Bass Ackwards

I was talking to a friend about therapy today and connected to a very important principle about healing that I wanted to share. We often approach healing from the standpoint of “once I heal enough to not be <insert emotion here> than I’ll <insert new behavior here>.” We want to get our feelings to the right place, then act. But it doesn’t really work that way; we need to act in a new way so that our feelings follow.

Therapy is a play space in the truest meaning of the word. It is a safe place in which we can allow ourselves to contemplate the impossible in order to learn new beliefs. The clearest example of this in my life were my feelings of worthlessness. I was so convinced, on such a deep level, that nothing good was actually true about me. The BN explained that everyone has a story with which to explain themselves, but when your story is “I suck” you run into trouble (OK, I started laughing so hard when he said that I couldn’t breath and he actually had to wait a few minutes for me to calm down before continuing. :)) So when bad things happen, which they do to everyone, you take them right in, because they fit what you know to be true; they fit your narrative of “I suck.” But when something good happens, you can’t take it in, it gets discarded because it can’t be true, because it isn’t part of your story.

So my successes were always seen as something that happened TO me. I got lucky, someone who said something nice was just being nice, if they really knew me they wouldn’t think that. I suspect a lot of you have a copy of the tape I was playing in my head. Because of that tape, I didn’t know how to believe differently; it was impossible to take in that my successes might have been due to my hard work or talent or aptitude. Which meant that tape had to be replaced. But how do you learn to believe something you KNOW is NOT true. (Correction: feels like it’s not true, but trying telling that to someone with no sense of self-worth.  The BN corrected me somewhere in the neighborhood of 245,000 times.)

You do it by using therapy as a play space in the truest sense of the word. A place to play “make-believe” where you can try out new “truths” without having to believe them. In that space, it was possible to allow myself to think about considering that maybe, just maybe, my belief “I suck” wasn’t the truth about me. I could make-believe the good stuff was true and that the bad stuff wasn’t always true and see what happened in that land of make-believe. So I would act AS IF my being worth something was true.

And that’s when it started to happen. When I choose to act as if I did have worth, as if not everyone did think poorly of me, or that someone would actually stay if they knew me DESPITE how I was feeling, that’s when my feelings started to change. It took a very long time and the changes were in small (ok, microscopic) increments, but it did change. My feelings followed my actions. I acted as if I had self-worth, until I could feel it.

We both under and over value our feelings. When we undervalue them, we don’t pay enough attention to them. Feelings are crucial to inform us about ourselves and about our life; we do not feel alive and as if life has purpose or meaning if we are shut off from them. So it’s vitally important that we are able to access them and allow them to flow through us in order to live a full life. On the other hand, we over value them, thinking they are how we set our course, that if we can obtain the right feelings, then we’ll be able to move. Instead, they are information, the map so to speak which can help us to find our way, but we actually move ourselves forward by CHOOSING to act.

So to learn not to be scared, do what you fear. Do it enough and eventually it will stop being so scary. So to learn to trust, act as if you trust the person. Do that enough, with good results, and you’ll learn to risk trusting someone. To learn to value yourself, act as if you matter. Eventually, even you will believe it.

  1. True North
    January 2, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    I am trying valiantly to trust my therapist. It was working for awhile when the fear was at a low point. But then by trusting my therapist I moved closer to him (and him to me it seemed) and that ramped up the fear levels and intensified my creativity in finding reasons to run from him (or just plain not trust him anymore).

    He has also said lots of nice things about me that I cannot take in or accept. I know that there are times I just gloss over his observations and compliments because to actually take them in and believe them would be just setting me up for disappointment because surely he will take them back or I would find out it was all a huge joke. My therapist has amazing patience with me and has explained that it’s very much like he is trying to give me a gift and I am refusing it. He asked me how I would feel if he refused one of my gifts to him? Of course I would feel just awful and very rejected. So it made me pause to consider how I was making him feel by rejecting him and his kind words to me.

    I am trying not to refuse his gifts now and to appreciate them for what they are to me. They do mean a lot. I am working hard on editing those old tapes.

    Thanks AG for this topic and for sharing your experiences.

    True North


    • January 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm

      Hi TN,
      We’re fighting against a deeply engrained filter learned in childhood that tells we are not worthy, so we stop the good stuff because it doesn’t fit through our “filter.” We need a lot of experience to change these embedded beliefs, and create somewhere to put the good stuff (honestly, as you know, I’m still working on this.) Healing is always slower than we would like and it is so very difficult to be patient with ourselves. Your T understands this and can stay with you while you learn it.



  2. graceoverflowing
    December 15, 2012 at 7:35 am

    I love this: We want to get our feelings to the right place, then act. But it doesn’t really work that way; we need to act in a new way so that our feelings follow.

    I think this is what my T has been trying to teach me of late. It is so risky taking those first steps while inner turmoil tells us we are walking into total destruction.

    I had never realised how much I had glossed over and rejected compliments until my T had told me I did well handling a tough session. She knew I wasn’t accepting it and had me verbally accept it. The fear is brought up was unbelievable. I am so much more conscious of my reactions to positive statements now. They are not accepted easily but I guess it is my learning to act against the fear in order to defeat the fear.

    Thank you once again for your amazing wisdom, gained through walking your own hard road. I have been reading all weekend!!


    • December 16, 2012 at 4:40 pm

      I think this is what my T has been trying to teach me of late. It is so risky taking those first steps while inner turmoil tells us we are walking into total destruction.

      This is exactly what BN calls the bind of healing from injury at the hands of a primary caregiver. The horrible dilemna of having to go towards the source of our pain to find comfort for it left us terrified of close relationship. We learned, in a very harsh way, that the very things we need to do to heal, — move closer, become vulnerable, allow another to see us — are the things we expect will get us hurt or destroyed. I have sometimes described healing as walking into the heart of fear, over and over again.

      I also do not take a compliment all that well, so this is good practice for me. Thank you very much for your kind words, it means so much to know that you are gaining so much from what I write. And I appreciate the enthusiasm (not to mention the stamina! :D)


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