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aprilsimnel's avatar

I'm so stuck. What do I do about helping myself emotionally?

Asked by aprilsimnel (30605 points ) March 9th, 2009

I am having a hard time with following through on the decision to let go of the awful things my stepfather and my guardian told me I was as a child (e.g. You’re awful; I wish you weren’t here; You talk too much and have nothing to say; The things you want are sinful and selfish; Why can’t you be what I want you to be?; You may be book smart, but you’re really stupid about life; Stop trying to act like you’re better than us/me, etc.).

In therapy, I say I’ll do it, I’ll let them go, then the tapes play again and it’s back to square one; it’s still 1981 and I’m still being told that I’m a selfish, no good, stuck up bitch by the person who’s supposed to take care of me. I can’t seem to make the tape stop and live in the present. I can’t get my guardian out of my head. My stepfather just set things up, but she was the more sustained presence in my life and said most of the awful things.

Rationally, logically, I know that all the cruelties inflicted mainly by these two people (and by my BM by not stopping her husband and not finding out if her sister was properly caring for me) were the lashings-out of unhappy and mentally disturbed people. For some reason, deep down, I still believe them, however, and I live according to those beliefs, though I haven’t seen or spoken to the “stepfather” (or my BM) in decades since I was removed from my BM’s care, and not to the aunt/guardian in 8 years. You can imagine how well that’s going, living as though their assessments of me are gospel: Underachieving, alone and scared.

I’m getting older and yet I haven’t done much of anything to prove to myself that I’m capable of what I imagine I could be or enjoy.

How did you stop the tapes and get on with living as you want without self-consciousness about every move, without self-imposed limits and guilt? I know I’m wasting time by playing those tapes repeatedly and by feeling guilty for cutting off contact with them, though that contact was extremely harmful. If you’ve had to let go, how did you follow through on that decision in a way that worked?

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31 Answers

asmonet's avatar

Every time you hear it in your head, out loud, firmly – disagree.
Compliment yourself and concentrate on what you’re doing in the present. Your worth is not determined by those unfortunate enough to not recognize your unique and beautiful self.

If you can train yourself to actively disagree and dismiss those thoughts as incorrect eventually, you won’t find yourself facing them nearly as often.

In short:
Fuck them. You’re amazing. :)

wundayatta's avatar

One thing. I make fun of myself or act like I’m just shooting my mouth off. That way, if people don’t like what I’ve said, I can say, “see, I really was just shooting my mouth off. I’m wrong more than I’m right.” Also, I try to make people laugh, when I’m with them. I’ll tell a story or something, but I’m always aware that I should share the time, and although I want to take more time, I try to make sure everyone gets time to talk.

In my family, I’m kind of defensive. Also scared. I try not to bring up problems about things that upset me. I assume everyone else is right, and that I was the one who screwed up. Actually, I tend to do that most places, although, sometimes I’ll try to argue that my position is reasonable. I’m fully prepared to be wrong, if the other person just acts aggressive enough. When people joke that everything is my fault, I’ll make the same joke about myself. I’m just trying to show people that I know I’m screwed up and worthless, even though I’m pretending I’m not. It’s like a back door escape hatch if I need it.

Usually I give in to the other person, and I do this at work as well as at home. I’ll do what people want me to. I hate being wrong or making a mistake. So I try really hard not to. I’m not quite sure why, since I generally feel like a failure anyway.

I discount compliments, either as them not seeing how I’m faking it, or as not enough. If one person compliments me, it doesn’t really mean much, because it doesn’t represent what everyone else thinks. If two people compliment me, I need three, and on and on, and it’s never enough to make me feel safe, like anyone really appreciates what I do. And it’s not like I don’t want praise, either. But there’s one person who never praised me, and never will, except maybe on his death bed, and I’ll never know if I did enough. No praise from other people can be enough. I have to change something inside myself for that to it to be enough, and, like you, I don’t know how to do it.

