Growing up in chaos challenges our equilibrium to seek control, wherever and whenever we can find it. This is a recipe for our perfectionist part to step forward and take control, driving us mercilessly to do more and better, striving for an ideal that does not exist. Ultimately, this is a recipe for failure, disappointment, anxiety, depression or worse. It wasn’t until I learned that as a spiritual being having a human experience that I am limited and flawed that acceptance began to flow in. This realization did not mean that I stopped striving to grow, do better and be a less judgmental human. It did mean that I had to reign in my perfectionist part and redefine my goals and ideals.
When acceptance began to flow for my limitations and mistakes, along with it came relief. I could stop setting myself up for failure and begin to release my grip on unrealistic expectations, not only for myself but of others. It opened the door to see and accept the limitations of others as a natural and universal aspect of being human. It also loosened the grip of the need to control, which calmed my overly developed responsible part, creating space for the capacity to simply be.
Part of my journey towards acceptance included work through psychotherapy that encouraged me to confront the chaos of my childhood and the traumatizing effects it had on all parts of me. I learned that perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels a primary thought that if I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Shame says ‘I am bad’ versus the feeling of guilt, which says ‘I did something bad’.
Having a compassionate witness, my psychotherapist, guide me along the sometimes slow and painful path back to wholeness, was mission critical for my healing. I came to learn that as children living through adverse experiences we adapt by turning against ourselves, which distorts our sense of self. We develop self-hatred as an adaptive response to protect our parents, which plants the seed that will grow the perfectionist part and set us on the path to work to improve our ‘bad’ self.
As I write this, my intention is not to blame, pass judgment on or shame parents. I am in a space of understanding and acceptance that humans do the best they can with what they know in the moment. However, the child goes through an unconscious development process that suggests: which is safer, for the child to believe that their parents are bad and they don’t love you or that they are incompetent and the world is not safe OR for the child to believe that there is something wrong with them, that they are not good enough or have something to be ashamed of? When we can understand that the fear of the loss of the attachment to our parents creates unendurable pain, then we can understand it is safer to turn on ourselves, because it leaves room for hope. Hope that if we work hard enough, we can change that bad part of ourselves and become lovable. This process creates the belief that if I can be good enough, I’ll be loved and belong.
What current research is offering is an approach to undoing the damage of this natural adaptive developmental process that is effective and embraced by people who suffer from shame. It is compassion-focused therapy. What is being demonstrated is that compassion is an essential capacity for growth, both inside and out. It is why I integrate a self-compassion assessment and meditation into my healing offering through talk therapy and offer a recording (here) for download for ongoing support. Having and truly offering compassion in therapy honors the experience of universal human suffering and now research is creating the evidence needed for compassion focused therapy to be embraced by the psychotherapy community.
To read more about where the research on compassion focused therapy currently stands, click the button below: