Becoming a Traitor to Yourself

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

So begins Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But these words apply to more of us than the black protagonist of his novel. A careful reader will recognize how many psychotherapy bloggers are quick to condemn themselves. They define themselves as terrible human beings, inconsiderate and selfish. They believe their resentments should neither be felt nor displayed. A “better” person would be kinder, forgiving, more generous. Their unhappiness is taken as a commentary on their value, a failing grade in the class of life.

You will see them marching voluntarily to the world’s slag heap of unnecessary and misshapen things, beyond repair or redemption. They say, in effect, “If you wish to find me you must dig deep in a landfill, where I belong.” I asked one, in light of her self-assignment to the discard pile of life, how then she might describe herself if she were a spouse abuser or terrorist. These are far worse human behaviors than she’d reported and, it seemed to me, her self-condemnation went too far.

Here was a lady who sprinted to the local lumber yard, bought some wood, constructed a cross, and nailed herself to her destiny. To my mind, the bowels of hell (if such exist) are occupied by a group to which she doesn’t belong. They’d laugh if she requested admission.

I might have said, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

We can, in just this type of self-punishment, turn traitor to ourselves. I’m not suggesting anyone is perfect. But few of us are so unworthy that we must become our own dartboard. We bleed enough at the hands of fate without offering ourselves as a pin cushion. Some of us have been assigned a shape not our own. Life seems inauthentic. We must reform ourselves, shed the shape assigned, and work to improve it.

First, however, we must buy a new flashlight, stand in a new place, and look with new eyes.

Ellison’s fictional young man sought answers about a path forward. He wished to know who he was. The earnest fellow thought it best to ask others wiser and older. No flashlights for him.

Asked or not, those others give us our first sense of self by what they say and do. Their kindness suggests we are worthy. If they blame us we might think we are not. If they offer false gods, we get a counterfeit sense of what life is or “should” be. We are in the dark.

Ellison’s protagonist tells us he was indoctrinated for 20 years and needed another 20 to achieve self-awareness: to throw-off the self-destructive beliefs he had about himself and the nature of the world. Where can you go to find out whether you are as awful as you think, assuming you don’t like yourself?

Some begin by questioning the most basic assumptions they have. These include whether authority figures are usually right. Which authority figures?

All of them: your parents, government officials, best friends, clergy, and spouse are not exempt. The ones in power and the ones who want it. The pretenders and their defenders. The crowd and the solitary man. The critics and the critics’ critics, the know-nothings and the do-nothings, the show horses and the work horses. Include your therapist, too.

Even your God.

What do I mean? If you have been shamed and demeaned or neglected, especially in your early life, such treatment came from those on this list. If you accept their judgment then you internalize the guilty verdict on your character and talent. You will judge yourself as they have, carrying their voice, now your own, inside you. Indeed, if even a house of God is the source of repeated reminders of the indelible blackness in your heart, a religious book can become a cudgel to beat you with.

Worse still, believing them, you will continue to seek their “wisdom” and approval; desiring a possible reconsideration of your character since their magnetic attraction remains powerful. Or, you may search for others like them, those who claim they are only doing this (injury to you) “for your own good;” in effect, redefining harm as “caring.”

Here is the first bit of “fake news” we receive in life, making us vulnerable to those who offer us — their sheep — a caring hand that will instead shear us of the goods we own and the belief in our own goodness. These “wrong choices” of association with “wrong” people depend on the magnetism they share with those who began our “wrong” indoctrination.

Their magic only disappears when you recognize who they really are; and, who you really are.

Some authority figures deserve to pass the test. Others do not, nor should you return to them. You may be scared to be without their shoddy shelter. The security you believe they offer, however, is an illusion. You can only get out and get away.

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

The first painting is George Hooker’s The Subway (1950). The second is the work of Tetsya Ishida: The Servitude and Deforming of the Salary Man.

