This article is part of a series that explores the ways that specific “clusters” of depression symptoms manifest to create different experiences of depression. The previous article in this series discussed the low-ambition experience.
Self-attack is my term for thinking mean, diminishing, insulting, and shaming thoughts about oneself. People often think of this as low self-esteem, but I think self-attack better describes what is actually going on. People who experience depression often think like this, but it is also possible to engage in self-attack and not meet the full criteria to be diagnosed with depression. Whether or not your self-attack is part of depression, this is a very painful, disabling, quality-of-life-reducing, and even life-threatening way to exist.
In fact, I believe self-attack is possibly the most common type of misery and symptom of depression. So many people frequently say things to themselves—whether they even notice or not—that diminish or shame them: “I’m a failure,” “I’m stupid,” “I’m lazy” “I’m unlovable,” (which may sound like “I’m fat and ugly”, or take other forms), “I’m a terrible parent, employee, friend, spouse…,” “I can’t do anything right,” I’ll never be good enough,” “I’m not worth what I have,” and so on.
It may surprise you that people attack themselves for good reasons. Many do it because it’s how they understand love—it’s how their parents “loved” them. Others think that shame is the only thing that motivates them. Once people learn to handle themselves this way, they practice it over and over and over, and learning to do something different is very difficult.
I often ask people who are plagued by self-attack, “What if someone were following you around all day saying these things to you?” Most people would yell at them, argue with them, stop them, fight back, or at least get away from them. But when it’s their own voice, they listen and believe it—and it’s devastating.
This can change. There are ways to change this on our own, and ways that psychotherapy can help. In either case, the key is to develop an internal parent who parents us the way good parents do.
How the Parenting We Experience Affects Our Brains
This is the most important thing to know about how to become a happy, well-functioning adult. Generally, when children are parented by caretakers who understand their feelings and needs and respond to them compassionately and protectively, children learn to respond similarly to themselves. Over time, children build skills in parenting from imitating their parents. This is how we know how to take care of ourselves as adults.
We now know from neurological research that we are hard-wired through special neurons to imitate our parents. Our brains learn how to act in the world by incorporating the things that we see our caretakers do when we’re children. It’s a great system when we have parents who act in nurturing, protective, and wise ways. It doesn’t work so well when our parents are abusive, neglectful, unhappy, or dysfunctional people themselves.
We also see that our brains are able to re-wire throughout our lives, so if this doesn’t go well when we’re children, we can usually still change what goes on in our brains when we’re adults. This is what psychotherapy and EMDR do, but there are also ways to work on this outside of therapy.
We also know that when we close our eyes and imagine something, the same pattern of functioning occurs in our brains as when we look at something. So if you see your best friend, then close your eyes and imagine your best friend, your brain will be doing the same thing. This makes guided imagery very powerful. Anything we do that involves imagining being parented, or parenting ourselves in a nurturing, compassionate, protective, wise, functional way, can actually help build the brain structure we need to be the adults we would have been if we’d had better parents.
The Experience of Parenting Yourself
There are many ways to do this, but let’s take a couple moments to try out one. Think of a problem that is upsetting you right now—nothing too upsetting. Now imagine you have a niece or nephew, four to ten years old, who comes to you for help because they are struggling with a similar problem. With the most nurturing, protective, compassionate part of yourself in charge, what would you say to them? Write this down.
What would you do for them? What do you think you could give them that would help them feel a little better? Try expressing your understanding of their feelings and needs. Normalize what they’re experiencing. Show them compassion. Offer forgiveness if they need it. Offer solutions or ways to get solutions. Offer to stay with them through the process. Comfort them any way you can imagine.
Of course, this exercise is just a beginning. But once you learn to do this, and can do it with yourself, you have access to one of the most powerful tools we as human beings have to be happy and functional.
Psychotherapy can help with this process in many ways. For example, my clients usual begin to heal when I treat them with respect, am very genuinely interested in them and amazed by who they are, reflect what I see as I come to understand what they’ve had to overcome and how, and encourage them without shaming them. Being consistent and compassionate, listening carefully and responding with insight, is what parents are supposed to do with children so that they can develop into happy adults. Many parents don’t or can’t do it well—usually because their parents couldn’t do it with them.
By being treated this way, people learn to treat themselves and others that way. They learn to expect healthy relationships where they are treated with a similar respect. It helps people express the feelings they haven’t felt safe to express and to feel more capable of coping with painful feelings. It builds self-esteem and confidence. In this environment, depression usually recedes.
Self-attack is very destructive, but can be overcome by developing a compassionate, nurturing, protective parent inside.
© Copyright 2011 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.