How to Overcome being Imprisoned by Self-Neglect

Edith Eger in her book The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the prison of self-neglect”.   Habituated behaviours that underlie self-neglect can arise through adverse childhood experiences, an abusive relationship or a deficient developmental environment.  Edith suggests that self-neglect often arises because of unmet childhood needs – specifically the need for “attention, affection and approval”.   Our own needs are neglected in order to fill the gap left by unfulfilled childhood needs.  So we pursue the “A’s” (mentioned above) at the expense of our present needs.  An aspect of self-neglect is the avoidance of expressing strong emotions for fear of causing  discomfort to others.

Factors leading to self-neglect

We might have had parents who offered conditional love – on condition that we met their high standards in sport, academic or other achievements.  Their expectations about our performance can create a dependency whereby we are forever seeking approval or acceptance.  We might have suffered neglect as a child through the conscious choice of parents or their own adverse circumstances.  This can lead to our continuously seeking attention.  In one of my workshops, one participant proved to be continually disruptive through constant challenge to anything other participants said.  It turned out she was seeking attention and approval because she was denied this as a very young child – being expected to contribute meaningfully to adult conversation when still very young.

Sometimes self-neglect can arise as a result of the role we played as a child or young adult.  Family circumstances may have led to our being the “responsible one”, “the carer” or “the earner”.  These roles may have been necessary at the time but the unspoken expectation that comes with the role can continue into adulthood.  Edith recounts the story of a client who was imprisoned by the self-expectations that arose as a result of a childhood role as the “reliable one”.  This led to continual self-neglect in pursuit of other people’s needs – often unexpressed but assumed.  The result was personal burnout as well as depriving others of the opportunity to develop independence.  Sometimes creating dependence on ourselves fulfills our desire to be needed.  This was something that Gabor Maté discussed as contributing to his need to be a workaholic medical practitioner.

Gabor maintains that underlying many addictions is an unmet need arising from early childhood.  The addiction, whatever form it takes, is an ineffectual way to address the pain arising from parental neglect, abuse or inattention.  His “compassionate inquiry” approach is designed to unearth the early triggering event(s), the resultant negative self-message and the reward sought through the addictive behaviour.

Overcoming the imprisonment of self-neglect

The fundamental rule to freeing ourselves from the prison of self-neglect, is to begin to put ourselves back into the picture, to have self and our needs as part of the equation when trying to decide how to spend our energy and time.  Edith suggests that there are a number of ways to do this:

  1. Savour the things and people in our life that bring us joy.  We can start small with a few minutes each morning spent appreciating the little things in our life –  noticing a new leaf or flower on an indoor plant, reflecting on a picture or painting that generates positive feelings, or valuing a person who has shown us kindness, thoughtfulness or generosity.  Savouring what is good in our life can extend to appreciating the development of our children, accomplishments and rewards, the wonders of our subconscious mind, the capacity to think and create and our relationships (even our relatives).  We can actively seek to let joy into our lives.
  2. Appreciating nature – nature has a healing power and enables us to cultivate all our senses and develop our sense of wonder and awe.   In nature, we can be lost in the beauty, the sounds, the textures and the smells that surround us.   We can actually find ourselves in this process of being lost in something immense and awe-inspiring that is beyond ourselves.
  3. Edith herself adopted an affirmation that expresses something of her uniqueness and what she has been able to contribute to the world.  We can all find the words to reflect the positive things we have contributed to others and what makes us a truly unique person.  In the process, we can value the people who helped make us who we are – our parents and their positive traits, our mentors and their wisdom, and our teachers who willingly shared their knowledge and insights.
  4. Reflect on an occasion where you were asked for something or to do something.  Ask yourself what were your thoughts and feelings at the time.  What was driving your choices?  How much of looking after yourself was reflected in your response.  How could you have responded in a way that did not involve self-neglect, e.g. expressing your true feelings.  Are there habituated behaviours that you engage in that continually overlook your own needs?
  5. Explore the balance in your life.  Edith suggests that we keep a record (for a short period) of how we spend our day in terms of how we allocate time to work, play and love.  Does work absorb all our time and energy at the expense of our needs for nurturing, relaxation and time to ourselves.  How often do we allow ourselves to become absorbed in a hobby, creation or charitable activities or just enjoy social activities with friends or family.