A second thing: my wife is reading me a book called “The Happiness Trap.” It’s about a kind of therapy, that is supposedly proven effective. It uses principles from zen practice, and it’s a kind of emotional jujitsu. I can try and try to use logic or deny these feelings, and it doesn’t do any good. This method teaches us that we don’t have to battle them. They exist. What we can do is distance ourselves from them, so that we can watch them as they pass by. We can become less attached to them. We may, after a while, even be able to choose which feelings and thoughts we find useful, while letting the less useful ones come and go.

I know I can’t think well of myself. At least, not for very long. I always destroy that feeling by thinking about what others think of me. However, what I can do is not think about how I don’t think well of myself. I’m not fighting it, but I’m not pushing it, either. When it’s there, it’s there, and it makes me feel really sad (like now, writing this makes me sad, and my eyes are tearing up). Since I’m prone to depression, I can easily spiral down, but the drugs seem to be keeping that in check. Lately there have been a lot of questions like this, and I can’t resist them, although I should. I need to figure it out. I have this idea that with gradually increasing amounts of exposure to my own bad feelings about myself, I can learn to be less rocked by them.

Like I told you I would do, I am saying now that I have no idea whether any of this is worth anything, or whether it means anything. It could all be total bullshit. I know that. I hope it isn’t, but I’m fully prepared for it to be nonsense. Or wrong. Maybe it only works for me. So if I am wrong, I will apologize and retract it, or maybe say I didn’t mean it that way. So it goes. Well, at least it’s not really advice. Just my experience. No one can say my experience isn’t my experience.

hearkat's avatar

It is a long process, and some days are better than others. I’m in my early 40s, and only recently came to fully accept and love myself. I still battle those negative thoughts at times though. A few things that helped me were:
* recognizing that by letting the negativity of my childhood define me, I was still living as their “victim”. I’d tell myself that living well is the best revenge—to overcome and thrive despite the abuse and live on my own terms not theirs.
* realizing that I had no reason to be ashamed because someone else (who knew better) treated the innocent child I was like trash. I coped with it as best I could, considering my age… there was no reason for me the bear a burden of guilt.
* take accountability for my actions as an adult. As long as I point fingers and feel sorry for myself, I stay locked in that negative cycle. I need to live and make my decisions based on my values, not as a reaction to the past.
* take chances—I’ve learned that the vast majority of people struggle with insecurity. There are quotes about true courage being when you feel the fear, but choose to proceed anyway. So in social situations, when those voices tell me I’m stupid and no one wants to hear my 2 cents, I realize that the other people are probably thinking similar things about themselves. If none of us took a chance, this world would be an even lonelier place. By speaking up despite my shyness, I have learned to be a bit more comfortable in social situations. This is the “fake it ‘til you make it” technique. You behave as the person you want to become, and in time, you actually will become that person.
* be patient with myself and forgive myself. No one is perfect, and all things considered, I can be proud of all I’ve accomplished. Many people allow the abuse of their childhoods to define and defeat them. I am glad that something inside me told me that I was capable and deserving of better.
* Some would say forgiving those that harmed you. Forgiveness is a topic that’s been discussed here on Fluther, and it may be good for you to search for those discussions. I don’t know if I define it as “forgiveness”, but I have tried to understand why those who hurt me or should have protected me acted the way they did. I recognize that the denial they still practice to this day is likely out of self-preservation, because they couldn’t live with the guilt. I have let go of the idea of trying to change them or prove something to them. They have to live with themselves and the repercussions of their actions – whether you believe in karma, heaven/hell or whatever… chances are that it will come back to them in the end.

You are a beautiful person. Never forget that, and never give up!

skfinkel's avatar

Sholom Ausslander has written a terrific and funny book about the disastrous and destructive upbringing he was subjected to: Foreskin’s Lament. What he said when I heard him give a talk and I think he also said it in his book, was that it took ten years of intense therapy to finally be able to leave the past behind. I would recommend that you look with careful scrutiny at the mental health person you are working with. They need to be really great to help you get over this kind of treatment as a child—but such people are out there. It is a lot of work, but regardless of your age, I think it is very much worth the effort.

