Contains distressing but fictional stories.
Lisa is 5 years old.
Her mom is abusive, screaming obscenities, name-calling and hitting her at home, while being sickeningly sweet to her in public. Her father is absent, but her mother’s boyfriends are equally problematic. Her home is a merry go round of drunks, physical and verbal abuse, and inappropriate behavior.
Lisa starts to create a fantasy, a place she can go in her mind to escape the pain and fear of her daily life. In her fantasy, she has a magical protection shield, a bubble that surrounds her body and keeps her safe, makes people happy to see her and want to be kind to her. Sometimes in her fantasy there is an adult hero, a faceless, nameless adult in a superhero costume, with a warm and gentle voice, who takes her hand and tells her “you’re safe now.”
Lisa wishes she really has a magical protection shield, or a hero friend to help protect her.
As Lisa grows up, her fantasy shifts, but always maintains a place in her mind where she is safe and cared for in a way she never got IRL. She outgrows the adult in a superhero costume, and starts to imagine different things, like becoming famous so everyone has to pay attention to her, or being chosen by a rich guy who is crazy about her.
Sometimes she still imagines the protective bubble around her body, protecting her from people who are angry, people who are cruel, people who are dismissive, people who want to hurt her just because she exists. She clings to the fantasy of this protective shield, even though she knows it’s silly.
It’s her one connection to feeling safe.
As Lisa grows up, some of her “bubble” will remain in the form of intimacy issues, inability to be vulnerable and trust people, a need to push people away to “test” them, a feeling of being unworthy or unlovable, an inability to relax and feel safe, and a need to control things which feel controllable, like her weight, food, exercise, or body.
As an adult, Lisa might be a bit rough around the edges, and come off as cold, bitter, naive, obsessive about food and her body, or self destructive. But all of those traits are just parts of her old protective bubble. She is not a bad person for having them. She’s just a human person, who developed a protective bubble when she desperately needed one.
Can you see this?
Let’s do another one.
Kayla is 5 years old.
Her mom worries about raising a little girl in a cruel world, so she’s quick to give “helpful” criticism, always guiding Kayla to be her “best self,” which includes being pretty and thin and likeable.
Kayla’s mom desperately hopes that Kayla will be able to avoid the challenge she herself went through– the bullying, the lack of confidence, the mistakes with boys. She just wants Kayla to be happy.
Kayla’s dad is her hero. He is strong, quiet, loving, though not very good at expressing his emotions.
Kayla’s parents are good people who are doing their best. Despite that, they have their own “issues” from their own childhood wounds, they’re trying to make ends meet, and theyre struggling, busy, and tired.
Kayla never feels like she gets quite enough love or positive attention from her parents. It feels like her dad doesn’t love her anymore sometimes when he withdraws, and it feels like nothing she does is good enough to make her mom happy.
So Kayla starts paying closer attention, and notices that her parents pay attention and praise her for being self-controlled, pretty, quiet, polite, humble, generous, nice, friendly, happy, and “good.” They get upset or shut down when she is loud, messy, sad or angry, selfish, mean, and “bad.”
Kayla internalizes the idea that love must be earned by hiding parts of yourself from the people who love you, swallows the shame that some parts of her are unlovable, and attempts to be the good girl her parents will love. A bright kid, Kayla starts to criticize herself before her mom can, and reject herself before her dad can.
The idea of good and bad morphs into a type of internalized perfectionism and self-loathing as Kayla grows up.
She feels like she needs to be the best at something in order for it to be good enough, and she learns to constantly pay close attention to how people are reacting to her. Her relationships become transactional: she gives them what they want and expect from her, and in exchange she gets their love and attention.
The shame inside Kayla grows as she realizes that she needs too much and wants too much and has all this “stuff” inside her that people don’t want to see. She hides more and more of herself, and starts to fantasize about finally achieving “perfection,” a state in which all of her shameful parts disappear and are absolved, so that she may finally be worthy of the unlimited love and attention she craves.
Making mistakes or asking for what she wants feels dangerous as she grows up. She can’t bear the pain of their disappointment, and what if they finally decide she’s not worth loving? She stops trying new things because the risk of making mistakes or failing is far too high.
Eventually Kayla becomes obsessed with her own flaws and other representations of her imperfections, ie: her unworthiness and unlovable-ness.
She becomes obsessed with getting rid of or hiding her physical imperfections. She diets and exercises in an attempt to fix her flaws, she buys teeth whiteners and laser hair removal and anti-aging skin care products. She clings to the fantasy of herself once she is perfect: no flaws, no badness, no shame. Perfectly nice, perfectly happy, perfectly beautiful. The perfect daughter. The perfect wife.
Some part of her might know it’s impossible, but the other part of her thinks “if I just try a little bit harder…”
The fantasy, created to protect her from vulnerability, uncertainty, rejection, criticism, and the pain of having seemingly unmeetable emotional needs, eventually becomes a violent weapon wielded against herself.
Nothing about her is ever good enough, because it’s not perfect. She’s not thin enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, too emotional, too needy, too much.
She feels like a failure, and a bad person. She feels sure that if anyone ever found out about how many flaws she has and who she really is and how many mistakes she’s made, that all connection and love and attention would be snatched away.
As an adult, Kayla comes off as anxious, awkward, self conscious, and judgmental. She gets jealous and angry when other women break the rules she so desperately follows, and uses that jealous and judgment as further proof of her inner badness and unworthiness.
But Kayla is not a bad person. She is simply a human person whose seemingly negative traits (perfectionism, self-criticism, and comparison) were developed to protect her when she needed protecting.
By sharing these two little (fictional) stories, it is my hope that you can see how:
the traits we don’t like in ourselves as adults are almost always the result of needing protection, trying to get our needs met, or needing to regain a sense of control when life felt too out of control.
This includes perfectionism, self criticism, seemingly self-destructive habits, laziness, anxiety, body image issues, food issues, insecurity, comparison and jealousy, and much much more.
Have you ever felt ashamed of some of your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors? Have you ever felt like a bad, broken, or fucked up person?
So have I. So has everyone. And one of the biggest turning points toward self-acceptance in myself and my clients comes with the recognition that actually there is nothing wrong with us, and everything “bad” about us was simply borne out of the need for self-preservation.
Put another way: nothing about you makes you a bad person. Instead, even your “worst” traits and behaviors just mean you’re a human person trying to survive.