My life’s work has focused on understanding resistance in psychotherapy and more specifically, on people’s fundamental resistance to the formation of a better, more positive image of themselves. For the most part, they are unaware that their lives are controlled and regulated by negative images and attitudes toward themselves that represent a basic aspect of their identity. This provisional identity is made up of three essential parts: (1) the way that they were verbally defined as children; (2) the overall emotional impact of the child’s early environment; and (3) the defenses that they formed to protect themselves from destructive influences.
“She isn’t attracted to me anymore. She never acts as excited to see me when I come home. Why can’t it just be like it was in the beginning?” My friend has just entered into the first of two common
By Dr. Lisa Firestone and Joyce Catlett Raising children can be one of the most challenging jobs in life; it certainly is one of the most important. Renowned British pediatrician/ psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott once told a group of parents
In order to place the title of this blog in context, I would define parental love as behavior that enhances the well-being and development of children. As such, “love” would be all that is nurturing and supportive of the evolution
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It’s hard to really wrap our heads around this. Yet, I find—over and over again—that it’s true. Love doesn’t always just slip away; we push it away… actively. This may sound accusatory and dooming, but to my mind, it is one of the most optimistic realities about relationships. To the degree that we ourselves control the amount of love we will tolerate, we control our romantic destiny. While we may not realize it, in countless, quiet ways, we may be giving up on love.
Our tolerance for love is established early in our lives and is based on our unique childhood experiences. The specific ways we were hurt influence us and come to shape our capacity for closeness. As we grow older, we gravitate to what’s familiar. We may choose partners who hurt us in the same ways we’ve always felt hurt. Or, if we do find ourselves in a healthy and rewarding relationship, we may reach a level of intimacy that exceeds our internal limits, and at that point, we recoil.
Most of us enter a good relationship in a good place. Early on, we feel great, because we feel valued and seen. We find what we always said we wanted. Yet, this blissful process of caring so deeply for someone else is also an invitation to care more deeply about our lives, which is scary. At this point, as in so many moments in life, we face a choice without being even fully aware of it. Do we side with life and invest in love, or do we choose the path of a more self-protective and defended part of ourselves? This is the part of us that resists feeling. It avoids risks. It gravitates toward numbness, eludes connection, commitment, and, ultimately, love itself.
In my 30 years as a researcher and clinical psychologist, I often reference the Fear of Intimacy, a book by my father, Dr. Robert Firestone, that aims to explain people’s resistance to love. When I introduce the theory surrounding fear of intimacy to people, they often say, “That sounds exactly like my husband!” or “My girlfriend totally has that issue.” It’s a concept people have trouble recognizing in themselves at first, because most people think they want love and don’t consciously feel afraid. Instead, they go along happily in their relationships for a time, then slowly, without awareness, they start to pull back. Ultimately, they diminish their feelings of real love and replace it with anything from routine to petty arguments to complete deadness between themselves and their partner.
Ironically, what sparks this fear can be the reality of getting exactly what we want. So many positive things can set us in motion to pull back from love and intimacy. We may receive a certain acknowledgment from our partner, something that is unknown or uncomfortable, because it contradicts feelings we’ve long had about ourselves.
Each of us harbors an inner critic that never quite believes in our value or our happiness. Milestones like falling in love, getting married, or having a baby can symbolically go against these long-held negative feelings we have about ourselves or our lives. In addition, these life events can remind us of time passing. They can arouse existential fears or a sense that we are growing up and divorcing from familiarities of our past. Negative events can further perpetuate this fear. Anything from an actual loss to a painful movie can strike a chord in us and remind us of life’s fragility.
So, what happens when we get scared? In what ways do we pull back from our relationship? Naturally, these behaviors manifest themselves differently in each individual, and they’re usually based on a person’s particular past. We all have our own specific set of defenses. We may become withholding toward our partner. We may start to feel easily trapped or intruded on. We may become controlling, overly critical, or destructively jealous. Or we may simply become…distracted.
