Jake came to my office with fear in his eyes. What was getting himself into? Not unusual, so I start by soothing his hesitations and helping him to see that it’s a process that starts by building trust and I must be trustworthy. I cajoled him with how anxiety-producing it must be to spill your guts to a perfect stranger and he settled down a bit. He began slowly and told me in broad strokes how he’d been abandoned as a child which was why he came in. So, we proceeded. He explained how much he hates himself and is filled with anxiety and depression. Okay, so we were now in the thick of it 20 minutes into our first session. What to do?
I’ve been working as a therapist for almost forty years and by this time I’ve read most of the material on trauma, psychodynamics and taken every new treatment offered. I am proficient in hypnosis, EMDR (eye movement, desensitization and reprocessing), Trauma resiliency model, etc.… After all this training and reading I struggle with making complex ideas accessible to the people who come to see me seeking help. So, I draw from my teaching background where I learned to bring big concepts into bite-sized bits so children could understand them.
So, here is the concept. Children cannot abstract, their brain has not developed to the point where they can understand what is affecting the way they feel or where it is coming from. They just feel bad and don’t know why. If I ask children to distinguish between a tall thin beaker of water and a flat round beaker, they will tell you the tall one has more water even if it’s a much smaller amount. That also includes where their emotional pain is coming from. When they experience loneliness, criticism or physical abuse they always blame themselves. 100% of all children who experience abuse feel like it’s their fault because they are worthless, bad and undeserving or simply inadequate. Loneliness is like an emotional odorless, tasteless gas. They know they are in pain, but they can’t see it. Physical, verbal and sexual abuse are clearer but not understandable to children either. They only know that they feel bad and the feeling is transcribed in their brain as “There is something wrong with me because I’m in pain.” This begins what I term an Altered State. That altered state transforms the natural childhood state into inadequacy, worthlessness, not deserving of love, weakness, stupidity, hopelessness, helplessness, and feeling like they are bad. These states feel totally real and form into an identity. They feel like those bad feelings are the way it is and there is nothing they can do about it. Well, help is on the way.
I liken an Altered state to a funhouse mirror, a distortion for all those who don’t know what a funhouse mirror is. They are operating principles, it is who we are and influence everything we do. It’s not that I feel inadequate it’s that I am unworthy and inadequate. These altered states create anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, people pleasing, isolation, social anxiety, and substance abuse. It’s a complicated mixture of opposing identities. On the one hand, we can feel good about the work we do and on the other feel totally unlovable.
For a background as to how we got here, let’s look back for a second. For millions of years, we lived in tribes where everyone was involved in making the tribe cohesive. There were elders, shaman (doctors in those days) hunters, and gatherers. The men would take their young hunters into the forest and teach them everything about how to survive not only as hunters but as men. The women were all referred to as “Mother” and men as “Father.” Well, that’s all gone thanks to the industrial revolution where we devolved into two people family units and single parents and even grandparents raising children. This makes for a difficult situation for working parents and or parents who are in an active social scene or are depressed or alcoholic or drug addict. Our minds are wired for tribal life and yet we are living in single family dwellings. It’s too much for small unit families to provide all their children to need satisfying experiences. So they suffer, and our schools are wholly insufficient to cover what’s not being done at home. For example, almost all school shooters never had a caring person in their life.
The goal then is to find our way back to our Natural State. Our true nature, the one we were born with. A natural state is simply getting to a place where we feel like we are ok. That we have certain abilities and can find a pathway to do our best with what we have. Most everyone can find something they do well and then proceed to find work that taps into their natural abilities. Very often lonely children build fantasies in their minds like love will redeem them or fame will fill their inner void.
Moving from an Altered State to a Natural State takes understanding, compassion and deep empathy. Finding our true self requires a learned other, a non-judgmental other who understands why and how these things happen and can help define the difference. It begins with grasping the distinction between our altered state and a natural state. Then the work to define what a natural state could be with a heavy emphasis on reality as opposed to negative fantasies about who we should be and how others should be or behave. This is the process that will lead eventually to a more realistic and natural process internally. To feel like we are a life form, a mammal who is making efforts to do good work and is also capable of love and intimacy is the goal.
The process of finding level ground internally and work that is satisfying and fulfilling takes awareness and clarity. It’s always a work in progress. We can’t erase our experiences; they are what they are but we can change our relationship to those experiences. Instead of blaming ourselves for the way we were treated we can understand them in a way that allows our true self to shine through. Once those distinctions can be made from an Altered State to a Natural one the path lies open to a satisfying future. Otherwise, our negative experiences will be running the ship.