So sorry to hear of your plight, and I wish you the strength to get through this—to be able to live your life without negative voices from the past.

kevbo's avatar

@aprilsimnel, wow, I’m very sorry to hear about your upbringing and how it’s affecting you. I deal with messages like this, too, although not nearly as severe as what you seem to be dealing with. I was lucky to find a good cognitive behavioral therapist a while back, and working with him not only helped me get things off my chest, but also helped me develop an emotional or mental toolbox to use so that I could manage or fix the problems more permanently and on my own.

Forgive me for making layman mistakes or oversimplifications in the following statements, but I think what you are experiencing are called cognitive distortions. These are assumptions that you’re making that more than likely do not correspond with reality. Quite naturally, you are hearing those statements, which are powerful, and reacting to them.

So it’s “thought/reaction, though/reaction.” But what happens if you get curious about those thoughts? What happens if you put distance between the thought and the reaction? What if instead of reacting, you say to yourself “I wonder why I feel that way?” or “Expressed as a percentage, how true is that statement?”

There’s a formula or process referred to as ABC, which stands for “Activating Event,” “Belief (or Thought),” and “Consequence: Feelings and Consequence: Behaviors.” An activating event precedes your thought or belief. Consequential feelings and behaviors naturally follow the thought. So pick apart that equation. Say a glimmer of a challenge or opportunity for achievement presents itself to you. My guess is that triggers negative thoughts and beliefs, which leads to the negative feelings that you describe. How do you change the equation? Do you avoid A, so that B & C won’t follow? Or is it possible to try on a new set of B so that new Cs can follow? Or perhaps you can just ignore B or put B on the back burner and see what happens?

Cognitive distortions or “dysfunctional automatic thoughts” have label names. It might be useful to know what they are.

Mind reading: “He thinks I’m a loser.”
Labeling: “I’m a failure. He’s a jerk.”
Fortunetelling: “I’ll get rejected. I’ll make a fool of myself.”
Catastrophizing: “It’s awful if I get rejected. I can’t stand being anxious.”
All or nothing thinking: “I fail at everything. I don’t enjoy anything.”
Discounting positives: “That doesn’t count because anyone could do that.”
Maladaptive assumptions (the rules that depressed people think they have to live by: “I should get everyone’s approval. If someone doesn’t like me, it means I’m unloveable. I can never be happy doing things on my own. If I fail at something, I’m a failure. I should criticize myself for my failures. If I’ve had a problem for a long time, then I can’t change. I shouldn’t be depressed.”
Negative self-concepts: focusing and exaggerating one’s shortcomings and minimizing any positive qualities.

It might be useful to make a list of the messages you related and categorize them according to the list above. Then, just for fun, put a percentage next to them based on how much you believe each message is true. The next time you’re minding your own business and one of those thoughts creeps in you can say to yourself, “You know, that’s only X% true! I’m also X% (different belief)! Maybe I’ll give the good belief some exercise.”

It’s kind of a silly idea, isn’t it? But doesn’t it feel better, too?

lercio's avatar

have a look at this

It’s based on the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy kevbo is talking about.

augustlan's avatar

It took years of therapy with a great therapist (my 3rd or 4th one) to move beyond my past. Like you, I cut off my relationships with my harmful family members. Did you tell them you were doing it and why? I wrote a long letter to my mother when I did it, very clearly explaining all the harm our relationship had caused me. I still felt the guilt you talk about (sometimes I still do), but I had the letter in my mind to refute that guilt. I’m not sure there is one answer that will fix this for you, but many great ideas have been given above. Try them all, for a good long time, and see what works for you. Above all, remember that you are a lovely human being.

aprilsimnel's avatar

@kevbo & @lercio – I do believe I need a new therapist. This one just keeps telling me that my thinking is disordered week after week. No duh! “We have to find some way…” HE’S the damn therapist! He should have some insight as to what that way might be after a year and a half, no? CBT it is, hopefully there’s an affordable clinic. I need some to be held to some accountability to take positive steps.

