Image. It’s something all of us are worried about to some degree. How we’re seen by those close in to us. Friends and co-workers too. What do they think of us? What type of person do they sense we are? What do they say about us when we’re not around? These may be some of the thoughts that go through our minds when we’re feeling uncertain about ourselves or self conscious. And if we’ve experienced love that was conditional at the hands of our caregivers, then this turns an already bad situation to worse.
As I’ve explained in my, “search for a blog” page, my family was hyper focused on image. My parents never felt as though they were adding up, so the odds that I could get from my parents, what they themselves felt as though they never had, was unlikely. What I got instead was what felt like a constant stream of critical judgements.
This, I’ve come to realize, is most likely how my parents felt, being critically judged. But while I was growing up, looking for the love and acceptance of my parents, my caregivers, and not finding it, it was difficult to understand that it wasn’t my fault in some way. That they were the ones transferring their feelings of deficiency onto me. And when you’re constantly being criticized as a child, especially by caregivers, you just assume that there is something wrong with you. Otherwise why would the adults, the people keeping you safe and who are in charge and know best, be so disappointed in you all the time.
So as I grew up, I found myself more and more internalizing my caregivers critical eye towards myself and others. I was constantly judging myself and my actions, to see if I added up to what I cobbled together from my past critical judgements. A mosaic of unreasonable standards I surmised from my caretakers. And they were unreasonable. I remember a physical one year, when I spoke to my GP about anxiety I was living with, only I described it as, “a weakness in myself I just couldn’t live with anymore”.
I cringe a little now, thinking of the standards I used to live under, but that was what I felt I needed to live up to in order to feel accepted and loved, to survive. And I was so focused on what others thought and felt of and about me, that I hadn’t even realized that I was focusing on myself. I was so focused on the thoughts and actions of others that I had stopped seeing myself as a person reacting to a situation, but rather only a reaction to others responses. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
This is at the heart of the fear based thinking that I referred to above. My fear based thinking was fueled by years of neglect and abuse but I feel we all experience this, to some degree, and it stems from our maybe feeling a lack of love and belonging from those closest to us.
This fear is also something that can be preyed on by those looking to capitalize on it. This is the trap my family fell into when they began to confuse looking and acting a certain way with being loved and valued for who they are. Essentially, we’ve been handing down this cursed family heirloom of critical self judgement, from generation to generation.
So how do we make the change from critical judge to a sense of self acceptances? How do we shed the impossible standards we were raised to embody? For me, it began when I started attuning to my own needs, as I wrote in Attunement and Self-Care. Knowing how I’m feeling and then responding to those feelings with what would make me feel most at ease, instead of being focused on how I expected others wanted me to behave was what helped me to understand what my values are, as opposed to what I was told I should be.
For example, I workout regularly and eat healthfully. But when I was feeling tired and sluggish, I knew something needed to change. So I investigated my feelings and listened to my body and came to the conclusion that three days a week were too many to sustainably workout, and that my skipping breakfast and sometimes lunch, and the scraps of food I was eating at work, weren’t enough, even though I was having a healthy and substantial dinner.
After investigating how I felt, I put a plan into action where I reduced my workouts to two days a week and cooked and prepared breakfast and lunch for myself to bring to work. And it’s these small changes I made, after listening and attuning to myself, that I began to build trust and an open dialogue with myself. Also where I stopped looking outside of myself for validation.
That being said, I had a life’s time worth of negative reinforcements that were pushing me in an unhealthy direction, so it may be a bit tricky knowing what needs our attention, and what are the unhealthy messages and recordings that have been left playing in our minds. A phrase I repeat to myself often is, “don’t believe everything you think”.
For me, it was helpful to know what I felt like when I was in fear. I feel my fear in the lower half of my body, and it’s accompanied by a low lying sense of panic. So when thoughts pop into my mind that I know are remnants of old messages I was given as a child, they are usually followed by a sense of fear, and panic, as though I want to latch onto whomever will offer me a felt sense of safety.
And it’s sometimes difficult to pull feelings apart, to know how we’re actually feeling. Especially if our feelings have been manipulated by those who are supposed to be our caregivers. For example, what do we make of love when we are abused and neglected by a caregiver, who say they love us while at the same time are the cause and source of great fear and confusion.
When asked if we know the difference between fear and love, we may say, of course we do. But if we’ve been immersed in an environment of abuse and neglect for most of our lives, do we really know the difference? We may be lulled into feeling it’s as simple as knowing the difference between, to use an extreme example, being suddenly burned by something hot, and relaxing at the end of a tough workout. Two extremely different sensations and situations, but they are only transient sensations of pain and pleasure, not sustainable feelings of love and connection.
And what’s more, if we can’t tell the difference between love and connection and pleasure seeking, we may end up trying to fill that void with things like shopping or drinking alcohol. This can be a dangerous combination. If we never quite feel filled by the pleasure seeking activity, then we may follow it as far as it will take us, and mix that with drugs or alcohol, and you have a deadly combination.
So how do we build sustainable connection? Stop the pleasure seeking and find what truly makes us happy? It starts with knowing our fears, knowing how it feels to have a healthy, unconditional relationship with ourselves and by stopping the chase after what feels good right now and instead focus on the things that will support and sustain us in the future. It’s similar to having a friend who you know you can count on to listen, or be there for you in a pinch, only having that friend within. Knowing you can count on yourself to make the right decisions, to keep you safe and focus on your best interests in the future.
And it’s then that we can then make the healthy choices in finding friends and romantic partners, that will be supportive, caring and loving, because we will be able to recognize them in ourselves.
It sounds so simple, and it is, but simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. It takes practice and patients, but if we persist, we will be able to stop focusing so intently on what others are thinking of us, and begin to think about how we can be support for them, because we know how to support ourselves. I hope this has been of some use to you reader. I know in my journey there are definitely times where I was, and still am filled with self doubt. So be patient with yourself, and be persistent, it may be difficult, but it’s worth the while. Peace :] and thanks for reading.