Parents serve their children as mirrors. Parents (together with the immediate family) are the only real reference a child has, and thus parents’ words and behavior present the core source of information about a child.
If parents don’t provide an accurate mirror, namely that a child is a valuable human being that deserves love, respect and encouragement no matter what, that leads to never‑ending emotional suffering in later years.
Healing Your Emotional Self: A Powerful Program to Help You Raise Your Self-Esteem, Quiet Your Inner Critic, and Overcome Your Shame offers a really good overview of how big of an impact parents have on raising emotionally healthy children.
It explains typical abusive behaviors of parents, from abandonment, neglect to overprotectiveness, as well as to what kind of damages such behaviors lead. It also offers many great strategies and exercises for healing your emotional self if you were raised by abusive parents.
If you constantly suffer from depression, rage, aggressive behavior, substance abuse, procrastination or being stuck in other negative emotional states, this book will reveal the real source of problems and what you can do to overcome being emotionally stuck.
In a way, the book is kind of a mixture of the books Toxic Parents and The Gifts of Imperfection. I guess that after reading a few most popular books on a certain topic, things definitely start to repeat themselves. But that doesn’t bother me, since revision is one of the best learning practices to get knowledge from working to long-term memory.
But let’s get back to the book. It was written by Beverly Engel. She has been a psychotherapist for thirty years, specializing for abuse recovery, relationships, women’s issues and sexuality.
She is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on the issue of emotional abuse and has written more than 30 books on the topic. Healing your emotional self is one of the most popular ones.
Your self-esteem – do you feel lovable and worthwhile?
Everything starts with self-esteem. The level of self-esteem you have affects every aspect of your life.
It affects how you perceive yourself and how other see you, it affects your main life choices, from the career you select to the people you choose to spend time with, romantically or amicably. It influences your productivity levels and how much you put your talents to use. It affects your ability to take action, to be creative, and your leadership potential.
Your self-esteem is based on how you feel about yourself as a person. It’s your overall judgment of yourself and to what extent you accept yourself for who you are. If you have high self-esteem, you accept yourself fully, with your good and so-called bad qualities. You appreciate the full extent of your personality.
There are two simple questions that say a lot about the level of your self-esteem. Ask yourself:
- Do I believe that I’m lovable?
- Do I believe I am worthwhile?
You mustn’t confuse self-esteem with self-image (also called self-concept). Self-image is a set of beliefs and images you have about yourself. Self-esteem is about how much you approve of these images. Self-image is how you see yourself or how you think other people see you, and self-esteem is more about how much you respect yourself.
Children who are constantly shamed, humiliated, terrorized or rejected sooner develop self-hatred instead of high self-esteem.
The source of a poor self-image, low self-esteem and distorted sense of self
Most of the ideas you have about yourself were acquired in your childhood. Your parents had the most significant influence on how you feel about yourself.
The three main sources of the ideas you put together about yourself are:
- How others treated you (especially your parents)
- What others told you about yourself (especially your parents)
- The conclusions you drew by comparing yourself to others
Parents act as a mirror to show the child who s/he is. And since parents have the biggest impact on a child’s self-image and self-esteem, inadequate and unhealthy parenting affects the formation of a child’s identity in a very bad way.
Childhood neglect and emotional abuse cause many serious emotional problems people suffer in adulthood. Many times, they are not even aware of where all the emotional pain comes from. The parenting formula is quite simple:
- Positive mirror: If parents are loving, encouraging, fair and provide proper discipline and limits, the children they shape end up being self-confident and self-actualized.
- Distorted mirror: If parents are neglectful, critical and unfair, or they provide harsh discipline and inappropriate limits, their children become insecure, self-critical and they suffer low self-esteem.
That’s the real origin of low self-esteem and poor self-image. Parents who treat children with a lack of warmth and affection, give no acknowledgement, respect or admiration, set unreasonable expectations, show domination, indifference, belittling, isolation or unfair and unequal treatment.
In such cases, the child’s self-image becomes distorted, they lack a strong sense of self, they develop an extremely low self-esteem and their overall emotional development is thwarted.
If you are preoccupied with your performance and how you come across other people, you can’t be your authentic self. You either become inhibited or put on a show for people.
With a poor self-image and low self-esteem also comes distorted sense of self. A sense of self is your inner core, your internal awareness of how you are and how you fit into the world.
With a strong sense of self, you experience yourself as a strong individual who has every right to express themselves and who has the power to affect and participate in what happens to them. Thus, you can easily be proactive.
With a distorted sense of self, you feel anything but empowered and proactive. You sooner feel helpless, ashamed, enraged, terrified, guilty and insecure. And that leads to reactive behavior and procrastination.
