Do you ever wonder why people who have been traumatized seem willing, even eager, to engage in behaviors that are punitive, self-sabotaging or destructive? As a clinician working with this population I had a simple but profound realization years ago; when you hate yourself it resonates to hurt yourself. Self-destructive choices actually “make sense” to people who go through life with a pervasive sense of guilt, shame, harsh inner criticism, or self-loathing. Why would you want to make healthy, growth-producing choices if somewhere inside you don’t believe you are worthy of self-care?
The truth is, you can’t give up destructive patterns or toxic behaviors until you view painful life experiences through a lens of self-compassion and empathy. Oftentimes, the meaning you attach to trauma holds more power than the experiences themselves. Here are some examples of thoughts that might keep you stuck in patterns of self-blame and shame:
-What happened was my fault
-I should have stopped it or prevented it from happening
-My pain is evidence that I am damaged or broken
-This happened because I am unlovable
-I will always be alone
When you believe these thoughts are true it resonates to keep behaving in ways that perpetuate guilt, shame, and feelings of worthlessness. Bringing compassion into the equation is often the first step towards healing and being able to let go of destructive behaviors. As you practice self-compassion you will begin to choose relationships that are supportive and safe, care for and protect your body, and work in an environment that values and appreciates your contributions.
Notice the difference when you look at trauma through the lens of self-compassion:
-It wasn’t my fault that someone else chose to hurt me
-Something bad was done to me- I am not bad
-My pain is legitimate and is the inevitable byproduct of being hurt
-I have the power and the right to reach out for comfort, support, and guidance, so I am no longer alone
If you find it difficult to think about your experiences in this more loving way, try thinking about someone in your life who genuinely cares about you- a person or even a pet! Think about the messages they would give you, and allow yourself to slowly incorporate that perspective into your own thought process. If embracing a whole new mindset is hard, just start with, “Maybe it’s possible that it wasn’t my fault.” Even considering the possibility of letting go of self-blame gets you off the hamster wheel of shame and allows you to put one foot on the path of self-love and true healing.
photo source: Dollar Photo Club
Lisa is an LCSW- C and a Diplomate of the American Psychotherapy Association and has been in private practice for over 30 years specializing in adolescent and adult survivors of trauma, abuse, and neglect. She presents workshops and keynote addresses nationally and internationally, and is a clinical consultant to practitioners and mental health agencies. She has been an Adjunct Faculty member at several Universities, and is the Founder of The Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education, an organization that has provided continuing education classes and Certificates in Advanced Trauma Treatment to mental health professionals for the past 7 years. In 2009 she was voted the “Social Worker of Year” by the Maryland Society for Clinical Social Work. Lisa has written several articles on self-destructive behaviors and is the author of “Treating Self-Destructive Behaviors in Trauma Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide” (second edition) and “Letting Go of Self-Destructive Behaviors: A Workbook of Hope and Healing.” Lisa was also the host of a weekly, live, National Internet-based radio talk show called “Inspired Journeys: Overcoming Adversity and Thriving.” In her spare time, she acts, directs and choreographs for community theatre productions.