@daloon – It’s weird, there is a teeny, tiny part of me that remembers my self as a small girl standing up to that awful man when he started up with the crap. I remember how that would just enrage him. And I don’t know how that got shut down as I grew, but I remember, and I’m working to get back to that person I was all those years ago. Yes, I taught my guardian how to treat me by giving in (her son rebelled hard and she backed down), but what kid’s going to realize that? It’s not that the feelings aren’t valid, it’s just they run around in circles in my head, and even after acknowledgment, they aren’t going away, so I feel there’s something I’m missing. I will pick up a copy of The Happiness Trap.

@hearkat – It is definitely one of those “one step back” days today. I understand totally why I was harmed by those people: they were all abused themselves as kids, they’re mentally ill, they’re flat broke, they perceived themselves as powerless in the larger world and they had no clue how to get their needs met by any other means. I’ve forced to have compassion before allowing my anger through, and that’s not working. I’ve felt guilty at the first inkling of anger at them, except I do have to be angry first, regardless of their problems, because they were the adults. I want to be angry enough to get it out of my system.

@asmonet – So, yes, I have to say fuck ‘em, and mean it, and be confident that one day I won’t always feel angry towards them and that I’ll have better control over my thoughts and behavior. :)

@augustlan – I did write them both; to the guardian (and her son) I explained my actions fully in a 6-page letter, the other just a curt response (well, just a “return to sender” with an expletive attached) to an extremely rude and insulting card sent to me on my 18th b-day, after not having seen the awful man for 14 years by that point. I’ve never heard from him again, and the last I heard, he is in an institution. As for the guardian, she told her other relatives that I’m an ungrateful, selfish, stubborn bitch, and that she’d kill me if I were in front of her. She took me in, see, so I owe her big. Once my aunt-in-law divorced my uncle, I no longer heard anything about my bio-family, as I asked her to please stop telling me. She has gladly complied, except for the occasional death notice. That was a couple of years ago.

Thanks, all, so much for your kind words, help and advice! I know that everyone here are caring and considerate people, and I’m grateful to you for it, and just because!

ubersiren's avatar

Don’t just say “fuck em,” you have to grow to realize that you are better than they are. I don’t know if there’s anything specific to help you get to that stage, but try comparing them to how you’re treated by your favorite people. A best friend, church member, even the quirky cashier at the supermarket. So many other people see how wonderful you really are. Your stepfather and guardian had the title of “caretakers” and they failed. Know that they are responsible for the loss of contact, not you. They had their shot and they blew it. As difficult as it is to be a parent or guardian, never once is it normal or acceptable to tell a child that she is stupid or sinful. You are better than them for realizing right and wrong as a child, which they apparently never did even into adulthood.

I don’t know what to tell you to do to get that stuff out of your mind, but hopefully some positive reinforcement from friends and flutherers can keep it to a minimum.

You’re above it!

Sakata's avatar

@aprilsimnel In reference to “You may be book smart, but you’re really stupid about life”

You may need to just let that one go as it can apply to most anybody. Not everyone has “street smarts” and there’s nothing wrong with that. My opinion is to scratch that one off your list.

That’s all I have to add. Letting go of the past is fuckin’ hard though. Good luck.

asmonet's avatar

@ubersiren: What I meant, and I think was understood was that “Fuck Them” was short for, you are insignificant to myself and my future and if I choose to dismiss you, I may do so freely and without guilt or consequence for my own benefit. And it’s your loss.

ubersiren's avatar

@asmonet : Oh, I know. That’s fantastic advice. I was only trying to emphasize that she must really believe it and not just say it. I didn’t mean to belittle what you had said… I was more expanding on it than anything else. I totally agree with you. I was thinking about when I had horrible things said to me. For years I believed them. When that person was no longer in my life, I still believed the words he said were true. To my friends I always said that I knew he was the asshole and not me. It’s only been in recent years that I truly believe that I am better than him. I really, honestly believe it and I’m so much freer now. It takes a lot of growth. I’m thankful that my abuse was relatively short lived. Ugh, didn’t want to make this about me- sorry.

aprilsimnel's avatar

@ubersiren – No, that’s all right! You know why?

