“Don’t get too big for your britches!” “You’re no better than anyone else!” “Don’t get a swelled head!”
Beginning as little children, we hear cultural messages that are meant to socialize and civilize us. We learn to keep our self-confidence in check in order to stay in the good graces of the people around us. Healthy shame makes sure we follow social rules such as not hurting others, not stealing, being honest, or not going to the bathroom in public. Shame is the emotion that ensures we fit in with the groups we need. But there is a personal cost to maintaining good social standing. Over time, the brain habitually keeps us small. We lose the option to feel big and proud. Plus, we are not even aware that we are inhibiting ourselves. We just feel small. For example, when we are complimented we cannot fully take it in. We dismiss the affirming sentiment – a gift in many ways – with a perfunctory “thank you.” We hear the affirming words but we do not allow ourselves to receive the message deeply in our bodies. The cost is to our self-confidence.
Many of the adults I see in my practice have lost their ability to experience joy, excitement and pride. These expansive emotions provide nourishment for the soul and build self-esteem. Defending against these emotions has a big cost. We can’t feel the wonderful feelings these emotions naturally produce. Instead, at the first sign of feeling big and proud, our bodies constrict remembering the cultural message: “Don’t get too big for your britches!”
For example, now that Michelle is having success in her career, she is riddled with anxiety at the thought of sharing her accomplishments. She fears people will be angry at her for her success. Michelle feels embarrassed and an impulse to diminish herself every time one of her accomplishments is acknowledged.
Craig, a lovable guy, needs constant compliments and reminders that he is liked. It’s as though he has a hole in his self-esteem bucket. No matter how much affirmation he receives, it doesn’t stick. He feels good for maybe two seconds and then the feeling evaporates, so he needs another fix. He has learned to block incoming good feelings.
As an emotion-centered psychotherapist, I help people rebuild their inborn capacity to take in good feelings. I do this by encouraging people to experience positive feelings physically. My patients learn to stay with positive feelings/sensations as they unfold fully in their bodies. Helping people develop this capacity builds lasting self-worth and self-esteem. People actually come to feel physically stronger and bigger because they stop inhibiting the natural reflex to feeling good about themselves.
Some people fear that feeling good will make them conceited or egotistical. This does not happen. When people truly feel good about themselves, they have more to give to others, not less.
Both Michelle and Craig needed to build their emotional and physical capacity to experience joy and pride. Here are some ways I helped them and how you can work on your own to build your capacity for positive emotions:
1) Begin to notice what you do when someone says something nice or complimentary. Do you refute it? Do you ignore it? Do you say thanks? Do you judge the person giving you the compliment?
2) When someone gives you a compliment, pause for a few seconds before you dismiss it. In the pause, notice, without judging, what the compliment evokes inside your body.
3) Try to name any and all emotions you notice: embarrassment, anxiety, guilt, pride, joy, fear, disbelief, or judgment toward you or the person complimenting you. This helps your inner experience become more conscious. Awareness creates the potential for healing.
4) If you’re feeling brave, try to set aside any blocking thoughts or feelings and allow some of the good feelings to grow inside you. Feel yourself expand — even a tiny bit of expanding internally helps build this new emerging capacity. Breathe deeply if anxiety starts to arise. The anxiety just means you are doing something new.
5) Lastly, look the person giving you the compliment in the eye and say a heartfelt "Thank you!" This helps you validate the affirmation. It lets your brain know that you’ve received the positive message. It also makes the other person feel appreciated for their gift.
Congratulations for working to patch the hole in your own bucket. You deserve it just because you exist
For additional resources on how to feel more expansive, pick up a copy of It's Not Always Depression.