Bad vibrations
August 13, 2019 12:51 PM   Subscribe

I seem to almost compulsively feel guilt over things I “should” be happy about, proud of or celebrating. How can I break this pattern?

Throughout my life I’ve felt guilt kick in whenever I achieve something or otherwise receive something good. As an example, I’ve lost 40 lbs (slowly but consistently, over two years) and am becoming more fit. I like how I look and feel and have learned a lot about nutrition, but every time I visit home I hear “oh, you look so skinny!” from family and instantly feel... shame, embarrassment, a sense that it’s narcissistic to care how my body looks or how good I feel. Similarly, I recently got a job I worked fairly hard to be considered for, and while people around me seemed happy (though in some ways sad, as it meant I wouldn’t be moving closer to them soon), I felt selfish and self-absorbed for caring so much about “my career” when life is full of more important things (the ability to live closer to family, for one).

I have a memory from my teen years of being a bit fashion conscious but by necessity dressing mostly in hand-me-downs (my family was working class). Once after a visit, a relative remarked that I looked so well put together, and I hid in a bathroom and cried because I felt spoiled for caring so much about how I looked.

Most of these types of feelings are a result of interactions with my family. I come from a rural part of the country where “tall poppy syndrome” is definitely a thing. I’ve always been a relatively high achiever, and while on the one hand this is a part of who I am, on the other I’m always sure that my success will cost me me family, loved ones, or just that the other foot will drop. I worked through some of this with a therapist once upon a time and we discuss how my mother was always a bit on the envious/narcissistic side— if I reflected well on her, great, if I “outshone” her in some way, bitter put downs were on the way. I remember her cutting me down to size for the first time when I was five— I was allowed to participate in an activity for older kids, but “embarrassed her” for making a mistake. (In retrospect, it was obviously an age appropriate mistake.) I don’t know if this is really the root cause, but the hypothesis fits in many ways— I’m quite terrified of things that please me.

As a result, I tend to self-sabotage— I’ll work hard at something for its own sake, out of curiosity or pleasure, but once any kind of interpersonal questioning, exposure or worldly success is imminent I freeze up, question my motivations, fail or withdraw. I feel it’s hard to walk the line because there are so many stories in our culture of people who live an achievement-based life and then wake up one day questioning what it was all for. I feel the same, except... every day.

I grew up around a lot of people who didn’t understand me and who I didn’t quite understand. I dealt with that by hiding much of my life from my family and telling white lies here and there, but as I get older it increasingly feels like a house of cards. I can tell other people know when I’m humoring them and find it condescending, but when I act like myself I feel a lot of shame (and admittedly, am still the butt of putdowns). It’s difficult with one of my sisters in particular— she seems to think I judge her for starting a family young and dealing with the struggles of that (I don’t, in some ways I am envious), so she in turn seems to think whatever decisions I make are fair game for condescension. I realize this is not something I can “fix,” I just wish she were kinder or more understanding toward me instead of contemptuous of my choices.



Of course, in many ways I am vain, narcissistic, etc. I tend to intellectualize all this and think that my feelings of guilt and isolation are a result of indulging liberal capitalist individualist ideals of aspirationalism, etc., that I should be more collectivist, compassionate, etc. And these things may be true. But I also feel weak, like I never resolved a fundamental tension in my formative years and am still trying to derive self-esteem from the wrong places. I fundamentally do not feel worthy of love when I am happy. Happiness = selfishness in my heart, unless it’s derived directly from some degree of self-sacrifice toward my family. I don’t feel that my family is particularly unkind or bad, and I love them very much, but my self-image is clearly wrapped up in their reactions to me to an unhealthy degree. I struggle to find a foothold to work against this. Blaming them for whatever perceived shortcomings tends to intensify the guilt; I feel that I need a me-centric solution.

I plan to continue to see a therapist over these issues (I recently moved and can’t continue with my previous therapist), but I’m curious about if anyone else has dealt with these issues and if they found any books, concepts, etc. particularly helpful. Thanks.
posted by stoneandstar to Human Relations (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm sure others will have lots of advice, but two small things that have had a big impact for me on this front are:

1. Imagining what you would say to a friend if they shared their concerns about caring for and about themselves. Then remind yourself you are your own friend and treat yourself accordingly.