It is all too easy to let practical aspects of life take over, especially with so many to choose from. Careers and kids tend to be big justifications we offer up when we realize we’ve lost touch with our partner. These, of course, are important priorities, but we can use them to divert us from our own desires to love and be loved. Think about ways we use technology, our phones, or even our food as substitutes for real contact. We can even use healthy-seeming activities like work, sleep, or exercise in the service of our defenses. When we work so hard, we miss time with our partner. What about when sleep takes priority over sex or affection? Someone I know went as far as to refuse to schedule any trip with his wife for years because it interfered with his daily routine of biking 20 miles.
We turn to our defenses for distraction or to “unwind,” in other words, to disconnect and burrow into our own self-sustaining world. Our lives take on an inward focus and, on a certain level, become more about taking care of ourselves than about the give and take of a relationship. This is not to say we are being selfish. In fact, on a practical level, we may be filling our days meeting the needs of others. Yet, on a personal level, we may be withdrawing from close and loving interactions.
Maintaining an outward focus is part of living a vital life. When both partners withdraw, the relationship becomes a “fantasy bond,” where both people remain together, imagining they are in love, while there is little to no actual relating. Couples may morph into societal roles of husband, wife, mother, or father and give up vital parts of themselves in the process. While the experiences involved in being a spouse or parent can be the most fulfilling parts of life, we get into trouble when we focus on form over substance. For instance, we can get wrapped up in schedules, arrangements, and functions, allowing them to take up more energy than acts of real relating, affection, humor, openness, or attraction.
We can use our endless “to-do’s” to cut off from deeper emotions that connect us to feelings of love and liveliness. Think about how good we feel on vacation. It isn’t just because there is less to do. It’s because we allot ourselves a period of time to just be, to connect, to take advantage of being with the people we love most. We don’t need weeks off on a faraway island to forge these connections. We can do it on a daily basis in those quiet, little moments we often miss because we have our guard up: that precious half hour in bed with our partner before we fall asleep, that commute we make every day sitting in silence or on a device.
If we stop being open and available to our partner, we are likely to wake up one day feeling as if we are living with a stranger. Those feelings of love that haven’t been allowed to flourish may seem to have withered away. Resisting a fantasy bond means not giving in to our fears. It means going out on a limb and living out our own ideas of what makes up a happy and fulfilling life. It means staying vulnerable despite the inside and outside forces that harden us to the world.
It can feel difficult, or even painful, to really do this in the moment, to stick in there and remain patient and loving with our partner. Yet, if we don’t, the outcome is much more desolate. We can miss out on our own life. When her parents had reached their 70s, a friend of mine asked them if they were still in love. They looked at each other and one responded, “We may not love each other, but we are loyal.” The truth is, we don’t have to settle for loyalty. What good is loyalty when two people decide to spend their lives miserable, but together?
Many couples don’t give up on each other, but they give up on what drew them to each other in the first place: love. Yet, studies in neuroscience show that people can maintain the exhilarating feelings of romantic love for decades. That is why I encourage almost every couple I meet who ever felt they were once in love to stick in there. Take actions toward your partner that he or she would perceive as loving. Make eye contact. Be affectionate—even after 30 years, even in line at the airport. Slow down. Be present. Practice mindfulness, as it may help you reconnect to your most authentic self, your real feelings and desires, and to be attuned to your partner. Offer acts of kindness, large and small. Take part in activities you and your partner used to share and enjoy together. Be open to new activities, something we tend to resist as we get older, more self-protective, or further into routine.
In short, do a lot of the things you did when you first met and started to form deep feelings for your partner, even if you don’t feel like it! Studies show that engaging in loving acts heightens our feelings of being in love. So, be free in flaunting your romantic feelings. Connect with them on a daily basis. No matter what our inner critic tells us, there is nothing foolish about allowing ourselves to be lovesick. There may be more to lose, but there is also much more to live for.