Child abuse is rarely intentional
The big problem with the word “abuse” when it comes to upbringing is that we imagine a parent who is malicious and wants to intentionally hurt their child. But parents who act abusively towards their children rarely do it intentionally.
They are either not aware of the damage they are doing or they do to their children what their parents did to them. Abusive parents, who neglect or smother their children, usually have no idea what tremendous power they have in shaping their child’s sense of self.
Parents of children with low self-esteem had low self-esteem themselves.
Abusive parents often say that they love their children. But they behave differently. Unfortunately, such abusive behavior occurs on a continuous basis, over time.
Consistency in abusive behavior is the key thing that causes damage. Every parent treats their children in some of the abusive ways from time to time, but emotionally abusive parents regularly treat their children badly in one way or the other.
The most frequent types of emotionally abusive behavior towards children are:
- Physical neglect – not providing physical, emotional, social, environmental and medical needs
- Emotional neglect – providing little or no love, support or guidance
- Emotionally smothering a child (overprotection, a child without a separate self)
- Rejecting or emotionally abandoning a child (being cold, unresponsive, withholding love)
- Verbal abuse – constant criticism, ridiculing, blaming, belittling, insulting, rejecting, teasing
- Placing excessive and unreasonable demands on a child. Unreasonable expectations involve pressuring a child to excel or perform a task, skill, or activity.
- Being overly controlling
These consistent toxic behaviors can be seen in seven different types of abusive parents, from the point of view of how a child starts to perceive themselves (since parents provide mirrors for their children):
- I am unlovable: Neglectful parents or parents who don’t take time for their kids
- I am worthless: Physical or emotional rejection by parents
- I am nothing without my parents: Parents who are overprotective and emotionally smothering
- I am powerless: Tyrannical and overly controlling parents
- I am never good enough: Parents who are perfectionists
- I am bad and unacceptable: Parents who are verbally abusive, hypocritical or shaming
- I don’t matter: Parents who are self-absorbed and narcissistic. This usually happens when a child is useful to a parent only if they can provide something a parent needs – admiration from others, validation for being a good parent or somebody to adore them. Narcissists use their power as parents to build up their own shaky egos.
Many times, parents rationalize their behavior by saying that they are doing what’s best for their children or that their child is better off without them.
But their real intention is very selfish. They are essentially not there for their kids or they don’t put in the effort to provide the child with a safe and encouraging environment for healthy development.
The emotional nourishment of a child
Many parents have no idea how to build an emotional bond with their children. But in order to develop a strong sense of self, a child needs to be raised in a loving environment where positive psychological nourishment is available.
Emotional nourishment is provided by:
- Empathic responses: Actively listening to a child without getting caught up or stuck in your own point of view. It’s also called active listening and being patient with the child.
- Validating perceptions: It means expressing and acknowledging the whole spectrum of emotions. It’s, for example, validating that something is sad, when a child feels sad.
- Respecting uniqueness: Only if a person’s uniqueness as an individual is respected can the person learn to tolerate differences in themselves and others.
The number one indicator of a family’s emotional nourishment is how well individuality is respected. Do all family members have to think and feel the same about a particular experience? Or can they have their own individual perception of something?
In many families, it isn’t considered normal for people to have different preferences. Many parents see the child’s different preferences as a power struggle.
Emotional nourishment is especially important for a healthy upbringing:
- If a parent smiles at a child, s/he learns that s/he is delightful and adorable
- If a child is held and comforted, s/he learns that s/he is safe
- If a parent responds to a child’s crying, s/he learns that s/he is important and effective
- If a parent smiles when a child starts exploring the world, s/he develops autonomy
- If parents don’t overprotect a child, s/he learns that s/he is competent and trusted
Children learn that they are loved and emotionally nurtured by the way parents look at them, how much they want to hug them and hold them, how much interest they show in a child’s activities and how they discipline them.
If a child is emotionally or physically neglected, they fail to develop a capacity for love and become extremely needy or defensive. Any kind of abandonment of a child creates insecurities, self-obsession, tendency to turn anger against oneself and to idealize others.
Overprotection and neglect are more or less the same thing
The other side of the coin of abandonment is when a parent is too invested in a child, smothering them. These types of parents tend to smother a child’s individuality with overprotection, guilt, rules, and unrealistic demands.
Many of these parents are desperate for their child’s love and attention. Sometimes they even make huge sacrifices and commitments for their child, but expect the child’s soul in return.
Just like too much physical force can break a child’s bones, too much control can break a child’s spirit and fracture their psyche.