Because it reminds me to not go, “OH, POOR PITIFUL ME! I’M THE ONLY ONE THIS HAS EVER HAPPENED TO!” in my mind. I asked specifically because others here have most certainly have gone through similar to what I have, and I am looking for any other strategy that could help me get closer to the mindset set where I’m absolutely sick and tired of treating myself this way from the core of my being, and thereby make the changes I need to make.

I’m not there yet, and I’m frustrated.

TheFonz_is's avatar

sit back, sit down, relax and close your eyes.(actually dont, then you wont be able to read the rest of what im saying :)

1. imaging the an actual cassette tape playing in a stereo (the old type). Think of the words that your hearing, the voices, the tone of them, male or female, think of the volume they are playing at.

2. Now concentrate on what they are saying, are they saying “you should be better” “or why aren’t you better”

3. Now go up to the stereo and get hold of the round volume control.. turn it down to about half the sound. So now you can still hear the voices going over and over but much quieter.

4. Listen again to what theyre saying…

5. Now go to the stereo and press the eject button so the tape player pops out. Take the cassette out and look at it, think of how heavy it is, what colour it is, look at the ribbon that contains all the things that are being said.

6. Now lay the casette on the nearest table, and go pick up a nice strong hammer, imagine how heavy it feels in your hand, and bring that hammer down as hard as you can onto the cassette. smash that little bugger up good and proper, imagine it splintering, where the shard of plastic fly and really break it up.

7. Now imagine your sat at the movies. your alone in the cinema and on screen is the video of you smashing that cassette up, you can hear the noises of you smashing it in surround sound and can see the bright colours of the table and the room you are in. Now freeze frame on the broken casette. Change the picture to black and white. your looking at a mangled casette in black and white with no noise, now reduce the picture to half it’s size.

8. Now imagine the picture of the black and white casette like a television turning off, it shrinks down to just a white dot in the middle of the screen and then disappears…

If you do this correctly you will notice that there is no more tape, its been broken, you had the power to smash it into tiny little pieces and turn it off, you had the power to shrink its size and therefore it meaning into nothing.

Now go have some lunch and dont forget as asmonet said, fuck them, your amazing :)

hope this helps

mdrnmouse's avatar

have a cookie :)
no i’m just kidding.
i hope you get better.

Sellz's avatar

Leave it in God’s hands and let him fight that battle.

Sellz's avatar

Pray on it. If you’re gonna pray, dont worry. If you’re gonna worry, dont pray.

-Sellz

mdrnmouse's avatar

if God fought my battles, i would like rule the earth.
ok you can’t pray for emotional guidance, you have to find it in yourself. make a list of your options and the consequences of choosing each option, then logically decide on the most sensible one.

Sellz's avatar

Leave it in God’s hands and let him fight that battle.
Pray on it. If you’re gonna pray, dont worry. If you’re gonna worry, dont pray.

-Sellz

mdrnmouse's avatar

don’t listen to Sellz.
whether you believe in God or not, you can’t be ruled by that belief. you are yourself, and you need to fight your own battles. do you actually think God will lend you strength because you are unwilling to try it by yourself? if God exists i’m sure god has much more to do than be occupied with looking after every single person that asks for help. do it yourself, and become a stronger person.

Sellz's avatar

God does help all that call on him. And ernven those that dont. mdrnmouse has a point though. You should look within yourself and find what you really should do concerning this situation. Thoroughly analyse this and come to a conclusion that you feel the most comfortable with.

-Sellz

aprilsimnel's avatar

Thanks, everyone. I truly appreciate all the help and opinions offered.

Sellz's avatar

You’re welcome. Not a problem.

