September 28, 2011

Family Matters - Part 1

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationships that play such an important part in shaping who we are – family. Growing up in a family where abuse or dysfunction is occurring is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult things a person can face. Even if the abuser is outside of the family, the way in which our family responds to the abuse is fundamental to how we are able to cope and heal.

It’s no easy thing for a parent to find out that their child has been abused, let alone if the abuse is at the hands of their own spouse or family member. This isn’t to let them off the hook if their responses were less than supportive or, at worst, they outright denied that abuse was happening. It is simply an effort to acknowledge that abuse or dysfunction convolutes the roles and relationships within a family.

There are some common cultural traits in families where abuse/dysfunction is occurring (adapted from Shelter from the Storm):
  • Needy family members receive an inappropriate proportion of the family’s time, attention, and energy so that members learn to be overly-responsible toward needy people and irresponsible about themselves.
  • Denial and secrecy are encouraged or it is implicitly understood that some things are just not to be talked about.
  • Emotions are repressed, explosive, or both.
  • Children are not taught effective living & relationships skills. Children do not learn to touch, feel, or trust. They learn to expect rigidity and emotional or physical abandonment.
  • Members are squeezed into rigid, inappropriate roles.
The last thing on the list above refers to the fact that children in families where abuse/dysfunction occurs generally develop survival roles. These roles are either assigned by the family or unconsciously chosen by the child.

Some examples of survival roles include (from Shelter from the Storm):
  • Scapegoat: usually blamed for family problems
  • Hero: works hard to bring respect to the family name
  • Surrogate Spouse: often takes the place of the emotionally absent spouse and becomes the child counselor for a troubled adult parent
  • Lost Child: never gets in the way or causes trouble because this family has enough problems
  • Surrogate Parent: takes over responsibility of parenting tasks
  • Clown: avoids the pain by being the center of attention
These roles are critical in helping one cope with the abuse/dysfunction. Yet, whatever role it is you played in your family, you’re likely still caught up in playing that same role today. Even if you manage to step away from the role when you are on your own, as soon as you are around your family members, you fall right back into old patterns of relating and being. It’s kinda like how my Oklahoma accent really shows up as soon as I’m around my mom!

The more we play these roles in our families, relationships, in our jobs, the more we come to believe ourselves to be trapped and stuck in these ways of being. We have it that we “ARE” this way, and so struggle to see ourselves capable of anything else. When you have it that you “ARE” the clown, the loyal daughter, the scapegoat, the black sheep of the family, the outsider, the child-parent, the achiever – this keeps you trapped with no possibility, because you frame all of your behavior with this lens or limit yourself to a particular way of being.

Additionally, these defined roles limit who we get to be for ourselves and others, keeping relationships superficial and limited. For example, if you define yourself as “the caregiver,” then you will never relax and let others care for you! You trap yourself and steal from others the gift of being able to support and love you.

Our families play a critical role in shaping who we are, how we define ourselves, and how we think about others. The messages we get from our family are like telegrams that were sent long ago and became wired into our thinking, but all of that is up for grabs now. You get to choose at this point which things you believe, which things you don’t believe, and which things are really just about them, that is their stuff. You don’t have to continue playing the roles that were assigned or that you chose as a child and you certainly don’t have to take all of the lessons you were taught about relationships or who you are as the bottom line truth of things.

What role did you play in your family? Is this a role you continue to play today? If so, what can you begin to do to break away from this role?

What messages about relationships or who you are did you get from your family?

What do you have it that you “ARE”? How do you define yourself?
Example: I am the practical one, I am the dependable one, I am the caregiver

If you’d like to challenge the roles you are playing or the messages you received from your family in order to break free of patterns of thought or behavior that are holding you back from living a life that you love, just schedule a 30 minute FREE discovery session. Right now – receive 6 sessions for the price of 3!

September 21, 2011

Shame vs. Guilt

Recently, I wrote about how we each take on ways of being, which become a way of engaging, showing up, or behaving in the world and relationships. Two very specific ways of being I’d like to talk about today are “the guilty one” and “the shameful one”.

“Shame is the feeling of humiliating disgrace of having been violated. Shame tells you that you are bad.” (from Shelter from the Storm)

It becomes very difficult to correct for shame, because it is rooted in a negative belief. For example, “I am unlovable, because [fill in the blank – we all have different experiences that can lead us to this false belief].” Shame is, essentially, the belief that you are bad. It becomes a deep rooted way of being that very much impacts our view of ourselves.

Additionally, I see shame as being born out of taking responsibility for something you have “no cause” in. In other words, shame is feeling bad because someone falls down; you feel responsible even though you didn’t trip them.

I think of it like a little equation: No Cause + Taking Responsibility = False Guilt/Shame

Feeling shame – or taking responsibility for abuse or something you did not cause – is a defense mechanism. By blaming ourselves, we are able deal with the fact that someone we trusted and adored is also capable of harming us. We long to protect the image and idea of the other person, and so blaming ourselves for something we did not cause is easier. However, if we continue to shame and judge ourselves we are guaranteeing that our lives will be mired in self-abuse, lack of joy, distrust, and lack of freedom.

Now, if your way of being is “the shameful one,” then you tend towards reinforcing the false beliefs that lead you to feel shame. As with any false belief, we will find the evidence to support our way of being. We will adopt the shameful message that we are worthless and, no surprise, we will interpret situations or, worse, find abusive people to help reinforce this attitude. If you’d like to learn a bit about how to break out of these patterns of thought, check out this post.

