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The Problem with Love
The Problem With Love
Do you sometimes feel as if you’re getting exactly the opposite of what you actually want out of life?
That you want success in your private or professional life but seem to keep creating failure? If you eavesdropped on my sessions with clients you’d soon realize that you are very far from being alone. Many people seem to have a knack for creating the very thing they want to avoid. Is this just fate or bad luck? Not at all. It’s your unconscious trying to help.
Let me explain.
I’ll begin with an assertion I can’t prove. All of your behaviour has a positive intention. When you look at the great range of damaging behaviours people suffer from – eating disorders, addictions, anxiety, depression and self-harm, being just a short list taken from a much larger one, that seems a pretty tough idea to support. But bear with me.
Growth vs. Protection
In Cognitive Hypnotherapy we suggest that people are unconsciously pursuing one of two goals at any one time: growth or protection. This isn’t new. Freud suggested a similar thing, only he called it the Pleasure principle and said we move toward pleasure and away from pain. That just sounds like common sense, but when you think about it, it goes much deeper.
We’re sitting inside a brain that’s had survival on its mind for millions of years, and has had to answer the questions ‘what’s going to happen next, and what should I do about it?’ successfully, in order to develop a range of responses to make sure we made it from one sunrise to the next.
Our whole evolution is geared toward answering those two questions. So, seen in that light it makes obvious sense that all of our behaviours are geared, in one way or another, to seek our continuation. And I hope most of you would agree that continuing to live is the ultimate positive intention.
So how can destructive behaviour be the result of such a positive intention?
Because when we’re young your brain makes mistakes. It relentlessly searches for the meaning of what is happening to you to determine whether it’s an opportunity for growth, or a situation in which you need to be protected.
There are two things to be protected from – things that could kill you, or the withdrawal of love. The first is obvious. Things with teeth chased us for millions of years, we obviously need defensive behaviours, and these pretty much centre around fighting the threat, fleeing the threat, or freezing and hoping it doesn’t notice us.
These three options form the protection response.
But why am I suggesting love is such a big deal?
Because we’re puny. On our own we were easy prey to wolves, and bears and tigers. So we learned to cooperate. That we were stronger together. And we found that the more highly prized we were by others, the closer to the fire we sat, the better selection of mates we had, the more help we received. Value in the eyes of others – of which love is the highest example – became a prized predictor of survival, and so one we give a lot of energy to pursue.
On a scale of 1-10, how much do you love yourself?
It’s one of the prime reasons why in Cognitive Hypnotherapy we don’t put a lot of weight on diagnosis. So often destructive behaviours like addictions and eating disorders are symptoms of something more fundamental, a poor relationship to ourselves. What do I mean by that? I mean how much do we feel we’re loved or deserving of being loved? How often do we feel good enough? That we deserve good things to happen to us? It’s telling that when I ask a client in our first session “On a scale of 1-10, how much do you love yourself?” I rarely get an answer above a 4. And it’s not surprising.
We need love to survive.
We’re born hyper-sensitive to the need to bond with the people who will sustain us, our parents. Later this diversifies onto other care-givers and nurturers, like teachers and people whose response to us has an effect on our well-being, such as siblings and friends.
At every stage we’re tuned to look for signs of approval and disapproval, and we tune our behaviour accordingly.
Approval is taken as growth, a sign to do more of it, disapproval as a situation requiring a protection response. We’ll move away from the possibility of disapproval, or go into ‘f**k you’ mode, or freeze at the vaguest inkling that you could do wrong.
But what happens if we get sent the wrong messages? What happens if we get rewarded with love by our parents only if we behave in a way that they approve of? What happens if we get a withdrawal of affection for things they disapprove of? What happens if these messages are driven by thing that screwed them up as children? A mother jealous of the attention her daughter is getting might convey the message that it’s not ok to be attractive, or intelligent, or popular. A father fearing the consequences of failure for his child might only reward success, and focus on relentless improvement – “So you got 95%. What went wrong with the 5%?”
