Avoiding a Painful Past: To Leave a Place You Must First Arrive

The title of my blog post this week contains one of the essential insights of my work as a psychologist.

Too many people spend their lives leaving places they have never actually arrived at.

A person who had a traumatic childhood might say they would rather just forget about the past and move on, which is their way of leaving without first arriving.

Another person might spend their entire life in a search for meaning on the mountain tops of Nepal or in the pursuits of promotions or recognition at work, which is their way of not addressing the source of an emptiness, but simply displacing it into an ever elusive ambition of becoming someone better or of transcending themselves. They spend their entire life leaving a place without really fully understanding the place they are trying to leave.

Neurosis and Human GrowthAs the now deceased psychoanalyst Karen Horney has written about in her excellent book “Neurosis and Human Growth”, many people lose themselves in the empty pursuit of a never-ending self-improvement, and end up living an entire life trying to become someone other than themselves. They lose their life on what she calls the altar of glory, that is, in the pursuit of a better version of themselves that is really just another way to abandon a confrontation with the hurts of their own past.

The outcome of such a driven pursuit to simply move on without fully understanding that from which one is trying to move on, is a loss of a kind of happiness that comes from feeling rooted in one’s history and grounded within oneself.

The Price We Pay for Trying to Escape from Our Past:

So many people nowadays come to therapy complaining that they don’t really know what they are passionate about, or saying that their lives feel meaningless. Maybe they report feeling like a machine, and not really having access to the flow of emotions that would make them feel alive. Or maybe they report feeling lost and confused, empty inside, and in search of a purpose.

These are the symptoms of leaving without first arriving.

They announce to us that we are not in touch with ourselves, that we have taken leave of ourselves before first accepting the struggles, traumas, memories, or feelings that would allow us to work through our issues without abandoning ourselves. They are signs that we have attempted to leave ourselves by numbing ourselves, tuning out, avoiding, or prematurely conforming. They are signs that we have paid the price of trying to get somewhere safer and better by leaving our “luggage” behind or by leaving painful pieces of ourselves behind in our unprocessed and unresolved past.

But we can’t leave a place simply by avoiding it. We must first “say our goodbyes”.

Leaving Pain Behind Is an Active Process:

Truly leaving a place that feels unpleasant, overwhelming, shaming, or traumatic is an active process of facing and confronting that which haunts us.

To face and confront a belief about oneself, an emotional reality, or a painful memory we must first accept it.

Only when we accept that which we have tried to leave behind can we begin the active process of mourning our losses, shedding our tears, developing compassion for ourselves, or expressing anger at others for what we needed from them but never got. This kind of emotional repair work is only possible when we truly arrive at those places which we wish to leave behind.

Leaving can now become an active emotional process, rather than an avoidance that simply shuts out by shutting ourselves out.

Experiencing Transformation Through Our Emotions:

In the realm of emotions, getting away from something is paradoxically only possible by going into it.

Only by going into that which is unpleasant or overwhelming or distasteful, do we realize that we can come out on the other side with new realizations about ourselves. If we truly enter into our emotions, like one would ride a wave, we will see that emotions have a way to carry us to new shores. They don’t have to become stuck places in our lives, but can be starting points for truly working through sadness, anger, loneliness, and despair.

Rainer Marie Rilke: Austrian Existentialist Poet

Rainer Marie Rilke: Austrian Existentialist Poet

As the poet Rainer Marie Rilke writes:

“Where something becomes extremely difficult and unbearable, there we also stand already quite near its transformation”

And transformation through going through the motion of our emotion is exactly what is needed in order to leave a place.

Discovering the Joy of Our Aliveness:

By working our emotions through to completion rather than short-circuiting them in an effort to leave them behind, we can let our suffering transform us and in turn transform our suffering.

The Transforming Power of AffectDiana Fosha, for example, has found that clients who truly work through their emotions in therapy, experience a variety of transformational affects, like a sense of mastery, curiosity, confidence, joy, pride, and compassion. People report feeling moved and touched, or experiencing amazement and wonder. They no longer feel weighed down by the pain, or blemished by their past, but instead feel “lighter”, shed tears of joy, and get filled with tenderness toward themselves and others.

