What are you trying to prove? Maybe you’ve heard this one directed at you when you did something reckless or annoying. Minus the emotion and directed objectively toward ourselves it can be revealing, even healing. When taken seriously, as a question of self-inquiry, (and not as an attack) it gets at what’s driving our emotional states and behaviours. Our ego will, or course, protest, because ego’s MO is to defend. We tell ourselves that we’re not trying to prove anything, it’s just the way things are and my behaviour is a rational response to existing conditions. To even suggest that my depression, anxiety, or alternatively, my chronic cheerfulness to being hap, hap, happy when things are actually crappy, is anything other than a genuine expression of my true self, offends the ego. But take a deep breath and hold this question as a key to liberate yourself from the grip of unnecessary suffering.
What exactly are we trying to prove with our anger, petulance, and control? What are we telling the people around us by returning again and again to those familiar ruts? Is all our suffering an attempt to convey something to the world? We choose the “wrong” partners over and over again. The dark moods hijack us; our chronic commitment to self-sufficiency coupled with our ironic resentment that nobody is ever there for us? What if our behaviours, moods, attitudes, etc. are actually an attempt to prove to an uncaring world that the early and painful conclusions that we came to very early in life about self, relationships and the world, are legitimate? As well, what if we are using these ways of carrying on as though we are victims of mysterious and superior forces, of showing the world this is what happened to me?
This will take a little fleshing out, but hang in there.
In my book, Dismantled, I write about CUBs (Core Unconscious Beliefs) and CABs (Compensatory Actions and Beliefs). The CUBs get formed as automatic (unconscious) conclusions we come to about Reality, Relationships, and Self depending on the conditions of our earliest years. If we’ve been neglected, or emotionally, physically, or sexually mistreated, we automatically (unconsciously) start trying to make sense of our experience.
Even at a pre-verbal stage of development we’re trying to figure out why we’re being treated so badly. This sense-making project, under the conditions of lovelessness, eventuates in self-blame as though it’s our fault for what’s being done to us. This beats the alternative: that your mother/father is a monster. If this is true, you are truly pooched. Your survival is precarious. These big people could take you out. You are truly powerless. But if it’s your fault, you have more control. Using your intuition and direct feedback from a parent when they are about to attack in one way or another you suss out how to be behave in such a way that the parent will stop hurting you. You can learn to be quiet, to not express your needs and wants, to be charming, sensitive to take care of the parent…etc. This is how and why traumatized humans curate a personality—to survive early trauma. The mission of this adapted self is mere survival.
Underlying this curated self, (which becomes who we believe ourselves to actually be and to which we get very attached) are these aforementioned conclusions or beliefs (CUBs) we’ve intuitively formed to make sense of the shocking truth of what we’ve been born into. The beliefs we form unconsciously include (but not limited to)
I don’t belong
It’s my fault
It’s my job to make you feel better
I don’t matter
The world is against me
There is no support
Each of us have a trauma signature that is a unique reflection of which of these (and others) predominate. Remember, the beliefs that constitute our trauma signature are associated with unbearable feelings which must not be felt because as a child they actually might have destroyed you. This is why healing is so challenging. We retain the memory of these feelings as overwhelming and even life threatening. When they surface we are as terrified as we once were when we were little and do everything we can to push them back down—a re-enactment of what we did the first time around. This is repression. But the feelings that we push down come back to haunt us in the form of hypersensitivity (hyper-reactivity) and avoidance. The more sensitivities we have accumulated (determined by the number of CUBs we must defend against) the less vitality, spontaneity, and flow (the natural self) we can enjoy.
We unconsciously avoid all situations and people who threaten to trigger us. But our control is limited and when we do get triggered we will either bare our teeth and attack, or sink into a depressive or anxious state. We may turn to booze, drugs, porn or any number of addictions which we use to both soothe and distract ourselves. What we will not risk is allowing the feelings associated with our CUBs to surface, which will always land us in self-loathing (even though we’re usually not aware that we hate ourselves). Actually we hate the people who hurt us, but again, this murderous rage must be repressed. Children at the magical stage of development believe that their feelings make things happen for real. We don’t want to murder the person upon whom our life depends. Well, we do. But we’re a goner if we do. And there’s the rub. Solution? Repression. Then denial that this is happening. Welcome to the shit show side of being human.
STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES
This repression, in turn, leads to stories we tell ourselves about what is happening moment by moment. The stories are interpretations we generate to explain what’s happening in relationships and other circumstances that trigger us. The interpretations are always negative, worst case scenarios that belong to the past and are hijacking the present. Let’s say the server at the restaurant is momentarily distracted. You get annoyed because his attention is not fully on you. Then come the stories fast and furious. The server is unhappy with his job. She’s treating me badly but is super friendly with the guy at the next table. Isn’t that always the way? People ignore me. Anger flares because you take this constructed narrative as truth and respond to it as though it’s true. You’ve proved that you were neglected, and there’s a certain satisfaction to you feel in defaulting to this memory and its attendant feelings. After all, it confirms the conclusions you came to in response to failures of love. These are your beliefs that form interpretive filters for our experience as adults.
