Photo by Min An:
As children, when painful or scary things happened, we needed to understand why. If a reasonable explanation wasn’t provided, we made one up. Understanding why a painful thing happened can help us avoid or prevent it from happening again. It is common for children to make up a story about how they themselves caused the painful or scary experience. Armed with an explanation, children can feel empowered and hopeful. “Something about me caused this painful thing to happen. If I can change whatever I did or whoever I am that caused the painful event, I can avoid feeling that pain in the future.”
“What,” the child may wonder, “did I do to cause this to happen?” If the child is being criticized or otherwise blamed, they may conclude that the logic behind the criticism or blame is accurate. “Because I am stupid, thoughtless, selfish, ugly, a bother, too demanding, not grateful enough, or ___, this thing happened, and it made me feel bad.”
“If I continue to be ____________, I will continue to feel bad. So, I need to keep the shameful truth about me a secret. And maybe the best way to hide that secret is to act like I am the opposite of what I have decided I am.”
So, we learn to be actors. Kids are great at pretending. But there is pretending for play and there is pretending to survive.
Entire parts of ourselves are devoted to hiding our secrets forever. They keep the charade going to keep us safe. They do whatever they can to make sure our secrets are not discovered.
Parts that the Internal Family Systems model (IFS) refers to as ‘Managers’ work hard to hide and to improve. Despite their devotion and work ethic, they eventually fail. When others seem to see past our act, we feel the pain of shame. Shame that others might have seen us for who we are afraid we are. ‘Firefighter’ parts quickly jump in with strategies to numb the pain and restore order and reputation.
Firefighters will override any other priority until they can relax, knowing that they have safely secured the secret.
When shame gets in, the shameful ‘truth’ about us has been exposed. A belief is a thought that is held as true. A belief doesn’t have to be true, it only has to be believed. When we believe that something is wrong or deficient about us, and when it seems others might see our deficiency, we shame ourselves.
If what I have written here rings true, you may be ready for change. What if your autonomous and automatic survival behaviors could be updated? What if you parts knew that the ‘secret’ was never true in the first place? What if you could drop all the effort and energy required to hide and perform?