Our brains are constantly (and mostly unconsciously) scanning our environments for information about how others around us are perceiving us. To state an obvious truth, humans are a social species, meaning we live and develop most optimally in the context of others. Thus, we feel safest and most secure when others choose to be in relationship with us. To optimize our chances of being accepted by others, there is a part of our brain constantly looking for information to answer some fundamental questions: Am I acting in a way that is lovable? Do others want to include me? Are my behaviors and my presentation acceptable to those around me?
Rarely do we vocalize such questions, yet they are always implicitly on our minds. For instance, when we unconsciously match our body language to the person sitting across from us, we do so to foster a rapport that assists in our being accepted. And when we get dressed every morning, we do so with a part of our brain focused on how others will perceive us. Asking these questions is a normal part of being human, and we do so to avoid feeling the shame that arises as a result of feeling excluded. This shame, although painful, serves as a compass of sorts. Avoiding shame guides our behaviors back in line with what will be accepted by those around us.
In our efforts to avoid feeling shame, we also ask ourselves another related yet more fundamental question every day. The answer to this question often at the core of many of life’s most distressing experiences, including isolation, alienation, anxiety, self-doubt, depression, neglect and abuse. That question is:
Am I lovable?
When we ask about our lovability, in essence we are asking, “Am I worthy of acceptance and belonging?” This question differs from the ones above because its answer is not situational and relates instead to who we are as people. Our perception of how lovable we are affects the relationships we seek out. It influences the risks we take, and it limits our willingness to be vulnerable. The question determines how we present ourselves to the world and informs how we expect the world to treat us in return.
This question also differs from the ones above because the answer to “Am I lovable?” is often given to us early in life, as we form our sense of self and as we experience our first relationships. In our earliest years of life, we are most dependent on our family and those immediately around us. Our parents and guardians being consistently available to us can be a matter of life or death. This is also the time in which we create much of the unconscious schema we will later on use to judge the world (and to perceive how the world judges us). When we experience disruptions in our early relationships, our young brains often internalize that experience as a sign of our not being worthy of the care we need to survive.
We are mostly egocentric in early life, meaning our developing brains are mostly focused on ourselves and on getting our physical and emotional needs met. Our brains are not developed enough to suss out the intentions of another person. So when mom or dad doesn’t show up for us, we can only assume that we are simply not worthy of their showing up and loving us. As a tiny human dependent on others for survival, it is safer to assume you are unworthy of love and to adapt to that reality than to expect love and care that you do not receive.
This experience of calling our fundamental lovability into question is what researcher Louis Cozolino refers to as “core shame.” According to Cozolino in his book Why Therapy Works, the message associated with this internalized core shame is: “I am not important, valuable, or lovable enough to be secure in my relationships with my family.” Although we often do not remember the early memories that contribute to this feeling of unworthiness, we implicitly store the idea that there is a limit to how lovable we are. This shame gets carried throughout our life, and it influences how we present ourselves to the world. The fact that we cannot identify its source makes it all the more insidious–the shame seems so natural and central to our beings that we take it for granted as truth.
Experiences of trauma–especially early in life–can exacerbate the conflict around our self-perceived lovability. Our brain has a very difficult time processing trauma. Experiences like abuse, neglect, and violence are oftentimes outside of what is comprehensible in the context of our worldview. So, we shift our paradigms. We may tell ourselves that perhaps the world is not safe and that perhaps we are actually not lovable. Until we can find a way to re-process our traumatic memories to fit a healthier narrative, we oftentimes feel stuck in those trauma-based ideas about ourselves. (Seeking the help of a therapist can be extremely helpful in doing the work of processing traumatic memories, as I’ll describe in more detail next week.)
In reality, I think that we all have at least a little core shame and that we all have implicit ideas about the limits to our lovability. No one’s caregivers were perfect, and the rudimentary messages that our brains form about ourselves early in life often do not serve us later on. Still, it is difficult to completely rid ourselves of the implicit beliefs we hold, especially when the origins of those beliefs are outside of our conscious memory.
Working with a therapist can be an effective way to uncover and give a name to the core shame we feel. In therapy, we have the opportunity to shift the internal relationship we have to the part of us that feels this shame. Also, the relationship between therapist and client can itself be a source of healing and a corrective emotional experience regarding one’s perception of being lovable. In therapy, we can develop strategies to manage our shame and to feel more at peace with our sense of self.