One of the most painful results of struggling with any form of suffering is how we identify with it.
While labels can be helpful – ah, so this is what I’m facing – they can also be harmful. They become harmful when they become the way we define ourselves in the deepest sense.
When we think of an eating disorder, illness, depression, or struggle as who we are, we get tight, cramped, and small. Our identity is hitched around this idea of, “I’m an addict,” or “I’m a binge eater,” or “I’m depressed.”
While you may binge eat, and while you may struggle with depression, is this who you are? Is this the sum of who you are?
My “broken self” trance
I struggled with decades of eating disorders. I’ve also coped with a highly sensitive nervous system, chronic depression and anxiety for nearly all of my life. Some combination of biology, psychology and life experience has intertwined, resulting in a tender, tender being who needs tremendous love and care.
I care for my anxiety and depression every day. Many days, I’m fine – I laugh, I find gratitude, I find joy. I wear the mantle of “anxiety” or “depression” loosely. I tap into a greater sense of identity.
But other times – especially when I’m tired, sick, or under stress – I don’t hold onto the identity of “depressed person” lightly. Rather, I embody it – I inhabit a mental and emotional space of “a broken, deficient self.”
I start comparing myself to others – or to my own expectations of how I “should” be. When I compare myself to others, I can find 10,000 ways that I fall short: whereas others seem to have an innate sense of belonging, optimism, and confidence, I have to consciously work to hold onto positive thoughts, to feel my belonging, and to feed my optimism. What seems to come more easily for others takes tremendous effort on my part.
What the “broken self” trance looks like
When do you get caught in the broken self trance? What does it feel like?
Here are some common feelings and experiences of this trance:
- You may feel less than others – small, meek, powerless.
- Your posture may feel hunched over – your shoulders may slump. You may cave in on yourself like a turtle.
- You may doubt your abilities, sense of self, or who you are.
- You may feel overexposed, hypersensitive, and raw.
- You may doubt your worth and goodness.
- You may feel isolated, separate and cut off.
- You may feel different, deficient, and like you’re outside the circle of love.
These feelings and experiences impact how we relate to ourselves, how we relate to our vulnerability, and how we relate to others.
The controlling self
The broken self often has a partner – “the controlling self.” Sometimes the controlling self likes to go to war with the broken self – telling the broken self all the ways it “should” be different.
If you asked the controlling self what it believes to be true, the controlling self might say things like:
- I should be in more control.
- I should be in charge.
- This shouldn’t be happening.
- I should be more together.
- There’s something wrong with you and you need to fix it.
- And, its core belief: all of this is all your fault.
Where the controlling self comes from
The controlling self is often the voice of a small child – a child who internalizes their exterior world.
If a 7 year old’s parents get divorced, the child might say, “It’s my fault mommy and daddy got divorced. If I would’ve been a better child they wouldn’t be divorced…”
After my 6 year old son’s pet fish, Pablo, died, he refused to go to after school care – something he’d been begging to go to the week before. You see – Pablo had died while he was in after care. He believed that if he hadn’t stayed at school, then Pablo wouldn’t have died. He was believing it was all in his control, and all his fault.
The controlling self feels guilty and at fault when things go awry. It feels ashamed, as if it should’ve been able to control the outcome.
In its own way, the controlling self is trying to keep us safe. It’s trying to protect us preventing harm, by being in charge.
My controlling self
My dear, dear momma struggled with depression throughout my childhood. My response to the pain of her depression was self perfection and control. I remember thinking, “Well, if I can just figure everything out, and do it really, really well, then I can control and manage my life so that I never feel depressed.”
My desire for control and perfectionism was my response to the hurt, anger and fear I’d experienced.
As you can imagine, this plan didn’t work. In fact, it led to its own pain – the pain of blame, judgment and criticism when I couldn’t meet my own expectations, and the pain of my own depression.
But in failing to control and manage and meet my expectations, I met my limits, a place of surrender. Over many many years, and with a lot of help and support, I gradually softened the control, perfectionism, the anger, and the blame and fear I felt towards my mom’s and my own depression.
I forgave my mom, and myself.
Unhooking from the broken self
So when difficult things show up in our lives, how do we respond?
We can start with awareness. We can stop and pause and ask ourselves, “What am I believing to be true about myself?”
Naming something gives us some space, some breathing room. We can step back and observe ourselves in the broken self trance rather than embodying it. We can unhook and find a new sense of identity – an identity that is greater than our challenges, or pain.
None of these things – depression, anxiety, the body, our health, our thoughts, feelings, or eating habits – are “me” or “you.” And if none of those things are who we are, then we don’t have to take our flaws or imperfections personally.
It just is.
Moving from shame/guilt to loving care
And if it just is, and isn’t about me, my, or mine – a source of ownership and therefore a source of shame – then the window opens to possibility. Instead of feeling ashamed and broken we can respond with tenderness.
Rather than nailing ourselves or feeling ashamed of ourselves for feeling anxious, or for feeling anything that flows through our tender bodies, we can care for it as a mother cares for a child on its lap.
We can hold those tender feelings with exquisite kindness.
Which is what everything most deeply wants.
I wonder if this is how we love the world – by loving the most challenging things that flow through our lives. If we don’t love these part of ourselves, who will? If we don’t love our most challenging parts, how can we love the challenging parts in other people?
Opening to our challenges
I remember watching the Olympics this past summer, and feeling bowled over by the talents of the athletes – and the incredible amount of work and heart it took to cultivate those gifts into gold medal level excellence. We think of our talents as gifts – something we can choose to cultivate and grow. We often feel proud of those things that are “good” or that our culture lauds.
But what if our deepest struggles are also gifts? Something that is ours to cultivate – to love, to care for? Something neither good nor bad, simply something to love? Can we care for them with the same kindness and care as we do our “talents?”
Finding compassion and belonging
Unhooking from the controlling self leads us to forgiveness, and ironically, belonging. Franciscan monk Richard Rohr put it this way: ”When we fail we are merely joining the great parade of humanity that has walked ahead of us and will follow after us.”
Ah, the relief: we don’t have to make ourselves any bigger or any smaller than we are.
When we step out of the broken self trance, we remember our deepest nature. This is the part of you who steps back and cares for the controlling self and the broken self – with kindness and levity and so much compassion.
As you create some space around this identity of broken, failing self, and inhabit this greater sense of who you are, you take your place inside the circle of belonging. You recognize our shared common humanity: I am no better or worse than anyone else. I am simply a part of our imperfect humanity, and I belong.
From that space, we find freedom. As we reconnect to our deeper belonging, our identify of “bingeing” or “broken” self softens. We, too, find that we have 10,000 ways to respond. We embody our wholeness, not our brokenness.