Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Annihilation Speech

The Curse – Shame

If you remember the story of Sleeping Beauty you will recall that Carabosse, the evil sorceress, offended at not being invited to the christening of the baby princess cast a spell on her. She declared that before the princess would reach her fifteenth birthday she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. This is the earliest example of the annihilation speech in story form that most children ever hear. To little boys and girls the idea of an innocent baby being sentenced to death is horrifying. They know that not long ago they themselves were babies and most likely they too have not yet reached the age of fifteen. What an awful thought — to die so young before even having lived one's life.

Does it not remind you of a political or social annihilation? As adults we are aware of evil leaders throughout history who have proclaimed the annihilation of one or another person or group, and some who have even carried out their threats.  Hitler, Stalin & Mao right down to Mugabe; these are names of evil doers that readily spring to mind, but what about our own everyday lives? Would you recognise the annihilation speech from your own mother? Or a friend? A classmate? A priest or a teacher? In my life I have heard the speech from all of these people and many more. It was my mind and my heart they wanted to bury, not my body. Victims of hate crimes, abuse and neglect may be physically harmed, threatened with death and even killed. Some victims will complete the job themselves and commit suicide.


For most children the annihilation speech leads to depression, anger and a lifetime of acting out. As adults we can still be shocked and hurt by it. The aim of the speech is simple, it is to instill deep and lasting fear and shame.


Fear is a natural reaction to the absence of safety or protection in the presence of danger. In the fairy story Carabosse created the danger and thus the fear, since the King and Queen were incapable of protecting their daughter.


Importantly, the danger would be accidental or random in nature so it's timing would be unpredictable. This is the terror principle in terrorism. Are you sensing a little of the dread that such children and adults must live with? Shame is the sense that you yourself are the source of the evil. This is a trick used by the powerful to absolve themselves. They cast blame together with their threats so as to appear blameless. Do you know someone who does this? This is the classic abuser.




Have you been abused? Are you depressed? When you are given the annihilation speech enough times you begin to believe it. You know you are destined to die without dying. Your heart and mind begin to shut down or to function in limited or immature ways. You think your software is broken or that your life is going off track. Events in your life can have unexpected consequences so you long to escape and complete your isolation. You may feel loss of control or else you may attempt to maintain control by restricting the variables and controlling to the point of total lockdown.


What happens next? You become numb. You lose the ability to feel, or to be able to tell one feeling from another. A permanent grey cloud descends on you so that all your decisions and choices are made in a fog. Other people seem far away and out of reach. You begin to feel invisible when you aren't being abused. You try to avoid responsibility to minimise blame. You become expert at disguising your emotions and intentions. Other people find you hard to read and hard to get close to despite mostly being likable. You read situations and people in terms of threat analysis. You are simply on a survival mission. The aim is to get through another day without being abused again.


Nothing to do with people is easy, so rather than cultivate friendships you begin to enjoy achievements, habits, machines, toys, addictions or obsessions, but mostly escape. Carabosse's spell is slowly weaving it's way around you. Like Sleeping Beauty, you are slowly dying inside.


If you are like me, there will be a moment of intense and terrifying clarity before you reach your fifteenth birthday when you realize suddenly and with crushing certainty that you are alone, absolutely and totally alone in an entire universe cut off from every form of life. You have nothing to protect you but your remoteness. You must begin to build defenses of your own to ensure your isolation from your abusers. No one will ever find you again because you have silenced the real you forever. You begin the task of building a fake self to shield your empty universe.


The task is too much to ask even of an adult, let alone a child, but over the next several years you manage to do it anyway. The energy and concentration that this takes is enormous. The sophistication of your fake personality would astound psychology professors.


Your adult life begins and you are pleased with it. It's a wonderful fake. To quote a line said about Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's, "She's a phony but she's a real phony."


The only problem is you have no real feelings left and you have completely forgotten who you are. There is no you at the centre of you. There is no there there. At the centre of you is a huge hole and out of this hole comes nothing but hot fiery pain. This has to be covered up at all costs. The process of keeping this pain at bay is known as Acting Out.




One day about 35 years after my fifteenth birthday while sitting in a psychiatrists office I realized that I had been acting out my entire life. This accomplishment both amused and horrified me.


About this time I had determined that to go on living, I needed to find out who I was. This was a rather tall order since I had been abandoned by myself and my family at a very young age, so I had to break the task down to more manageable waypoints.


The first job was to learn how to feel. To feel anything other than the pain coming from the hole at the core of me was an unlearned skill. I had taught myself very expertly how not to feel. If you want to feel you have to learn how to relax first.


One of your tasks that you will learn in therapy is to catch yourself acting out. If you have a good friend or a truly caring partner they may help you do this by gently reminding you to pause for a moment of mindfulness, to reflect on the state of your feelings when you are about to act out again. Are you feeling angry, depressed, ashamed, rejected, abandoned, bored, alone? If you can pause your behaviour long enough you might get a chance to recognise one or more of these feelings the instant your need is strongest to act out.