Reflection

With the busyness of life, it is so easy to lose ourselves through self-neglect. There are often hidden forces underpinning this neglect, so self-exploration is important to unearth what drives our behaviour.  As we grow in mindfulness through observation and reflection, we can gain the necessary self-awareness and insight to understand ourselves and develop the courage to make changes to the way we live our life. 

Edith maintains that we do not change until we are ready to make the change and often this is driven by a need to change habits that no longer serve us in a positive way.  Any changes we make to our behaviour, no matter how small, need to be reinforced by savouring our achievement.   From Edith’s perspective, change involves the process of “finding the real you”. 

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Image by Perez Vöcking from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Expressing Emotions or Being Imprisoned by Avoidance

Edith Eger In her book, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, discusses the “the imprisonment of avoidance” – the refusal to express challenging emotions.  She maintains that avoiding feelings through suppression leads to depression – the opposite involves release through expression.  We can supress our feelings for many reasons, e.g. to avoid the pain and hurt of recollection or to protect others from seeing us as vulnerable and suffering. 

If we are suffering from past hurts or trauma we can try to shield loved ones from the discomfort that comes with the expression of strong feelings.  In the process, we are not being honest and we are also depriving them of the opportunity to express empathy and love.  We can also unconsciously train our children to avoid the expression of feelings when they are hurt or upset.   We can try to diminish their feelings out of our own discomfort or sense of sadness.  We might say, “Don’t cry, there will be other opportunities to go to parties”, “You’ll forget about this tomorrow”, “Look how many friends you do have who let you play”, or “Let’s get some ice cream and make the pain go away!” (we can try to substitute something  pleasurable to avoid the expression of pain and hurt, thus setting in place habituated avoidance behaviour).

Edith suggests that sometimes we suppress our feelings by trying to convince ourselves that we are happy and joyful when this is patently not true.  We might even resort to affirmations to hide our true feelings.  This form of subterfuge only acerbates our feelings because it denies our reality – the depth and breadth of our true feelings.  Edith encourages us “to feel so you can heal” because “you can’t heal what you don’t feel”.   Sometimes our underlying feelings can be mired in resentment and can be unearthed through a guided reflection.

There is a real cost to ourselves in avoidance.  Despite our very best efforts, emotions are embodied – they manifest in our bodies as physical tension/pain and/or result in emotional or physical illness.  By not living our truth or accepting the reality of how we are feeling, we undermine our own integrity and personal integration.   Edith provides a detailed and graphic example of the impact of unexpressed feelings on a women who experienced incomprehensible violence by a family member.  Her life was lived in fear and loneliness because she never owned up to her feelings of rage, anger and deep fear of the perpetrator.

There may be times in conversation with a friend that we withhold a true expression of our feelings about some matter relevant to our relationship with them.  Edith suggests that we can revisit the conversation mentally, work out what we should have said and then approach the relevant person at a suitable time and in a neutral place to express our real feelings.  We could even start by practising with restaurant waitresses and expressing our honest feelings about a meal (rather than hiding our true feelings because we do not want to hurt or embarrass them). 

Facing up to our feelings and naming them provides a real release.  Edith suggests that we can practise this by stopping ourselves at any time during the day and naming our emotion, whether positive or challenging,  in the present moment.  This is not only a form of mindfulness practice but is also a way to increase self-awareness and develop honesty about our feelings both to ourselves and others.

Edith explains that sometimes this challenge to express rather than supress feelings appears overwhelming.  She writes about her inability to face the Auschwitz Museum for fear of the pain of recollection of her parent’s murder and her own torture and starvation as a prisoner in the concentration camp.  It took her a lot of courage after 10 years to visit the Museum and she describes in detail what she felt when confronted with images of emaciated people, the cattle trains and arrival platform.  She found herself cringing and curled herself up into a tight ball in a dark corner of the Museum – overwhelmed by grief, pain, anguish and anger.  However, revisiting the trauma and owning the depth of her feelings provided a new level of release to enable her to be even more productive and helpful in her ongoing work as a trauma consultant – she had finally gained release from the imprisonment of avoidance.

Reflection

Edith’s own life experience, which she shares so freely in her books, bears out how difficult it is to free ourselves from the imprisonment of avoidance.  It may take many years of progressive inner work, and trying out various ways of overcoming our entrapment, to achieve some degree of freedom and realise ease and joy.  However, suppression leads to ongoing suffering and depression.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasingly self-aware of the different ways we avoid expressing our true emotions, develop the courage to own up to these emotions and achieve the resilience required to break free of the imprisonment of avoidance. _________________________________

Image source: Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.