Most of us crave healthy, functional and rewarding relationships with the people we love most. Yet it’s an all too familiar theme sat in the therapist’s chair, feeling the pain of someone who finds themselves repeatedly attracting the opposite.
Despite having very conscious positive intentions, often these people gravitate towards dysfunctional and sometimes even abusive relationships. Why is that? Even when they can identify that the relationships in their lives are unsatisfactory, why do they keep going back for more?
Carl Rogers, the Grandfather of person-centred therapy had a lot to say about this and I’ve found his words of personal resonance. He talked about the idea of us all having a “self-concept”, essentially the way we see ourselves at our core. This self-concept is developed in many ways - primarily through our childhood experiences and the things we were told by the people we trusted most, but also by events in our adolescence and sometimes adulthood. In essence, Rogers suggested that the external conditions (parenting, culture, religion, societal norms, etc.) in our childhood become internalised as a foundational pillar of our identity.
If as a child your care givers told you frequently that you were loved, that you were beautiful and that the world was your oyster, we might imagine that you’d have a positive self-concept. If we were to put words to it, they might be “I’m enough”. But if you didn’t have that, and you had care givers that were either abusive, absent, distracted or just not very attentive, you might have internalised this as “I’m invisible, I’m not important, I’m worth-less”.
As a child, our mind would not allow us to believe that our care givers were anything other than perfect. Why? Because we were entirely reliant of them for our survival. Consequently, we would assume any negative experience was entirely our fault. If you saw your care giver crying, you’d think it was something bad about you that had caused it. Mum and Dad arguing? Your fault. Shouted at? Your fault. Of course, as an adult we can rationalise people’s behaviour and our part in it, but we simply didn’t have that capacity as a child.
Added to that, key events can influence our self-concept. Trauma being a powerful example. I was sexually abused as a child by someone I thought was my friend. When he abandoned me, I internalised this as “I’m not worthy of having friends”. I wasn’t old enough to rationalise that it wasn’t my fault.
If you carried any secret as a child, or believed you were different in any way, then it’s likely you have experienced shame. I knew I was different when I was about 6 and wanted to kiss the boys and not the girls when we played kiss chase! As we live in a heteronormative and homophobic world, I quickly learned that it (I) wasn’t “normal” and so it (I) became a shameful secret for the next 10 years. As Brené Brown says, when you soak a child’s brain in shame, you simultaneously shut down the neural pathways for them to develop self-compassion. I think the same can happen as an adult.
You can see how experiences like this could impact someone’s self-concept. For many years, mine went something like, “You’re not deserving of love, you are shameful and people like you don’t deserve any kind of happiness, peace, fulfilment or success”.
Whilst I’m talking about theories in this blog, this one really resonates with me and looking back, I can see how my self-concept has been playing out in my words, actions and relationships. I think one of the most powerful ideas put forward by Rogers, was that a person will do whatever it takes to validate their self-concept, even if it’s not in the overall interests of that person’s wellbeing.
In my case, this meant putting myself in situations and sustaining relationships that supported my negative self-concept. Rogers suggested that we also manipulate our experiences to fit the self-concept. For example, when I had a powerful self-concept of “worthless” and something good happened to me, I’d find ways to explain it as anything other than good. I passed a Diploma in Management when I was 21 but convinced myself that I had charmed the tutor into giving me a better mark - my self-concept couldn’t process the simple fact that I was good at something. (The fact that it could process the idea that I had super powers for charming people is another matter!)
What does all this have to do with love and relationships? Over the last few years I’ve had to ask myself some difficult questions about my own relationships. Why was it that despite having a very conscious intention to foster healthy relationships in my life, I kept gravitating towards dysfunctional ones? I wanted to feel good about myself in a relationship, and yet it was as if I was a magnet for people with whom I’d feel the opposite. On the odd occasion someone was kind to me, I would reject them as being “needy” or worse, that they had some kind of agenda to manipulate me. I put up with crap from people I loved by simply telling myself at a conscious level that I was patient, loving and grounded, but again this was just a way of manipulating reality to fit my poor self-concept. Why else would I put up with it?
The abuse I suffered as a child, together with the shame I carried about being gay and other experiences in adolescence had conspired to build a powerful self-concept of “un-loveable, worth-less and undeserving of success”, and I was hell bent on proving that to be true!
That’s when I set about changing my self-concept. It hasn’t been easy, and I think it’ll be a life’s work. It will at least require conscious effort for some time yet. As I write this, I’m very aware that I have been delaying my final university assignment. Why? Well as soon as it’s submitted I’ll have completed my professional training. What does that mean? Success. Cue my pesky self-concept that still has an issue with that. However, I am aware of what’s happening and so unlike before, I have way more influence and I won’t sabotage my success like I have so many times before.
I write these blogs to introduce people to ideas, concepts, theories and frameworks that have helped me understand myself more. I think that when we have awareness, choice and change are possible. In my opinion self-awareness is the most powerful agent of change and personal growth. Often, we are unaware of how our subconscious thoughts are at work influencing our decisions moment to moment. Creating that awareness gives us the chance to take back some control over our lives.
If you’re struggling with your relationships, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself some powerful, and difficult questions. Whilst you may consciously feel you deserve better, what’s your self-concept got to say about that? Are there events and experiences in your life that might have formed a self-concept that is soaked in shame and silence? What would your life look like if your conscious desires were realised? Do you notice any tension as you think about it? If there’s tension, there might be a self-concept in the background, sabotaging your desires.
According to Rogers, the self-concept is formed from the outside in. Only then is it internalised and identified by the individual. This is when it (mistakenly) becomes part of that person’s identity. On that basis, I would go so far as to say none of that negative self-concept is your truth and you therefore have an opportunity to let it go accordingly.
I’ll end with this, and encourage you to say it every day, as many times as you can:
I am worthy.
I am loveable.
I deserve happiness.
I am enough.
I'm Adam, a U.K. based Life Coach and Psychotherapist working with people across the globe.
I struggle the same as every other human on the planet, but I think that’s what makes me credible. I’m just a regular guy, with people skills that I enjoy using. My sole focus is to help others improve their lives, which is ultimately how I improve mine.
I am a curious humanitarian and I speak as I find. I love to travel and I buzz off meeting new people. I live in Manchester, U.K.
Read more at www.mebeingadam.com.