Emotionally smothering a child can be seen in a parent who:
- Is always afraid that something bad will happen to a child
- Needs to control their child and wants their child to adopt their values (religion …)
- Doesn’t allow their children to think, feel and do things differently
- Doesn’t want their children to be independent and see them a separate person
- Tie children to them by making them dependent, and the children have to be always available
- Sees children as a reflection of themselves, especially narcissistic parents
- Uses their children to satisfy needs that should be satisfied by other adults
Narcissistic parents tend to take emotional smothering even a step further and perpetrate emotional incest. The signs of emotional incest are:
- A child offers emotional support to a parent or a child is the parent’s best friend
- A child needs to take a parent’s place when a parent leaves home (“take good care of mama …”)
- A child needs to keep a parent company not to feel lonely
- A child needs to take care of a parent or protect them
- A child feels guilty when s/he spends time away from their parents
- A parent gives special privileges to one of their children
- A parent tells a child that s/he is better company than the other parent
- A parent talks to a child about his or her problems
- A parent tells any kind of secrets to a child
- A parent relies on the child more than on other siblings
- A parent is very critical of the child’s intimate partners or doesn’t want their child to marry
- A parent is overly concerned about the child’s developing sexuality
- A parent has romantic feelings towards the child
- A parent makes inappropriate sexual comments or violates a child’s privacy
Children who are being smothered by overprotective parents, especially tyrannical ones, often become hypervigilant. They develop extraordinary abilities to notice any warning signs that something is wrong.
They learn to recognize all the subtle changes in body language, and signals like anger, intoxication, dissociation or sexual arousal. The moment they sense danger, they attempt to protect themselves by either avoiding, placating or fawning to a person. These children usually also suffer from the anxious attachment style.
There is no more humiliating experience than to have another person who is clearly the stronger and more powerful (as a parent is) to take advantage of that power and give you a beating. – G. Kaufman
The atrocious damage of a bad parent’s behavior
Neglect, abandonment or any other kind of abuse communicate to a child that s/he is not worthy of love and care. Children who are shown little or no empathy and are given little or no praise develop low self-esteem and often fall back to self-destructive behaviors, apathy and depression. They tend to exhibit anxiety, fear, nightmares and dependency.
Children who internalize abuse become depressed, suicidal and isolated. They often suffer from self‑destructiveness, self-sabotage, depression, suicidal thoughts, passivity, avoidance of social contacts and shyness.
They suffer from feelings of guilt, remorse, depression, loneliness, rejection, shame and resignation. On top of that they perceive themselves as unworthy and see the world as a hostile place in which they are bound to fail.
Children have to see their parents as perfect, therefore:
- Emotionally abused children blame themselves for the abuse
- Deep down they believe they deserved to be treated in such a way
- They start to believe that their very being is wrong, not just their actions
- Many start to fight against shame by striving for perfection, but perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order
Instead of receiving encouragement and support from their parents, children of abusive and perfectionistic parents tend to receive only criticism, demands, and sometimes ridicule. Then you can never be satisfied with yourself and your performance, and you don’t see any value in who you are, without doing anything.
People who refuse to get angry at their parents tend to sink into self-blame, shame and depression. – Beverly Engel
How you see your body says a lot about how you feel about yourself
People who are very critical of their own bodies are usually very critical of other aspects of themselves as well (and of other people). If you are very critical of your body or particular parts, there’s a big chance you prefer to focus on your and other people’s flaws than assets.
Consequently, you’re rarely satisfied with your performance, relationships and life in general.
Your body is a great source of analyzing how you feel about yourself. The body is a reflection of many psychological things, including:
- How safe you feel in the world
- Your level of emotional and physical health
- How well you were taken care of as a child
- Perfectionist tendencies and how hard you are pushing yourself
- How well you learned self-care
- How your parents felt about your body
Adults who were abused as children tend to ignore, neglect or even abuse their bodies, seeing themselves as objects of shame (overeating, bulimia, not exercising or over exercising, abusing substances …). There are two extreme types of people when it comes to body image.
- On the one hand, there are people who are preoccupied with the way they look. These people tend to look at themselves in the mirror often or even constantly.
- The other group are avoiders, people who seldom or never look in the mirror. They just glance at themselves in the mirror without really looking and making sure they avoid looking too closely. What story does your body tell about your upbringing?
Healing your emotional self with Mirror Therapy
Now that we know the true source of hurting the emotional self, let’s look at different ways to healing. The author developed Mirror Therapy as a way to heal emotional scars from childhood abuse.
- Your emotional and body issues are caused by your parent’s abuse, neglect or smothering.
- Only with empathic mirroring from your parents can you develop feelings of self-worth.
- If a child’s needs are ignored or discounted, they will not know how to soothe themselves.
- Parents project their own unresolved issues on their children.
- Parents who behave in inappropriate ways become unhealthy role models for their children.
