“How did I get here? How am I ever going to recover? I fucked everything up!” These questions came up during a complimentary session I recently had with a woman I’ll call Susan.
“How often do you think these thoughts?” I asked.
“All the time,” she replied.
Over the past five years, Susan had gone through a bankruptcy, divorce, and lost her house. She felt resigned, trapped, and hopeless. She blamed herself, her choices and her upbringing, and shared how she spent more time beating herself up than thinking about her future.
What I saw when I looked at Susan was an incredibly capable, smart, beautiful woman, who lost sight of who she really is. She got caught up in a limiting story (I’ve fucked everything up!), and that was creating tremendous suffering in her life.
She was so harsh in her tone—there was an edge to her voice when she talked about herself. I asked if that voice was similar to one of her parents. She thought about it, and then replied, “both of them.” Her mother was highly critical, and her father was “just plain mean.” He was withdrawn and emotionally unavailable her whole life.
It’s no wonder Susan took on this dynamic of punishment inside of herself. She learned it honestly as a child. Criticism and withholding became linked with loving, and a pattern of approval seeking, pleasing and earning love took root…out of survival. This was necessary then. Thank goodness a part of her made this connection so that she could feel love as a child.
Yet, the pattern of loving she took on was conditional—and at this stage in her life it was harming more than helping. She internalized the behavior and was playing the role of her mom and dad inside of herself. In a way, she was practicing self-abuse—and that’s a recipe for disaster, or at least a life of suffering.
Susan is not alone in her experience. So many women I talk to have a similar inner environment—one of criticism, cruelty and conditional loving—and most of them internalized the pattern from their childhood too.
I know I did. My biological dad was incredibly withdrawn and emotionally unavailable and my stepmother was violent, biting and belittling. At one point, she threatened to kill me…and that’s a blog post for another time.
How do we break-free from these learned limiting patterns?
One of my favorite quotes is by Dr. Mary Hulnick (co-founder of the University of Santa Monica). She says: “Healing is the application of loving to the parts inside that hurt.”
This is the answer. This is how we break-free and create real transformation—through offering the parts of ourselves that hurt, loving.
For Susan, it was clear, that young, sweet, innocent girl was hurting. Her five, six, seven-year-old self needed love…and we put together a plan for how she could give that to herself.
First, Susan was to cry her tears. She got in touch with a lot of sadness in our session, and it was important to let those feelings out. She’d carried them long enough.
Second, Susan was to find a photo of herself from that time in her life, look into the eyes of that pure, loving little girl and love her. Just the simple act of looking into the eyes of that photo generates feelings of compassion and, ultimately, that’s a key ingredient in the healing process.
So is forgiveness—specifically self-forgiveness. Holding past grievances against ourselves won’t help. For Susan (and many of us), the time has come to end her self-imposed, unconscious prison sentence and set herself free. No matter what choices she made ten years ago, five years ago or just last week, the truth is she was doing the best she knew in those given circumstances. The same is true for you.
Forgiveness is about freedom. And that, my dear, is your birthright.
These actions are enough for Susan to begin her journey back to her true self. And, they may be the exact best way to support you in doing the same.
With Fierce Loving,