So, you forgot a major dentist or doctor appointment which triggered an annoying penalty/fine and on top of that, you had to wait months to get another appointment. You could beat yourself up over it… Your inner jackals (judgmental thoughts) might sound like this: You forgetful jerk! Look what you did now!
Or, you lost an irreplaceable document or photo just before you really needed it for that big event. Could beat yourself up over that too… Who in his right mind would misplace something so valuable? Jackals: You’re crazy, disorganized and stupid!
Suppose you made a huge oversight at work that you completely forgot you were responsible for. The supervisor got furious with you and fired you. It was your responsibility not only to do your job, but also to keep your job to pay your bills. You blew it on both counts. You’ll have a devil of a time finding a comparable job since you won’t have a good reference from the previous employer. Could really beat yourself up to a pulp over that one. Jackals: What kind of moron would forget to do his job and put so many people at risk! You’re an imbecile! You deserve to be unemployed!
It’s something we all do at one time or another. I call this form of self-flagellation “Emotional Lupus.” An early meaning of the word, lupus, is “wolf.”
Emotional Lupus is what happens when our inner jackals (wolves) run amuk. Our jackals, or judgmental thoughts, are kind of like the body’s immune system. When our jackals work for us effectively in a healthy way, their dramatic howling calls our attention very quickly to the pain of our unmet needs. When we look closely at the pain and attend to those needs, the jackals have served their purpose and they become quiet again. Just like dogs who see that their owner is taking charge, like a pack leader. When dogs see that the pack leader is on top of things, they feel safe to relax and behave, as Cesar Milan calls it, in a calm/submissive manner.
Sometimes we unfortunately get caught up in the ruckus of our angry jackal thoughts. This leads to seeing ourselves as victims. We indulge in finger-pointing, blaming, criticizing, judging and diagnosing what’s wrong with others. What’s wrong with the situation. What’s wrong with us and our own actions. When we get so caught up in our “inner jackal theater,” we don’t take a close look at the pain of our unmet needs. Worse, we don’t look carefully and introspectively to see what exactly our unmet needs were.
When the jackals run amuk with “emotional lupus,” those judgmental thoughts simply howl and harass us over and over again. Our mind becomes a bit “loopy” as if it were programmed to play the same dreadful loop of film over and over. It’s extremely painful and even hellish at times. It leads to a lot of self-inflicted wounds, toxic anger, frustration and eventually to depression or hopelessness.
For a missed appointment, we may suffer from emotional lupus for a few hours. For losing something irreplaceable, maybe a few days or weeks. For losing a job and career we valued highly, we might suffer for years. That’s to say nothing of losing a valued friend, lover, partner or spouse.
Extremely harsh self-judging is hard to ever forget, just as one has a hard time forgetting a beating that someone else gave you. Once the self-inflicted pain is there, it can be extremely difficult to self-forgive. Forgiveness takes hard work. Sometimes just when we think we’ve forgiven ourselves, the anger rears its head. Then we’re right back to the drawing board.
Why do we self-flagellate so hard and for so long? Remember many of us spent 80,000 hours as kids observing parents, teachers and role models doing the same thing to themselves, and to us. When we made mistakes, they scolded us harshly at times, or punished us for hours, days, weeks or years.
Even though we didn’t enjoy being scolded or punished at the time, it formed a pattern or program in our minds. The painful “program” was written into our minds by someone near and dear to us.
We sensed, on some level, that they were trying to teach us a valuable lesson to be more careful. They wanted to protect us from the painful consequences of major mistakes and oversights. So now, we continue to inflict this old familiar pain on ourselves because it’s a familiar, comforting pain. It unconsciously reminds us of the loving care we once had from that parent or other significant caregiver. We imagine, unconsciously, that if we beat up on ourselves long and hard enough, we’ll remember to be more careful and avoid mistakes. It’s the definition of a “good” beating. We think we need it to motivate us to do better next time.
Eventually we know when we’ve had enough pain and want relief from emotional lupus. That’s when it’s time to take a long, hard look at the pain of unmet needs that resulted from our original mistake.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg suggested and modeled a purely compassionate way of seeing our mistakes. Instead of blaming or punishing ourselves, he suggested that we reframe it. Remember that we didn’t focus on something because we were focusing on something else that also was important at that time.
Just observing it in this more objective way takes some of the sting out of the inner jackals and their howling. Seeing ourselves through the eyes of compassion saves us from throwing salt in the wound. It also saves us from the long, hard task of self-forgiveness. If we can venture to view ourselves in a purely compassionate, objective way, then there is nothing to forgive. Once you judge yourself harshly, then there’s a lot to forgive which may seem unforgivable.
If you will allow yourself to fully feel the pain of the loss, you can start to fully mourn the loss. We tend to stay looped up in the jackal thoughts and feelings of anger, with good reason. We’re afraid to look closely at the pain, to feel the pain of the loss. Staying in angry-jackal mode actually saves us from feeling the full pain of the loss. We do wish to avoid pain, but this also blocks us from mourning effectively.
Feeling the pain fully, looking at it head-on, allows us to then begin the mourning process. Mourning of a major loss can only be done in bits and pieces. To try to mourn all at once would devastate us emotionally. Instead, it’s helpful to do it in stages. Feel some sadness here and there. Cry a little when you have the feelings of sadness and you’re in an emotionally safe, private place. Come to grips with the depths of your loss, with the depths of the pain you feel. Look at it from different perspectives, at different times in your life.
Finally, look at the needs that were so painfully not met when you made the big mistake. Needs you have for self-reliability, care, competence in your work, etc. Focus in on the needs that you would have liked to have met. Also the needs you would have liked others to help you to meet, or if not to meet, then at least to attend to. Finally, look for other ways in which you can begin to meet those needs in the now, and build up self-trust again.
This is the natural remedy to emotional lupus.