These kinds of shifts are signs that we are rediscovering who we really are instead of spending our life running from ourselves. They are signs that we are getting in touch with an aliveness and resilience within, and that growth brings about a joy that avoidance can never obtain.

They are signs that we are finally leaving a place that we have truly arrived at, and that we no longer have to abandon ourselves in order to find peace and comfort with who we are.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., Psychologist in Houston Texas. I help people arrive at their past so they can truly leave it behind instead of spending their life running from themselves.

 

How to Overcome Excessive Guilt Feelings

Many people feel marred by guilt feelings that are preventing them from fully enjoying their lives.

Sometimes, of course, guilt is a useful signal to ourselves that we have done something we can’t really be proud of or have done something we shouldn’t have. It allows us to to seek forgiveness and correct a wrong. Without this kind of experience, we would not be able to become remorseful, and would end up not caring about other people’s needs, thoughts, and feelings.

When Does Guilt Become Excessive?

Many times, however, guilt becomes attached to a wide variety of healthy feelings, thoughts, or behaviors, and starts to work against us rather than for us.

We may for example feel like we have done something wrong after having sex, or we may feel like we made a transgression by standing up for ourselves when we really needed to.

Because the feeling of being guilty of a wrong is so unpleasant, it is likely that we end up avoiding situations that would make us feel this way, or that we become apologetic and remorseful in situations where we should really stand our ground.

In this way, our guilt feelings can begin to control us, and can make us cut off pieces of ourselves and live restricted lives.

The Woman Who Was Consumed by Guilt:

One woman, for example, had the propensity to feel guilty about asking for what she needed in her marriage. She would not be able to enjoy a movie if her husband didn’t pick it, and would not be able to tell him “no”, if he asked her to take on responsibilities, which severely encroached on her other commitments and plans. On her birthday when she chose a restaurant for her birthday celebration, she could not enjoy the dinner because she was too worried about others not liking the restaurant she picked. In situation after situation, she would therefore avoid making a decision, or avoid telling others no.

At the end of the day she paid for her guilt-ridden existence by feeling “trapped” in her obligations and responsibilities. Her conscience had turned against her. Rather than being a source of good, it had become a cross to bear. She was living a life of repentance of sins she had never committed and had become imprisoned by the prohibition against making any demands or stating any wishes. Being herself had become guilt-inducing.

Neurotic Guilt

In this situation the woman’s guilt had become “neurotic”.

Neurotic guilt is guilt that has stopped serving as a useful moral compass, and has started to become aggression turned against oneself.

The voices of adults we internalized when growing up, and which helped shape us into a moral human being with empathy and consideration for others, has in these instances begun to over-function.

What is Guilt?

Guilt is in its essence the experience of remorse for having done harm to others by our actions, feelings, or thoughts.

In a supportive environment, we learn that even though we hit our little sister, we can seek forgiveness and can repair the situation. But if for some reason, the repair was not an option, or if others seemed to be excessively hurt by our expression of a thought, or our display of a particular emotion, the experience of guilt can find no release, and instead become traumatic.

One woman expressed how her father during a time of depression, had told her that the reason why he became suicidal is that he thought she did not love him. The woman internalized this message as a perpetual guilt about her actions and omissions. She started to feel that there was something destructive about expressing her needs or feelings, and that she had the power to destroy the people she loved, by the mere expression of her thoughts.

Other situations that can lead to excessive guilt are early messages that you will go to hell, or that mommy and daddy won’t love you anymore, or any other message that communicates the lack of possibility of redemption, or the withdrawal of needed love and affection. The guilt in these situations can become overwhelming, and so aversive that life itself, with its spontaneous desires and wishes, has to be inhibited.

The Cure for Excessive Guilt:

In the examples stated above, guilt in its natural state has really been corrupted by the experience of intense anxiety and fear, or by excessive pain, or even self-loathing.

To remove the excessive guilt is therefore to come to terms with these feelings or fears. In many situations, guilt or the anxiety associated with asserting one’s needs or wishes, are really rooted in a fear of one’s own aggression and the erroneous belief that there is something destructive about one’s needs and feelings.