- You have to identify where the beliefs of worthlessness really come from.
- You probably suffer from a desperate desire to get what your parents didn’t provide you as a child.
- Parental emotional abuse created a pathological inner critic.
- Emotional abuse leads to disconnection with emotions and body.
- You have to develop a clearer image of who you are – your likes, dislikes, values, goals and dreams.
- You might have a tendency to numb your emotions or to feel overwhelmed by them.
- Only with growth and process of change can you become more accepting of yourself and free yourself to become the person you were meant to be.
- The resolution is to create a nurturing, responsive “internal mother” and a safe, powerful “internal father” to provide for yourself what you missed out on as a child. You need to start giving yourself proper emotional nurturing and set effective limits.
But everything starts with you facing the truth.
Face the truth and start expressing all the stifled emotions
Healing emotional abuse starts with facing the truth and admitting to yourself that you had abusive parents. It’s the first step towards releasing pent-up emotions about the bad upbringing experience.
By admitting the truth to yourself, you also get the power to place the responsibility back where it belongs. In other words, you were not the cause of the neglect of your parents. They were. Even if you intellectually understand that the abuse was not your fault, you may not know it on the emotional level.
By facing the truth and entering a period of grief, you can turn shame into righteous anger and start identifying all the negative beliefs that are hindering your life.
There’s no way to heal the emotional self if you don’t allow yourself to feel grief, sadness and anger for the lost childhood. It’s completely normal to get angry at how the child you once were was abused by parents who were supposed to protect you. It’s normal to cry for the child who was mistreated in such terrible ways.
The connection between shame and anger
There’s a very close connection between shame and anger. Some people are constantly angry, without being aware that deep down they are suffering from the feelings of shame. It’s easier to get angry than to admit feelings of shame to yourself.
On the other hand, some people constantly experience shame (feeling small, unimportant, a mistake etc.) without ever getting angry; because they perceive anger as bad. Anger pushes shame away. Anger can be a great motivator to break unhealthy emotional ties.
Releasing the anger you have towards your parents will definitely help you to stop blaming yourself. Getting angry at abusers is a way to affirm your innocence and turn negative feelings from the inward to outward.
Anger will also help you with the process of separation and individualization from your parents. Anger separates people. When you’re angry with someone, you don’t want to be around them. You want to pull away from the person you’re angry with. Anger will also motivate you to make changes in your life.
There’s nothing wrong with anger, if it’s expressed the right way. You have every right to express anger in a healthy manner. Otherwise the anger piles up. And when enough anger accumulates, it’s impossible to manage it.
Your feelings of unexpressed anger can either be turned inwards into self-hatred or outwards into spewing out your anger on innocent people. Anger itself is not a negative emotion. What you do with anger is important. You must find a constructive way of realizing anger and a safe place to let it out. Then it becomes a positive force in your life, creating energy, motivation, assertiveness, empowerment, and creativity.
Abusive parents often don’t let their children express anger. All the piled-up anger from childhood abuse needs to be expressed. So, first you have to find a connection between your low self‑esteem, depression, anxiety and unresolved and unexpressed anger. Then you have to slowly learn how to express anger in a constructive way.
Here are a few ideas for expressing anger in a constructive way:
- Talk to a safe person about your anger
- Write a letter to your abuser without any censorship (don’t give it to them, just let things out)
- Role-play your anger
- Find a creative outlet for your anger (arts, dancing etc.)
- Find a physical activity that makes you calm (running is usually better than boxing)
- Scream into a pillow
Identify your core negative beliefs
Since your parents served as a mirror in the development of your self-image, abusive upbringing leaves you many negative core beliefs about yourself. Your core beliefs determine to what degree you perceive yourself as worthy, competent, loved, safe, powerful and autonomous.
Unfortunately, the negative beliefs and thought patterns you inherited from your parents can greatly mess with your identity and self-concept unless you decide to identify and change them.
Here are some examples of negative beliefs:
- Good things never last, they either end or go away
- People are not trustworthy and neither is life
- I have no control over my life or what happens to me
- Nothing I say or do makes a difference
- I was a victim in my childhood and I will always be a victim
- I am to blame for the pain I feel and for all of my problems
- The only time I feel good about myself is when I’m giving or helping other people
- If I’m self-assertive other people won’t like me
- I should never tell anyone when I feel hurt, disappointed or angry
- I’m being disloyal if I talk about the bad things that happened in our family
Core beliefs about yourself dictate what you can do and what you can’t do. Positive core beliefs encourage you by affirming your abilities, and negative core beliefs cripple you or set unreasonable expectations for yourself and others.
