The anxiety that we feel is borne out of harmful all-or-nothing stories that I call “learned helplessness.”
Those of us who use food to cope, or drugs, alcohol, shopping, procrastination, isolation, busywork, and even more socially-sanctioned strategies like over-exercise, co-dependency and workaholism, use those strategies in an attempt to distance ourselves from the constant sense of anxiety we feel within.
The learned helplessness stories sound something like this:
- I can’t
- It’s too big
- It’s too much
- I’m not capable
- I won’t be able to do it
- I’m not allowed
And, those learned helplessness, all-or-nothing stories (that trigger our anxiety and our use of harmful coping strategies) are triggered by a naturally and appropriately occurring sensation in our bodies that I call “the niggle.”
The niggle arises when we have needs that aren’t being met.
If you used food to cope as a child (or any other of the strategies listed above), it is extremely likely that when you felt that little niggle inside that let you know you needed something and you tried to get that need met through your words or actions, you were unsuccessful, or perhaps even berated or shamed or physically harmed.
We probably heard or perceived key people in our lives offering us statements such as:
- You’re so selfish!
- Who do you think I am, Rockefeller?
- You’re so dramatic!
- You’re too needy!
- You’re so rude!
- What’s wrong with you?!
- I’ll give you something to cry about!
These statements, understandably, give us the impression that we are, at our core, bad, wrong, stupid, and unlovable beyond repair. As children, we are naturally vulnerable to the key people in our lives, not just physically but emotionally and psychologically as well. We depend on them for our survival and we need them to teach us how to be in the world in order to survive without them when we mature. Thus we are incredibly open and receptive to what they say and do in relation to us and to others. We are desperate for their approval and, if need be, will turn against our own inner sense of right and wrong, justice and fairness, in order to preserve our relationship with those key people. Here’s where the trouble really begins.
We all have a naturally occurring sense of disease (our niggle) when we have needs for safety, love, and esteem that aren’t being met. But we believe, (because of our training as children) that in order to get those needs for safety and love and esteem met, we have to ignore our own intuition, ignore our own sense of right and wrong, and take the other person’s side/perspective against ourselves in order to keep them happy and to keep our relationship with them as solid as it can be.
Thus your Drill Sgt. is born. A bouncing baby inner critic comes into being, constantly running through his learned list of criticisms and judgements of you in his desperate effort to, at long last, bring you the sense of security and peace that you seek in your relationships with others and in yourself.
Of course no one can feel happy, peaceful, confident and secure in an abusive relationship. And just as you couldn’t possibly find peace and security with some key people as a child, you will never find peace and security within yourself until you are able to meet your own needs for respect, dignity, safety and love.
It’s actually not that tall an order once you catch up with the present and realize that your life no longer depends on aligning with others against yourself.
But in the meantime, you feel constantly anxious and doubtful, expecting at any time that someone will swoop in and tell you that you’re too much, too needy, too stupid, too ugly, and just plain unlovable. Thus, you live as though fending off emotional and psychological blows that have yet to occur but that you are certain are coming at any moment. You fear dropping your guard (ie. ceasing the self-criticism) because in the past that was a sure path to the pain of external judgement and ostracism, and you remember that sting all too well.
It is natural and perfectly healthy and appropriate to feel this way as a dependent child. It is such an incredible act of survival and self-preservation that you deserve to be commended. The only problem is, you’re an adult and still living as though you need the approval of others in order to be okay and you’re stuck in those old learned helplessness stories about how you’re so incapable and unlovable that you’ll never get the approval, and thus the safety and peace, that you seek if you let people see and know the real you.
It becomes a very vicious and unending cycle of self-judgement and shame, perpetuating the old stories and triggering more shame and judgement (and thus the need for food to cope).
But what about this? What if instead of continuing to do what clearly has never worked as anything other than a numbing and self-harming device, you did something totally and completely radical?
What if you just accepted that you are going to make mistakes?
What if you just accepted that some people will like you and others won’t?
What if you began to trust that everyone has needs and that having needs makes you human, not “needy”?
What if you became more committed to living your life than to making other people happy?
To truly live, you must have experiences, and experience includes, more often than any of us would like, many mistakes, many missteps, many courageous conversations and many opportunities for discovering hidden aspects of ourselves, often in the least private and dignified ways.
So if you just accepted that you will err, and instead of focusing all your energies on trying to prevent an opportunity for learning, you saw it as just that? Every event in your life is an opportunity for learning and growing. You can embrace the experiences you have gracefully and learn and grow from them or you can judge and shame and berate yourself for not being perfect and wall yourself away emotionally or even physically, in your attempt to prevent the inevitable experience of making a mistake and being seen as imperfect (which in the old learned helplessness mindset equates to being unlovable; being rejected; being shamed, judged and berated; disappointing key people; and just downright being “bad.”)
What if, instead of persisting with the old learned helplessness/harmful coping strategy approach to life, you focused your energies on gathering tools and life experiences that teach you the fundamental truth:
Life is not about being perfect and preventing any errors or slights of any kind, life is all about learning to trust yourself to gracefully and respectfully own, acknowledge, and resolve any of your behaviours that did not meet needs for you or others.
Did you catch that?
It’s not the number or “quality” of missteps or learning experiences you have that makes you a worthy or lovable person.
Whether you accept it or understand it or not, the truth is you are already so incredibly worthy and lovable. You truly have nothing to prove to anyone in order to be worthy of confidence and self-love, and once you catch up with the times and step into yourself fully as an adult, you’ll feel the truth of that.
The trick to a happy, peaceful, self-confident life is not to never ever let anyone see you as anything other than perfect. That’s the path to depression.
The trick to a happy, peaceful, self-confident life is to develop skills to handle life’s in’s and out’s so that you can be anywhere, anytime, with anyone and trust yourself to honor and respect yourself.
And don’t let the old Drill Sgt. and his learned helplessness tell you that you can’t. It’s really quite simple, you just have to be open and try something new.
I guarantee it will be well worth it. If you’re ready to step into the present and begin to live life fully, I’m here to show you how.