Why do I feel like this? #3 – Why does it affect me now?

We might assume that what happened in the past should stay in the past because rationally we are not experiencing it now. However our subconscious contains everyone we’ve ever been, the sum total of our experiences. Plus, we’re talking about belief here not reasoning. Specifically the belief of  the child who created our self concept. This is why you might know that you are fine cognitively but you feel the opposite, often with no rational basis.

Imagine our self concept is created much like building a house. The foundations of the house are our beliefs about ourselves from our formative years. So the house that is constructed upon these foundations will be affected by them. If the foundation has a weak or unstable spot then the house will have that vulnerability running through it.  

Worse still, because this is a ‘belief’ it is relatively impervious to logic and pervades our view of the world and our place within it. We use the belief to apply confirmation bias to our experiences. For example, if I believe at my core I’m a failure, I will largely ignore evidence that implies otherwise. I might get 99 out of a hundred questions right in a quiz but obsess about the one that I got wrong and use it as evidence of my lack of value. I might still feel a failure. We also might desperately crave what we lacked in childhood in our adult life. Approval or praise for example, but then when offered it, reject it because it does not fit with our beliefs about ourselves. Essentially a no-win scenario. These examples show the types of contradictions within us because of the primal belief we hold about ourselves.

The TA technical term for these beliefs are ‘life scripts’, Freud called them ‘Introjects’. Next up let’s look at their influence in everyday life.

Why Do I feel like this? #2 -How did I learn my Low Self Esteem?

We are born with some basic character traits but much of our self view is developed in the formative years of our life, about the first seven years. This is because we start out as essentially a blank canvas deciding and defining who we are by using the world around us like a mirror, learning about ourselves primarily by what is reflected back in the behaviours and attitudes of the people we are most exposed to. This is a particularly vulnerable time because we’re utterly dependent on our parents or carers and tend to believe anything they tell us, but more importantly interpret how they behave towards us as meaning something about ourselves. In short, our parents are like gods at this point in our lives and everything they say or imply about us must be true.

While we’re subconsciously making these decisions about ourselves we are also using an extremely limited tool kit. Kids logic is perverse. If for example mum has a bad day and is angry about that, it will affect her overall mood. We might approach her with good intent to hug her or show her something we’re proud of but she snaps at us or rejects us in some way instead of responding how we were expecting her to. This is a shock because we haven’t done anything wrong and we are being punished. It’s unfair.

However, at this point in life we don’t have the capacity to say to ourselves, ‘Ahh that is mums stuff I wonder why she reacted inappropriately to me as I am blameless so nothing to worry about’. We will probably feel hurt or be upset, the reasoning in our subconscious being something along the lines of… ‘I am being treated badly even though I have done nothing to deserve it.’ but then our childs logic kicks in and makes sense that isn’t there, along the lines of. ‘But mum is always right so I must deserve it. I can’t connect why I deserve it with anything I’ve done so it must be that there is something that only mum or perhaps other people can see about me that means I’m the sort of person that deserves to be treated that way. That must be who I am.’ Now repeat the experience on a regular basis and the feeling becomes so ingrained we start to believe it ourselves.

That might be a drip feed (persistent criticality for example) that slowly carves the feeling of inadequacy into our amygdala (where our emotional memory and conditioning live) but the same effect can come from a few extreme or traumatising events.

For example, violent outbursts perhaps where the response is disproportionate to whatever has happened, maybe the loss of a parent or them abandoning us, abusive or bullying behaviours, we blame ourselves believing we deserve it using that perverse child logic. Other possible causes are parents that are emotionally unpredictable or manipulative, who withhold approval (nothing is ever quite good enough) or are frequently critical or create specific conditions around your acceptability. This is a particularly common experience with parents who might suffer from personality disorders, mental illness or addictions.

You can’t predict at that point what the impact will be but when someone gets to therapy it doesn’t take long to look back and understand how we learned it. 

The problem is we tend to bury the experiences that made us feel this way pretty deep because they make us feel so uncomfortable, so they might be hard to consciously grab, but more on that later. Next we look at why this continues to affect us and how.

Why Do I feel like this? #1 -Everything Leads to Self Esteem

‘I feel like a failure. Everyone else’s needs are more important than mine. I need to please the people around me. I reject and need to isolate myself from the people around me. I am ‘less than’. I am anxious about everything that I do, that I might screw it up. I hate being the centre of attention. I love being the centre of attention. I feel like an imposter and will be found out. I’m lethargic, I don’t care, I feel like there is no point.’

Every client that sits in the chair across from me experiences a feeling that can be loosely represented by one of the above statements, they may not even be aware of it initially but will probably recognise their own related behaviours once they come under scrutiny. We generally assume it was ever thus and often never think to challenge it. The reason we have these feelings is not a coincidence but a natural part of our development. It’s the presence of Low Self Esteem, a term interchangeable with ‘low confidence’, ‘poor self image’ or low self worth’, and the seed that sometimes grows into the shady tree of depression.

In this series of articles I’ll lay out some basics to help understand what is happening to us and why, what the impact of this is and how to start to address it.

Unless you are a psychopath or have a relevant personality disorder you will have your own version of it. We’re not born with it but learn it in our formative years almost unavoidably. It is a deep and scary feeling of vulnerability, insecurity and worthlessness. The thing that makes us feel weak at our core. It impacts almost every decision we make.

It is also the most painful thing we can feel because at the heart of it is the sense that we don’t deserve to exist, that we are pointless. Which is why at the bottom of the trough of depression lies suicide. To be so convinced of your lack of worth, to feel so despised that your ongoing existence seems pointless. Existentialism has a lot to say about it from this perspective, but instead tries to get you to accept that you are pointless and stop worrying about it. If it were as simple as accepting an ideological construct, many of us would probably do just that, but it’s an ingrained belief so a bit trickier than that.

Thankfully most of us don’t end up there for long enough to take our own lives and many of us perform a merry dance trying to avoid it. It’s why we behave irrationally and illogically so much. But however rational we might try to be, it is a belief about ourselves and my belief and the feelings that emanate from it far outweigh my own logic. It’s also the core of the human condition(ing) and to a large extent what makes us interesting individuals.

If humanistic schools of therapy had an agenda, it would be to help clients unlearn this belief about themselves and effect a shift in personality. The more cognitive approaches tend more towards being more aware of it and learning to live with it. The Humanistic approach does this too but there’s also the possibility of changing the fundamental feelings. Working on the cause as well as managing the symptoms.

Next up… 2. How do we learn Low Self Esteem?

Counselling & Psychotherapy in Brighton

Welcome to Counselling in Brighton. I am an experienced BACP registered humanistic private practice therapist based in Brighton. I work with most situations but specialize in relationships, anxiety and behavioral challenges.

If you would like to meet and discuss your circumstances please either email me or call me on 07769 882245. An initial consultation is free, gives you a chance to see if you are comfortable working with me and ask questions so you can make an unpressured choice.