So Long, Social Constructs: From Conflict to Self-Compassion

Woman in sunglasses at sunsetWhat would you believe if nobody taught you what to believe?

As children, the world seemed so big. We witnessed the reactions and strategies of our caregivers as they navigated various social, political, and religious systems. Maybe one parent yelled at the world while another cowered. Maybe we were asked to keep secrets, as if parts of Self need to be hidden, as if threat is all around us. Maybe we learned that women are supposed to be domineering or docile, that emotions are amplified or hidden, that others are dependable, or that we must become self-sufficient to survive.

We can look back, when older, when we have more awareness of nearly infinite varieties of ways to live, and we can sometimes understand why we respond now to triggers that formed in decades past.

We adapt—not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. This conditioning assures that we will survive within a certain range of systems, often geographically determined.

In this adaptation process, we separate from parts of Self. When we learn that parts of Self bring ridicule, punishment, or abandonment, we contain those parts. We conform to system norms. Maybe we felt “too quiet” or “too exuberant.” Maybe we were “too vain” or “too insecure.” So we developed strategies or new parts of Self to contain the “unacceptable” parts. And with this we internalized judgments. We learned to police ourselves, to judge and contain before others do.

Recognizing Containment

In the therapy room, the containment shows up in many forms. It might show itself as nonstop talking to keep Self or Other from really seeing. Maybe it’s a silence to keep our true Self safe beneath the surface. It might come with pain in the neck and shoulders, holding the breath, caretaking of others, or playing tough. It might reveal itself in anger from the part contained. Sometimes it’s just a tickle in the throat or the sense that something wants to come up from below the neck.

When we move into reconnection with these parts of Self, it doesn’t matter what we call them. Some use the term Organic Self. Others use Core Self or Inner Child. While each of these terms has its own unique perspective, they all refer to one’s sense of what is real and authentic within, what feels as if it has remained throughout life, surviving from infancy through childhood and into the present moment.

Judgments and the Person You Are ‘Supposed’ to Be

The recognition, awareness, and acceptance of judgments is a key factor in integration—in reconnection with various parts of Self. Judgments are a primary tool of those parts that protect by containing other parts.

Judgments can present as generalized negative assessment of traits or behaviors.

  • “I’m ugly.”
  • “I’m stupid.”
  • “I’m too much,” or, “I’m a burden.”

They can be recognized through strategies that imply an underlying judgment.

  • “If I do not look them in the eyes, they will not see me. They will not feel obligated to interact. I will not be a burden. I will not be rejected.”
  • “If I keep talking or amplify emotions, they will feel obligated to stay. I will avoid being abandoned if I can hold their attention.”
  • “If I am self-sufficient, I will not burden others. They will have no reason to leave.”
  • “If I say nothing, I will not sound stupid.”

Looking at these strategies as adults, we can recognize the childlike reasoning behind them. They can be recognized through interaction with others.

  • “I’m not smart enough. I need to convince my partner to do this for me.”
  • “I’m not good with people. I need my partner to do the talking.”
  • “I have to do everything. I need it to be perfect. I need my partner to be perfect.”

Hakomi includes a process of noticing, exploring, and allowing what is. We learn to sit with physical reactions as we explore judgments, memories of their origins, and the actual feeling of both containing and being contained.

What is allowed? What is acceptable? For many, our primary judgments are black-and-white, nonnegotiable, automatic. What is not acceptable in Self is not acceptable for Other. And many of these self-imposed or internalized rules are arbitrary. If asked why some behavior is unacceptable, many will create some reason on the spot, changing that reason every time they are asked. Others will sit for a minute without finding any answer, realizing that the judgment was one implied or enforced in childhood without explanation. Sometimes it will be recognized internally as the voice of a parent.

And this is conflict.

This is one against another and Self against Self.

Internal Conflict Example

One theory suggests that once we feel truly accepted, just as we are, we no longer chase that acceptance. In order to internalize the feeling, we need to feel accepted at least once in life.

