Christmas has come and gone, but Scrooge is a character who still has something to teach us. A Christmas Carol is really a New Year’s story, one about new beginnings. Can we really hope for change, or are we stuck with old patterns forever? Is personality transformation a real thing, or just a fantasy?
Yes, transformation is possible, but only when motivation is extreme. That is why profound changes like Scrooge’s are often associated with deep losses, helplessness, and fear. We usually do not give up our old ways of doing things until it costs us dearly. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they call it hitting bottom, when the old ways of escaping simply do not work anymore.
Emotional pain brings to our attention that something is wrong. Sometimes when the suffering gets clear enough, people may feel so bad they start to consider that their way of doing things may be mistaken. Then they finally become willing to self-reflect, as in let’s-take-this-apart-and-see-what’s-wrong-with-it thinking.
People don’t always need therapy to do this. They just need information, in whatever form they can get it. Realizations and new thinking are all around us every day, free for the picking. Like Scrooge, we just have to get to the point where we realize we need them.
David Malan, a British psychotherapy researcher, has explained why it is so hard for us to change our habitual patterns, even if they are causing us distress. It is because we embrace the psychological defenses we learned as children and keep trying to make adult life work according to the lessons we learned during the worst times of our young life. A Christmas Carol has the ring of truth in the way it shows how Scrooge shut down his heart as a result of loss and loneliness early in life. When his transformation occurs, it really is a return to the openness and love of his earlier life before he learned to defend himself against hurt.
Malan explained that we all come equipped with core feelings that are originally helpful and adaptive in dealing with the world. Core feelings and impulses drive us to do the things that protect us and keep our energy good. When we are in touch with our core feelings, our energy and self-esteem feel full. We can take action and express our feelings, making us effective at work and connected with other people.
But if we grow up in a family that has certain rules about what can and cannot be expressed, then we quickly learn that our expression of feelings and impulses leads to alienation from loved ones. Since a child will not survive if cut off from the family, children find ways of obeying the family emotional rules so they can feel included. A family rule about feelings might be something like: it is weak to feel sad, but it is impressive to get mad. Or, it is okay to want connection with others, but the best way to do it is through teasing or insults.
When a child unwittingly breaks a family emotional rule, the adult’s negative reaction teaches the child to associate anxiety and feelings of badness with the innocent core feeling. For instance, feelings of fear or anger should not be a cause for anxiety or guilt if you grew up in a healthy family, but just as Pavlov’s dog learned that a bell meant food, children can learn that these healthy emotions and needs mean something bad is about to happen. This prompts the child to inhibit those emotions before the parents get upset.
The original core feelings get suppressed, and in their place come defensive actions. The energy that was supposed to be expressed is rechanneled into defensive behavior that hides the original need. Now instead of feeling scared and expressing fear, the child learns to act like nothing bothers her. Instead of asking for affection, she becomes sarcastic or critical, forcing others to pay attention to her, but in a very negative way. Living in a chronic defensive state will result in impaired relationships, emotional disorders, or physical problems.
When we understand our own defenses and where they come from, we can choose to respond in fresh ways. Any new behavior that is more authentic will usually be accompanied by anxiety, but the trick is not to withdraw just because something new is making you nervous. Getting healthy means that we learn to use our anxiety to figure out which core feelings we might be suppressing. The challenge is to see the anxiety as the first step in rediscovering your true feelings and really connecting to others from your core experience. Scrooge went through plenty of anxiety before he finally gave into his emotions and begged for a new life.
How do you know when you are living life from a defensive position? You will feel driven, chronically unsatisfied, or drained. No one ever does enough for you, and you will feel fatigued and swamped.
How do you know when you are living life from your core feelings and impulses? You are aware of what you really feel and have energy to do things. You have a friendly relationship with your impulses, and you feel free to express yourself and take action on your own behalf.
Is it possible to change old patterns? Yes, just as it is possible for a cork to bob to the surface once we stop holding it under the water. But first of all we have to realize that the cork is being held down, and by what.
Scrooge realized how his defensive behaviors were holding him down and making him his own worst enemy. Just like us, he was not bad or ignorant; he just had never thought to update his childhood solutions. Scrooge came back to life as soon as he stopped trying to protect his heart, instead of using it to feel life fully. This New Year can be our chance to do the same.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.