Looking for Approval In All The Wrong Places?

06/30/2015 09:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Chuck grew up in an extremely abusive family environment. His mother was the primary abuser of the children. From a very early age, Chuck was subjected to extremely vicious and violent beatings, which often came completely unprovoked. He never knew when the next attack would come and consequently, he lived in a state of constant anxiety and fear.

He told us, "No one ever touched me with kindness, only in anger. I was starved for physical affection and loving attention. After she smacked me, my mother would say 'I'm sorry you made me do this to you.' That was her idea of an apology. To me, it just felt like it was my fault that she was enraged. But even as a little boy, while I was being beaten, there was a small voice inside of me that was saying, 'This is wrong, you're not bad, you don't deserve this.' As a young child, I was able to tune into my inner truth and hold on to that, even in the face of circumstances that were pulling me in the opposite direction."

"With some great help and support along the way, I've been able to create a loving family life with my wife and two children. I now have the kind of family I dreamed of having as a child. It's been a long and at times, difficult road and the pain still surfaces from time to time. The demons haven't all completely disappeared, but now they just knock on the door instead of breaking it down. And I don't have to answer it if I choose not to!"

The path from a damaged childhood to a healed adult is riddled with potholes, landmines, and obstacles of all sorts and walking it is not for the faint of heart. It is perhaps, for that reason that many choose not to take it. While it sometimes seems that avoiding the pain of the past is the past of least resistance, in fact, this strategy usually leads to more prolonged suffering that comes in the form of resistance to life itself. Denying the reality of our pain through whatever means we choose to employ, ultimately leads to a resistance to life which leaves us with a pain that is much more prolonged and far greater than the grief that accompanies an acceptance of the suffering we may have endured from our past.

When people speak of the 'work' that is necessary in order for us to heal our relationships and our lives, this is what they are referring to: the willingness to accept and experience the full range and depth of emotions that as children we were unable to hold by ourselves. To heal means "to make whole" and unless we come to terms with our brokenness, we can't experience ourselves as whole. When we regain the experience of wholeness we become more able to trust the validity of our own experience even when others opinions contradict it. As children, we need our connection with our parents' support so much that we will do practically anything, including invalidate our own truth, to prevent the risk of losing their support.

It was Chuck's self-trust that enabled him to accept the validity of his experience that that it was not his fault that his mother was abusive. The ability to trust our own perception even when others hold a contradictory view is known as self-referentiality, or the ability to refer to and trust our own experience, rather than deferring to the judgment of others. Self-trust also has to do with having confidence in our ability and commitment to taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This means feeling worthy of being treated by ourselves and others with kindness, respect, care, and compassion. It also means recognizing and taking responsibility for fulfilling our essential needs rather than neglecting them or holding others responsible for meeting them.

Self-trust has to do with gathering and honoring the wisdom that has been born out cultivated through the practices of self awareness, self reflection, and the intention to learn from the results of our life choices. It doesn't mean rejecting all outside opinions, but involves the openness and receptivity of a child's mind with the intelligence of an adult whose wisdom has been deepened through the integration life's lessons.

A life that is self-referential is one that is flexible, fluid, and creative. Our sense of security comes form a sense of dependability and trust in our innate wisdom and our capacity to deepen it rather than rely exclusively upon the input of other people and institutions. Self-referentiality allows us to choose from a broader range of options in making life choices without being required to adhere to a particular tradition authority, or belief system. In so doing we become more able to meet our needs and address our unique concerns with resourcefulness and creativity. This mindset provides a powerful antidote to the tendency towards the development of "hardening of the attitudes," or mental sclerosis. It promotes a sense of possibility, hopefulness and independent thinking, and a way of being with others that can be crafted to fit the needs and requirements of any given situation.

Chuck put it this way: "For me, when I am connected to my inner truth, I experience a sense of energy and replenishment. At these times, I feel connected to a source of deep wisdom. When I'm out of integrity, I lose that connection. It's as though someone pulled out the plug. It is important to me to be watchful and vigilant so that I can more easily recognize the times and places where I may be dishonoring my experience, or disconnecting from my truth. When I find myself doing that, I inevitably find indicators that immediately remind me that I'm off track and I know that I need to put in a correction. The symptoms can include boredom, lethargy, apathy, depressive thoughts, irritability or sometimes physical distress. At those times when I become aware of these feelings, if I can redirect my attention to my inner experience, I can release the grip of those thoughts and get myself back on track. When I can't, I've learned to just ride it out. It's like a temporary trance, and it always passes in time. Everything eventually does, and that, I guess, is both the good news and the bad news!"

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