If someone were physically or verbally harming your child, pet or loved one, the Mama or Papa Bear in us does everything in our power to stop, protect and even punish the perpetrator. Right?
And the most healthy and sane of us wouldn’t allow anyone to intentionally cut off our fingers, punch us in the face every day or purposefully cut our arm with a knife. And, we certainly wouldn’t do this to ourselves. Furthermore, who finds joy in being harshly ridiculed and criticized 24 hours a day? (NOTE: If this is you, reach out for support immediately! You don’t deserve this!)
While we don’t readily and typically accept physical or verbal abuse from others, so many people are doing some version of mental torture to themselves — weekly, DAILY, if not hourly.
We do this by:
1) Dwelling on the most painful thoughts and feelings, over and over and over again, like watching a horror movie repeatedly. The difference being, we BELIEVE everything in “our movie” is real, even though we’re typically exaggerating and dramatizing the most pain-inducing scenes.
2. We beat ourselves up mentally and emotionally for mistakes of the past. Judging ourselves more harshly than anyone else does. Sadly, it hurts. Much more than skinning your knee or even getting socked in the shoulder. Physical pain goes away relatively quickly, but self-induced judgment is often chronic.
3. And worst of all, we deprive ourselves of the very love we’re craving most. It’s equivalent to cutting ourselves off from vital oxygen we need to survive. Just as young babies and animals deteriorate without love from others, long-term deprivation of self-love has its consequences. We’re all painfully reminded of this at the passing of Whitney Houston last week.
What? SELF-IMPOSED pain?
A good friend of mine calls these activities, “Self-Imposed Purgatory.” It’s aptly name, because it is indeed “self-imposed.” No one holds a gun to our heads and says, “Replay that horrible memory in your head right now!” No one else picks out and exaggerates the most critizing thoughts in your mind. No one retricts you from receiving self-love. No one forces you to mentally and emotionally fight the realities around us. When Whitney Houston was asked by Diane Sawyer on ABC, which vice – alcohol, marijuana, cocaine or pills – was the “biggest devil” for her? She answered, “The biggest devil is me.”
Why, oh why, would we be so mean to ourselves?
Now, before you use that paragraph to beat yourself up further (that is, if you happen to indulge in such behavior), wait a minute. I’ll soon be explaining how you can set yourself free from “self-imposed purgatory.” Let’s be clear. This article is NOT about adding to your pain. Deal? Deal.
What is PURGATORY?
But first, let’s look at the definition of purgatory: “any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, expiation, or the like.”
The more religious definition (the belief for Roman Catholics and others) says, “a condition or place in which the souls of those dying penitent are purified from venial sins, or undergo the temporal punishment that, after the guilt of mortal sin has been remitted, still remains to be endured by the sinner.
The key here… is it’s prolonged suffering, typically a self-punishment. Even long after an appropriate amount of time has been spent suffering. Yowsa!
A Grand Epidemic
What’s sad is most people don’t even realize they are doing this to themselves. In fact, most people practicing “self-imposed purgatory” believe they are the helpless victims of others. Worse yet, they believe, at some level, they deserve to suffer. But, more likely, they aren’t consciously acknowledging they are a victim. The three big patterns just repeat themselves again and again.
Sadly, I believe Whitney Houston was one of them. It’s evident when someone allows pain or “self-imposed purgatory” to rule their life. And Whitney Houston is a poster child for this topic. She stayed in an abusive relationship for 15 years. She subjected her body to repeated drug and alcohol abuse. And, apparently, she took prescription medication for depression. All tell-tale signs of inner turmoil.
Seemingly Healthy People Practice “Self-Imposed Purgatory” Too
For others, the external signs aren’t as clearcut as Whitney Houston’s public life. I know many people who practice “self-imposed purgatory” who seem otherwise happy, healthy, well-balanced and successful.
It’s not necessarily what’s going on externally, but rather, what’s going on internally. I happen to know A LOT about this topic because years ago, I was there!
So how do you know if you or others are practiciing “self-imposed purgatory?”
Here are a few signs.
1. Stress. Generally stress is induced by a myriad of thoughts about important relationships, perfection, performance or lack there of. It can be about anything including money, time, or the world. If this is you, you probably have a lot of rules and expectations about how life is supposed to be or how you or others should be. When you or others fall short of those expectations or rules, tension is triggered, even if subtlely. Ongoing, chronic or acute stress is “self-imposed purgatory” and is needless suffering.
2. Ruminating painful thoughts. When you find yourself dwelling on the same or similar thoughts again and again, you’re in “self-imposed purgatory.” It could be about a certain relationship. Something they said or did, typically in the past. Maybe they judged you, disappointed you or otherwise fell short of your expectations. If the incident happened more than a week ago, you’re ruminating. I know it sucks when people don’t live into the fantasy of who we want them to be. However, when you fixate on the discrepancy between who they are and who you want them to be, it’s self-torture.
If you’re not sure if you’re doing this, ask a friend or loved one if there are certain topics you bring up again and again without resolution. Alternatively, write down the most painful and persistance thoughts on a sheet of paper. Then notice, if these thoughts are on “autoplay” repeatedly.