Recently, we’ve called attention to the question of whether narcissism is an epidemic in our nation. Yet, I would argue that it is narcissism’s evil step-sister that is causing the most trouble in people’s lives. Self-hatred is something we may not often say out loud. We prefer softer-sounding terms, like “low self-esteem” or “poor self-image.” The reality is, much of the time we are downright hateful toward ourselves. Throughout a given day, we experience a barrage of sadistic thoughts so smoothly and so frequently that we hardly notice we’re under attack. Narcissism may be a compensation forinsecurity, but deep down, we are our own worst enemy.
When it comes to self-hatred among younger generations, statistics say a lot. A study of more than 3,000 adolescent girls showed that seven out of 10 believe that they are not good enough. They feel they aren’t measuring up in terms of their appearance, academic performance and personal relationships. The same study showed that 75 percent of girls with low self-esteem have engaged in “negative activities such as disordered eating, cutting, bullying, smoking, or drinking when feeling badly about themselves.” Yet, contrary to what often gets reported, it isn’t just young women wrestling with serious self-esteem issues. In 2011, the American Psychological Association published a study posing that, while self-esteem increases during adolescence then slows in young adulthood, “there is no significant difference between men’s and women’s self-esteem during either of those life phases.”
In truth, we don’t need studies to tell us that a self-esteem deficit clearly exists in our society. Just talk to any teenager, or small child for that matter, and ask them if there is something that they feel critical of in themselves. The answers are sure to shock you. I’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t have a laundry list of cruel self-criticisms they can immediately fire off. “I’m fat.” “I’m annoying.” “Other kids don’t like me.” “My parents are disappointed in me.”
These disturbing core beliefs don’t disappear as we get older. In fact, what my father Dr. Robert Firestone and I have found in our 30 years of research is that these thoughts go on to affect us in every area of our lives, making up what we refer to as our “critical inner voice.” We can even pass these “voices” down to future generations. Where this inner critic comes from, why it exists and what we can do about it are the subjects of our book Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice and of my March 24 Webinar “Stop Hating Yourself: A Method to Overcome Your Inner Critic.” Here, I will briefly outline the cause and effects of these self-hating thoughts and introduce a method for how to overcome them.
Where Self-Hating Thoughts Come From
There are two important influences on how we form our self-perception. The first is how our parents or other early influential caretakers saw and treated us. The second is the way these same influential figures saw themselves. Parents are people; they aren’t perfect. They both love and hate themselves, and they extend these reactions to their products (their children).
Our identity is heavily informed by how we were viewed in our early family environment. The healthy and supportive attitudes we were exposed to in our childhoods helped build the positive side of our self-image – our “real self.” This is the part of us that feels a sense of self-worth, compassion and confidence. However, the harmful attitudes directed toward us formed the negative side of our self-perception – our “anti-self.” If, for example, we had a parent who thought of us as lazy or slow, we may have picked up on these attitudes from ways they acted: looks of annoyance or sighs of disappointment. Perhaps, they criticized us directly: “What’s the matter with you? Hurry up. You’re always making me late. Can’t you think for once?”
As children, we are further affected by ways parents speak or feel about themselves. In the study of young women mentioned above, over half the girls tested said they had a mother who criticized herself. When parents look in the mirror in disgust, when they vocalize what a failure they are or simply don’t feel good about how they’re living their own lives, they are serving as models for their child’s developing sense of self.
How Self-Hatred Impacts Our Lives
As we get older, we tend to internalize the subtle and not-so-subtle attitudes and actions of our parents. Without realizing it, we take these notions on as our own point of view toward ourselves. They become the foundation for our critical inner voice and translate into a running commentary in our heads. When we go on a date, it feeds us little thoughts like, “You sound so stupid. He is not interested.” When we land a job interview, it reminds us, “You’ll make a fool of yourself. Who would hire a nervous wreck like you?”
