on shame and being seen

Pediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott has said, “It is a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.”

We love to hide, to have our own private psychic and emotional lives, but most of us don’t wish to be forgotten by the world. Most of us wish, and desperately need, to be found. But what is it to be discovered, and yet to have no power over the way in which you are seen? Is this what makes up the roots of shame, loneliness, terror, and oppression?

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On Shame and Eating Disorders

"The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself."
-Anna Quindlen

In honor of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I wanted to share some thoughts on the intersectionality of shame, disordered eating, and body image.

Shame is a big player in eating disorders. Understanding shame starts with becoming aware of what it feels like, what triggers it, and building enough tolerance for it so that you can learn where these voices actually come from (chances are, they didn’t start with you). Shame is often a trigger for a food or exercise binge, or for the forceful power that perpetuates self-disgust and restriction. It’s that lead blanket that keeps you in bed for days on end. It’s the feeling that keeps you from spending time with your friends, because you’re afraid that whatever you say will expose you as being worth rejecting. It’s the part of you that thinks: If I eat this, I am bad. Since I ate this, I am bad. If I don’t run today, I am bad. It may be hard to hear me talk about these feelings, so let me add: While these feelings are real, and they come from messages you’ve internalized throughout your life, they are absolutely not the truth.

When we talk about shame, we are also talking about our capacity to love and to be connected. Sometimes, being connected hurts. We have no power over other people’s minds, feelings, opinions, or behavior- but throughout our lives, we are dependent on others to help us survive. From the moment we are infants needing nurturance, holding, food, love, and warmth, we depend on an “other” to care for us, since we can’t do it for ourselves. Gradually the understanding emerges of an “other” whom we totally depend on but cannot control. Babies will use their gaze, coos and cries, and smiles to influence the caretaking of another person, which develops into how we negotiate relationships as adults.

When we don’t get what we need from this very powerful “other,”  it stresses our bodies out- we go into one of the fight-flight-freeze-appease modes, depending on what we learned works in tough situations. This raises the stress chemicals in our bodies, shifts our hormones, and allows us to “cut off” psychologically and emotionally the part of our self that has needs. This, unfortunately, is the perfect environment in which to cultivate an eating disorder: Cut off and push away the parts of yourself that tell you what you need, because they are too painful to feel without having the power to tend to them.

In recovery and with therapy, you can learn how to reconnect to those parts of yourself that have needs, wishes, desires, beauty, wants, envy, pain, terror, and joy. It can be difficult and painful, much like having your leg fall asleep and then beginning to feel the pins and needles of reawakening. But it's a path to aliveness- of discovering yourself, and discovering what you really love. And, eventually, discovering- through the help of other people- how you have power and agency when it comes to your relationship with your needs and your heart.

And, oh! To really love! And feel the way loving and being loved gets into your bones! What a beautiful feeling. don't let being afraid stop you from loving yourself.

Because, as an adult, you actually can learn to identify, take care of, and celebrate your own needs and dreams. But none of us can love ourselves and be loved in a vacuum. As activist Virgie Tovar tweeted, “Envision the life you want. Find the people who will help you live that life. Love them unconditionally. Repeat."

Your body is your business. Your health is your business. Nobody but you can decide what is right for you. But how can you make real decisions about what is right for you without having access to all parts of you? Learn how to listen to your body, how to listen to what you need, even if it hurts. Because we are all connected, and learning how to let people in who love you and can help you begin to realize how to be wholly, powerfully you. Because you are worth listening to- always.

Reach out to me at 510-594-4035 or therapy at mollymerson dot com if you would like more information about how to learn to listen to your needs, and navigate these overwhelming and distressing feelings.

(And check out this video from NEDA to learn more about how to enjoy media and culture while staying aware of its impact on your well-being.)

Understanding Your Inner Critic

When Your Protection Becomes Your Prison: Understanding Your Inner Critic You know those harsh, penetrating thoughts you have-- the ones that haunt you, even when you do something you love? The thoughts that tell you you’re not good enough, that you should “shut up” and “stop thinking you’re all that”, that try to beat you into submission? Yeah, those thoughts. The ones that hurt.

