How do we treat ourselves?
Starting something and leaving it halfway, neglecting what's most important, mistreating the body, underestimating achievements, idealizing what belongs to others, getting angry over the same old mistakes, postponing good things for oneself, sustaining unhealthy habits… Do any of these statements resonate with you? If you're like most people, they probably do.
Now, it's possible that even though we could treat ourselves better, live more fully, achieve what we desire, and bring out the best in ourselves, we choose to deny ourselves these possibilities. Yes, this happens, and it happens to all of us to a greater or lesser extent or at some point in life. This attitude, which we find incomprehensible in ourselves and easily notice in others, has been called self-sabotage.
What lies behind this "attack" against oneself?
There are many motivations hidden behind this attitude. Today, I would like to mention some that I observe most in my work as a clinical psychologist and in my personal search.
- Family loyalty:
The family as a realm of belonging transmits beliefs and fosters an identity that envelops all its members: "we have a short lifespan," "everything is hard for us," "money is always scarce," "we are people of sacrifice." These expressions dig deep into the family unconscious and from there act on the personal unconscious, as if they were hypnotic orders that we obey without rebelling or questioning. Thus, just as a soccer team enters the field with its jersey, we go out into life raising these flags in honor of our ancestors. In our unconscious operates the following equation: "obeying is synonymous with belonging, equating is honoring." I see young people who, having completed their degree without great difficulties, take a tremendous amount of time to submit their thesis or take the last exam. Why does this happen? One possible answer is the so-called "invisible loyalties." For example, if my parents couldn't study, one might unconsciously deny oneself this possibility. Growing and surpassing oneself in this case, in the unconscious, means distancing oneself from the family clan. You might remember a memorable movie: "My Name is Sam." In this story, the girl resisted continuing to learn what was impossible for her father. Surpassing her father was for her a "betrayal" of his figure. This makes it clear that behind every behavior that apparently harms oneself and/or others, there is a positive intention. In this story, "out of love for her father," she limited her growth. The same happens in relation to those family members who achieve what others do not (a university degree in a family of lower cultural level, a healthy relationship with a love-wounded mother, the possibility of enjoyment in a suffering family, etc.).
"Becoming aware" of these family loyalties is learning to love our ancestors without limiting ourselves by them.
"Realizing," understanding what is incomprehensible to our consciousness, helps not to get angry with that part of oneself that "stops us" due to mistaken interpretations, inappropriate demonstrations of affection. The healthy thing in the family tree is to be thankful for what has been achieved so far and to open the doors that are still closed. This honors those who preceded us and frees those who will come. This "tree" must be watered by each of its members so that it continues to bear increasingly juicy and nutritious fruits. When from awareness we stop "repeating" others' stories, we begin to "choose" our own life. Living below our possibilities of development is a sign that we are limiting ourselves.
- Unconscious fears:
Change terrifies us. In our unconscious, change is synonymous with threat. The first change we experience is the transition from the maternal womb to the outside world, undoubtedly the most traumatic experience. In turn, the greatest fear we deal with in life is the fear of death, the last of the drastic changes we will all experience at some point. We seek certainty, security, and predictable environments to protect ourselves from pain and avoid suffering. This unconscious association: "change = threat = death" makes us resist moving from where we are and tolerate the intolerable under the promise of manageable familiarity. Changing jobs, moving, starting a new relationship, separating, having a child, or graduating means leaving behind known structures and creating new ones. This transition demands energy, and our unconscious strives to save it. It doesn't judge whether the change is for better or worse, good or bad, favorable or unfavorable; above all, it prioritizes survival and understands that, if we have survived this far, we must leave everything as it is. We are like fearful little animals afraid to make any move that might awaken a predator. We fear getting hurt, suffering, failure, loneliness, and sometimes we protect ourselves clumsily. The good thing is to know that it is "just a part of oneself," our most primitive part, whispering fearfully in our ear. An unhealed love wound can activate this primitive part of ourselves in the face of the possibility of new love; fear of failure can indefinitely postpone a good opportunity for success.
We can take care of ourselves from our most grown, mature and conscious self.
It is possible to engage in dialogue with this part of ourselves that tries to protect us, to thank it for its intention to preserve us and to relieve it of having to remind us of the risks because we will take care of ourselves from our most grown, mature and conscious self.If we fight with those parts of ourselves that hold us back, we generate internal violence and nothing is achieved by force and hostility; we will only become more estranged from ourselves.
Understanding that different "selves" live within us, which sometimes manage to agree, is to be willing to open a dialogue and establish alliances. The one who directs this conversation is the "Conscious" part that becomes aware through self-work. Knowing ourselves, "understanding ourselves" enables us to manage ourselves instead of continuing to justify and excuse ourselves from ignorance of what is really happening to us.
We all make mistakes in the attempt to be better, we can do the wrong thing while wishing to do the right thing, we can clumsily harm or judge from a higher level of consciousness what we did or said from a lower level of consciousness. Recognizing our humanity means not condemning ourselves for not always acting as we would like. It's not about being indulgent with ourselves, but about not being overly severe and reproaching ourselves for life for our mistakes or missteps. There are more ignorant than malicious people, more immature than harsh. The ignorant become wise not by whipping them or by taking away their appreciation. However, we behave like this with ourselves, not leaving ourselves alone, becoming the harshest judges and the harshest jailers. We look at ourselves with disdain, deny ourselves pleasure, and deprive ourselves of any reward under the firm belief of "not deserving."
Just as there are fearful parts that resist change, there are angry parts of us that punish us tirelessly. If we believe we don't deserve good things for ourselves, we will push away everything we judge as good for ourselves (a job, a person, a new habit, an achievement). From this severity, we mistreat ourselves, deny ourselves enjoyment, and distance ourselves from pleasure. Or we take too long to get out of situations that harm us or relationships that cause us pain.
All behavior is generated by a positive intention that we need to understand
The positive intention here is to do justice, counteract guilt, pay our debts to alleviate internal discomfort. The problem is that this attitude neither heals us nor repairs the damage done. From the full awareness of this internal conflict, we can "make agreements" that are healthy and constructive. It's not about ignoring our mistakes but about putting an end to senseless self-torture. One option could be to apologize to those we believe we have offended; if this is not possible, we can perform a symbolic reparative act that makes us feel more worthy. Perhaps the harm was self-directed and we cannot forgive ourselves for abandoning a career, neglecting a partner, etc. Becoming aware of this frustration enables us to do in the present what was not done or completed in the past.
From all that has been said, a fundamental premise emerges: "every behavior is generated by a positive intention." Questioning that purpose, revealing its meanings and understanding our contradictions allows us to find the end of the tangled skein that must be untangled to weave the tapestry of our life with firm stitches and matching colours.
We should not think that there is a "sabotaging" UNCONSCIOUS that plays tricks on us and is determined to make our existence bitter. It's just about less grown and developed parts of ourselves that need to be heard and soothed from more lucid and worked-on parts of ourselves.
Being gentle, tolerant, and understanding with ourselves predisposes us to look at ourselves not with pity but with compassion, not with harshness but with devotion. From that unconditional love towards oneself, which the traditions of Eastern wisdom call "Maitri," we can lucidly choose what is good for ourselves. This is HEALTH, this is LOVE.