This “voice” creeps in at moments we may not expect it, right when we are achieving success or getting what we want. It can even sound soothing, telling us to take care of or protect ourselves. “Don’t worry about meeting someone. You’ll be just fine alone. Stay home, relax.” Yet, the critical inner voice is two-faced in the sense that it will also be there to punish us when we listen to its directives: “You loser! You don’t have any real friends. You’re never going to be happy.”
For each person, there are certain areas of life in which this inner critic is louder and more obnoxious. Sometimes, we can get a hold of and quiet this voice in one area, and it pops up in another. If unrecognized, its influence can be strong. It can sabotage our relationships, ruin our careers, impact our parenting style and undermine our personal goals. If we don’t deal with this inner critic in ourselves, it is also very likely to impact our children and lead to a cycle of self-hatred that passes through generations.
What to Do About Self-Hating Thoughts
The first thing to realize is that we are not our critical inner voice, and we are definitely not the person our critical inner voice tells us that we are. Just because we ourselves experience these self-hating thoughts does not mean that they make up our real and honest point of view. Remember, every one of us is divided in our feelings toward ourselves. The critical inner voice should be seen as an alien point of view, an unwelcome overlay on our self-perceptions. It is truly an “anti-self,” constructed out of our darkest developmental experiences. This voice is not our friend. It is paranoid, hostile, suspicious and manipulative. It gives bad advice and never wants what’s really best for us.
Of course, we are all flawed in certain ways, but when we listen to our critical inner voice, we tend to exaggerate and berate ourselves for these flaws. We lose perspective and fail to exercise the self-compassion that is essential to pursuing our goals and living our lives to the fullest. Voice Therapy is a method developed by Dr. Robert Firestone that helps individuals identify their critical inner voice, understand where it comes from, separate from its point of view and respond to it from a more realistic and compassionate perspective. Challenging self-hatred is a key step to stopping self-limiting or sabotaging behaviors. It opens doors in our lives we didn’t know we’d shut and makes it possible to live a more unique and personally fulfilling existence.
In many ways, striving for perfection is a recipe for disaster. I’ve spoken with too many people who could never be smart, successful, slim or striking enough to meet their own unrealistic demands. All the while, these individuals failed to experience themselves as a person of value just for being themselves. I’ve worked with countless couples, who spend as much time obsessing over their relationship as they do experiencing their relationship. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if these thoughts were kind, compassionate and introspective. Instead, they are harsh, cold and critical. The demanding attitude we all have toward ourselves often divides our lives into two realities – what’s actually happening and what we are busy telling ourselves about what’s happening. People who live in pursuit of perfection are missing out on the real pleasures of life.
We’ve heard the expression “live in the moment” so many times that the words often lose their meaning. We lose track of the fact that much of the time, we spiral off into thoughts that have little to do with the here and now. Buying coffee, we forget to meet the eyes of the stranger serving us. We obsess over how we look instead of noticing how we are being looked at – by a loved one, for example. When we fall in love, we worry about losing love, rather than enjoying the blissful feeling of being in love. So how can we shift from judging our lives to actually living and enjoying them? Here are three key elements to making the most of the moments of our lives.
1. Silence Your Inner Critic
Whether we are accomplishing a major goal or enjoying a simple pleasure, our “critical inner voice” is a thought process that constantly questions, critiques and undermines our experiences.
It subdues us and holds us back. It tells us we aren’t good enough or warns us that we will lose everything. It tells us that we have to be special to be worthwhile. It shouts things like, “If you’re not the best, you’re nothing.” When we receive an acknowledgment, it says, “You don’t deserve it.” When we fall in love, it whispers, “She will leave you. It won’t last.” What happens when we listen to this voice is we actually miss out on reality. We lose touch with the tactile, feeling, tumultuous roller coaster of real life. Instead, we are in our own heads, failing to connect with other people, places and experiences that make our moments worthwhile.
