I asked you last week to identify which outdated childhood rules are controlling you without your conscious consent. I hope you have spent some time thinking about that because awareness is the first step toward freedom. But the truth is, identifying and refuting the “shoulds” would be easier if they had neon lights pointing them out. Unfortunately, most often the rules imposed upon us were not directly stated – which is exactly the opposite of being highlighted with flashing lights. The fact that they were unspoken makes them harder to detect. However, the “flashing neon lights” come to you in the form of uncomfortable feelings. Consider this example:
A child whose single mother is bedridden with depression learns to perform all of the daily duties of caring for herself, her mother, and younger children in the family. At the age of six, she already knows how to prepare food, bathe and diaper the baby and clean up after the family. Years later, she is depressed herself and cannot understand why she always feels compelled to provide care-giving to others, even complete strangers, who are quite capable of caring for themselves. Upon exploration, we discover that she has a long-held, subconscious fear that if she does not take care of someone who is not caring for themselves, she will die. This was a very true circumstance of her childhood. Someone needed to provide her and her siblings with food and other basic needs during childhood. She stepped up to the tasks and performed them because of her awareness that her behaviors were necessary for survival.
Can you identify the “should” at work for her? Let me put it in her voice: “I should take care of people who need help.” That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Helping is a good thing! If the woman in this example were an actual person that we could talk to, we could tell her: “No, you shouldn’t take care of everyone who needs help. Especially if it causes you or your children to suffer.”
Easy enough, right? Not easy.
She would respond by saying that she should take care of everyone she encounters who needs her help with a level of anxiety that makes her believe each opportunity to help someone is a “do or die” situation.
It is an anxiety she will hold onto and continue to do what she feels compelled to do until she understands the connection between this “should” and her very survival during childhood.
Her task as an adult, however, is to recognize that although she experiences anxiety each time she thinks about or attempts to limit her contact with needy people, the anxiety is compelling, but not related to her present-day situation. As soon as she is able to recognize this and soothe herself by telling herself something like: “Nothing bad is going to happen to me if I do not help this person. She is capable of caring for herself and if I do not help her, she will find someone else who will,” she will be free to make her own grown-up choices that have less to do with obeying childhood rules and more to do with following her own goals.
Before I close this post, I want to relate it back to domestic violence. For every victim, there exists a list of equally as subtle “shoulds” that keep the victim in the “dance” with the abuser. Your abuser may know what your “shoulds” are or may just instinctively react to you in a way that gets you activating your own “shoulds.”
Let me tell you this: When you begin to feel anxiety or fear within your relationship, ask yourself if your fear is real or imagined. Try to figure out if you are responding to a real threat or to an old rule that you are afraid to “break.” Yes. Your situation could be dangerous. But your response to old rules rather than what actually is could make things much worse for you.
Please, begin to examine your “shoulds” so that you can begin to free yourself from old pain.
© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2014 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.
In cooperation with 2bsisters, Tamara is in the process of making her recovery curriculum for domestic violence survivors available via a protected online format. This curriculum is for victims who have not yet been able to escape, those who have recently escaped and those who have been independent for a time but still need to strengthen themselves as survivors.