Lately I've been painfully aware of a recurring one-two punch in my life. It goes like this: I'll blurt something out or do something completely from impulse, and then moments (or sometimes even hours) later, I'll feel consumed with shame about what I said or did. And when I say consumed with shame, I'm not exaggerating. I have an overwhelming desire to cease to exist and I find myself hoping that the Earth will open up and swallow me whole. Other times, I obsessively go over and over what I said or did, a pit growing in my stomach.
Most of the impulsive things I do or say aren't that bad. Maybe I eat a third piece of cake, or blurt out a critical remark about a person who is not present. I'm not saying these impulsive actions are ideal, but they don't seem to warrant the intensity of the shame that follows them.
I've started to suspect that the impulsivity and the shame are somehow co-dependent; they seem to feed each other. It's clear to me that the impulsivity leads to the shame, but what I'm beginning to realize is that the shame leads to the impulsivity as well; that the shame mechanism fuels the very behavior it attacks. It's a classic feedback loop: the more shame I feel, the more impulsive I become, which in turn generates more shame.
And that's when I feel like I'm running on a hamster wheel. I'm going nowhere fast and I can't figure out how to step off.
I was speaking about this dilemma with a friend of mine who experiences the very same thing. As I listened to her describe her own version, my Voice Dialogue training kicked in and I realized that we were describing primary and disowned selves.
(For those readers unfamiliar with primary and disowned selves, here is an explanatory paragraph from my website: "Although most of us think of ourselves as a single "I," we are actually comprised of a complex tapestry of selves. Each self holds to and advocates for a particular view of the world. Each protects a particular vulnerability. From an early age, most of us identified with a small number of these selves that then became our primary ways of being in the world. At the same time, we disowned other selves with alternate, sometimes conflicting perspectives.")
The primary self for both my friend and me is a self who values control, order, and discipline. As I thought about what vulnerability that self is protecting, what came up was the fear that other people will dislike me, that they will see me as a problem. Even as I put that fear into words, I could feel myself trembling and tears started to come into my eyes. It's no wonder that this "Control/Order" Self works so hard! The vulnerability underneath it is enormous and quite old; it goes back to my early childhood. From this angle, I can feel deep compassion for this Control Self and understand why it enlists the help of my inner critic to activate the shame when that other impulsive self appears. I appreciate why it works so hard to get rid of that impulsive self altogether.
Once I had a little compassionate distance from that primary self, I could turn my wondering to the other side: the disowned, "impulsive" self. This other self values spontaneity, freedom, and letting go. It is also protecting a vulnerability--although this vulnerability is less known to me since I've been so identified with the control and order side of things.
Here is where a Voice Dialogue session serves me well. In a session, I can hear directly from both my primary and disowned selves about why the energies they each bring to my life are so important. Even before getting to hear from the Spontaneous Self, I already know how important it must be for that self to find expression. I know this because it continues to erupt through the formidable barriers that my Control/Discipline Self has enacted and refined over the last four-plus decades of my life. I can imagine that if my primary Control Self wasn't working so hard to hold back my Spontaneous Self, it might show up in a more relaxed way in my life.
I'm only just beginning to work with this set of opposites in my life. As I learn to bring my awareness to the different selves without identifying exclusively with either one, I can develop what is known in Voice Dialogue as an Aware Ego Process. In the Aware Ego Process, I practice holding the tension between my primary self and it's push toward control, order and discipline, and my disowned self and it's love of spontaneity, freedom, even chaos. Based on my experience in Voice Dialogue, in time I will grow in my capacity to choose which of these energies I would like to bring in at which times.
I'll keep you posted!
Do you wrestle with this same dynamic? Or do you know someone who does? Tell your story in the comments. Want to learn more about Voice Dialogue? Come to my Free Intro on Monday, June 13. And if you'd like to have a session to hear from your opposing selves, contact me here.