Only when a person gets in touch with these underlying realizations and learns to undo the false impressions of their needs and feelings, can these feelings be transformed. A person can then be released from the chains of their excessive guilt and find peace and comfort in being who they are.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people undo negative learning from their past that has led to excessive guilt, shame, or anxiety. Visit my website to learn more.

 

 

Do You Feel Guilty about Your Own Needs?

One frequent problem people present with in therapy is: not knowing how to care for themselves emotionally. Many people make their lives all about caring for others, and not enough about caring for themselves.

They might make statements such as:

  • “My husband doesn’t like Chinese food, so we never go”
  • “I would never spend the money on a spa treatment for myself, I just don’t feel like I’m worth it”
  • “I did not feel proud when I got my promotion, I don’t want to be seen as egotistical”

Problems with Ignoring Own Needs:

This kind of attitude toward life whereby you shun your own needs, desires, and healthy pride due to feelings of guilt and shame can in the long run lead to problems.

First of all, when you shut down your natural desires and wants because you feel selfish for having them, you end up feeling more empty inside and more alien from yourself.

Second of all, when other people’s needs always take priority, you will end up feeling increasingly resentful of others and drained by other people’s company.

Is Your Focus on Others Self-Effacing?

Psychoanalyst Karen Horney refers to this lifestyle of minimizing your own needs and focusing always on what others want as a defensive strategy of self-effacement.

Karen Horney: Neurosis and Human Growth

Karen Horney has written about the strategy of self-effacement in her best-selling book “Neurosis and Human Growth”

Karen Horney: Neurosis and Human GrowthThe person who lives their life this way cannot spend money on themselves, cannot openly demand anything, and cannot celebrate their own successes. They always live in the shadows of others and shun any feelings related to being proud of themselves or entitled to having their needs met.

Although a certain amount of humility and perspective-taking is certainly both healthy and appropriate, it is not healthy when we cannot proudly own our accomplishments, assert our needs, and take interest in ourselves.

When We Lose Touch with Who We Are:

Sometimes the ability to feel inside ourselves for answers to what we want may become muted to such an extent that we feel rather empty inside and lose touch with who we really are. At this point we are likely to become depressed.

Therapy with such people will often uncover that the reason why they have become so alienated from their desires is that they experience intense guilt feelings, shame, or anxiety whenever the focus is on them.

Unless these feelings are resolved, they are going to continue to shun any feeling that hint of pride, confidence, self-interest, and making themselves a priority.

These positive feelings about the self which are vital for a fulfilling life, are then going to continue to be judged as “selfish”, “self-indulgent”, “egotistical” and will therefore continue to be rejected and disowned.

Indeed some people might even go the extra mile and idealize their lack of self-care as a sign of their good-hearted, self-sacrificing, and saintly nature, erecting an even more formidable barrier to regaining healthy self-esteem.

When Self-Sacrifice Becomes Sign of Low Self-Esteem:

The reason why the ban against caring for oneself is so problematic is that instead of being a genuine virtue it often covers up shame, lack of self-love, low self-esteem, and a sense of unworthiness. Were we to really get to the bottom of things, we would often discover that the primary motor for shunning one’s assertiveness is not really a commitment to a more ethical and virtuous life style, but doubts about being liked, needed, wanted, or loved.

Questions that often underlie a compulsive need to please or a fear-driven avoidance of assertiveness, include questions such as:

  • Would my partner still love me and be with me if I made more demands?
  • Would I really discover that I am a horribly selfish person if I indulge my impulses?
  • Am I really worth enough to myself or to anyone to deserve to have my needs met?

These are not the questions of a virtuous person, but the questions of someone who doesn’t love themselves deep down.

What is the Solution?

The solution to the problem of lack of self-love is not to become more virtuous, self-sacrificing, and caring of others, but to learn how to care better for oneself. One must get to the bottom of why it is that vital feelings of pride, self-respect, and self-interest became shameful and needed to be shunned.

As so often happens when people engage in the therapeutic work of truly identifying the causes of their defenses and distress, what they will likely find is a history of losses, absences, and neglects that will need to be properly mourned and confronted.

