I always get clients to fill in a short questionnaire before we start work. It helps me to get to know them and gets them thinking about what they want to achieve through our work together.
One of the questions I always ask is ‘what’s going well for you right now?’
A recent client answered: ‘A lot. I’m successful at work and happily married with good friends and a nice life. ‘
I was intrigued so I asked, ‘Why come for therapy then?’
Here’s his answer: ‘In my head I’m useless, fat and lazy. My wife is out of my league, my kids despise me, my friends just put up with me and I’m one mistake away from losing my job and my business. It could all come crashing down at any minute because I’m useless, fat and lazy. I can’t sleep, I’m stressed out and I want it to stop’.
He was presenting with a classic core identity issue. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite his obvious success and a happy marriage deep down he ‘knew’ he was useless, fat and lazy. At the very core of his being he was absolutely certain that he didn’t deserve his success and happiness and it would all be taken away from him because he was useless, fat and lazy.
How we think of ourselves is often very different to the way we look to the world. The world sees what we choose to present and that is often carefully styled and curated to present the right image.
But inside, we know all about our past mistakes, failures, rejections and humiliations and they are seared into our brains. We know the real us, the frightened, fragile us that is just waiting to burst out and mess everything up. This core identity, the way we see ourselves, can be negative and very unhelpful. It can stop us achieving our goals, make us lack self-confidence and self-esteem and encourage us to seek relief in problematic, self-sabotaging behaviours such as drinking too much, drug taking and gambling.
What’s going on?
Our core identity is formed as we grow up and develop an understanding of what is right and wrong. We’re not necessarily talking an incontrovertible right and wrong here, we’re talking how we understand our place in the world.
It’s influenced by the messages we receive from our parents or care givers, siblings, schoolmates and other people in authority such as teachers. Often, it’s about making us fit in, be socially acceptable – children should be seen and not heard. We take these messages to heart and try our best to be ‘good’ but in suppressing our true identity we also suppress what we really need. And in doing so we can inadvertently set ourselves up for problems later in life.
My client was an undiagnosed dyslexic and hated school. He was always near the bottom of the class and his reports were ‘awful’. His father was an academic and expected his children to do well at school. So, my client was often punished for his poor performance and bad reports and told he was useless and lazy. As a teenager he had some medical issues and put on a lot of weight for a time. He was bullied for being fat. Girls laughed at him when he tried to talk to them. The ‘useless, fat and lazy’ core identity became embedded.
He left school, did some vocational training in which he excelled, lost the weight and found friends whose company he enjoyed and who valued him too. He fell in love, got married, set up his own business and became a successful entrepreneur. Yet the ‘useless, fat and lazy’ mantra stuck with him. He couldn’t see that he had become entrepreneurial, enthusiastic and good at his job, or that he was slim and attractive, a good husband and father. He was trapped and still thinking of himself as useless, fat and lazy. But now he had had enough of feeling that way, so he came to me for help.
We talked about the various options available for helping him. As he wanted to ‘not be in therapy for ages’ we decided that BWRT™ would be a good approach to use. We would use the natural processes of his brain to help change how he sees his core identity.
I took him through the BWRT™ process and checked that there were no physical or other reasons for the way he felt. I asked lots of deep, searching questions about what he thought, the obstacles and people that might get in his way and any guilty secrets that might trip him up. It was a bit uncomfortable sometimes, but we dealt with all of those negative influences and moved on.
We also worked on the positives. He talked about how he sees himself now, and how he would like to see himself instead. He was so happy talking about what he would like his ideal self-image to be, and he was able to develop a clear, achievable alternative core identity. We explored the people who could help him and be happy for him when he was successful.
He did his therapy at home, the exercises I gave him to do between sessions, without complaint. We looked at situations where the old core identity might bubble up and crafted ways to protect him from that.
6 weeks after starting work, the useless, fat and lazy core identity had been replaced with one that is resilient, energetic and a good husband and father. If the old identity resurfaces, which it may do from time to time, he has the tools to manage it. I see him once a month just to check he’s still on track, which he is.
To talk about how I can help you develop a better self-image book yourself in for a free, no obligation initial conversation here. As always, I won’t try and sell you something, we’ll just have a chat about the options available to you.
This case study is shared with the permission of my client. Some details have been changed to preserve anonymity, however the essentials of the story and what we did about it are unchanged.