A very good exercise to identify your negative core beliefs is to complete the following sentences:
- When my father/mother ignored me, it led me to believe that I am …
- When my father/mother criticized me, it led me to believe that I am …
- When my father/mother yelled at me, it led me to believe that I am …
- When my father/mother expected too much of me, it led me to believe that I am …
- When my father/mother ___________, it led me to believe that I _________.
- On top of that, identify all the unreasonable expectations you have, based on your early childhood experiences and the way your parents treated you.
Emotionally separate yourself from your parents
If you have a history of childhood neglect and abuse, you tend to remain enmeshed with your family origins out of a desperate desire to get from your parents today what you didn’t get as a child.
You desperately want some attention, love, respect or praise from your parents. But the sad truth that’s very hard to accept is that most people never get from their parents what they missed out on in childhood.
Here are the most typical ways how people stay enmeshed with their parents:
- Staying in denial about how they treated you
- Withdrawing anger towards your parents for the abusive treatment
- Taking over their core values and beliefs without any analysis and questioning
- Becoming just like them by repeating their behavior patterns
- Trying to be the exact opposite of them
- Working hard to never anger them or risk their rejection
- Doing things that will making them angry
- Not setting healthy limits and boundaries
You must also be very careful not to create a false sense of connection with your parents by unconsciously repeating their lives. If you do the same things that your parents did, it somehow feels like you don’t have to separate from them. But then you’re living your parents’ life instead of your own.
That’s why you need to initiate a process of individualization. The individualization process means taking steps towards becoming a separate person from your parents and your family. You need to accept that you have to grow up, even if you don’t feel emotionally ready. The individualization process consists of four parts:
- Actively grieving: You have to actively grieve for all the pain, rejection, abandonment and betrayal that you experienced as a child. You have to actively grieve for everything that you have lost in your childhood.
- Self-support: You provide yourself with the encouragement and support that you didn’t receive as a child. Self-support is also called self-mothering and self-fathering. It means learning to express all of your feelings, acknowledging and meeting your needs, and becoming assertive.
- Declaring independence: You declare independence by facing the truth, expressing your stifled feelings and setting the right boundaries. But you also have to acknowledge how you are similar to your parents and how you are different from them. Preparing a list of similarities and differences and how you feel about it is a great separation exercise.
- Completing unfinished business: When you remain angry with someone, you stay emotionally tied to them in a very negative way. Although expressing anger is a good first step, it’s not the last step in emotionally healing yourself. Turning anger into resentment or blame is a way for you to stay emotionally tied to your parents. You should use anger as a motivator to constructively work through the problem and at the same time not let the blame keep you caught in the problem.
The process of separation from parents represents a loss, and every loss is painful, even though the separation is necessary. You have to give up the false hope that you’ll get your childhood back and that your parents will one day be the way you have always longed for and desired.
You might also feel disloyal to your parents, since taking good care of yourself and going after your own goals can mean going against your parents’ wishes and beliefs. These are all normal feelings that usually come to the surface during the separation process.
The confrontation as part of emotional separation
The individualization process often includes confronting your parents. Confrontation enables you to take back your personal power and set new boundaries with your parents.
The point of a confrontation is to declare the truth, stand up for yourself and tell your parents how they hurt you. Its purpose is not to attack them or initiate an argument or alienate them. The point is not to change people or hopefully hear them say they were wrong.
Confronting your parents is different from releasing anger. You need to release a great deal of anger before any confrontation. It’s the only way to express your feelings in a strong, clear and self-assured manner. You must definitely practice confrontation.
Here are a few things that can help you script your confrontation:
- List all the neglectful or abusive behaviors that were inflicted on you by your parents
- Explain how you felt as a result of these behaviors
- List all the effects these behaviors had on you, as a child and in adulthood
- Write down everything you wanted from your parent when you were a child
- Write down what you want from your parent now
It’s very beneficial to have supportive people you can talk to before and after the confrontation. It might also be good if you have a safe person with you when confronting your parents, and you definitely have to set some ground rules of communication with your parents (for example, first listen to me, then you’ll get a chance to respond).
During and after the confrontation, it’s normal to expect denial, blame, rationalization, self-pity or guilt‑tripping from your parents. There is only a small chance the confrontation will give you what you deeply desire from your parents (love, acknowledgment etc.).
So, no matter how the confrontation turns out, consider it successful simply because you had the courage to do it.
Sadly, most victims of childhood neglect and abuse tend to continue with the neglect and abuse themselves as adults.
Another abuser to face – your inner critic
People who were emotionally abused tend to continually evaluate themselves, judge themselves harshly, and set unreasonable expectations and standards for themselves. They spend a great deal of time evaluating their performance, appearance, abilities and past history.
They set unreasonably high standards for themselves with no room for mistakes. They also tend to constantly compare themselves to others and are envious of other peoples’ successes and achievements. All these judgements come from the inner critic.