Also, our young brains can misinterpret the meaning of things. We can learn to fear failure because we feel less loved than when we succeed. We can decide that we’re not good enough because the older or younger sibling always seems to get more praise and attention. We might feel not deserving of love because our father left us when we were seven – “If only I’d been a better boy, maybe he would have stayed?”
Fight, Flight or Freeze.
This flow of learning, or miss learning, nudges us toward an opinion about ourselves. For most, we’re kind of ok, with some occasions where we feel less ok. We’re capable of pursuing growth, but in some situations we get triggered into unnecessary protection. For others, their experiences have been so powerful or pervasive that they live in a permanent state of protection.
The problem is our physical response to a need to protect ourselves from the consequences of not being loved, valued or approved of is the same as if we’re being attacked by a tiger. We fight, we flight, or we freeze.
This is why we can seem to get stuck in a whirlpool of repeating failure. There is a simple rule I identified many years ago, and which I named the Therapeutic Paradox. It’s this: Behaviour that is driven by a negative emotion – such as fear – will create the very situation it’s trying to avoid.
So, imagine a person who fears rejection in relationships. If their default protection response is fight, then if they feel threatened in a relationship they’ll respond with rage, with jealousy, and sometimes will get their revenge in first, before their partner gets the chance to hurt them. They create the very rejection they’re trying to avoid.
If they’re flighters, then they’ll avoid committing. They’ll flit around relationships but always hold back from being fully present in it, and run from any sign of the same thing in their partner. They starve the relationship to death and create repeating scenarios of rejection.
If they’re freezers they’ll often grab at any affection offered, and take any bad treatment that comes their way. They fear rejection so much they become unloved doormats, or, sometimes, punch bags.
It’s a similar thing with careers. A fighter will tend to overcompensate for their low self-esteem by being boastful of their achievements. They’ll seek to elevate themselves at the expense of other people. Be quick to blame others for their own shortcomings. They might be successful, but deeply unhappy – I’m looking at you Donald Trump – or create failure by alienating people.
A flighter will underachieve. They’ll avoid advancement or any situation where they could fail. Their story will be one of missed opportunities and ‘might have been’s’.
A freezer. Well, these might just fail to launch. They’ll start small and continue the same way.
Our behaviours are a product of a positive intention.
And, finally, that long list of damaging behaviours I mentioned at the beginning being the product of a positive intention? I hope you can begin to see how these can emerge. If feeling unloved is the thing we fear most, then we’ll develop behaviours to keep us away from that feeling. Drugs and alcohol can dampen the bad feelings, but then adds to the sense of low self-esteem. It creates the opposite of what it intends.
Eating disorders often emerge from a feeling of not being good enough, and begins with pursuing a cultural belief in the beauty of thinness. As the self-love-boost fails to materialise as the pounds fall from them, they do more of what isn’t working. Another whirlpool of negative feedback.
Anxiety is a fear of something that hasn’t happened yet. If you’re tuned to protection all your brain sees ahead are things that could go wrong. No wonder you live in a state of permanent fear, it’s your brains getting you ready for the disaster it feels must be imminent.
And depression? Often it’s the only sane response from a brain that just sees more failure, rejection or pain ahead. Why give energy to moving toward that? Hiding from life until it gets better seems sensible. But of course, driven by a negative emotion as it is, it just leaves you feeling even more unlovable. And so the cycle continues.
And now, the good news.
Thinking of your problem this way – as an unconscious behaviour driven by a positive intention which is the product of some past misinterpretation – means that there is nothing wrong with you that you can’t change. You do not have to continue to be the victim of your behaviours. Our brains are plastic; they are constantly changing. Cognitive Hypnotherapy can help you take control of the way they change. We can help you nudge your life toward growth and become more and more the person who chooses the life you’re living. And loving.