Voices of Therapy: Three
A few weeks back, I was distraught to the point that I could no longer function as usual. Writing an email became a monumental task, filling me with such panic that I would dissociate, and then start questioning my sanity as I knew in my mind what complete sentences were supposed to look like, but the more I read over, the more I was convinced that I made some grave, yet obvious mistake that would cost me my reputation, and ultimately my job. My usual internal dialogue, my day-to-day mundanities that I have come to cherish – my walks to and from office, freshly brewed coffee in the morning, cutting chai in the afternoon, office gossip, even making that to-do list the second I sit down at my desk – had come to a halt. My mind was repeating on loop how much of a failure I was, how I made a fool of myself, how I will 100% be fired, that I could never hope to get another job again because I failed at this one. I was deeply convinced that I am unemployable, and therefore a failure in society’s eyes. I did not deserve to be happy, or enjoy my life.
I had just had an impromptu feedback session with one of my managers, who was unhappy with my performance of late because of a series of slip-ups. His words of discontent echoed in my head, although I knew they were well-meaning and well-intentioned. The look of disappointment on his face kept flooding my mind, filling me with a deep-seeded shame. I could barely contain myself from bursting out in tears in front of him.
Discussing this in my therapy session, I realized that this incident triggered one of my deeply-held core beliefs, or self-schema. It is that “I am weird”, which leads to additional distortions like “therefore I am wrong” and “I am weird because I am away from the herd, so therefore there is something wrong with me.” This incident was akin to my past experiences where I felt so inherently incompetent, almost as if it was encoded in my DNA. I believed that everyone else was doing things correct– that all my other coworkers were performing perfectly well, and that it was only me who is falling short. I imagined that everyone else would probably get raging reviews from the manager. I was taken back to my school days, where I had a friend who shared an absurd story, which I thought to be true. My other friends seemed to share my amused and intrigued reaction. But then when I found out that the story was a made-up joke, those same friends claimed that everyone knew the story was not true, and it was only me who thought otherwise. This was one of numerous such occurences, where I was teased for being naïve. I was excluded from social gatherings many times.
Growing up with parents in academia, I was in an environment where everything said at the dining table was scrutinized. If either me or my sibling said something deemed to be “dumb”, we were chided. There was a pressure to be smart, knowledgeable, and rational in a cold, distanced, scientific manner. Therefore, my worst fear was to come across as dumb, foolish, or airheaded. I became reclusive and chose not to speak out or share my thoughts because I did not want to risk sounding stupid. After all, if I stayed quiet, the chances of me looking stupid went down to zero.
Such is my deep-seated fear of being wrong, which I have come to realize, through therapy, is closely intertwined with my core belief that I am weird. I grew up in an inter-cultural household, and have lived overseas much of my life. I loathed being different from my peers to the core, and always dreaded any questions about my national and ethnic origins, which I would find any way possible to evade. Sometimes I even resented my parents for subjecting me to this life where I was always the odd one out. I hated being the cousins my other family members, who mostly married within their ethnicity and caste, talked about in amusement. My self-loathing affected my social skills, and I struggled to maintain close friendships. Although I have reached a place where I am much more secure in my identity, I still struggle with the shame and embarrassment of being away from the herd due to some of my unconventional career and life choices. If I am deeply passionate about something, and come across someone with an opposing view or preference, I get deeply upset, which sometimes manifests in me becoming aggressively defensive, because I assume I must be wrong.
Receiving negative feedback from my manager triggered my core belief that I am wrong and weird (since everyone else is outperforming me). However, reframing the situation in my mind: my manager was reacting to an unsavory situation that partly resulted from my actions. I was internalizing his emotions and letting them dictate my self-worth. In fact, the next week, I got contradictory feedback from my direct manager, who was actually very happy with my performance.
Therapy has proven immensely helpful to me, equipping me with deep breathing, meditation, and cognitive techniques such as labelling and reframing thoughts, as well as Internal Family System (IFS). IFS has enabled me to confront triggering situations by approaching them with curiosity, identifying how they activate my core beliefs about myself, and then reframe my response to them. They are my toolkit for my journey to dismantle the destructive core beliefs that have been holding me back from leading a happy, fulfilling life.