Vulnerability and Honoring “Thank You”
I have a friend who thanks me from time to time for something I’ve done for her. Her thank-yous seem sincere and heartfelt, maybe even earnest. I find it challenging to take them in, to really believe them. This is undoubtedly a vestige of learning as a child that I was worthless and always would be. This shaming was at the heart of my mother’s parenting approach. I imagine she learned it from her mother.
Because small children are completely dependent on their caregivers for survival, these kinds of messages, when delivered at an early age, are held in the body and never really leave. What the child takes in and holds onto depends on the child, of course, so the severity of it varies from person to person. I must have taken the message seriously.
To belong in my family, I had to be obedient, always doing what I was told. Because physical violence was also used to control my behavior, this was a reasonable survival strategy. As an adult, believing that I have no worth unless I’m obedient doesn’t serve me quite so well.
Here’s the good news: even though these early lessons are held in the unconscious body-mind, one can learn newer habits and beliefs that can take precedence. It does require effort and repetition to create a new habit, but it can be done. For me, the tricky part has been this: when I start to believe that I’m worthy, whether obedient or not, the little one, who believes he will be safe only if he obeys, becomes frightened and does his best to subvert my new behavior. Make no mistake, Little One is not little or weak. He is a Master of Subversion.
A religious upbringing can make this even more challenging. The First Baptist Church where I grew up was a hell-fire and brimstone sort of place, where burning in Hell for Eternity was the punishment for not accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior. Perversely, if you did accept Him as your Savior, the implicit message was that you might still burn in Hell if you’re not a good Christian. This was very common in the South, and to some degree still is: a (false) aphorism on a church sign in Lubbock, TX where I lived for a while summed it up this way: “If things are going well, perhaps you’re on the road to Hell.”
This is all to say that changing one’s beliefs can be more challenging than one might think. Since much of what we learn in early childhood is based on our sincere (and sometimes true) belief that we might die if we don’t do what is expected of us, these beliefs are deeply engrained in our body-mind. As a result, we often make unconscious choices that keep us loyal to the group even when that group conscience no longer serves us.
It’s been my experience that any attempt to change these life-or-death beliefs is much more likely to succeed if the approach one uses incorporates the body and the unconscious mind, not just the logical, thinking brain. As Bessel van der Kolk says, “You can’t be talked out of, what you weren’t talked into.” This is one of the reasons I love coaching people using horses or using Systemic Constellation. Both methods rely on non-logical parts of the human nervous system for their efficacy. And working with a horse in Nature is just plain fun. Whatever method one uses to change these types of beliefs will also need to incorporate some sort of mindfulness practice over a long-enough period to create a newer, more functional habit.
If this is something that you’d like to learn more about, please schedule a free consultation. Meanwhile, I’m going to work on my new habit of being vulnerable enough to let a thank-you sink in at a deeper level.