You would think after two decades of therapy I would be on my way to a strong sense of self and know how to apply a variety of cognitive-behavioral techniques to quiet the voices of self-doubt, that I could easily recognize when remnants of childhood crap are trying to sabotage something good in my life. But early trauma has a way of creeping into your life so subtly that you don’t realize you’re caught in patterns of dysfunctional thinking and behavior until the pain becomes acute.
My doctor once compared depression to a tongue looking for a loose tooth or an empty space where a tooth has fallen out. It persistently searches your mouth until it can latch on and play with the wiggly thing – completely fixated on it, ignoring the other perfectly fine teeth.
Childhood baggage is like that, too – shining a spotlight on anything that has the potential to make you feel bad, ashamed, unworthy of your place in the universe. You make a stupid mistake or get some minor criticism, and the tongue won’t budge from the void. Your mouth becomes one big loose tooth.
It’s like a fear of dogs.
When I was an exchange student in France, a large Doberman Pincher took a bite out of my left thigh. For years after I was petrified of dogs. I avoided parks and public places where these flesh-eating creatures might be unleashed and carefully mapped out running paths that were animal-free. The problem is that dogs sense fear. The more apprehensive you are, the more likely they will snack on your leg.
Therefore, the only way to get over my phobia was to perform an Academy Award winning performance and pretend I was a dog lover. I held my breath and asked strangers if I could pet their adorable creatures. When unleashed dogs ran toward me, I opened my arms, as if I wanted to take them home. Eventually not only was I free from my fear, but I became a bonified dog lover and owner of two Golden Retriever-Chow mutts.
“Our actions often create our feelings,” writes Eric Greitens in his book Resilience. “The way we feel is often a product of the way we act.”
I believe that is true but is exceptionally difficult when you’re buried in skeletons from the past. You have to first recognize that the deficit of unconditional love or stability from your formative years has created an overactive tongue, searching like hell for something to make you feel bad. Once you have that awareness you can move on to your Academy Award winning performance, where you pretend you are a capable, secure, worthy member of the world and that you love dogs. Sometimes you have to perform the same act every hour, every day, for years before the fear subsides.
Unfortunately, years on the couch aren’t enough to emerge from unhealthy thinking and behavior. There’s more to healing scars from the past. Continuous awareness and action are needed to break through the cycle of pain.