A friend of mine was invited on a getaway by her boyfriend of a few months. She was excited, but a few minutes into their long drive to the mountains, her critical inner voice started in on her. “What will you talk about? You don’t have anything interesting to say. He’s going to realize how dull you are.” During the drive, the running dialogue in her mind made her unusually quiet, uncomfortable, even awkward at times. By the time, they made their first gas stop, she wished she’d never agreed to come. Then, stepping out of the car, she felt a rush of cold, crisp air. She noticed they were surrounded by snow. It was beautiful.
She realized that her self-critical thoughts had left her missing out on everything from a lively conversation with her boyfriend to the stunning scenery. It was a wake-up call that gave her the insight necessary to silence her inner critic. She spent the remainder of the drive, actively ignoring the “voices” that surfaced. When her “voice” told her she sounded stupid, she’d tell her boyfriend a story. When it said she seemed “desperate,” she’d put her head on his shoulder. When it commented on her appearance, she’d look admiringly out the window. Though it got stronger at first, like a child throwing a tantrum to get its way, eventually, the voice grew quiet, and she stopped noticing it altogether.
This is the approach we must all take against our inner critic. I write a lot about this process but recently read it perfectly illustrated in a personal account by comedian Amy Poehler her new bookYes Please, in which she refers to this inner critic as her “demon.”
Hopefully as you get older, you start to learn how to live with your demon. It’s hard at first. Some people give their demon so much room that there is no space in their head for love. They feed their demon, and it gets really strong, and then it makes them stay in abusive relationships or starve their beautiful bodies. But sometimes, you get a little older and get a little bored of the demon. Through good therapy and friends and self-love you can practice treating the demon like a hacky, annoying cousin.
Though actively ignoring and taking actions against your demon will initially make its voice louder and you more anxious, it is the only way to ultimately silence this critic. As one of the leaders in interpersonal neurobiology Dr. Daniel Siegel says, the only appropriate attitude to have toward yourself is to be curious, open, accepting and loving. This attitude is what makes change possible. It’s what helps you to not only reach your goals but enjoy and appreciate the road that gets you there, imperfect as it may be.
2. Don’t Avoid Feelings
My father, who is also a psychologist and my co-author on Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice,Robert Firestone, recently pointed out that living in the moment isn’t always as joyful as the saying would suggest. Life is filled with a wide array of emotions including pain. However, living in the moment does ensure us a more lively existence. We can’t experience the past or the future, yet we spend much of our time lost in regretting the past and worrying about the future. The present moment is all we have. Think of what we are missing when we trail off and focus on the things we aren’t actually experiencing. Think of how we tune out or numb ourselves in an effort to avoid whatever we would think or feel if we let ourselves be right where we are.
Most of us engage in behaviors that numb us in an effort to avoid sadness. Yet, sadness carries with it many benefits. It makes us feel rich, full and alive to feel our sadness. It has a rejuvenating effect that grows our capacity for happiness. When you try to kill off a part of yourself, you lose more of yourself than you think. The fear that motivates us to avoid deeper feeling frequently leaves us dulled, anxious and miserable instead.
3. Refocus Your Attention
When we listen to our inner critic, it is like we are looking at ourselves through someone else’s eyes instead of our own. We must learn to take the focus off ourselves and to look for meaning in our experiences. This still means setting goals, but it also means enjoying the journey. Life is about striving, not just being there. Have you ever set a goal to exercise or lose weight, then felt slightly empty when you reached it? That’s because life happens in the journey itself. Your energy can only be felt in your actions.
As you live your life, remind yourself of two things: slow down and pay attention. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Focus less on evaluation and more on your actual experience. Look out the window of your car. Be in the moment. As mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Pay attention in the present like your life depends on it.” And if you do get lost, never beat yourself up. Just bring your attention back to the present moment. You can actually strengthen your mind like a muscle by putting your attention where you want it.
