Inherently Wrong Syndrome
by Laura Taylor
I feel a bit late to the party, but Imposter Syndrome is on my radar a lot right now, a term used to describe the feeling of being ‘found out’, or exposed as a fraud. Well I’m here to propose a sister strain of it, the ‘inherently wrong’ variety. Main symptom, the nauseating feeling that at the very core of you, there is something deeply, fundamentally wrong and you will never really be understood or loved. Oh, and when people get close enough to realise it, they will leave.
Henri Nouwen suggests that at some point in our lives, everyone buys into one of the three lies of identity; I am what I do, I am what I have, I am what others think of me. All of these can influence your decisions, behaviour and overall self-esteem, and if your self-worth falls into one of the categories and is threatened in some way, unsurprisingly feeling ‘not good enough’ is a major by-product.
This cropped up for me after the breakdown of a relationship last year, when I realised I was terrified of entering a relationship again, partly for fear of getting hurt - but more confrontingly I was sure I would screw it up, because of this unnameable, intangible thing.
It gets confirmed enough: each time a relationship ends, when you try to communicate a need and have it rejected, when someone says something that clips your heart in that same, cutting way. In the same way an unbearable feeling can cause a tailspin down, the ‘inherently wrong’ button pushes you further and further down the track of shutting off.
Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More, pretty much sums it up:
“Needing people so much, yet believing we are unlovable and people will never be there for us can become a deeply ingrained belief. We become dependent on their love, even though we believe we will never receive their love; we believe we are unlovable and nobody has ever/could ever love us in a way that met our needs”.
But what is that thing that makes you unlovable? Shrouded in shame, it is hard to decipher. It’s impossible to search for something when you don’t know what it looks like- the fear is simply there along with the niggling feeling that you will never really be understood, because who could love that. It is a strain of toxic shame - believing that you (and you alone) are broken and fundamentally defective.
So where does it come from? Psychologists sometimes refer to shame as being your bodies reaction to having a circuit in your emotional system broken. In her book Melody reiterates this, suggesting how the experience of rejection and unmet needs early in life can set up patterns of shame and feelings of ‘brokeness’. She best explains this in an interview with someone who talks about her battle with an alcoholic father and how that impounded on her perception of herself:
“I began to realise that underneath my sophisticated veneer, I felt unlovable. Very unlovable. Somewhere hidden inside me, I had maintained a fantasy that I had a loving father who was staying away from me - who was rejecting me - because I wasn’t good enough. There was something wrong with me. But now I know the truth. It wasn’t me that was unlovable, it wasn’t me who screwed up, it was he. And that gave me freedom”
That may sound simple (and pretty obvious!), but the freedom it brought me was unrivaled. I started reviewing the different relationships that I had entangled with over my developing years and how they may have negatively affected my value - and from there was able to begin the journey of healing old wounds.
Undoing lifelong patterns of thinking is definitely not easy - but the good news that there is a way out. There is incredible research around neuroplasticity and how it is possible to rewire your brain and form new neural pathways (cognitive behaviour therapy is a big one for this!), and through things like learning to identify and establish your needs, taking responsibility for yourself, and re-establishing your self-worth so it doesn't run hand-in-hand with rejection, it is possible to turn the inherently wrong warning off - or at least down a little.
“We don’t have to take rejection as a reflection of our self-worth. If somebody who is important to you (or even somebody unimportant) rejects you or your choices, you are still real, and you are still worth every bit as much as you would be if you had not been rejected. Feel any feelings that go with rejection, talk about your thoughts but don’t forfeit your self-esteem to another’s disapproval or rejection of who you are or what you have done.
Even if the most important person in the world rejects you, you are still real and you are still okay. If you have done something inappropriate or you need to solve a problem or change a behaviour, then take appropriate steps to take care of yourself. But don’t reject yourself, and don't give so much power to other people's rejection of you. It isn’t necessary.”