This typically goes on without our awareness. The negative interpretation of the circumstance originated in a feeling of neglect in our childhood. The CUB “I am unworthy of attention” has hijacked you. If you were to ask the server what was going on, she might say, “Oh sorry, I just a phone call from my babysitter, and my three year old won’t stop crying.” But by now, you’ve taken it personally and fallen off an emotional cliff, ready to bite the server’s head off and maybe the person you’re with because they are no different in the end. (Note how it always ends in being a victim). Which was true. Then. But not now.
CABs (compensatory actions and beliefs) were put in place to keep us from having to feel the feelings associated with the CUBs. We’re not born believing “I am bad”. It is an unspeakably sad conclusion we arrived at because of how we were treated, or how we interpreted the treatment. Rather than feel it, we compensate by trying to be a very good boy or girl. But if our trying is unsuccessful, all the feelings associated with the underlying CUB, of being being born bad, flares. Again, the CUB “I am worthless” generates the desire to show the world that I really am somebody. Or, “it’s my fault” ends up as an iron clad commitment to never ever be wrong, a commitment to perfectionism. I’m helpless and the attendant feelings generate the effort to be self-sufficient and strong. This trying self gets exhausted by the time we’re well into adulthood. Our adrenals may be shot from having to perform life (to be loved) rather than simply express our life force. When the CABs fail, we land in our CUBs. Which is ultimately good news, because we can finally get down to calling bullshit on those early beliefs that we were set up for. But in the moment, it’s hell.
So let’s apply the question “What are you trying to prove?” to this arrangement. There are endless possibilities of course. But essentially it comes down to either trying to prove the CUBs or prove the CABs. If the walls of my defence system haven’t been breached, I’ll prove my CABs and show the world what a good, kind, nice, self-sacrificing, person I really am. If the CABs have been breached, all is lost. We land in the apocalypse of the CUBs.
I will try to show the world what a complete loser I am, how the world is out to get me, and how nobody cares. The unconscious belief that I’m bad will be on display for the whole world to see. This is the hell realm of guilt and shame. The guilt generates one big “I’m sorry for living”. The shame generates one big display of head-hanging and hiding out from a world that we truly believe we may contaminate if it gets too close. Both guilt and shame will eventuate in physical dis-ease of one short or another if not dissolved.
Healing requires that we let go of the unconscious agenda of legitimizing the “truth” of either our CUBs or CABs and then creating or attracting life conditions that support the belief or the compensation. This is what we’re trying to prove to the world. This is the life of the trauma self.
Both CUBs and CABs need to be dismantled.
When you truly get that you have nothing to prove, that your life is about self-expression, not self-justification, the dismantling stage ends and the dropping into your true nature begins. Well, it’s never quite that clean cut. It’s an ongoing process of bringing mindful awareness when we’re displaying a proving attitude or behaviour. The late great comedian Bob Newhart performed a skit in which he was the psychiatrist. With every problematic behaviour the patient presented to him, he responded “Stop it!” We can actually get to the point of being our own psychiatrist. Once we catch on, we can (compassionately) tell the patient to stop it. Do something different.
Once we catch on to ourselves, we can practice self-empathy. I mean, imagine all that was done to us to cause us want to act it out again and again in the hopes that somebody will see us, give a shit, and bring comfort. That someone, at this point in your life, is you.
Nobody is coming to rescue you, not your therapist, not your guru, not the wise guy on the youtube video, not your friends, not your spouse, not your children. Nobody. Ever. Is. Coming. I learned this the hard way in 10 back to back ayahuasca ceremonies. By the last one I was lying on my mat listening to people walk past me on the way to the washroom. I was in deep sorrow. The two year old in me sincerely believed that each person who walked by was coming to pick me up and take care of me. Nope. When a “helper” did come (because I was now in the jungle writhing in the pain of neglect— childhood memory), he just said “you have a very strong mind”. Even in my altered state I knew that it was a complete non sequitur. But it was exactly what was needed to deepen my sense of abandonment. It was the re-enactment of this early suffering that eventually would give rise to the discovery of self-compassion. (It’s a real thing).
Next time the dark cloud descends on you and you’re feeling like you’re a piece of crap, and blaming either yourself or the whole world, take a moment and ask yourself what you are trying to prove. Kindly. Be specific. What do you want to show others? What feelings? What is unfair? Name it as a memory. Grieve that nobody ever came and nobody is coming now. Turn toward yourself in compassion. You’re not bad. Or unworthy. Or unloveable. Somebody taught you that. Now it’s over. Connect with a friend or a tree. Repeat as often as needed.