Acting out could be having a drink, buying something you can't afford, gambling, hurting someone, having selfish or abusive sex, fighting, running away, hurting or cutting yourself, screaming at someone who loves you...


It's not wrong to feel like you do. It's wrong to ignore it. Monitor your breathing; try to slow down for a few minutes; look at the sky, the sea, the trees; take a bath; go for a jog; cry; lie down; laugh at yourself; most of all try to find the trigger for that feeling of shame, fear or anger.


Relax. Approach this trigger slowly and cautiously, it is not what it seems right now, it is really something from your past, or even your childhood masquerading as a problem in the present. It is here to taunt you, to haunt you, to defeat you. Don't allow it. You are stronger than that, you have survived all these years, take control, just this one time.


Anxiety often accompanies depression. To begin to open up the brain pathways for feelings, you need to find a fairly safe place to reduce the anxiety and focus on the now. Stop the brain whirring and use some relaxation techniques to consciously train yourself to quiet your mind. This can take months or even years but once you can proudly say “Yes, I'm relaxed,” you may then begin to carefully and quietly listen for some feelings. I've found that feelings are formless and flighty, hard to identify and hard to pin down. They're more like a cat than a dog. They'll stay away unless you are prepared to pay them due regard. Relax, be patient, a feeling may come to you. It may surprise you but try not to push it away without becoming familiar enough with it to identify it's breed, so you won't be so surprised next time. See if you can recognize what in the world elicited or "caused" the feeling. Try to remember what that was, so you can be sensitive to it next time.


It is pointless to label feelings as either good or bad. There are no good feelings nor bad feelings because a feeling is just a message from another part of your brain such as your memory or your animal brain or your subconscious or your dream state.


The most obvious and basic feeling is pain. It conveys the message "Help!". Another obvious feeling is fear. It conveys the message "Warning." These feelings are clearly hardwired survival tools carried with us from our earliest evolutionary state to keep us alive. All the more complex and differentiated feelings similarly have a message and a purpose.


Your fake self will intercept and try to rationalize or explain away any feelings, as it has been created to do.  At this point take notice of your body and how it feels. Your muscles, your stomach, your heart and your head are repositories of these blocked or stored feelings. In the process of relaxing you will notice points of pain or stress in various body parts. Imagine that you are releasing the stress by concentrating on letting the tension out of that particular muscle. Don't be surprised if the muscle suddenly spasms. This quick reflex jerk releases the tension and happens automatically to some people as they are falling asleep. Different people store their tension in different parts of their body. You may find that once you have learned to relax, that the body begins to release this tension automatically without you trying or even being aware of it happening.


With each involuntary relaxation you should notice a thought or a feeling that is released at the same time. What is it? Take notice of these thought bubbles as they float to the surface of your consciousness. By intercepting them consciously as they surface you can become aware of them before your fake self has a chance to banish them or rationalize them away.


It is very important at this moment not to judge or explain or worry about the feelings that arise. Let them rise to the surface spontaneously and disappear into the air like bubbles in a glass of Champaign. It is more important to notice that you are feeling something than to understand why. This is the technique known as mindfulness that originated in Buddhist teaching and is practiced in meditation and yoga today.


Occasionally you may be inspired by new revelations. Your mind may achieve clarity as never before. This is good, as it is a sign that you are moving forward out of the fog of depression toward clarity.


Massage and meditation are both good relaxation techniques that will help in this process. It may be good for you to set aside a regular time each day when you will be undisturbed for 20 minutes so that you can more quickly and easily enter this relaxed state and allow your feelings to surface. Some people may find that they can achieve this empty state or mind when they are doing some simple repetitive physical activity such as walking or jogging. Do what works for you, but do not make the mistake of choosing an activity that is one you do when you want to escape from the world because that is acting out. You cannot achieve conscious feeling and mindfulness when you are acting out because this is what you do to avoid pain and pain is your primary emotion. If you are doing something to block it, you will also be blocking all your other feelings. Some people shed tears or shudder the first time they achieve deep relaxation and conscious feeling. Pain is to be expected, even encouraged, because releasing it will feel good afterward. You will feel lighter, literally relieved!


Do not expect to be able to stay open to your feelings like this all the time. Doing so would be disruptive to your life and those around you who depend on you. You have created a fake person and have built a life around that person so others have built up a set of expectations based on your past behavior. If you destroy these assumptions all at once, you will need to have a plan ready so that you can support yourself if these people were to abandon you. You may need to practice being the real you in limited safe contexts with people you can trust.


Many people in reevaluating themselves may find that they have no safe place and nobody they can really trust with their true feelings. This may come as a shock and a disappointment. I would suggest that such people should engage a mental health professional to accompany them on their journey to clear the path ahead and provide a safe place to do the emotional work required.


An important part of psychotherapy is the setting up of a regular schedule of sessions. Even if you don't engage a therapist you should be disciplined about continuing the work required to reawaken the real you, to achieve authenticity. A schedule, a project or a series of tasks is a good way to maintain the discipline required to do this work. It is work because it is a hard road to travel.

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