It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge that part of what causes our stress, pain and suffering is as much about others and their behaviour, as it is about our own inner conditioning, values, wounds, and expectations. It’s the mix of difficult feelings like frustration, disappointment, anxiety, sadness, and anger that bring most people to counselling or coaching in the first place. But what keeps people returning is the progress that’s made through taking ownership of what they are feeling and thinking so they can evolve into experiencing greater levels of emotional intelligence, psychological flexibility, and maturity. In this article, I will be exploring two ways we unintentionally create our own unhappiness and the keys to change through therapy & mindfulness.
How it all starts.
Before we can even talk, we start taking in information from our environment through sensing and hearing which lays the foundations of our psyche. Once we become mobile, we learn from our caregivers what the boundaries are, discovering what behaviour is acceptable and what’s not. Picture yourself as the wandering toddler hearing the voice of your protective parent saying “no, don’t, stop, you shouldn’t, you mustn’t” – this voice becomes internalised and continues to counsel us long after our toddler years, keeping us safe and socially acceptable throughout our lifetime. Freud named this critical inner voice the super ego – who I should be and who I shouldn’t be. The language of our super ego sounds like “I should, I must, I have to” as well as “I mustn’t, I shouldn’t, etc”.
Simultaneously, from a young age, we observe the reactions of our carers to our behaviour and we start to attune to how we should be to continue winning their approval. In the face of this approval, you develop an ideal self – who you believe you need to be, to belong, to be accepted and to be valuable to your family of origin and later, the world. Picture yourself as a youngster who is praised for being helpful, or kind, caring & peaceful, or strong & resilient, or capable & independent, or in control, or doing what’s right & good, or getting attention for achieving good results, or being entertaining & lifting everyone’s spirits, and the list goes on.
Simply put, these two forces combine to form the push pull tension of our inner voice. Our internalised self becomes a guiding compass for who we take ourselves to be in the world, influencing decisions we make, thoughts we have, how we feel and what we say and do.
Now bear with me as I use geography as a metaphor for life… For a compass to be effective, it needs a map and because we each create our own map of how life is – based on the internalised experiences that shape our beliefs and values over the years – we find ourselves conflicted when our map isn’t consistent with what’s happening in the world around us. When the map and the territory are not the same, you will feel uncomfortable, unsteady, uncertain, annoyed, sad, angry etc.
The super ego loves to create rules about how things should be, but it also loves to create taboos of what is not Ok. Unchecked, these rules and taboos limit your ability to be present and in flow with your life as it truly is.
When the value of your ideal self is questioned, or not reflected back to you by the world, you get triggered. When you feel judged and criticised by the outside world for inadequacies you work hard to avoid or prevent, you get triggered. The super ego’s role is to keep us safe, but when you are safe, the criticism and judgement is counter intuitive. When your inner narrative is judgemental, diminutive and down right mean, this is described as a super ego attack, and it can literally suck the life out of you, leaving your feeling helpless and hopeless.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, CBT, helps you to recognise the relationship between your thoughts and emotions and how they impact your actions and behaviour. Its therapeutic benefits include being able to recognise the negative thoughts, so they can be challenged and updated, changing the way you feel and behave.
This is where mindfulness comes into its own with qualities of acceptance, kindness, allowing, and connection acting like a lullaby for our distress and cultivating inner resilience. When practicing mindfulness, we become more connected with the reality of what is going on around us, defusing from our fixed ideas of how we think things should be, to being connected and in flow with how things are.
Arguably the most powerful tools of mindfulness is kindness and by practicing it, we dismiss the cruelty of our well intending super ego, changing the inner narrative from one of self-criticism and self-judgement to self-love and self-compassion.
In mindfulness meditation, we learn how to allow life to flow through us, disempowering the strong hold the super ego has over our inner child who simply wants to be good, valued and loved.
If you would like to explore how CBT or mindfulness therapy can support you with changing your relationship to self criticism and self judgement, then make a time with me here.