What if I told you those thoughts were actually there to help you?

Let’s consider for a moment that you are a child, and you’re doing something that feels fun. You’re feeling safe, so you play. You’re in “the flow.” Suddenly, someone shouts at you: “Stop doing that!” and takes away the rusty nail you’re about to put down your gullet.

Now, that voice is in you, reminding you: "Don’t eat the rusty nail!" That’s good, right? But it feels scary to be shocked out of that "flow". Let’s say you didn’t have someone there to tell you that you’re going to be ok. We could even go so far as to say, what if the person chided you, or shamed you for wanting to explore the world around you?

Now, that voice has a chance to grow bigger. It grows louder. It makes you wonder: Well, when I was feeling safe and playing, I learned I was bad. Maybe I shouldn’t let my guard down like that.

That harsh inner critic used to be a voice outside of you, but now it's lodged itself inside of you. It's your armor and your guard, after all.

And then, sometime, when you’re feeling safe, and feeling in “the flow”, and you start to let your guard down, the voice that's now deep inside you says, “DON’T!” And you are brought right back in to an anxious, guarded, vigilant place. You might even start feeling really badly about yourself.

You might start to feel like everything you’re curious about is actually bad for you.

But even though your inner critic might be really loud sometimes, you do have inner resources that can help you. Those resources are intertwined with understanding, and offering kindness and relaxation to, that the harsh, overprotective, and now harmful voice. We can find ways to lessen the harshness and add kindness by getting to know what feels scary, overwhelming, and challenging to you.

We all need validation of the parts of us that soar, and because the harsh critical voice often feels like the “true” voice, it can be easier to find yourself in situations where the criticisms are echoed in the people around you. It can also feel very difficult to accept the warm, kind voices, since they can actually have the opposite effect and make the inner critic louder.

What ways have you found to still the inner critic, for even just a moment?

Sometimes, that critic can feel so powerful that the only thing we can do is distract from it. Watching TV, cleaning the bathroom, going for a run, taking a nap—these are all ways we can distract ourselves from perseverating on the harsh inner landscape. Try to notice this process of distracting yourself from the fearful feelings so that you can make it to the other side. If you can spend just a few seconds identifying that that’s what you’re doing, then you’ve begun to offer some space to breathe and begin to allow yourself the option to feel just a little bit differently.

These moments you offer yourself are an important reminder that what you do best is survive. Sometimes, your survival skills can become restrictive and unhelpful, which can perpetrate more criticism and despondency. It is crucial at these times that you remind yourself, however you need to-- post it notes, a loved one, a video of yourself, or a snap of a rubberband on the wrist-- that there is more to your life than just this feeling, and that this feeling thinks it’s doing its job by protecting you. This feeling doesn’t quite get, yet, that it’s hurting you more than it is doing good for you.

But maybe it can learn, with kindness and time, to trust itself again. And, instead of protecting you, maybe together you both will learn that you deserve to explore, to discover what’s thrilling to you, to try on new things, and to take risks in places that could be healing and delicious for you.

Maybe, paying attention to this harsh, critical part of you will be just the thing to help you unlock what is healing, soothing, and reparative for you. Paying attention to the painful stuff may just be the way to open up new possibilities for you of how you relate to yourself and your world.

For more on letting go and noticing your patterns, I recommend listening to any of Pema Chödrön’s talks, which can be found on the Shambhala Press website. If you are interested in contacting your difficult feelings and attending to your inner critic, I encourage you to call me at 510-594-4035 to talk about how therapy with me could help you understand and work with some of the harshness of your protective self. I provide depth psychotherapy in Berkeley, CA. This piece is not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure any disease, and is not intended to provide psychotherapeutic treatment to anyone who reads or interacts with it.

To cite this page: Merson, M. (2014) When Your Protection Becomes Your Prison: Understanding Your Inner Critic. Retrieved month/day/year from http://mollymerson.com/2014/04/23/understanding-your-inner-critic/