A person raised in a healthy environment develops a gentle inner critic who represents internalized rules and consequences. The job of the inner critic is to alarm a person when they go against their value system and keeps one’s behavior in check with moral standards.
The inner critic is an internalized voice of our parents, to always keep them with us and to give us a sense of protection, safety and imagined power over ourselves and reality. Anxiety, guilt and depression are the main tools of the inner critic, but the inner critic uses these tools within very reasonable bounds, because the critic’s conscience is modeled on one’s parents’ reasonable upbringing attitudes.
Everyone has a critical inner voice, but abused children have a more vicious and vocal one.
The pathological critic of neglected and abused children is always judging, blaming and finding faults in you. Your pathological inner critic loves to treat you with the same lack of understanding and acceptance as your parents did when you were growing up.
The main malicious job of the pathological inner critic is to motivate you toward unreachable ideals. It keeps engaging you to reach the perfect image, never letting you rest or feel satisfied.
The inner critic performs two functions:
- It keeps you away from what is considered to be an unmanageable part of yourself
- It directs you towards ideals that it feels will make you an acceptable, successful person
The result is that you never go after what you truly want (but rather after what your parents wanted) and whatever you do, it’s never good enough. The inner critic constantly compares you to your idealistic inner standards and to other people.
When you’re comparing yourself to others, you’re judging yourself, and that’s what the pathological critic loves. The main problem is that the inner critic seems like your own voice, but it’s not really you. The inner critic becomes especially strong when you are vulnerable or exposed.
Here are the steps to deal with the inner critic:
- Externalize your inner dialogue: Imagine sitting in a chair facing a mirror. Then criticize the image of yourself as if you were talking to another person. Speak all the shoulds and shouldn’ts that come from your inner critic out loud. Pay close attention to the voice that comes from your inner critic. Try to become aware that it’s not your own voice but the voice of your parents who were over‑demanding of you.
- Talk back to your inner critic: You might feel uncomfortable to talk back to your inner critic, since it’s the internalized voice of your parents. And you feel like you’re not allowed to speak back to your parents. But one of the most useful exercises from cognitive behavioral theory is emotional accounting, the point of which is to talk back to the inner critic.
- Overrule the inner critic with a nurturing inner voice: If you deliberately create a nurturing inner voice, you can help soften and balance the negative introjection. When you feel an attack from the inner critic, deliberately create an intimate connection with yourself by asking yourself how you feel. Then bring up or switch to a nurturing voice that’s deeply connected to your essence – your inherent strength, goodness and wisdom. With the same voice, give yourself credit every time you make progress.
The inner saboteur – the final boss to overcome
In some cases, the inner critic turns into the inner saboteur. If you often perform self-sabotage, the best way to overcome it is to understand where such irrational behavior comes from.
If you don’t successfully finish the separation process, your emotional self (the inner child) still clings to the hope that someday, you’ll be able to gain you parent’s love. Your inner child takes over and clings to its childish ways, with the hopes of getting your parent’s attention. Just like a small child does when they don’t get enough attention from their parents.
On a practical level that means you overindulge in sugar, excessive behavior, sexual activities, toxic substances and so on. It can also be procrastination, constantly being late or acting irresponsibly. You indulge in childhood needs and pleasures while your adult life is falling apart.
It’s your inner child screaming for attention. The inner critic can be identified by negative thoughts. But the inner saboteur is much harder to notice. You might only be able to recognize its influence by carefully noticing what happens when you experience pleasure, love, recognition or success.
Since your inner saboteur wants to cripple you, keep you from happiness or even destroy you, it initiates childlike behaviors when you’re experiencing life delights.
Here are some practical examples of how your inner saboteur works:
- Your spouse loves you -> let’s initiate a fight or flirt with other people
- You started to take good care of your body -> let’s start a sugar addiction
- You have an opportunity to get promotion -> let’s be late a few times
- You got a raise -> let’s get even deeper into debt
The first step in dealing with the inner saboteur is to notice what happens when you experience joy, pleasure, love, recognition or success. Try to identify how you start childlike behaviors and how you go against yourself. Especially pay notice to how you start pushing people away when you get sprinkled with love and attention.
Then, as with the inner critic, slowly learn to identify the inner saboteur as non‑self. As the last step (as you will learn later in the article), you have to build a connection with your inner child and start taking good care of it.
The adult part of you (the logical self) should begin to take care of your needy child – the part of you that feels helpless, afraid, deprived and unloved (with self-mothering and self‑fathering).
Self-mothering: Find a better tone when you speak to yourself
For a moment, think of how you speak to the people you greatly respect. You’re kind, positive and constructive towards them. Well, it’s time to show some respect towards yourself.
