I’ve been bad :(
It’s mental health awareness week again and I realise I haven’t posted for ages :((
In fact while I’m kicking myself, I’ve also been eating too much sugar and I haven’t done enough exercise, the car needs washing and … :((((
I can feel my head drooping more and more as I shame myself with these scoldings and I know I’m not alone in this; millions of us do this all the time. I call it the love trap and it’s probably familiar to you.
I want to start by reminding you about something called unconditional love. It’s something we all crave and we have all craved since we were babies and guess what, we do actually deserve it. Unconditional love means what it says, to be loved with no conditions. I love you whatever you do / feel / like / say / want / break / forget. I might be upset with you about what you do /feel / like / say etc. I might even shout a bit. But I ALWAYS love you. Have you ever had that? What about from you to yourself? If you are nodding, you are one of the lucky ones.
What about conditional love, have you ever experienced that? “Wow, that deserves a hug!”, “If you do a great job I’ll give you a kiss”. Conditional love usually shows itself by the with holding of love when someone has ‘not been good enough’; “You got 5 A’s! How about that B though, you should have got 6”, “If you really loved me then you should…”. But when we did get it right and we got that reward, you felt great didn’t you? Perhaps not as content and relaxed as with that unconditional love that we crave but certainly a lot better than nothing. Right?
Notice that word ‘should’ again that I have talked about so many times. Interestingly that word has it’s roots in a much older word, ‘sceolde’ (Merriam-Webster) which looks a lot like ‘scold’ to me. ( The word has is roots in the nordic langauages and ‘should’ as in ‘you should do that’ in modern Swedish is ‘skall’ and the word for scold is ‘skälla’. Although they sound very different they have the same root.)
We carry these should or scolding messages into our adult lives when we say to ourselves I should eat less / drink less / run more / get to bed earlier / earn more / work longer etc. The things I do, not the things I am somehow define me as a better person. A better person… What does that even mean? More lovable? More worthy? More respected?
Here is the trap as I see it. We’ll do all these shoulds to help us feel better about ourselves, and don’t get me wrong, healthy eating, less drinking, exercise etc. are all great things to do, and we will feel healthier and maybe feel better about ourselves. Until we stop. “Oh I wish I had had a run this morning, it was raining and I couldn’t be bothered, I feel bad now.”, “Why did I reward myself for not eating sugar all week by having a bar of chocolate!? I’ve failed”. Some people do manage it, they manage to run further and faster each day, they manage to give up smoking or drinking, but the “I’m a better person” reward soon plateaus and some new action needs to take its place to keep that worthy feeling inflated, and to have something new to tell others about how good we are.
So how do we stop this cycle? Start, if you can, by imagining what life would be live if you could offer yourself unconditional love? To know that even without all of the great things that you do, you are a lovable and worthy human being.
If you can find away to do that doesn’t the purpose of those shoulds change? Instead of running to help you feel better yourself, you run because you feel better about yourself. You reduce your calories, not to help you feel more worthy, but because you feel you are worthy of looking after yourself.
And yes, I’m trying very hard not to quote a famous cosmetic brand. But you are (and so am I!).
About the author
Ben Wrigley is a founding member of ActiveListener counselling practise and also works in the NHS. He is driven to help people in and out of counselling to question why they do, think and feel about themselves and the world in the way that they do.
Counselling can help you to understand where your insecurities lie and where they have arisen. We can help you to process the messages of reward and punishment that cycle round and round and help to unwind the conditions that you put upon yourself.