Once the person goes through this process and reworks the meanings and implications of these past events, they will no longer need to disown parts themselves because they deem them to be unworthy or shameful. Instead they will develop greater self-compassion. Instead of shunning parts of themselves in order to protect themselves from unbearable bruises or erroneous conclusions from the past, they will then once again feel entitled to own all of themselves.  They can then get in touch with the natural sense of pride and self-esteem that is the hallmark of a life worth living.

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, TX, who specializes in helping people get to the root of their depression, lack of self-compassion, and low self-esteem. Click here to read more about my treatment for depression.

What Is Your Depression Telling You?

In my many years of experience as a psychologist and a psychotherapist, I have seen exceptionally few clients for whom depression was simply a disorder of the brain.

In the vast majority of cases, once a person begins to examine their feelings and their life more closely, they discover that their depression has a meaning and a message.

Depression, in other words, is not just a medical illness, but is what happens when a person is stuck in some aspect of their life without knowing exactly why.

Depression Hides its Own Cause:

Depression often conceals its own reason for being there. It is not unusual for a person to be depressed without being able to pinpoint some definite event that explains why they are depressed.

This absence of a cause often makes it feel like depression has no meaning and is simply the sign of a brain in disarray.

Perhaps this is why the vast majority of people end up treating their depression with anti-depressants, encouraged, no doubt, by commercials on TV.

However, if you go down this route you will largely miss the point of your depression, and will not  grow in the way your depression is challenging you to grow.

Your Depression has a Message:

why am I depressed?The reason why you are depressed is often not apparent. This itself is one of the hallmarks of depression. Depression tells us: you are stuck in some way, unable to deal with some emotion, haunted by the aftereffects of some experience, or dragged down by the reoccurrence of some pattern of behavior.

If you simply knew which emotion, experience, or behavior made you stuck, then perhaps you would not need to become depressed. Then you would have a pathway out: you would know what to do, or what to change.

The fact that you are depressed, however, tells you: it is not that easy.

Perhaps you have a need to be more assertive in life in order to not be walked all over, but this in turn triggers a fear that other people will reject you or that you will be abandoned by others.

Or perhaps, you have a vague hunch that you are not happy in your marriage, but this realization would have such disastrous consequences for life as you know it, and so instead you suppress it with the consequence that you are now depressed.

In both of these examples, depression simply communicates that you have hit some stumbling block to the authentic acceptance and expression of yourself.

It tells you: you need help to find a different path out of your current dilemma, and that your current solution of ignoring or suppressing isn’t working.

How to Get Unstuck from Your Depression:

What we discover when we take the challenge posed to us by our depression, is that we are almost always depressed for good reasons, even if it does not look like it from where we stand.

The trick of getting out of your depression is to get help to expand your awareness of what it is that is keeping you stuck. Once the full picture of what is keeping you depressed is brought to light, you will no longer feel stuck, and therefore no longer be depressed.

This was the case for both the person who could not be assertive, and the woman who could not allow herself to embrace her discontent with her marriage…

The Man Who Could not Be Assertive:

depressed manIf the person who is unable to be assertive begins to examine some of the fears that keep him stuck in unfulfilling relationships, he may begin to gain access to more of his frustrations with other people, which he now no longer needs to block from his awareness.

As he allows himself to more fully embrace his anger, he may realize that he is tired of always trying to please people, and may begin to express more dissatisfaction when people let him down. As his anger becomes accessible again, he may also be able to feel entitled to his sadness that people have not really been there for him, and to challenge his negative view of himself as someone who is not deserving of respect. As he gets to the root of where his negative belief of himself comes from, and begins to access more compassion for himself, he may be able to shift his view of himself and feel more entitled to have his needs met.

His depression, which was simply telling him that he was stuck in the dimness of a narrow awareness, would now give way to insight and new possibilities of being himself. As he would then no longer be stuck, he also would no longer be depressed. His depression would have served its purpose, and he would have heeded its message.

The Woman Who Was Unhappy in Her Marriage:

depressed womanIf the person who is unhappy with her marriage begins to more fully allow herself to feel her discontent, and if she examines what the fears are about that hold her back from accepting her discontent, the dilemma in which she is stuck may begin to shift. She may be able to more fully discover what she needs in order to be happy in her marriage and may begin to realize that she has some options to more actively fulfill these needs that do not involve getting a divorce. The fear of realizing that she and her husband may in reality be incompatible, may then lessen, and may cease to serve as a barrier to more fully embracing her needs and wants.