11 thoughts on “Becoming a Traitor to Yourself

  1. I spent my entire childhood from infancy until 23 years old in a fundamentalist religious cult (Christianity-based), and I appreciate the apt description here of the shame-based ideologies that I was surrounded by until I was able to leave that institution. I am now 31 years old, and the real work has not been the leaving of the church, but the removal of the church from my inner self. Corporal punishment was administered for any perceived “willful ” behavior, even in infants. It is still a struggle for me to not figuratively (negative self talk) and literally (cutting, etc.) continue to beat on myself based on those imposed perspectives of shame.
    I always enjoy your posts. Thanks for sharing the insight.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Very sorry you had to suffer this upbringing. Keep working on it. You sound like a brave soul and have a name, “Wildheart,” to match. And, thanks for your kudos.

      Like

      • Thank you, the layers of pain and trauma that result from this kind of childhood are profound, and recovery feels slow. The concept of a “wild heart” however is something that I believe speaks to the resilience of the human soul. Regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, we always have the human capacity to choose our responses, and in that sense our hearts will always be free and “wild.”
        The concept has limitations, but it’s the belief in this idea that has brought me some sense of hope.
        One way I cope as well is to read everything I can about recovery, and your page has popped up many times in my Google searches over the years, and I especially have been thankful for the insight into the transference dance that you have offered from your experiences.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been questioning myself since I was very yong that if I am a likeble person or not, what do others think about me… i was trying so hard to please my teachers by study hard, more obedience and trying my best to be a teacher’s pet… those never worked. I felt I was an unlikeble student, a bad person. Somewhere somewhat there is something wrong with me, i don’t know what it is yet but as far as i know, it is there. I have been always trying to be approved by someone, like teachers, parents, bosses, and now spouse… I am trying to jump out this strong magnetic field. It is very painful becasue sometimes i feel that l i am out in the wild and on the wrong side of line… it is also painful to realize that all my life has been seeking approval and opinions from others about myself and trying to figure out who i am and is this real me or is this just a body of someone else.
    Thank you so much Dr. Stein, your articals are my lighthouse in this culture mixed world as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am happy to help, Aimee. The world is enormously confusing and none of us have all the answers, nor are any free from self-doubt. While we need approval, our self-worth must eventually become an internalized quality. You might be interested in reading Stoic philosophers like Epictitus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. See if any of their very ancient wisdom is useful. Be well, Aimee.

      Like

  3. Thanks for another enlightening article, Dr. Stein. For some unknown reason, it did not show up in my feed for April 27.

    “If you have been shamed and demeaned or neglected, especially in your early life, such treatment came from those on this list. If you accept their judgment then you internalize the guilty verdict on your character and talent. You will judge yourself as they have, carrying their voice, now your own, inside you. Indeed, if even a house of God is the source of repeated reminders of the indelible blackness in your heart, a religious book can become a cudgel to beat you with.”
    ~ It took me years to rid myself of those negative voices, to break from the Catholic Church, and to be true to the person buried deep within.

    Like

  4. drgeraldstein

    Please let me know if the feed problems persist, Rosaliene. Those of us with contact with you are all better for your ability to break away.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bravo Dr. Stein! It can be so hard to throw off those early voices and be able to see ourselves more clearly. To not feel so threatened that we can see parts of our self that we do not like without that becoming the whole of who we are. And to see parts of ourselves that are worth celebrating and claim them. Those early lens can be incredibly distorted. I always thought of my therapist as a mirror that actually reflected reality instead of the distortions of a fun house mirror. There are still times it is difficult to trust my own assessments and that little voice can still whisper that relaxing into believing something good about myself is wrong or dangerous, but that whisper is also much easier to override these days. We who need to hear what you said here cannot be told enough times. I hope this goes forth wide and far as an encouragement to those who see themselves too darkly. Thank you for writing this!

    AG

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am reading your posts and know it will take time. You do not know how many times I have typed something about myself and deleted it before posting, terrified I will be recognized. Wish I could bring myself to be more open here….read your bio. I retired from a DMHAS….worked the entire gamut….from state hospital to a community based setting. It was a fantastic job.

    Like

    • Please don’t feel any pressure to comment. That said, I do enjoy reading whatever you are comfortable saying. Thanks, Nancy.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s