“Guilt is the feeling that you did something wrong.” (from Shelter from the Storm)

Guilt is related to you being “at cause” for what happened. Guilt is tripping someone and then feeling bad about it. You can correct an action or behavior that leads to guilt. For example, you can apologize for tripping the person.

The equation goes like this: At Cause + Responsibility = Guilt

Guilt is a tricky beast. In its best form, it spurs us on to transform and change our behavior. In its worst, it can be used as way to avoid facing reality. One of the payoffs of feeling guilty – of taking responsibility for abuse or unpleasant things that happen – is that we don’t have to face the fact that we were powerless.

As a quick aside, unless you move the guilt/blame from yourself to the abuser or person who harmed you in some way, you have nothing to forgive them for – they’ve done nothing wrong if you are to blame.

Finally, when we look back at experiences, and say things like, “I should’ve known better…”, we are using “retrospective thinking.” We judge ourselves as guilty, because we are taking into account everything we’ve learned and experienced since that time to judge your capacity to handle the past experience. This is a huge error. How can you expect the 10 year old you to have understood, had the insights that the 30 year old you has? It’s very important to remember to evaluate your capacity to handle or respond to a situation based on the knowledge, experience, life learning you had at the time and not from your matured perspective of today.

If you’re way of being is “the guilty one,” then you are constantly looking to reinforce the false beliefs that lead you to feel guilt or blame yourself. In any situation, you make yourself responsible for all that has occurred and fail to see the behaviors and choices of others that play a role in causing discord, upset, or breakdowns. More importantly, those around you very quickly learn that this is the role you will play, and so there is little incentive for them to evaluate their own behavior or make any corrections. By being the guilty one, you are essentially letting those around you off the hook and bearing the burden of responsibility on your shoulders alone. While there may be times when you truly are the only one at fault, if you have a deeply engrained belief that you are at fault all the time, you won’t be able to recognize when this isn’t the case. 

Now, let me be clear, I’m not saying we should never feel guilt or shame! Each of them has their proper place and exist, in part, to spur us on to better ourselves and to hold others around us accountable. I do want there to be a distinction though between feeling guilt or shame when the situation calls for it and defining oneself as the guilty one or shameful one. The former brings about transformation, the latter only causes us to stay stuck in patterns of thought and behavior that keep us from living fulfilling, authentic lives.

What are some of the words or phrases you use to shame/judge yourself?
How are you using retrospective thinking to judge yourself or make yourself guilty?

If you’d like to learn more about how I work with clients to challenge shame and guilt messages, just schedule a 30 minute FREE Discovery Session.

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September 7, 2011

Payoffs & Costs

Recently I wrote about the many false beliefs that we have and how these shape our expectations which then set us out to prove particular things about ourselves, others, relationships, the world. I want to now take a look at how we are showing up in the world as a result.

We’re going to call these our “ways of being.” These are ways of being, because they are not just about feelings, but become a way of engaging, showing up, behaving in the world and relationships. In a variety of situations, we may show up as insecure, worthless, incapable, ashamed, or constantly guilty. We may also show up as the perfectionist, the reliable one, the problem-solver. The list goes on and on…

In addition to ways of being, we also adopt certain attitudes or behaviors that impact the way we show up in the world or the types of experiences we have. For example, you might have the attitude that, “All relationships fail.” This will impact how you see yourself, potential partners, and intimate relationships. Additionally, it may be related to your way of being – the loner – and also show up as particular behavior (e.g. you never attend social events where you might meet someone). It’s all one big circular loop. One you’re likely hoping to break out of! But how?

By first recognizing that anything we do, we do because we perceive there is some payoff. Furthermore, we don’t discontinue any behavior until the costs outweigh the payoffs. In the example above, the payoffs might be that you don’t have to risk being vulnerable or getting hurt. The costs, however, are that you never get to experience connection and intimacy with another person.

One of my favorite quotes comes from a section on Taoism in Religions of Man (emphasis mine):

“With Confucius every effort was turned to building up a complete pattern of ideal responses which might thereafter be consciously imitated. Taoism's approach is the opposite—to get the foundations of the self in tune with Tao and let behavior flow spontaneously. Action follows being; new action, wiser action, stronger action will follow new being, wiser being, stronger being. The Tao Te Ching puts this point without wasting a single word. ‘The way to do,’ it says simply, ‘is to be.’”

Our efforts here to tune in to who we are being isn’t some idle practice. If we want to transform our experience, bring life into our relationships, lose weight, communicate powerfully, give up an addiction, etc. we must start with our being. The greatest source of and influence on our being is our mind out of which flows our words. Whenever we want to transform a way of being, attitude, or behavior, we must first understand the payoffs & costs and then begin the work of transforming our thoughts and words out of which will flow “new action” and experiences.

As with false beliefs, we will find the evidence to support our way of being. We will adopt the attitude that we are worthless and, no surprise, we will interpret situations or, worse, find abusive people to help reinforce this attitude.

As I mentioned before, we don’t change any behavior until the costs outweigh the payoffs. So, the critical question is: which holds the most weight for you – the payoffs or the costs?


What are your ways of being? How are you showing up in the world?
Example: I’m damaged, I am undeserving, I am the reliable one

If you'd like to learn more about how coaching can help you identify and break free of your ways of being, schedule a FREE 30 minute Discovery Session.

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