Maybe you can’t permanently and completely quiet down your inner critic or your inner saboteur, but you can definitely retrain both of them into a more positive, accepting and nurturing inner voice (aka self-mothering).
The first step into re-voicing your inner enemies is by entertaining the idea that you’re already enough just the way you are. You actually don’t need to achieve anything in order to have worth and be of value. You need to start recognizing your intrinsic worth as a human being.
Compassion and self-acceptance are the greatest antidote for the inner critic and saboteur. With compassion, you understand and accept yourself the way you are. You see yourself as a basically good person and you forgive yourself when you make a mistake.
You absolutely set attainable goals for yourself and you don’t have unreasonable expectations in your life. Compassion is a skill and it can be learned. It starts with the sentence: Given my circumstances, this is all I’m capable of at this time.
Get to know yourself
Many people who faced emotional abuse or neglect as children do not really know themselves. In a hurtful upbringing environment, a false image of the self is created by parents’ misplaced labels, distorted perceptions and negative projections.
These are the false parts of self you must discard. You might also feel like your identity is very fragile and vanishing, constantly looking for clues about who you are.
Nevertheless, no one can tell you who you are. Only you are capable of determining who your true self is. You might have to dig under the rubble of your parents’ judgements and expectations, and look deep into the mirror to find yourself.
With enough patience and focus, you will sooner or later find your true self. And you can see self-exploring as a positive thing – at the end of a day, a life unexamined is not worth living anyway. So, systematically start to get to know yourself.
Become curious about your true self. Do it with utmost awareness and ongoing attention to yourself. While you do it, take a neutral stance. Take in whatever you notice about yourself with impartiality, interest and curiosity. Don’t judge yourself: observe and show curiosity.
Reconnect with your body
The most effective way to reclaim all your emotions is to reconnect with your body. Your body creates body memories, even when emotions are stifled or pushed into the unconscious mind. Your body remembers what it felt like to be neglected, criticized, smothered or abused in any other way.
For every negative emotion, your body experiences a different set of physical sensations. Consequently, your body remembers the negative feelings with stiffness, constrictions and tension.
Your body clearly tells a story of childhood abuse and neglect. Poor posture, obesity, sadness on your face etc. are often all signs of childhood neglect.
In other words, your body hurts, bleeds, tingles or tightens for a reason. It’s trying to tell you something. In a way, it’s reminding you of the childhood trauma you experienced, encouraging you to take better care of yourself.
That’s why you must always pay attention to your body and heed its messages. The best way to reconnect with your body is to do light physical activities like yoga, stretching, jogging or getting a massage.
Your body can clearly tell you how you’re feeling at a certain moment and what you need, so:
- Pay attention to your breath and learn to breathe properly
- Identify the emotion that your current breath is expressing
- Identify the most tense or numb parts of your body – where does your body hold chronic stress?
- Which parts of your body are you most critical of?
- Which parts of your body were your parents very critical of?
- Did your parents treat your body with respect or did they perceive it as their possession?
- What parts of your body feel relaxed and at ease?
The more you value your body, the better care you will take of it. The more you love your body, the more you will cultivate positive habits regarding your body, like exercising, eating healthy food, having enough rest, being kind to yourself when you’re sick, listening to what your body has to tell you, and so on.
The first step to valuing your body is to accept it the way it is, with all its flaws, imperfections and limitations. Then start to regularly check what’s happening with your body throughout the day.
Reconnect with your emotions, don’t numb them
Besides losing connection with their bodies, people who were neglected or abused as children tend to lose the connection with their emotions.
They tend to be controlled or overwhelmed by emotions, and then emotions become their enemies. All the piled-up emotions, stifled or shut down, from childhood onwards, seem too hard to be properly managed. That’s why many people see emotions as something bad.
But all the unexpressed energy leads to dysfunctional behaviors, substance abuse for numbing feelings, depression, suicidal tendencies, and losing temper. Only if you reconnect with your emotions can you express all the piled-up energy in a positive way.
The first step is to stop labeling emotions as “good” or “bad”, but instead perceive them as messages, signals to yourself – they can educate you about yourself, your circumstances and your environment. Emotions are messengers telling you that something important is occurring.
On a practical level, that means emotions are encouraging you to act, to either take better care of yourself, take action, set boundaries, communicate something that’s bothering you, and so on.
There are four ways you can ignore your emotions in a negative way that backfires sooner or later:
- Suppression: You try to avoid feeling the emotion entirely
- Minimization: You try to deny the feeling, pretending it’s not that bad
- Blame: You blame somebody else for making you feel the way you do
- Projection: You deny your feelings by projecting them onto somebody else
Reconnecting with your emotions means experiencing them without inhibiting, judging or avoiding them by distracting yourself. The idea is called being mindful of your emotions. You don’t judge emotions as good or bad, you simply observe them and listen to their message.
