Bob started a book group and Nancy agreed to participate. They met every Monday night with four others to discuss the book. Concerned that his opinions may sour the other members of the book group, Bob usually kept quiet and kept his thoughts to himself. When he did speak, he carefully considered the possible consequences of being misunderstood or of accidently making someone uncomfortable.
During one book group, when it was apparent that Nancy had mis-quoted the author, Bob corrected her. He immediately felt a twinge of fear and guilt, but because Nancy thanked him for the clarity provided by his comment, he ignored his discomfort. About 3 AM the next morning, Bob woke up to go to the bathroom and began thinking about his exchange with Nancy. He worried that she had been offended and embarrassed but reasoned that she had hidden it well.
Bob was unable to go back to sleep. He tossed and turned, thinking about how to make things right. By now he was convinced he had offended her and felt unbearable shame. He wondered what she thought of him and what she might do. He didn’t want her to quit the book club. He had to make things right.
Bob knew that Nancy left her house for work around 8:30 AM. He called her just after 8 to smooth things over. When she answered, Bob told her that he was sorry if he had offended or embarrassed her. Nancy was surprised and barely remembered the circumstance. She reassured him that she had not been offended or embarrassed and that she was enjoying the book group.
As Bob hung up, he judged his emotions as childish. He was still afraid that she might be mad at him. Bob patted himself on the back for forcing himself to call Nancy to clear things up. This, he thought was what any mentally stable adult would do, and he had done it despite his “childish” fears.
Bob thought of other instances when he had harmed others. He suspected that Nancy really was upset and was just placating him. He began recalling all the times in the past when he believed he had hurt others, had apologized, and received what he judged as insincere forgiveness. Each time, he believed, those who had offended were just trying to be nice and wanted to put it behind them. In Bob’s mind, they were being gracious and tolerating him.
Managing insecurity is a lot of work.
It is admirable that Bob was willing to call Nancy and clear things up despite his fear.
But there had been nothing to clear up. Bob made it all up. He felt better after talking to Nancy because she reassured him that what he thought happened, had not actually happened at all.
Bob was eventually able to stop worrying about the non-incident. But he vowed he would redouble his efforts to be more careful in his book group in the future.
This pattern repeats itself several times a week in Bob’s life. What can Bob do about it? The strategy he used with Nancy seemed to work, but only temporarily. Bob will get triggered again and again. And when he gets triggered, he will react with strategies to put out the flames of shame, guilt and fear. These strategies are designed to reassure and comfort him when he believes he has tarnished his reputation by offending or hurting others.
What is going on with Bob?
Some of us might say he is being too sensitive and should just stop worrying about what other people think.
We might advise him to learn to love himself more.
We might tell him to just keep his fears and worries to himself.
And we may judge Bob as weak and defective. Maybe he was just born with insecurity, destined to worry about how others see him. He should just toughen up, right?
The truth about Bob
Bob is doing what most of us that deal with insecurity do. We pretend to feel secure and spend a good portion of our lives trying to manage what others think of us.
We all know people like Bob who need constant reassurance that they are loved, cared for, and important. They need to know we aren’t mad at them, that we aren’t judging them, that they matter, that they have value, and that they aren’t too much trouble.
A world full of Bobs
Those who struggle as Bob does sense that they are making more withdrawals than deposits in their relationships. But they don’t know how to break the pattern. They fear that they will eventually overdraw the account and will lose the love and respect of those they care about.
Those like Bob assume that practically everyone else is secure and confident. They are surprised when others act and react as they themselves do.
Despite reassurances, they believe their own version of what you feel toward them and react accordingly.
The sad irony is that those who are close to insecure people eventually run out of the energy required to maintain a relationship with them. Their partners, family, coworkers, and friends stop trying and eventually withdraw their attention and energy. Those in relationships with insecure people ultimately end the relationship or tolerate it from a sense of pity or obligation.
I used to be just like Bob.
I was practically obsessed with what others thought of me and vacillated between avoiding others altogether and smothering those close to me with my needs and demands.
I’m not like Bob anymore. Thanks to the personal development work I have done, I now understand what caused me to be like Bob. And I know what happened that ended the pattern for me.
If you are like I was and like Bob is, it may help you to understand the pattern you’re in so you can understand the problem you are trying to solve.
What problem are you trying to solve?
If you are like Bob, you may think that you are trying to stop feeling unliked, unloved, and insecure. To solve that problem, you try to prevent others from disliking you, try to get them to love you, and try to minimize your painful insecurity.
What do you believe is the cause of the problem?
You may believe that current circumstances are causing you to feel unliked, unloved, and insecure. But current circumstances are most likely only triggers that activate the pain you brought with you into the relationship.
Here’s the pattern I discovered.
- Something painful happens, usually at a young age (an emotional wound).
- Expression of the associated emotion is resisted, preventing emotional healing.
- Energy is invested to suppress the energy behind the emotion. Because the energy of the emotion has not been released, (because the emotion has been suppressed) a constant level of suppressing energy is required to prevent the emotion from being released.
- Strategies are employed to avoid circumstances that would increase the energetic power behind the suppressed emotion (triggering circumstances).
- These strategies eventually fail due to a triggering circumstance that overwhelms the defense system.
- The overwhelming excess emotional energy is vented.
- Pacifying repair strategies are employed effectively, stopping the energetic leak of emotion and resuming normal defenses in steps 4 and 5, or
- If pacifying repair strategies fail, or if other triggering occurs, step 7 is repeated. More extreme pacifying repair strategies are required and resorted to. These could include distractions, addictions, and self-harming on a variety of ways.
This pattern repeats until the original wound is healed.
Every step in this pattern prevents the wound from being healed. Beliefs and values are at the core of the defensive strategies designed to suppress the emotion and prevent it from becoming activated again.
Because the emotional wound occurred in the past, it must be healed by retrieving it from the past. Instinctively, to survive painful circumstances, we assign parts of ourselves to hold the energy of unresolved emotions and associated beliefs until the threat of pain passes. These parts get locked in time, holding the painful emotions habitually even when the painful circumstance has passed. By using the Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy model, we can retrieve those parts of ourselves and help them release the pain of the past.
Healing means freedom and expansion
As we heal our historical wounds, the energy and beliefs required to suppress the emotions of these old wounds are released. This creates the internal expansion and freedom required to respond in balanced, healthy, harmonious, and mature ways to the circumstances of our current lives.
After doing enough of this healing work, I am no longer obsessed and insecure. A new and thrilling confidence has emerged and I now have access to inner resources I had no previous awareness of. I’ve been able to help my clients find the same freedom and internal spaciousness by using IFS and other tools that have helped me along the way.
Managing our pain and healing our pain are two different things. You already know how to manage your pain. This is a job that never ends. Bob probably thought he had healed the pain as soon as Nancy told him she wasn’t offended. But he had only managed it by looking outside of himself for validation and reassurance.
Healing your pain puts an end to the need to manage it and frees you up to enjoy your life.
Learn more about Internal Family Systems at www.IFS-Institute.com. You will find me there in the IFS Practitioner Directory.