3. Buttons easily pushed. Do you react to certain people again and again, without resolution? Are your loved ones careful to avoid certain conversations for fear of upsetting you? If you find it challenging to discuss certain topics with others — unless they agree with you — you may have a host of thoughts creating your “self-imposed purgatory.” It’s likely a reality you don’t want to accept. Maybe it’s a quality within yourself (the reality is we’re ALL things). Or maybe it’s a self-destructive behavior or pattern you don’t want to address.
In Whitney’s case, there was serious justification for repeated drug use. As she and Bobby openly shared, “They enjoyed it.” When there is a reality we don’t want to confront head on — what’s lying beneath the surface is some version of “self-imposed purgatory.” Maybe it’s lack of self-love. Maybe it’s lack of skills and tools to respond in a more empowering way. Maybe it’s simply a persistant “emotional temper-tantrum with world” as it is. All of it is needless suffering.
4. Depression. When we cut ourselves off from our own nurturing self-love it IS depressing! It’s like trying to drive a car without gas. Our love is fuel for our souls. Also, when one is depressed, I guarantee there are certain persistant thoughts running havoc in the mind. Whether it is ruminating on the past, a strained relationship, not feeling good enough or the world at large, it’s all a form of “self-imposed purgatory.” Instead of Xanax or Prosac, what if a therapist could insist on 90 days of self-love. I suspect sales for anti-depressants would drop dramatically.
5. Challenging to Spend Alone Time. Even when someone has an active, and seemingly happy social life, someone can be practicing some version of “self-imposed purgatory.” Sometimes a busy life serves to distract from the painful thoughts experienced in the privacy of our own company. When you spend time alone, does it feel like there is a stereo of negative thoughts alive in your head? Does it take hours to settle down enough to go to sleep at night? Do you feel anxious in silence?
Again… the three big culprits are likely responsible. Dwelling on painful thoughts, beating yourself up or otherwise depriving yourself of nurturing self-love.
How to Combat Self-Imposed Purgatory.
I don’t want to minimize the real suffering occurring at the hands of “self-imposed purgatory.” Nor, do I want to incinuate that breaking this destructive habit is always a quick fix.
But, I do know that doing NOTHING guarantees ongoing suffering. Here are a few simple steps to apply immediately, or to encourage your loved ones to apply in their lives. I know from experience in my own life and in working with my clients that when these steps are applied, the results include minimal suffering and exponential inner peace.
1) Remember you’re always at choice. Whitney Houston chose to stay with Bobby Brown. She chose to continue doing drugs, even though it’s common knowledge drugs are harmful to our bodies. We CAN remove ourselves from hurtful situations. We CAN make requests. We CAN get support. We CAN learn from others. We CAN forgive. We CAN shift our focus. We CAN choose to accept ourselves, others and the world as they are.
I always recommend brainstorming a list of options for any given situation. If you don’t have a list of at least 3-5 options, you may be cutting yourself off from some viable choices.
2) Challenge your thoughts. I’ve found the vast majority of thoughts my clients and I have ruminated on in the past are at best, a distorted perspective of reality. Sometimes they aren’t even true in reality. One of the best tools for challenging your thoughts is “The Work” of Byron Katie.
When we can begin to lessen our attachment to certain thoughts and explore more perspectives, the most painful thoughts lessen their grip on us.
3) Practice self-love. Years ago, after reading various books meriting the idea of self-love, I took on the practice. Every day, I would spend a few minutes giving myself unconditional love. At the time, it seemed like a weird activity. But, I did it anyway. I imagined my parents, friends, past and current relationships loving me until I could feel it in my body just a little bit more. While the imagery helped me get started, I understood it was ME giving myself permission to feel those feelings of unconditional love from ME. Over about a two year period, I started realizing what a profound impact this simple little practice had on me.
Later on, I practiced loving myself in times when I was disappointed with myself, upset with a loved one, caught up in thought or otherwise feeling like a victim. I found that “loving myself” in these situations helped me return to a sense of inner peace more quickly. I highly recommend this practice.
Connecting to the word of “love songs”…projecting the love at yourself, instead of to another, is also an effective practice. Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love Of All” is an exceptional song to practice with. I only wish Whitney had committed to this practice long ago.
4) Get support. When we’re running certain patterns of thought, it can be challenging to get perspective, identify choices or even love ourselves. As I shared with a friend recently, “If you do nothing, it’s not going to just get better.” While time heals many wounds, there is simply too much pain to endure in the meantime. Whether it’s a professional psychotherapist like Robert and Diane Masters, or Ken Andert — or a skilled and experienced life coach like myself, get the support you need. While a friend may be all you need, don’t deprive yourself of more expert support if you’re still suffering. Whether you engage in a few sessions or several months, I can promise you’ll radically reduce your “self-imposed purgatory.”
5) Practice acceptance. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Yet, when we can accept ourselves, others and the world as they are… instead of how we wish they would be, there is inheritantly more inner peace. Acceptance doesn’t mean we can’t also continue to improve ourselves or influence others, but acceptance gives us the power to make conscious choices without needless suffering.