Life is too precious to waste it lost in our heads, evaluating ourselves, one step removed from our own experience. We can more fully live our life by paying attention to our senses and being willing to feel what we are actually experiencing at any given moment in time
Last year, a poll indicated that only one in three Americans is reportedly “very happy.” Maybe this surprises you or maybe it doesn’t, but what it likely tells us is that the majority of the population is looking for a change. Whether it’s their job, their relationship, their city or themselves, most people have something on their minds that’s leaving them less than fulfilled. And as the saying goes, real change begins with us.
Last year, New York Magazine reported self-help to be an $11 billion industry. Millions of people are attempting to make significant changes every day. What most of these people may not know is that there is an actual science that reveals how lasting change is possible. Psychologist Dr. John Norcross has been collecting data on what works when it comes to making real changes. Backed by 30 years of intensive research, Dr. Norcross wrote the book, Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions. This month he will teach a one-hour presentation online, describing key findings and proven strategies to finally get around to making the changes you’ve long desired.
So how do you start this process? For one thing, you have to know exactly where you’re at in relation to your goals. Dr. Norcross says there are five possible stages you may be in in regard to making changes: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. He draws on scientific findings to show what works and what doesn’t in each of these stages. If you don’t know which of these phases you’re in, you may be more likely to slip up or fail.
Many people find they can reach a certain point in their goals before backtracking. They’re on a path to success, then suddenly do something to self-sabotage. The process of procrastinating or indulging, then punishing ourselves can be vicious cycle. We all have a “critical inner voice” that coaches us toward self-destructive behaviors that counter what we really want. “Go ahead and have another cookie. You deserve it,” the voice will whisper, when we are trying to lose weight. That same voice that lures us to steer off course, berates us when we fail. “There you go again, eating like a pig. You’ll always be a fat loser!”
To help stop this self-sabotaging cycle, Dr. Norcross suggests methods to identify which of the five stages a person is in. If someone is in precontemplation, for example, they may feel pressured by others to change but are mostly not aware of or resistant to altering their behaviors. According to Norcross, people in this state probably shouldn’t attempt to take action. They’re not really ready for change.
If someone is in the contemplation stage, they may be starting to think about changes they could make but still feel ambivalent or lack confidence. Norcross says this could be a time to review the pros and cons of changing. A person can start to prepare or “get tools in order” for future actions he or she would take in the next stage, preparation. Just like it sounds, preparation means you intend to start making change soon. Individuals can set the scene for action by making sure they have the time, energy and support they’ll need to move forward. They can begin to set dates and goals, and even alert others of their intentions.
Finally, the time for action comes, and this is when the person starts to make changes. During this transition, people should anticipate that their critical inner voice will initially get louder. It will yell and scream like the Wicked Witch after she was doused with water in “The Wizard of Oz.” However, they must remember that, like that witch, the voice will slowly melt away, as they persevere in their goals. During this process, they’ll want a healthy outlet and support system to help them deal with the fear and anxiety that accompanies the excitement of evolving into who they want to be.
Once someone has made a change, they will need a plan to prevent relapse. A person’s critical inner voices will be present at every stage of change, including the maintenance phase. By learning tools to combat this inner critic, knowing its tricks and ignoring its directives, the person is in a much stronger position to create and sustain real change. Organizing a support team made up of people in their life who support their goals is an essential part of relapse prevention. These individuals see the person in a compassionate light and when he or she is around them, the critical inner voice is quieted.
The important thing to remember is that change is a process, not just a single action. Change is rarely linear; there are twists and turns. It’s frightening to change, especially when you’re going out on limb to go after your own unique goals. In this process, you realize who you really are, separate from society, family or any other outside influences. You differentiate from old influences or identities and become your true self. On this journey, you will have to face the scary reality that your own mind can be your own worst enemy. Yet, by practicing self-compassion and following an organized, scientific strategy that yields the best results, you can feel empowered to make authentic, satisfying and lasting change.