As the unconscious dilemma in which she was stuck begins to become known, and she begins to become more fully aware of the reason for her fears and her unhappiness, she is then able to unlock the message of her depression and use it to become unstuck.

What is Your Depression Telling You?

In the majority of the cases of depression I have seen in my many years as a psychotherapist, there was a message to be unlocked in the person’s depression. Once the person began to fully access and examine the full extent of their feelings and experiences, they were able to see what their depression was telling them, and were able to feel unstuck again.

The reasons for one’s depression, cannot be found by looking at the bottom of a pill bottle, but must be discovered through a process of self-examination that is best facilitated by the process of psychotherapy. Only then will you address the real issue which your depression is telling you to look at, and only then will you be able to set your life on a different path.

If you want to understand your depression better, watch my video in which I explain some frequent causes of depression:

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in helping people unlock the message of their depression. Please visit my website for more information about the treatment of depression. 

The Truth about Pathological Lying

The line between telling the truth and telling a lie has always been the central theme of psychotherapy.

The real self (an acceptance of one’s real feelings and motivations) and the reality principle (a sober assessment of the world as it really is) has always been considered the hallmark of health or good adjustment. 

Various forms of lying, on the other hand, have been the hallmark of what we consider to be pathology or maladjustment.

When we tell a lie, we make reality conform to our ideas rather than adjust our ideas to fit reality. 

In neurosis, for example, the truth gets distorted (minimized or magnified) in the service of maintaining a certain level of psychological safety. We need reality to BE a certain way in order to feel okay with ourselves and comfortable in the world.

In psychosis, on the other hand, our lies become fully-fledged fantasies without any basis in external facts.

Pathological Lying:

Although we all need some modicum of fantasy and untruth in order to make our lives and our view of ourselves more tolerable, for a certain group of people, lying becomes the central mechanism by which they interact with others.

We can call these people pathological or compulsive liars, although in many cases, pathological lying is really more of a symptom than a definition of who I am. 

The compulsivity of pathological liars means that these are not people who choose to lie. Lying here becomes automatic. It is a mechanism for maintaining psychological safety and reducing interpersonal anxiety.

Pathological Lying as Reaction to Trauma:

In my own work with compulsive liars I have generally found that the lying is a reaction to trauma.

One person, for example, was in a physically abusive relationship where he learned that he needed to say or do things more out of a concern for maintaining the other person’s happiness, than out of a need to express his true thoughts and feelings. The truth became associated with danger and became hijacked by the more primordial need for safety. Who I am, in this scenario, becomes who I need to be in order to be liked or accepted by others. Being myself becomes a dangerous proposition, a luxury which I cannot afford. Instead my truth becomes a self-presentation I can adapt to what I think others want from me.

Another person was helped to discover that at the root of her lies was a profound fear of being abandoned if she were to be herself. Vivid examples stood out about not having been picked up after soccer practice, and otherwise being forgotten about or neglected by caregivers in many situations. Now, she had come to think of herself as mostly a burden and as someone who could only count on others to be there for her as long as she provided a benefit to them. Most of this woman’s life thus became a frantic effort to be who others needed her to be so she would not be rejected and plunged into a deep dark hole of feeling worthless and dispensable.

Truth is Only Possible When We Feel Safe:

In both of these examples, the compulsion to lie was driven by a compulsion to stay safe, and a perceived risk involved in being and expressing one’s more genuine self.

Both examples reveal to us that telling the truth is always only possible on the basis of a fundamental sense of safety in one’s relationships with others. The ability to be real with oneself and with others requires validation that one is good enough as is, and certainty that others will be able to tolerate and care for one’s unembellished unadulterated self.

In this sense, pathological lying is really just like any other neurotic defense mechanism. It serves to ward off shame, lack of self worth, and a fear of abandonment and rejection.  

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist who helps people get in touch with their personal truths. If you have been hurt or shaken up by the lies of someone you love, or find it difficult to relate to others without lying to them, psychotherapy can help.