Many people come to my office looking to “fix” themselves. They seek a change that will somehow bring them a sense of happiness or wholeness. They often have already worked hard to escape their anxiety or depression to beat their bodies into shape to transform their relationships or throw themselves into one project after another. Yet they inevitably find that all this effort has left them feeling disappointed and empty.
This is because the core belief beneath this frantic “fixing” effort is that deep down they are damaged or broken. Beneath what may look like healthy activities from the outside are inner thoughts full of criticism and shame. Outwardly, they seem to be focused on self-improvement as they hit the gym, renovate their homes, excel professionally or even go to therapy. But inwardly there are toxic messages about how futile these efforts are in the face of being fundamentally damaged.
This feeling of being broken may rise during times of severe stress, emotional struggle, or loss. But often it has been planted there much earlier in our development. The message may have originated from our family members, classmates, or an unhealthy relationship. And we heard enough truth in this message that we internalized it. We believe ourselves to be broken in some basic way so that each time we struggle it seems to confirm our greatest fears. We are broken and must be fixed.
This is not true.
This is faulty thinking that is both harmful and limiting. When we view ourselves as broken, we make the irrational assumption that the world is split into some people who are healthy and whole and other people who are damaged and broken. And we place ourselves into that broken group.
The truth is that everyone has areas of struggle. Life is fraught with stressful events both good and bad, many of them outside of our control. We have biological differences and unique family histories. We each have our own challenges to face and style of managing these.
When I see someone who is stuck in an endless cycle of self-improvement projects that always leave him/her disappointed, we begin by exploring whether this mission of “fixing” is based on the core belief that he/she is broken. We challenge this very belief system. The only way out of this cycle of shame, self-destruction, and punishment is to develop self-compassion. Instead of spending energy on all these efforts to fix themselves, we focus on loving themselves. This is where the meaningful growth and healing can begin. Being gentle with ourselves makes room for lasting change.
Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, postpartum issues, wellness, relationships, and parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Smith, please contact Lakefront Psychology at 216-870-9816.