In complex trauma, an internal conflict develops between the part that never felt accepted and the part that tries to contain that need (by judging it, by deflecting or avoiding any situation that might fill the need). It’s both a yearning and fearing, experienced simultaneously.

External Conflict Example

We often conflict with those most like us or those on whom we rely to maintain our equilibrium. These are people who reflect to us who we really are and those on whom we depend. If those who reflect us behave in ways we find unacceptable, we find ourselves policing them the way we police ourselves. If those we depend on begin to change, our stability becomes threatened, so we do our best to keep them in their present roles.

An often subconscious internal dialogue might look something like this: “My son is breaking my internal rules. Volume is unacceptable. It draws attention. It is not allowed for me, and it is not allowed for anyone. I will treat him the way I treat myself. I will contain what is not acceptable in me, in him.”

From Judgment to Curiosity

Each containment system comes with judgments and physical restraints. It comes with memories. If asked how old this part feels, many people recall specific memories (or periods) of childhood events—of times they felt a sense of loss or disconnection, as if the world was unable to meet, understand, or appreciate their core Self.

In therapy, we are simply noticing the person we think we are supposed to be. And we are reconnecting, physically, to the parts of Self that feel central, true, pure, timeless, solid, knowing—the parts that are sometimes easier to recognize when nobody is looking.

Hakomi includes a process of noticing, exploring, and allowing what is. We learn to sit with physical reactions as we explore judgments, memories of their origins, and the actual feeling of both containing and being contained. We come to recognize strategies as they play out in real time in the therapy room. We respond to experiments or probes from the therapist, words or movements designed specifically to provoke either side of our internal conflict and to amplify reactions—to make them easily observable in the moment.

When we have developed an ability to zoom in or out and to observe the present internal interactions as connected to physical sensations, we then notice ourselves stepping past initial, previously automatic reactions and beginning a natural questioning: Why am I doing this? How am I relating to all these parts of Self? How am I separate from them? How is each part honoring my core? Is that judgment accurate? Does it fit in this moment? How does it feel to try the opposite? Or something in between?

As we learn to recognize internal conflict and to mediate without choosing sides, we develop a compassionate internal dialogue, finding ways to honor all parts. Parts that developed to help us navigate old systems no longer need to put so much energy into containment. As the containment diminishes, our Organic Self becomes more available in the present. We gradually shake away the residue of childhood, allowing each day an unfolding of who we have always been.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPC, therapist in Portland, Oregon

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.

  • 6 comments
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  • Sylvia

    Sylvia

    April 23rd, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    We grow up listening to so many conflicting voices that you often have a hard time differentiating which to listen to.

  • Jennifer D

    Jennifer D

    April 24th, 2015 at 7:00 AM

    This truly speaks volume to me. I found a mind body therapist who uses energy therapy with her clients. Her name is Susan B. She is at mindbodytherapymn.com I can’t wait to go see her. thank you for posting this. I have a negative internal dialogue all the time. I hope that I can find a way to heal myself, to know that I am loved, special, worth helping.

  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    April 24th, 2015 at 7:08 AM

    Wonderful article, and Hakomi is a lovely body of work. I believe it’s so important to include the body and its sensations in therapy.

  • meg

    meg

    April 24th, 2015 at 9:28 AM

    I never felt this real connection between the person that I felt like my parents wanted me to be and the person that I actually am. I always felt like I was letting them down and in turn letting myself down.
    It wasn’t until very long ago that I realized that I have to be true to who I am and who I feel is the right thing for me to be, and again, not until then have I truly felt happy and free of the pressure that I felt before that.

  • john

    john

    April 25th, 2015 at 12:58 AM

    It was a great article

  • Hanna

    Hanna

    April 25th, 2015 at 5:33 AM

    I don’t think that the constructs that have been devised by society are always necessarily a bad thing. They do sort of you give you this guide for what living should be like. Now I agree that it should be up to you to make that your own and make of it what you will, but it is also kind of nice to have those guides and societal mores when you are trying to figure out exactly who you are and what you believe.

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