May 17, 2017

Dear Drama Observers,

Last week, I posted a letter written a couple of years ago about the exploitative methods of Drama People. Specifically, people who haven’t learned to think for themselves can be particularly vulnerable. I closed the letter this statement:

When people can’t think for themselves, they’re easy prey for drama predators. That’s why it’s so important for grown-ups to finish growing up.

An anonymous responder to that letter asked what I considered to be an insightful question:

How do people who have been emotionally stunted by abuse then go on to grow up?

And here was my response:

That’s a great question and I can’t give a great answer here in such a short space. We’ve all heard of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but there’s also the term, Post Traumatic Growth. People can and do grow from these experiences, but it just about always takes time and people. Time in that it doesn’t happen overnight and people in the sense that old patterns get corrected in new relationships. Healthy relationships in the present can bring repair to what’s been damaged in the past. It often takes the help of a counselor and/or people who’ve been through similar circumstances. I hope that helps just a little.

Let me give you a longer version of my short answer. Psychologist Henry Cloud once observed, “Anything that’s ‘in here’ used to be ‘out there.’” Here’s what he meant:

If you have something called self-esteem, someone in your life has esteemed you. You internalized their esteem and that internalization has become influential in how you see yourself. And once that happens, you can add the prefix “self” to it. Your self-esteem didn’t start with you, it started with someone else. You internalized their esteem and it morphed into self-esteem. It’s now “in here” but started “out there.”

The same would be true for self-confidence. Someone had confidence in you, you internalized it, made it your own, and now you have self-confidence. The concept of encouragement works the same way. Someone believes in you more than you believe in yourself, you internalize it, and can now act more courageously. You’ve been en-couraged.

All of this is to say that many of our personal qualities are relationally acquired. Remember that old SNL skit, Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley? Stuart was a gimpy TV codependency counselor who was rifled with insecurities.

As he peddled his codswallop, he’d increasingly become overwhelmed with self-doubts and insecurities. He’d then swivel in his chair, look into a full-length mirror, and say, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.” He’d then be infused with enough security to continue for a few more minutes until he got overwhelmed again and had to repeat the mirror exercise.

I have no idea if the SNL writers knew the significance of their spoof. But what they were spoofing was the ridiculousness of us thinking we can do for ourselves what can only be done by others. You don’t get security by looking into a mirror and repeating affirmations. You become more secure by internalizing the messages of others who believe you and then acting on those internalized messages.

That’s all well and good, but what if you’ve been ensconced in relationships with Drama People who live by the maxim: There’s nothing wrong with me so it must be you? Just as we internalize positive messages, we can also internalize the bad ones. Drama People project their negatives onto their drama participants in hopes that the participants become the possessors of those negatives. We’ve all had the experience of getting sucked into a drama and been left wondering, “Maybe I’m the crazy one. Is it them or is it me? I don’t know, maybe it’s me.” The negatives that started “out there” are now “in here.”

I’ve seen countless people in my office over the years who, like Stuart Smalley, are rifled through with their own insecurities and self-doubts. Somewhere along the way, they’ve internalized a set of negative messages and are debilitated in the present by what’s been internalized in the past. I could have them look into a mirror and cite daily positive affirmations. Or better yet, I could encourage involvement in healthy relationships where negative-replacing positives can become internalized.

When I was doing my residency (this was back before the Earth’s crust hardened… ), I had a client whose head was packed with negative internalizations like sardines in a can. Things like:

  • Why couldn’t you be more like your sister?
  • You better marry someone rich because you’ll never make in on your own.

And more currently:

  • That husband of yours will probably cheat on you if you don’t keep up your appearances.

Needless to say, she didn’t think much of herself.

At this point in my career, I was as green as a Leprechaun’s hat. I truly did not know what I was doing. Sure, I was under supervision, but this poor lady drew the short straw when she got me as a counselor.

But after I moved away, she wrote me a letter that said the following:

Thank you for being who you are to help me understand who I am.”

Despite my massive ineptitudes, I can only assume that what came across to this lady was that I believed in her. My view of her was positive in contrast to her massive storehouse of internalized negatives. I believed in her and, thus, she started believing in herself.

That’s how people who have been emotionally stunted by abuse then go on to grow up.

Till next week.

8 replies
  1. Tere
    Tere says:

    Very good explanation of self esteem and confidence, I hope I have left a few better off than when they came to me.

  2. Patti
    Patti says:

    Thought-provoking information, as always.
    Having been raised and stunted by a drama predator, I would posit that daily self-affirmations a la Stuart Smalley can be a piece of the puzzle to recovery. I was lucky enough to have an excellent therapist well-trained in narcissistic abuse who helped me develop the confidence to purge the shamers from my orbit and surround myself with encouragers. Part of that process was gaining confidence, however short-lived, through self-affirmation. This became a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy as I took in the positive feedback I received from behaving as if I had real confidence in myself. Those affirmations precipitated positive messages from others until I owned the positive for myself. Now, most of my negative messages are “out there”.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      That’s a very helpful perspective, Patti, and I appreciate your sharing it. And I agree that self-affirmations play an important part as long as they’re combined with relational input–which is what happened with you. Thanks so much!

  3. Sue
    Sue says:

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom through these articles. Every time I get your email I can’t wait to get reading!

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      That’s very nice of you to say that, Sue. I’m so glad to hear this material is helpful. Thanks for giving me your feedback!

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