You try to fully experience your emotion and feel it as a wave, coming and going. You make enough room for the emotion you’re experiencing, and just let it pass through you as a wave. It’s also beneficial if you try to notice the thoughts that go through your mind as you experience a certain emotion.
If you learn to express emotions in a healthy way, they can become great help in taking action for a better life. We know only eight basic emotions – anger, sorrow, joy, surprise, fear, disgust, guilt/shame and interest/love. All other emotions are just derivatives or consequences.
For example, if you feel anxious or worried, there’s fear hiding behind such an emotion. So, whenever you’re analyzing your emotions, ask yourself which primary emotion you are feeling.
List the following things:
- What makes you really angry?
- What makes you sad?
- What makes you feel afraid?
- What makes you feel guilty or ashamed (like you aren’t good enough)?
- What makes you feel fulfilled or satisfied?
- What makes you joyful or happy?
Provide an inner structure for yourself
Just like you need to create a strong nurturing inner voice that overrules the inner critic (also called self‑mothering), you must also provide a strong inner structure and encouragement, also known as self-fathering.
While a mother should represent nurturing and kindness to you, a father should represent safety, structure, limitations, and encouragement.
If you analyze your upbringing, you can quickly draw conclusions about how good is the inner structure you got from your parents:
- Did you parents have reasonable expectations of you?
- Were their expectations communicated clearly?
- Did your parents refrain from either depriving or indulging you?
- Were your parents good role models regarding the limits they set for themselves?
- Did your parents frequently go overboard with eating, drinking, working, shopping etc.?
Without clear limits and expectations, you might have completely unreasonable goals or feel confused, lost, powerful and unsafe. Children without proper limits become either impulsive and aggressive or fearful and passive.
Consequently, without proper limits you tend to be too easy or too hard on yourself. Without proper structure and self-discipline, you suffer in two extremes:
- Being too hard on yourself: You’re a perfectionist, constantly expecting too much from yourself. You leave no room for pleasure. You push yourself beyond healthy limits and drive yourself mercilessly.
- Being too easy on yourself: You’re too easy on yourself, constantly letting yourself and others down. You hesitate to take action, procrastinate often, and tend to abandon projects instead of following through.
If you didn’t get proper inner structure as a child, you have to provide yourself one. You have to consistently observe yourself, pay attention to your behavior and your emotions.
Then you have to decide when to give yourself a little slack with a nurturing voice and when to set a strict limit with a limit‑setting voice. It might surprise you, but setting limits on yourself is a very loving and nurturing thing to do. Self-discipline is self-caring, and limit-setting does equal love.
Find the balance between deprivation and indulgence. Be responsive towards your needs and fulfill them in a healthy limit-setting manner.
Similarly, you need to set realistic and reasonable expectations towards yourself. Without such reasonable expectations, which are neither too harsh nor too gentle, you will always follow goals that don’t realize your true potential (too gentle) or you will always feel like a disappointment (too harsh).
A reasonable expectation is reachable, given your history, your present situation and who you are today.
So, sit down, take a piece of paper and list all your expectations and goals. Then determine which are reasonable and which aren’t.
In addition, make a list of the ways your parents neglected and deprived you. Write down every example of neglect you can think of, emotional and physical. Then try to find a connection between how you treat yourself today and how your parents treated you.
And don’t forget, the only thing that can help you make up for what you didn’t receive as a child, is for you to become a parent to yourself – a father and a mother; a responsive, nurturing and limit-setting parent that you deserved all along.
Only you can give yourself what you need
Many people who were abused or neglected hope deep down that someday, they will get from their parents what they didn’t get as children. That rarely happens. Consequently, they stay tied to their neglectful parents, continue suffering pain, rejection and abandonment.
Others suffer from expectations that other people (intimate partners, children etc.) should somehow take away their pain (with unhealthy attachment styles). But no one can take away the pain, and that causes additional feelings of rejection and abandonment.
Your emotional self is represented by the inner child. If you were neglected, you carry within yourself a child who doesn’t want to grow up, because you missed out on so much as a child.
Your inner child can stay fixated or stuck at a certain age, driving your behavior in very hurtful ways. Healing the emotional self starts with building a bond and a dialogue with the inner child.
It starts with you taking good care of your inner child with self-mothering and self-fathering. By building such a bond and never letting your inner child down, you will gain his/her trust and together you can then get unstuck, turning into a strong fluid personality that’s able to face all the challenges of life.
If you need even more insights into how to do that, please read the book.