It’s about something we hold on to at the center of our identity. It’s much deeper than what we show the world: our profession, political affiliation, personal opinions. Even more profound than what I think of as the ‘mid-level demographics’ of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation and regional or national identities. Rooted in childhood experiences, it is fundamental to all our our worries and fears:
Now, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this. It’s a summary of the clinical work I’ve been doing for a decade or more. I’ve been looking to add to the list for a while but every time I think I have a new one, it falls into one of these categories. I’m still on the lookout if you’ve got a suggestion. In my experience, all of these hit home but we’re specifically vulnerable to a combo of two at a time. Usually it’s one of them paired with abandonment. There’s a specific type of defensive or offensive response when one of these core beliefs is triggered. These vary depending on your primary and secondary predispositions. I’ll explain.
I’m too much.
This is my personal fave. This message pops up whenever we feel deeply, ask for something, need something, set a boundary, advocate for ourselves, say no, or generally take up more space than usual. It tells you you’ll never get your needs met – that no one will understand you – because you’re just too intense. After having a strong emotional reaction to something, you may get told you’re ‘too sensitive’ or you’re overthinking it – another very of Too Much.
If this is your primary predisposition or core vulnerability, your defensive response is to ‘take it all back’ by negating or minimize your needs. If this is your secondary predisposition, the offensive response takes over and you’ll either reject or minimize others’ needs or ‘go rogue’ and do everything yourself.
I’m not enough.
Usually, we get this message when we think we’ve ‘failed’ or fallen short in some fashion. It’s a response to perceived or real criticism but also when someone asks for something from us. It’s especially strong when we believe we were earnestly trying to meet another’s needs and a request for yet another need is made. Other ways it makes itself known are when we try for something and don’t get it. Essentially, it’s a form of asking – whether it’s winning the game, the boss’s pat on the back, or getting warm fuzzies from your sweetheart.
If this is your primary predisposition, your defensive response is to provide a list of all the positive qualities about yourself or the things you HAVE been doing. You might even ask for recognition as you’re validating someone’s point (“I know I hurt your feelings but you can see that I was trying to help?”) . If this is your secondary predisposition, your offense is to become passive aggressive to ‘show’ others your value.
If you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me.
There’s lots of variations on this theme. The essential message is judgment for who you are as a person. It’s telling ourselves that we’re bad or defective at the core. It’s related to Not Enough in the anxiety-fueled drive to hide and overcompensate. Because of having ADHD, I always knew my brain worked with more quirks. Before I learned to manage it, the way I made sense of my differences was to believe I was missing something others had. I felt driven to compensate for this missing part.
If this is your primary core vulnerability, you’re likely to react to triggers by anxiously undoing this internal message with good works, compulsively helping others, and staying a few points (or more) ahead on the scoreboard of friendship. If this is your secondary message, a response, on the offense, is being critical of others for their lack of giving, bitterness towards the world for not giving to you, and general anger at unfairness.
By now, I imagine you’ve seen a piece of yourself in all of these. That’s completely normal. We joke about abandonment issues but the truth is, we’re social creatures without an instruction manual for how to be social. In the words of Eve Ensler, “Everyone’s making everything up.”
It makes sense that we fear people will leave because of our actions. Sometimes they do and sometimes it’s coincidence. Loss is inevitable but as kids, we don’t know that so we make sense of it the best we can and put protections in place. It’s time to update our strategies.
Pairing abandonment with finally wearing someone out by being too much, disappointing someone with not being enough, or horrifying someone with our true ‘badness’ is such a vulnerable risk to the vital connections we all need. The defensive response is to dance faster, chase after the connection and shut down whatever triggered the conflict. The offensive response is to assert that we really don’t need or care for others at all. We act indifferent or cold. But it’s just an act to cover the hurt and fear.
Each of the Big Four deserves it’s own article. There’s so much more to explore – where they come from, how to raise awareness of their chatter in your head. Then consider that every single person has a universe in their heads. Recognizing when these voices gear up in others, especially in couples in conflict can diffuse tense situations. The work starts with you. Your greatest tool is an open, curious awareness, without judgment, about the voices in your head. We aren’t born with the story we tell ourselves and we can become the author. Therapy is a powerful source for transformation but sometimes you need a more concrete plan. The good news is that you are constantly evolving and can always choose another direction.