to her, just like a teenage girl’s crush on an unattainable celebrity keeps her connected to him. These fantasies of connection feel good. The ongoing rumination over our loss can also feel good because it seems like we are doing the right thing, that to allow ourselves to feel happy and move on would somehow be dishonouring of the wonderful thing that we had. So again we fan the flames of the intrusive feeling because it feels a bit good, even though it then leaves us feeling much worse.
So, when intrusive feelings are triggered we are inclined to get a bit of relief by doing things that actually amount to mistreating ourselves. A final point is that this mistreatment of ourselves can itself be a trigger of intrusive feelings. The things we tell ourselves, that we are in danger, that we are bad, or that due to our loss our life is over, can understandably trigger intrusive fear, shame, or pain. So we can end up in this positive feedback loop where the intrusive feelings, and what we tell ourselves, bounce off of each other in an escalating cycle of distress. To become happier, it is therefore crucial that we learn about the particular ways that we mistreat ourselves, and stop.