I think people beat themselves up – which is different from healthy guidance of oneself (which includes appropriate winces of remorse or shame) – for two reasons: too much inner attacking, and too little inner nurturance. These two forces in the mind are out of balance. Why? Multiple reasons, including individual differences in temperament (some people are more prone to anxiety or grumpiness). But for most people the primary sources are what they have internalized (especially as a child) from their family, peers, and culture. Then, once harsh self-criticism has been internalized along with insufficient internalization of self-nurturance, beating oneself up can take on a life of its own, both as simply a habit and as a way (that goes much too far, at considerable cost) to avoid the possibility of making mistakes or looking bad in front of others.
Whole networks of neurons and related and complex physical processes (e.g., neurotransmitter activity, epigenetic processes) are the basis for acquiring fears, including because a person has been on the receiving end of much anger from others. In other words, learning occurs: emotional, social, somatic, motivational, attitudinal learning: enduring changes in neural structure or function due to a person’s experiences. Check out Joseph LeDoux and the learning of anxiety and fear.
The amygdala also flags experiences as personally relevant, with a bias in most people’s brains toward flagging what is negatively relevant. Then the hippocampus gets involved, tagging that relevant experience for storage. (I’m simplifying a complex process, that also involves other circuitry in the brain.) The amygdala and hippocampus have receptors for various neurochemicals, including oxytocin, and over time these subcortical parts of the brain (two of each, on either side of the brain) can be modified by our experiences; in effect, they “learn,” too.
The distinction between 1 and 2 blurs in practice. The main difference is that 2 is more deliberately and planfully sequential, and is a road map for therapists and also for people in general.
The first step is always self-awareness; without it, we’re flying blind. Try to step back in your mind and observe your reactions without being swept away by them.
Then bring compassion – the simple wish that a being not suffer – to yourself. Researchers have found that self-compassion builds resilience and well-being, plus it helps us treat others better; many studies have shown that people are more able and willing to be patient, reasonable, and kind when their own cup runneth over.
I also like to try to help myself feel the rewards that will come to me from breaking my patterns and acting more skillfully in the future. This helps incline my brain in that direction – sort of like the proverbial rider dangling a carrot in front of a donkey.
First of all, I’m very sorry that you’re experiencing this. I am not a specialist in this area, so I offer these ideas modestly. What I have experienced myself and seen helpful for others is:
It’s a great question, and to my knowledge not one study has been published about this practice, in terms of either its purported psychological or physiological effects. Personally, I try to be careful to claim that there is any such research.
This said, as you may have heard, there is a saying that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Just because there is no study about something does not mean it does not work.
I find the hand on heart practices to be plausibly beneficial; certainly many people report such benefits. And there is much evidence that the touch of others is beneficial . . . so perhaps touching oneself in a region of the body that is so associated with soothing and kindness might have similar benefits. And who knows what might be happening with energy systems that science has not yet identified.
There is a very useful distinction between two different meanings, or connotations, of the word “victim.”
In the first and simplest sense, a “victim” is just someone, anyone, who has been assaulted, attacked, or otherwise mistreated. Someone walking in a crosswalk with a green light who is struck by a drunk driver is a victim. There is no shame in being a victim. In fact we should honor victims in this sense! When one has been mistreated – when one has been victimized in the simple factual objective sense – for sure it is appropriate to have compassion for oneself much as we would have compassion for anyone else who had been mistreated – who had in fact been victimized – in the same ways. For most people, the accurate recognition of how they’ve been mistreated along with self-compassion leads to adaptive coping and action, not to helpless immobilization.
In the second and actually uncommon sense, in some quarters the word “victim” or related terms such as “victim consciousness” carry the context of a kind of indulgence in or usage of the “victim role” to extract sympathy or other things inappropriately from others, or to sort of “wallow” in inappropriate self-indulgent “poor me, woe is me” forms of helplessness. In this particular sense of the word “victim,” self-compassion might get exploited or co-opted in the service of these kinds of inappropriate behaviors.
Frankly I have rarely seen the mis-use of the sense of being mistreated, victimized, or being a victim described in the second sense. The greater problem I have observed is people who really were victimized being dismissive toward themselves or putting up with others being dismissive of them, including others who are prone to reducing and distorting and dismissing actual mistreatment by waving the “oh shame on you, don’t be such a victim” card.
It seems that there are several points to balance:
I really hear you about the risks in trying to think of someone who loves you. That’s why I try to always speak in broader terms of looking for ways to feel cared about, and usually list five aspects of being cared about: being included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved. I stress that it is important to look for mild, everyday moments of being cared about in one of these ways, such as your dog wanting to go for a walk with you, coworkers appreciating your idea in a meeting, or a moment of friendliness with someone.
In other words, even if someone has not been loved or has been but can’t feel it, there are still many other ways to feel cared about – which is indeed very important to us as the most social species on the planet. We need to feel cared about in the psychological sphere as much as we need water in the physiological sphere.
I also suggest that people open to feeling caring, since caring is caring whether it is flowing in or flowing out.
Not being able to find an inner protector is a real fact of the inner of world of many people. Developing one is a matter of committed practice toward one’s own well-being, which will gradually change the brain. Some steps along the way:
If you do these two things, over and over again, you will gradually plant the seeds that will grow into an inner protector.
There are other methods as well, and I encourage you to look into my book, Just One Thing, and its practices on self-compassion, getting on your own side, taking in the good, and seeing the good in yourself.
Hang in there with this. Look out at the world, with its 7+ billion human beings, and countless other living plants and animals and microbes on the earth, in the water, and in the air. I am sure you wish those beings well. You would wish that they would have and experience an inner protector (or the animal, plant, or microbe equivalent). Well, you are one of those beings! No different from the other humans, no less deserving of true happiness and its causes, including an inner protector. Much as you would wish an inner protector for all those beings, you could rightfully wish one for yourself. I wish one for you – and I bet so would everyone else who knows you, if they thought about it. It’s alright to join this club!
We can see our part and make corrections going forward while at the same time knowing and feeling that there is goodness in ourselves. In fact, the making of corrections is an expression of that goodness. I’ve made so many mistakes in my own life! We can be openhearted, and have regrets, and also see the causes of events originating in others as well, and feel our own pain . . . . and focus mainly on what we can do each day going forward . . . and take refuge in this, in doing what we can each day.
Check out the Aspiration chapter in Resilient.
In brief, healthy aspirations take into account our duties to others . . . and to ourselves. To simplify, duties are “have to” while aspirations are “want to.” Also check out Mother Nurture and my writings about sharing the load fairly when kids come along.
This said, in many people’s lives (though sadly and often unjustly, there are many exceptions), after handling duties there is still attention and time and often other resources available for personal aspirations – especially when we consider the power of many little moments of practice, and the power of relatively small amounts of time each day – 15 minutes? an hour? – that really add up over months and years.
Meditation + Talk: Healthy Desire, Benevolence Toward Yourself, and Self-Compassion
The Power of Self-Compassion interview with Kristin Neff
Feeling Good About Yourself free guide
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.
She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.
Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.
In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.
Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.
Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.
He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.
Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.
Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.
Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.
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