This week I met a friend for a coffee and he told me about a deep family feud which has it’s roots in much more than can be seen on the surface. The vitriol and animosity coming at him and his family looks initially to be childish and wholly without foundation but scratching beneath there is a whole other story which has nothing to do with my friend at all, but of course when we are struggling we most often vent our anger on whoever happens to get into the firing line even if they are the very people who we most need “onside” at that point in our lives. We have a tendency to self destruct when we’re really desperate for some sort of salvation.
In another conversation this week I am reminded that the ravages of addiction are bleak indeed. Unable and unwilling to makes changes to save oneself the spiral is viciously downward and the landing brutal. The tipping point between hope and surrender is terrifying and sudden where possibility gives way to abandonment.
The single most powerful thing that stops us making positive change is the fear of the pain it will involve, so in essence we are staying put through some obscure desire for protection from that pain. In reality what we create instead is a level of self destruction which is devastating, debilitating and enduring.
Why do people stay in bad relationships, remain mired in drink or drug problems, shower bitterness and resentment on those closest to them, damage their health through overheating, procrastinate, avoid intimacy or push themselves on relentlessly when all they really want to do is stop and lie down? Ironically it’s safety. However painful a behaviour might be there is a point at which it becomes habitual and therefore familiar and comfortable. When we are struggling we are weakened and when we are weakened we like nothing better than familiarity, even if that means a continuation of the very misery we seek to escape.
So this misguided idea that we are protecting ourselves from pain through inaction is the very core of our own destruction. As each day passes a little more of us is chipped away and we continue to look at the world outside for someone to blame for it. Our partner, our boss, our friends, parents, brothers and sisters. It is as if we stand right in the line of fire shouting at the person holding the gun to stop shooting rather than taking cover first. The awful truth is that it is often our own finger on the trigger.
Inaction when in pain seems to make no sense, but what if you don’t realise you are destroying yourself? What if you genuinely believe that being angry and bitter with others will take you to a better place? That’s a sobering thought, the idea that you carry on down a road certain in the knowledge that it leads to redemption when in fact it takes you further into the darkness.
It is far easier to blame someone else than it is to look at yourself. Self reflection takes honesty and courage, but it also takes a lot of strength. If we can absolve ourselves of blame we can convince ourselves that we don’t need to do anything, we don’t need to change, we don’t need to take responsibility because it’s someone else’s fault and they must put it right. It isn’t and they won’t because they don’t have the problem, you do.
Perversely there is another reason why we destroy ourselves despite our apparent wish to find peace and happiness. The reasons that it’s perverse is because although it has the same impact it originates at the opposite end of the scale. Rather than believing that everything is someone else’s fault we can instead harbour the deep rooted belief that the pain and hurt and destruction is actually what we deserve, that bad treatment and disrespect is what is due to us and that even things which are plainly nothing to do with us have happened because of us. The ability we have to apply dysfunctional logic is sometimes astonishing.
Many people, having identified a damaging pattern of behaviour which may have lasted for years or even most of their lives, get to the point where they ask why they seem so intent upon self destruction. They can see what they are doing but they don’t seem able to break out of it because they don’t understand why they started to do it in the first place. Our investigations tend to tumble back to childhood and one of the most basic of all questions but one which has frequently reduced the people sat with me to a deeply emotional silence. “Who taught you that you were valuable?”
It sounds absurd doesn’t it? Who “taught” me I was valuable? Did I need to be taught? Yes you did and if that lesson wasn’t clear it’s quite possible that you filled in the blanks for yourself assuming that if there was a lack of evidence to suggest your value then maybe it was not clearly established. This is a belief we can carry with us through our whole lives creating a potent mix of insecurity, inaccurate self esteem and a tendency towards self destruction borne from the notion that if I am not worth much anyway then it doesn’t really matter what happens to me. If I am not valuable and do not see value in myself then other people won’t value me, I expect to be hurt and I won’t be surprised when I am. Crucially I might not expend too much effort getting myself out of a painful situation because I believe it’s probably a fair reflection of my worth anyway.
These twin ideas of refusing all responsibility and taking all of it can very effectively keep us mired in pain. On the one hand the belief that it’s someone else’s responsibility to get us out and on the other the deep rooted belief that we’re probably getting what we deserve anyway.
So if any of this resonates with you, if you find yourself in a difficult or uncomfortable place right now you might benefit from thinking about a couple of ideas. Firstly, nobody is responsible for your happiness and the faster you take control of it yourself the more likely things are to change for the better, quickly. Secondly, in terms of the value that you place on yourself perhaps it’s worth you reflecting on that question “who taught you that you are valuable?” By the way, you most definitely are even if you doubt it.
I keep an image in my head of a story someone once told me about the importance of reminding our children of their intrinsic value. It goes something like this. When your child goes off for their first day at school they often come running out at the end of the day delighted to see you clutching a picture they have painted in class and which they are eager to show you. Our instinctive reaction is to behold the picture and exclaim something like “Oh what a lovely picture, aren’t you clever” but really here we are investing value in the picture and we are telling the child that they are valuable because they have created a lovely picture. Instead if we are able to momentarily ignore the picture and hug the child saying something like “you’re such a wonderful lovely child I’m so proud of you, now let me have a look at this picture” we are investing value in the child and reminding the child that they are valuable not because of what they can create or achieve but because of who they are. The difference is subtle but sometimes the impact is enormous.
Finally the good news is that change is most definitely possible in even the bleakest cases. Just this week I have been reminded in two meetings of the miraculous power of recovery. However long and arduous a road to somewhere better the view is clearly so startlingly beautiful that to avoid setting out in the first place for fear of the effort required would be a tragedy of gargantuan proportions.