2. Stop black-and-white thinking. It isn't an on-off switch, e.g. vain / not vain. It is a spectrum. You can take pride in your appearance and care for yourself without being a narcissist. I've even come to think that it is a kindness to the world, and my partner especially, to take a certain amount of care about my appearance, since others have to look at me a lot more than I do. I want to make the world a more pleasant place, and part of that is not looking like a ragamuffin because I am part of the world. It isn't high on the list of ways to make the world more pleasant, but it is there.
posted by girlpublisher at 1:02 PM on August 13 [2 favorites]


I’ll work hard at something for its own sake, out of curiosity or pleasure, but once any kind of interpersonal questioning, exposure or worldly success is imminent I freeze up, question my motivations, fail or withdraw. I feel it’s hard to walk the line because there are so many stories in our culture of people who live an achievement-based life and then wake up one day questioning what it was all for

An "achievement-based life" is not the same as a "life of working hard at something for its own sake, out of curiosity or pleasure," regardless of whether the latter happens to draw external recognition. Believe me, I'm a NYC lawyer, people opting for the former rather than the latter are around me every day, and trying to stay on the latter track while still making rent requires CONSTANT VIGILANCE! Those stories about "achievement-based life" people are about people chasing some meaningless brass ring at the expense of things one could really care about. By your own description, that's not you. If you already know what's meaningful to you and are able to pursue it, you are well ahead of the game. Recognize that.
posted by praemunire at 1:29 PM on August 13 [8 favorites]


There is a big difference between "I am a good person worthy of love," and "I am better than most other people and deserve love more than them." You can raise yourself up without climbing on top of other people, you can feel good about yourself without it hurting others. It may not gel with your life plans but I am a big fan of, if your family is making you feel bad about being you, stop spending so much time with them.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:16 PM on August 13 [9 favorites]


Sent you a memail!
posted by stellaluna at 6:16 PM on August 13


I find a lot of this really relatable. I found the book Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, as recommended by preeminent boundaries-explainer Captain Awkward very helpful, but the big difference I saw between most of the Narcissistic Moms in the book and mine is that instead of valuing nothing but being seen as attractive, successful, and wealthy, my mom seemed to value above all being seen as far too good to want such things. It was actually a bit of a hurdle in recognizing that the patterns were still essentially the same, but I got there eventually.

First, have compassion for your childhood self and the ways she learned to cope with a situation that she didn't create and didn't have the power to escape or change. It wasn't your fault.

It's also OK to stick with safe topics with the family members who are still unsupportive or envious or whose reactions to information about your life distress you in any way. It's OK to coolly/boringly deflect comments on things that are obvious (like your physique). I myself don't tell my mom about anything that's not already decided.

You have to be your own supportive family member first. You can be proud of yourself even for things you don't tell anyone else about. I am.

Meanwhile, sure, life is about much more than ambition. But that family that theoretically comes first? That can be chosen family. It can even just be yourself. You don't have to put people first who don't accept and love you how you are, even if they raised you, even if you love them, even if anything.

As for thinking you should be more collectivist, etc. That's cool--if you value that, it's fine to aspire to move more in that direction while still being proud of what you've done so far. I find it very helpful to simply embrace the apparent contradiction in loving and accepting oneself how one is right now, and also consistently striving for self-improvement. Learning to sit comfortably with that kind of dichotomy has proved endlessly useful, because hoo boy the world is complicated.

And honestly...listen to Lizzo.
posted by lampoil at 7:16 PM on August 13 [9 favorites]


I come from a rural part of the country where “tall poppy syndrome” is definitely a thing.

I grew up around a lot of people who didn’t understand me and who I didn’t quite understand. I dealt with that by hiding much of my life from my family and telling white lies here and there, but as I get older it increasingly feels like a house of cards.


I wonder if at least part of this is just as simple as feeling the tension between the values you were raised with and either the values you hold now, or how you live your life? The way you talk about this actually reminds me of some queer friends who grew up in conservative/homophobic homes. Intellectually, they know there's nothing wrong with being queer, but they still often have to do a lot of work to undo the shame that comes with living in a way that is counter to how they were raised. And there are things they've had to give up (like being close with family, another important value) in order to be true to themselves.

Individuation from one's family of origin is seen in Western culture as being an important part of growing up, but it seems like we rarely talk honestly about what that can actually mean emotionally for people who wind up rejecting all or part of their family of origin's way of living/values. It's not easy! Shame/guilt and a feeling of loss are really common.
posted by the sockening at 12:24 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


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