“I can’t believe I said such a stupid thing!”
“I’m scared my partner will leave me.”
“I probably won’t get this job.”
“I’m not as good as the rest of the group.”
“I’m such a lousy parent.”

How often do you berate yourself, carrying on with self-loathing, denigrating yourself for not being “good enough, smart enough, sufficiently talented”? We all have those quick, knee-jerk reactions to situations in which we feel unprepared, ill-suited, or caught off-guard — in our intimate relationships, in our careers, or with our parenting. “What should I have said instead?” “How could I have been so rude, or judgmental, critical?” A slip of the tongue ... the “whoosh” that reaches our lips before our brain is in gear! Unintentional, unconscious, and sometimes, irreparably damaging, both for the other as well as for ourselves.

I’ve heard it so many times, from friends, colleagues, family members, clients … and certainly, from myself! “I should have known or done better.” We can so easily “should” on ourselves! Let’s consider what this negative self-talk does to our sense of esteem, healthy self-worth. For those of us having that inner critic relentlessly berating, lecturing, shaming us, consider what a destructive narrative that is to carry around. It’s not only depressing, it’s controlling, demeaning, humiliating, holding us hostage in shame and guilt. As much as we try, we cannot seem to shake that inner voice — is it a critical or abusive parent? A former teacher? Supervisor? Someone(s) has disgraced us, keeping us stuck.

It’s important to understand that it’s never our fault as children, growing up, for inflicting pain on ourselves. It’s a parent’s responsibility to care for her/his children, never the other way around. Parents must be the stronger, responsible ones, providing safe containment. Children need affirmation, nurturing, guidance, and limit setting. They also need to have unconditional acceptance and love, to be seen, heard, validated. When traumatized or neglected in childhood, we can stop growing emotionally. A “fight or flight” state is triggered for survival. While we continue living our lives, growing older, a part of us is left behind — a part that possibly shut down or fled the family dynamics. We’re typically not aware we have a “missing part,” given we carry on as though everything is normal — yet, it’s far from normal. This compels us to look back, “to get our story straight,” before we can move forward in our current family.

That knee-jerk reaction, the defensive posturing, to someone’s comment or facial expression, signals our link to the past — our family of origin, trauma work. Perhaps we never learned the skills we needed to successfully navigate our intimate relationships, to know how to be truly present, liberated from the grip of family dysfunction. Rather than harshly judging ourselves for saying or doing the “wrong” thing, try being curious about the root cause. Holding ourselves in warm self-regard, with compassion and tenderness, we must reach deep within us to explore the source of our discomfort, what blocks us from loving connection in our relationships.

Our family legacy: how we were raised, childhood influences, family dynamics, the values we learned — the good, bad, and the ugly — there’s no getting around how much these experiences affected us. At our core, the impact drives our behavior, our emotional reactions and, thus, our communication. Consciously exploring the messages we internalized growing up can help us avoid repeating the same mistakes, or passing on any multi-generational dysfunction to our children and to our intimate partners. Understanding what we believe about ourselves, what we’ve carried into our adult relationships, is important. Our childhood story influences how we speak to our intimate partners, our children, family members, friends, and our co-workers. Something (or someone) can easily trigger us, disarming our focus, and our ability to stay connected. That’s our signal to compassionately trace the origins of those triggers — with curiosity rather than with self-loathing. Many of us never apply enough importance or time to discover what fuels our choices, actions and relationships. We might assume it’s simply who we are, possibly blaming others for how things are or for mistakes being made. Instead, what if we realized our behavior, attitude, even our communication are driven by our deep-rooted emotional messages: “I don’t believe I’m good enough,” or “I’ll never be successful,” or “It’s too scary to change,” and so on. These messages clog our filter, creating unhealthy dynamics, blocking intimate connection with our partner.

In healthy relationships, people share power. Maybe we didn’t have any power growing up, causing us now to wield it in our adult relationships. Whenever anyone threatens our authority, it’s likely we assume a defensive, even aggressive stance. Do we understand the origin of that trigger? It might feel threatening to consider losing authority, diminishing our power, yet if we realize it’s an unconscious reaction to a perceived threat, we could explore the source. Everyone wants to be heard and understood, to have a strong voice and feel valued. If our legacy has been toxic, shame may continually block us from intimacy, from authentic connection. Understanding our family patterns, by tracing the source of those knee-jerk reactions, we don’t need to let them impact our children’s experience, or contaminate our adult relationships.

We must hold ourselves in warm self-regard, extinguishing the inner critic, brushing away the shame, trusting that we are good enough and lovable just the way we are.

“Many of us know this sensation of conduction from early childhood: the mother and father talk to each other through the child. The shame of the alcoholic father, for example, goes through our body heading east, and the anxiety of the dependent mother goes through our body heading west. Fury and contempt pass each other, meeting somewhere in the son’s or daughter’s chest.” — Robert Bly