If you have a history of trauma, addiction, self-harm, shame — you know, fun things like that — then as you experience growth and healing, you will also likely experience the “backlash” that follows, and can slam you right back down to the bottom.
It’s awfully demoralizing, especially if you don’t know what’s happening. You just start to feel good, you’re making some progress, and then SLAM — a total relapse into self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or whatever your dysfunctional-cup-of-tea tends to be.
It is crucial to understand that the fact that these backslashes happen, does not detract from the genuineness of the growth that precedes them. That’s just the way change happens.
(NOTE: this generalizes to complex systems on the whole; change is typically preceded by chaotic destabilization and “swings” into extremes, just like – WOO HOO! – our climate!)
MAGA, Nazis, et al.
It’s quite parallel to how, as society evolves in a more progressive and inclusive direction, there is a backlash involving “traditionalist” belief systems, such as MAGA, MGTOW and pretty much the entire “manosphere”, Christian Nationalism, the Republican party on the whole these days, and right-wing populists who pollute the internet with ideologies that are literally the same as WW2’s Nazis. The fact that now-disgraced Tucker Carlson is worth some $30 million and still has millions of fans, and a now-disgraced “news” station controls US government policy to a large degree, are obvious testaments to the power of this regressive political backlash.
Trump’s whole MAGA movement is a now-classic and terrible example of this, but the political examples are currently many, and Canada is flirting with this as well through the potential rise of Pierre Poilievre who is continuing the soft-fascism legacy of his mentor, Steven Harper. But….we’re not talking about politics in this post…. Oops.
A Bumpy Ride
As a result of the inevitable chaos of change, “healing” is a bumpy ride, especially if you have a not-super-strong social support system. Many people live in isolation from family & supportive friends, or have people in their lives who themselves are not healthy and are poor sources of support. When that’s the case, sustaining Healing is very challenging.
If you are on a path of healing, you are also on a path of backlash. It’ll happen, and when it does, it’s VERY HELPFUL to remember, it’s ok; it’s just a backlash; keep going.
I know for me, getting in touch with my strengths and gifts brings up a deeply internalized narrative of what a piece of shit I am. I feel instantly bad like I’m being “arrogant” if I say something good about myself; I feel selfish if I ask for anything, ever; I feel guilty if I assert myself in a relational context; I feel embarrassed and….well honestly, like it would be better if I was dead…., when I let people down or make a mistake that causes disappointment for somebody; I feel hopeless when confronted with how long this damn “healing journey” has been; I feel fundamentally “broken” or “flawed”, like love and joy and confidence and happiness and vacations and groups-to-belong-to, and all that, are for other people, but somehow, I just don’t have the right chemistry or genes or something for it. And I am CONSTANTLY aware of the mistakes I’ve made in life, the poor judgement calls, the times of being a little more unhinged, etc..
Hell, I still feel guilty, like it happened yesterday, for pushing my Grade 1&2 friend, Patrick, off his bike one day when we were messing around. I really WAS just joking and being silly, and didn’t think he’d fall! But then he hit the dirt, and went home in tears.
…..yeah…God…I still feel fucking bad about that. Sorry Patrick, wherever you are; you probably haven’t thought much about that moment since 1979, but I have.
This is, in a nutshell, what Shame does – it magnifies every possible “flaw” into mountainous proportions, and microscopically shrinks your strengths into insignificance.
Or, even sneakier, it attaches those strengths to flaws, and twists them into perceived weaknesses. Like, being confident means you’re arrogant; succeeding means you are an imposter and don’t deserve it; finding love means the person doesn’t really know you yet and you have just deceived them, you terrible person, you. If someone compliments you, you are manipulating them (or they are “just being nice”, or you’re being vain and narcissistic, wanting compliments so bad, sheesh….) If you go out of your way to do something REALLY NICE for someone, then it’s because it’s the least you could do, you owe them so much more, or you’re a spineless people-pleaser, and god, now you just feel pathetic, what is wrong with you, are you trying too hard? …. Etc.
Net result? Shame wins. You lose. And EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD loses too, as you dim your own light, and retreat further into darkness.
For example, for myself, in the past few months or so, since this healing leap-forward first happened, I have definitely had backlashes: an ocean, or three, of tears, of course; one drinking binge; a few days of being stoned; several attacks of severe shame that made me literally flee perfectly normal social settings and isolate myself for…a few days. And in those days, yep, despite all the growth, knowledge, self-awareness, etc., I lapsed right back into self-harm habits. Yay me!
But hey, for a few months? Dayyyum son, that’s not bad! Because the rest of the time, I’ve been ALIVE, vibrant, literally thrilled to wake up in the morning and get at this wonderful thing called Life.
So, backlashes happen. They just do. It’s ok. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and just take another step. No biggie.
The other “inner backlash” I’ve been experiencing, has been the INCREDIBLE pressure I feel to, very, very quickly, “make up for” all the stupid shit I’ve done and all the people I have left hanging or otherwise in a state of less-than-awesomeness for whatever reason. I feel responsible, for EVERYTHING, and EVERYONE (like Patrick!). And this lifelong plague of guilt, is still there. If anything, it’s even stronger right now because, as I start telling people, “hey I’m doing better now”, what immediately follows in my mind is, “So yes holy shit I need to do this, and this, and this, and this, and this, oh my god I better make a list, okay now there’s like 200 fucking things on this list and…..oh my god…..I can’t do it…..I just can’t do it….”
But you know what’s awesome??
Now, these shame & guilt backlashes fade RELATIVELY quickly. While my unhealthiest parts are still there, they are not nearly as well integrated into the rest of me. They aren’t in the driver’s seat anymore; now they can yap from the back seat, but for the most part, they ain’t getting ahold of the steering wheel again!
In other words, even though shame backlashes happen, and all the “negative shit” is still there, what has changed dramatically is my RELATIONSHIP to all that self-defeating stuff, and therefore the POWER it has over me. (Which we’ll unpack in upcoming posts; the whole “relationship to your feelings” thing is pretty subtle, to be honest, and deserves more focus than we’re giving it here).
This is how healing happens. It’s both slow and fast; it requires both a ton of hard work and simply accepting who you are; it’s mysteriously mystical, and also straightforward and pragmatic.
No wonder it’s so hard to understand sometimes.
In the next post, we’ll look at Shame’s tricks in more detail. And briefly, we’ll talk about some counter-tricks you can use so Shame doesn’t get the upper hand, as much.
But what I’m most excited about is what happens after that, what happens to backlashes when you really do have a breakthrough in healing.
Neo to Morpheus: “What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?”
Morpheus: “No Neo; what I’m trying to tell you, is that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”