Recovering from being a head-person

Let’s continue the story where I left off in my post about physical disconnection: how I started living in my rational mind. In case you missed that part, here’s a quick recap.

Until age 6, I was a happy, peaceful, athletic kid. That changed when my family moved to a different city, and I went to elementary school. I had a hard time making friends, and was happy to be accepted by a group of boys who lived in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, the group leader had two faces. One moment, he’d be my friend, the next he would choose me as a target for the group’s bullying. This behavior continued for four long years. Like a victim in an abusive relationship, I endured the abuse and clung to the bits of friendship, because the alternative of total abandonment seemed even worse. As far as a 6-year-old could even understand such complex issues, let alone make a rational decision about it.

In the years that followed, both my mental and physical health (see here) declined terribly. I became timid and depressed, avoided social contact at all cost and hated going to school. Even at home, I preferred the solitude of my room where I could retreat into my own world of books and crafts projects. Lonely, but at least safe from the pain of shame and rejection. Day after day, I disengaged more from the outside world and myself, and started living in my own mental world where no one could hurt me anymore.

Going it alone

After four years, I switched schools. Although it ended the bullying, it couldn’t reverse the run-and-hide reflex. Throughout my entire youth and twenties, whenever I’d enter a new environment, I’d be extremely cautious and observant, until I felt safe enough to slowly open up. It could take anywhere from weeks to months. Social contacts and befriending people became extremely hard, and I never had more than a few superficial friendships. And whenever those hard-earned friendships fleeted away, it reinforced my internal belief that everyone would reject me sooner or later, and I’d be better off by myself. It left me painfully alone, but it was still better than abandonment. Going it alone became my credo.

Throughout my teens and twenties, I believed I didn’t need anyone. Time and time again, the world had wronged me. People had bullied me, rejected me and shamed me. Even my own body, emotions and spirit had betrayed me. I felt deeply inferior. I seethed with anger and hated anyone who seemed to have a better life than me. But I would prove them all wrong. Because I had one ally left who’d never given up on me: my rational mind. Through sheer will power, I’d prove myself in this world, and right all the wrongs that had so unjustly been done to me. I thought.

A race to the bottom

What started as a desire to rationally change my fate, became an attitude of obsessive perfectionism that would ultimately shuttle me into a vicious cycle of depression and burn-out.

My ‘lifestyle’ impacted not only me, but also my partner Tanja. She had to try to live up to my unattainable standards, or bear the impact of my horrible mood swings whenever I broke down. When she’d try to talk sense into me I’d shut down and retreat. And her compassion and kind words, I discarded as weakness and nonsense. It taxed our relationship intensely, but I couldn’t see how I did anything wrong.

The end of the beginning

About 3 years ago, Tanja and I visited our friend and Primal Pioneer Eve in Belgium. During our visit, Tanja and I got into a fight and I had an emotional breakdown. Our photography business was floundering despite working on it for years. I considered the ‘failure’ my own fault, and felt extremely guilty and ashamed about it. As always, Tanja’s words couldn’t reach me. But Eve’s did.

Because of her past, Eve and I had comparable personality traits, which she describes as ‘being a head-person’: someone who’s entirely locked away into their rational mind. She recommended a book about the issues: Daring Greatly by Brené Brown.

The book described my exact issues and challenges. Gaining awareness was great, but it didn’t solve the problem. Tanja suggested to go see a clinical counsellor. Even though I’d previously been in therapy in Belgium (and thought I was ‘healed’), I knew she was right. The book made clear that I had a lot of unresolved issues, and they were impacting both our lives severely. So we started therapy, both as a couple, and I by myself. It changed everything.

Breaking the pattern

In Daring Greatly Brené Brown analyzes that starting when we were children, we’ve found ways try to protect ourselves from vulnerability, from being hurt, diminished and disappointed. She calls these ways armor, or shields, which is a perfect metaphor because we wield them despite their fatiguing weight in a poor attempt to fend off the painful blows from the world.

In my case, pretty much all of the shields she describes in the book turned out to be applicable. Of course I only found this out thanks to the help of an amazing psychologist. Where the book hadn’t already, my therapist taught me awareness, how to take off the armor and how to find strength in vulnerability.

I’ll give a short introduction into each issue I’ve worked on, and will explore the topics deeper in future posts. The content below is partially based on my own experiences and partially on Daring Greatly (see bottom of this article for a full reference).

Perfectionism

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines perfectionism as “a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: ‘If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.’”

The definition hit the nail on the head for me. I did set unattainably high standards in whatever I did, thinking it was to my benefit. Consequently, I’d fail at meeting the standard, beat myself up over my failure and tell me it was my own fault. I hadn’t tried hard enough, or I was not good enough. I should just try harder. Alternatively, if I did succeed at reaching my goal, that same voice instead of congratulating me, would all of a sudden raise the bar, and tell me I’d failed yet again. Shame on me. The cycle continued endlessly and frequently put me in physical or emotional meltdowns. Which, of course, would invite another reprimand.

Additionally, my perfectionism trait impacted my partner (Tanja) too. I held her up to the same standards as myself, and regarded her failures as a shortcoming of her own doing (and sometimes even my own). Perhaps I didn’t always voice them in the same way, but my disapproval was always palpable. The voice of perfection in my head was driving us apart.

In my therapy sessions, I gained awareness of the mechanism, and learned how to step out of the vicious cycle by use of self-compassion. It saved both my marriage, and myself.

Negativity bias

The next challenge I had to work on was a deep-seated negativity bias. I’d taught myself to remain cautious about good fortune and joyful circumstances. Whenever something good happened to me, I’d either discard it as too small to be happy about it, or approach it with extreme caution. All the while, I told myself that it was for the better. Expect the worst, and you won’t be disappointed. A trait that I even honed professionally for a while. As a legal attorney, all I did was look for holes in contracts and the law. Big mistake.

The deeper I dug myself into this attitude, the more negative I became. The world seemed like a dark, endless place of misfortune to me. All I could see were the things I didn’t have, and what went wrong. I craved more joy than ever before, but I could no longer experience it.

As Daring Greatly describes, when it comes to vulnerability, we can’t close ourselves off selectively. When we attempt to lock out the bad, we inevitably exclude the good. If we want to experience joyful circumstances to the fullest, we have to open ourselves up to all emotions, including the ones that may hurt us.

In therapy I learned that practicing gratitude and self-compassion are the way out of the maze of a negativity bias. By opening ourselves up to vulnerability, we not only bring joy back in our life, but also the quality of mental and emotional resilience when misfortune strikes.

End thoughts

I’m eternally grateful that my partner stuck with me through my worst years. And that she convinced me to go back to therapy, even when I thought I no longer needed it. It was the nudge I needed to change the course and outcome of my life.

The last three years have been intense, to say the least. I had to demolish structures and mechanisms that had kept me safe and alive for over two decades. At times, I felt lost and without a sense of self. Nothing of the old, perfectionist, Jelger was left, and the new one didn’t exist yet. Until to my complete surprise, I felt a sense of self emerge that I remembered from before my traumatic experience. The self that used to be happy, curious and playful. The self that loved being connected with my body, emotions and spirit. It’s my deepest, most profound self, that feels what it wants and needs out of life. It doesn’t prefer my rational mind over my intuition, but synergizes both of them. I’ve since called it my Primal Self.

References and recommended books

  • Brown, Brené (2015).Daring Greatly. New York, NY: Avery.
  • Brown, C. Brené (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden
  • Brené Brown’s website: https://brenebrown.com
  • Neff, Kristin (2011). Self-compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY: William Morrow.