Do you feel inadequate or worthless?
It is not uncommon for a person to enter into psychotherapy feeling that they are inadequate and without value.
Sometimes feeling that they are somehow wrong or false, or even that they do not really feel real. When this is the case, I often find that the individual does not have a good sense of, or connection with, their own body. If I ask them to be aware of body sensations, or describe how their body experiences particular emotions, this may be very difficult for them to find words to describe. It is as if the ability to notice, tolerate and enjoy the pleasure and pain of sensation has been lost. This leads to a life lived outside of the body. Experience is not embodied, and it is oftentimes limited to the intellect, cut off from the simple pleasure of being.
This can be a deeply troubling experience, but the good news is that this, like anything else, can be explored and evolved, after all, nothing lasts forever.
So where might this sense of inadequacy come from? While there is no one explanation that fits for everyone, D.W Winnicot provides an explanation that often resonates, relating to early experiences of life. Winnicot explained that in order to fully inhabit our bodies, as a baby and young child, we needed certain responses from our environment. We were not in control of whether we received these. What happened then happened, but as a result our development as an embodied being was impacted and limited.
The things we needed to develop the ability to live fully in our body were to be held with empathy, to be nurtured, to have our responses mirrored by our carers. We needed to be challenged, frustrated and disillusioned, but just in the right amounts, with our carer supporting and re-attuning with us when we temporarily lost our connection and felt big emotions like anger or shame.
So how come so many of us seem to have lacked this? Stephen Cope, in his excellent book, yoga and the quest for the true self, suggests that one element is the loss of living in an extended family where there are many adults to help raise a child. Children are often now raised by parents alone, who are working hard, tired and challenged, and who may not be getting their own emotional needs met. This limits their capacity to tend to children, regardless of their intention or feelings of love for their children.
When parents and carers are not consistently available to respond spontaneously to the needs of an infant, the infant will learn to mediate their requests. They learn to want what the parent gives, rather than what they truly want, and to become the parent's idea of what a baby should be. This means they are no longer themselves, and as a result their felt sense of their body and their needs are lost. The unconscious message is that they are not enough as they are, that they need to become something different.
In this scenario the infant is not able to use their parent as a safe base from which they can explore every aspect of themselves and find that they are loved and adequate despite their shortcomings. They cannot experience being merged with another and also separate, strong and yet weak, happy and then sad. They cannot experience the soothing of another when their feelings are too big to handle, and this impacts how they experience both themselves and the world. Without a safe base they abandon their body, they become brittle and inflexible, and they do not learn how to soothe their physical form.
So what can be done? Fortunately, the process of attunement and nurturing that may be missed in infancy and childhood is not a one off, irreplaceable experience. Psychotherapy is designed to provide clients with the unconditional regard, with the loving, but boundaried presence that can support them in healing their disembodiment. Approaches such as 'attachment focused Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing' (AF-EMDR) provide focused ways of healing the parts within that need to experience nurturing and holding. It can help integrate the resources we now have as an adult capable of parenting with the parts of ourself that still need them.
If you find yourself repeating patterns of giving away your influence, of being disrespected and feeling you somehow deserve it, or of finding relationships difficult and painful, then why not get in touch, or search the directory for a therapist who feels a good relational fit for you?
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About Fe Robinson
Fe Robinson is a psychotherapist and couples counsellor working in Durham on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays with evening appointments available. Her mission is to help clients thrive, whatever their life circumstances. For grounded, authentic support, get in touch.