Agency and Lovability: The Roots of Suffering and Recovery

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By Harvey Hyman, M.S.

As a therapist treating adult clients with depression, anxiety, or addiction, I have concluded that all three conditions stem from developmental trauma known as “adverse childhood events” (popularly called ACEs) (Felitti, 1998). Examples of ACES are a chaotic home environment marked by sudden angry arguments, domestic violence, parental substance abuse, parental incarceration or parental separation/divorce; physical, sexual or emotional abuse; or failure to meet the child’s need for validation, loving emotional connection, emotional holding and affectionate physical touch.

Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs)

ACEs are highly traumatic to children. They impair the structural and functional development of the child’s brain while blunting her ability to sense what happens in her body or to experience and express her emotions (Perry, 2006). They also cause the developing child to create powerful negative self-beliefs as a way of explaining why her parents treat her so terribly. A child is 100% dependent on her parents and is not capable of forming or living with the belief that they are cruel, incompetent, or uncaring, so she blames herself for being abused or ignored. She concludes that there is something wrong or defective about her and that she alone is the cause of the ACES inflicted upon her when such is certainly not true (Miller, 2007).

Negative self-beliefs are a form of self-blame for the pain of not being loved well. They operate over the lifespan like a software program buried invisibly in the unconscious mind. An adult who harbors unconscious negative self-beliefs has a tendency to keep finding evidence to confirm them. While adults without a traumatic childhood can shake off and bounce back from their missteps, mistakes, rejections, and failures, the same is not true for children who were traumatized. The more ACEs in childhood the more suffering in adulthood (Felitti, 1998).

The list of negative self-beliefs a child can develop is a rather long, sad list and includes such beliefs as: “I don’t deserve to exist;” “I don’t make mistakes, I am a mistake;” “I am invisible;” and “nobody will ever love me.” In my experience, the two most common beliefs relate to a lack of agency and lack of lovability. Let’s take a look at each one.

Agency

What does agency refer to, and why is it important? Agency is an essential component of personhood. An agent is capable of acting on her own to protect and care for herself and others, and to bring about changes in herself and her environment. An agent adopts a moral code from her life experiences and comes to know what is good or bad for her. She is able to trust her own judgment.

A child who is over-protected, ignored and unsupported, or invalidated by relentless criticism, grows up without a sense of agency. The over-protected child has no opportunities to test, develop, and see proof of her own abilities. The child who suffers from parental indifference and lack of support, grows up feeling invisible and powerless. This perception is strengthened by the fact that she must rely completely upon her own resources while competing with other children at school and extra-curricular activities. She feels alone and is filled with self-doubt. The child who is criticized over and over by her parents, may see herself as unable to get anything right or achieve anything worthwhile. Adults who lack a sense of agency are prone to fear, anxiety, and shame. When they do succeed on the surface, they suffer from imposter syndrome.

Lovability

What does lovability encompass? To be lovable is to be accepted just as you are without needing to manipulate others or pretend to be more than you are to gain social acceptance. An adult who perceives herself as unlovable due to childhood trauma sees herself as broken, defective, and less than others. She hesitates to approach others for friendship, dating, jobs, or promotions because she views herself through self-degrading adjectives like unattractive, ugly, stupid, dull, boring, uncool, awkward, etc. She perceives herself to be a misfit that does not belong and anticipates social rejection and exclusion. When she is turned down from friendship or a job, she sees this as confirmation of his negative core belief and is triggered to re-experience childhood pain. Lack of lovability goes with shame, sadness, and depression.

Recovery

The good news is that the negative self-beliefs formed in childhood consequent to abuse or neglect can be vanquished. This occurs when the client re-lives the painful experiences that formed the beliefs, understands how they arose, and becomes able to reject them as the logical interpretation of a child’s mind seeking to account for and cope with a miserable childhood. This process requires step-by-step progress in therapy as the client wades deeper and deeper into the waters of what is the emotional truth of her life.

At Healing Pathways, the interns are skilled in a variety of treatment modalities that can help clients process their childhood trauma and reach emotional freedom without constraint by negative self-beliefs that do not match up with reality. These modalities include EMDR, brainspotting, psychodynamic psychotherapy, expressive arts therapy, narrative therapy, hakomi, and compassionate inquiry. Our therapists can also teach clients how to respond effectively to being triggered by another person or event that brings up their most painful self-belief. We teach clients mindfulness, meditation, guided imagery, the flash technique, tapping in, and a variety of skills for self-calming and self-soothing. Potential clients who share the challenges discussed in this blog are encouraged to learn more about these therapies and ask for a therapist intern at Healing Pathways who uses the therapy that seems like the most promising or the best fit.

References

Felitti, V.J. et al. (1998) Relationship of child abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4); 245-258, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8

Perry, B.D. and Szalavitz, M. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. New York: NY. Basic Books. 

Miller, A. (2007). The drama of the gifted child: The search for the true self. New York: NY. Basic Books. 

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