Forgive yourself – it’s not your fault – then look for resources

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This has just arrived on Twitter, and I’m thinking about it as I work on this post………I believe that everything I write is ‘true’, I think that it’s ‘necessary’, and I sincerely hope that it’s ‘kind’.

Forgiving yourself

For those of you who have lived with core shame all your life, and who have developed various coping mechanisms to make life manageable – some kind of False Self perhaps, an addiction, an eating disorder, an anxiety disorder, a tendency to self harm, or any other way of behaving that is now beginning to make your life and your relationships difficult – it is important to honour the strategies that have kept you safe thus far, and to remember that they must only be dismantled when, and if, it feels ok for you to do so. It is your life, and only you know what is right for you.

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It is all too easy to criticise ourselves for the strategies we have had to adopt in order to cope – those of us carrying core shame will be inclined to do that anyway – and society (parents, family, school, the community) is often quick to criticise or label us, because it is easier to for everyone to make the sufferer responsible for his own problems than to accept any responsibility for them itself.

Just remember that it’s NOT your fault, but it IS your life, and you may have reached a point where the strategies that you have had to adopt are no longer serving you well – you may also have accumulated any number of labels, and it’s time for a change.

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The problem with labels

I really don’t like labels – ‘he has conduct disorder’, ‘she has anorexia’, ‘he’s a drug addict’, ‘he has ADHD’, ‘she’s agoraphobic’, ‘he’s depressed’, ‘she has BPD’ – because labels don’t take any account of the history of the sufferer, nor of the circumstances in which he is living, and they dump what is seen as ‘the problem’ squarely on him. This makes it his responsibility, it encourages the idea that medication might fix it – ‘big pharma’ develops a pill for everything (that’s how they make money), and society is always on the look out for a quick fix – and (most importantly), it exonerates those around him.

It pathologises the sufferer – he is ‘ill’, and it’s his fault, a sentiment with which someone who suffers from core shame will readily agree, thus compounding the problem – and it leaves sufferers feeling hopeless and helpless: I am ill, and it is entirely my fault. Another problem with labels is that they tend to stick – either because the wearer (or his carer) is too scared to believe that they don’t need them any more, and is therefore reluctant to give them up, or because it suits society to leave the label right where it is.

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So my first suggestion is that if someone has given your suffering a label, think about that for a bit. I have known people who were thrilled to get a label (often after trying very hard to do so), and there are occasions when labels can be helpful – they can mean that you get appropriate support, such as a statement of educational needs, or help to come off drugs, or the right medication where necessary.

But even then, I urge you to look beneath the label, and think about what it is in your life that has caused you to end up where you are right now. Remember, nothing is random – you are where you are because something in your life has resulted in you finding yourself in a situation that was less than optimal, and your coping mechanism is the best solution you could find at the time (if anyone who is addicted to anything doubts this, listen to this brilliant short explanation of addiction by Gabor Mate, and he will put you straight!) 

Looking for resources

In addition to honouring what you have achieved so far, before you start making changes in your life, it is helpful to think about any resources that you may have at your disposal already, and put in place strategies to protect yourself when the going gets tough, as it may when change is in the air. I am aware that for those of you living with core shame, resources might seem very scarce, since by definition, if you were surrounded by them, you would be unlikely to feel as you do. However, we tend to overlook the resources we do have, especially when we are feeling low and filled with shame – it is easier to be aware of what we don’t have than what we do have – and I must therefore encourage you to look very hard to find and treasure whatever resources you have.

What are ‘resources’?

A ‘resource’ is anything that supports your well-being, in body, mind (thinking and feeling) and spirit – that gives you a sense of competence, or pleasure. You need to acknowledge resources you’ve had in the past (you may need to bring them back), as well as looking at what you have now, and developing new ones.

  • Somatic resources – perhaps the most important of all – are the abilities we have to use our bodies: to regulate ourselves, to be assertive, to make boundaries, to sooth ourselves, to protect ourselves. These are mostly unconscious, but we can learn to be aware of them, and cultivate them.
  • Character strengths such as being funny, generous, reliable, thoughtful, wise, brave or charismatic.
  • Anything that makes your body feel good – a hot bath, a massage, running, the gym, yoga, tai chi, swimming, skating, skiing.
  • Watching films or plays, going to exhibitions, listening to music, or reading books – anything that calms your nervous system.
  • Pursuits, pastimes, skills and talents – a sport, or a game, making things, being able to drive, earning money, having contact with the earth, caring for animals, helping others……….in short, anything that makes you feel competent and positive.
  • A person – a friend, a partner, a relative, the lady next door, or in the shop, the man who drives your bus to work, the barman at your local pub, a teacher, your hairdresser, someone at your club or church……. the list is fairly endless, since it could be absolutely anybody with whom you make a genuine and caring connection. (If any of you listened to the clip about Iby at the end of my last post, you will hear that she chose to tell her story first to someone who she knew very little at the beginning).
  • A pet – the importance of animals (especially cuddly, furry ones) must never be underestimated, and for many people, their pet is the most important thing in their lives.
  • A special object or photograph that means something to you – a doll or soft toy from your childhood, a stone from a beach, a blanket or piece of clothing belonging to someone special, maybe it was given to you by someone special, or you got it from a place that meant a lot to you.

Count your blessings

You may say ‘I don’t have any’, and I would say, ‘Look again’, because we all have them – it’s just that we’re programmed for very good reasons to see the negative in our lives rather than the positive, because that is how we have kept ourselves safe all these years (we need to remember that tigers and violent men are dangerous, to ensure our survival, but can afford to forget the beautiful flowers in the park, or the great movie we saw last week!)

Another baby step

All the techniques I am going to suggest will only work if you do them regularly – just like a muscle, you have to exercise your brain every day so as to encourage growth and change, so that

I suggested a first step (the self-compassion technique) in my last post, and techniques that you can use alone are especially important if you are trying to make changes in your life without the support of another safe and caring person, so here is another:

Three good things

Every night before you go to sleep, think of three things that were positive about your day – this could be the sun shining, or the rain falling, music that you love, a beautiful face you passed in the street, a flower you saw in the park, a delicious piece of cake, or a tasty apple, an autumn leaf lying on the pavement, a cute dog, someone holding open a door for you, a bird singing, the light shining on a corner of your room, the green shoots of spring poking through the ground, a nice dress in a shop window, a busker playing music on the street, a little child dancing down the road, a rainbow, two magpies – these last two are my personal favourites – or absolutely anything at all that means something to you, and lifts your spirits.

The beauty of this technique is that if you make a commitment to yourself to do it every night, you will find yourself looking for the positive things during the day, because you know that you’re going to have to come up with three things later, and this begins to slowly change the way you look at the world – it really does (I’ve tried it!) You will still notice the tigers and the violent men – that’s sensible – but you will find yourself searching more deeply to find something to include in your three things – is that leaf worth including……….is the sky particularly beautiful……..did that person really smile at me…….is this yummy piece of toast worthy of inclusion ……..or maybe I’ll find something better!

For those of you who want to take this idea a bit further, here is a talk by Rick Hanson, in which he includes one of my favourite ideas – the concept of the two wolves.

And finally……… watch this wonderful Italian Youtube video – it will make you cry!

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