-Sellz

hearkat's avatar

@aprilsimnel: That’s what the collective is here for! One tentacle washes the other!!

lrhar487's avatar

All I can tell u is of my personal experience. I to had an asshole of a stepdad. He was very emotionally abbusive and always made it a point to let me know that I wasnt smart and would never be as great as he was. By the time my mom finally divorced him after 15 years of hell for us all we were left with no self esteem. I guess what made me finally realize I wasnt some stupid horrible person by being around the right people. I found some great friends and even coworkers that were always complementing me on my work ethic and knowledge in many areas and the fact that I get always get them to laugh. It took me several years to be able to accept this praise for most of the time I thought people were lying to me or just trying to be nice and I would often get shy when they praised me. But now finally 6 years after my stepdad left my life I finally can accept praise and actually think I’m a pretty cool person. So I guess what i’m trying to say is surround yourself with people who like and appreciate you and those voices in your head will then be covered up by voices of praise from others. Good luck

Ricky's avatar

You can not run from it or fight it you can only welcome it. Running only lasts until there’s no where left to run and fighting it creates inner conflict which becomes external conflict. Stop trying to get somewhere with it and be with it look into the emotion and welcome it. Breath in and out. When you breath in say “Breathing in I see that I am sad” when you breath out say “Breathing out I smile” then continue to follow your in and out breath without judgement just be aware that you are breathing in and breathing out.

chamelopotamus's avatar

wow I feel for you. As a sensitive person who lives in his mind a lot, I’ve learned that the old tapes don’t get erased, they stay there, but you can make them dormant and unnaffecting towards you by the creation of new top layer tapes that you use as your new working mental tapes. When you get to a point where it’s been years since you used that tape, and your new tape is working just fine, the old tape becomes nothing more than a bad joke told in the past.

I used to be really dependant on others, and I had to learn to do things myself, if I ever wanted to get them done, which I did, cause I needed to. (Necessity is the mother of all invention). You get so bored being that way, that one day you just do it, and then a few days later you just do it again. And years go by, and I go back to read my notes from those times, and it’s a complete different person. My head was in a different atmosphere: in my ass. I wasnt paying nearly as much attention. And im positive ill say the same thing about the self I am now, years from now. As far as the things I was focusing on, and the results I was getting, etc.

Saying “Go away, bad tapes” is just an extension of the bad tape. Saying “Im not thinking about such and such” is a lie, because you are thinking exactly about such and such. The key is not: to try to have a battle of words, and good and bad memories to convince yourself you aren’t going through it, and then whichever reality is stronger wins. No, thats not it all all, you can’t lie to yourself. The key is to accept that you are experiencing what you are experiencing (an inner conflict), because, lets face it, you are. Not somebody else, some other time, but you, now. And you’re going to keep feeling that way until you ask yourself why, and start thinking about it logically, ask where it came from, why its still there, what you are getting out of it, what it shielded you from, what it stopped you from experiencing, how your mind could be different, and therefore your life, and really admit what you dont want to admit.

The reason you’re even thinking those thoughts at all is because someone else programmed them into you at a young age, and you are firing the same neural pathways over and over, from all those years ago, without stimulating new neurons to get you out of that way of using the mind. But you can get to a lot deeper level than me. You should keep unravelling those layers of cause and effect until you get to the very nerve, then hit the nerve directly, and enjoy a flow of self-knowledge that you will never want to go back from.

The only remedy is to create new pathways in your brain, new avenues to walk down over and over, until you have a whole new structure to live in, or a whole neighborhood of different ideas you can visit. You should challenge yourself to see the world in a different way, then you will have new tools and abilities to be able to see yourself in a different way. To me the only way to break myself out of any routine of any nature is to come in contact with other minds, in an involved way. Then your problems disappear and aren’t attractive in any way, you don’t repeat it, it doesn’t occur to you, and you see things in a new way. Find some songs you have never heard before, listen to a podcast you have never listened to, talk to a friend you don’t normally open up around, and get your neurons firing in new ways.

That’s how I overcame bad tapes.

nebule's avatar

@chamelopotamus loving your answer – full of honesty and poetry x

chamelopotamus's avatar

Thanks, I surprised myself lol

(To summarize: We will never escape the routine of repeating an overarching pattern in life. The task requested, and sometimes demanded, by our health, is to Recognize our patterns, and when necessary, to consciously initiate the process of creating new, healthier patterns, which are more relevant to our lives and the things we love, to replace the old ones.)

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