Without knowing it, all of us have a particular secret negative belief about ourselves that feels so devastating, it can take us down an unbearable dark hole of emotional pain.
And, we each have a particular and opposite set of compensating behaviours which form the architecture of the false, idealized mask that we show to the world.
My quest to understand my own emotional pain has taken me down the road of studying transpersonal psychology. Standard psychology does not explain how to heal core pain.
Conventional therapy seeks to repair and reprogram the mask self (ego) that compensates for our deepest fear that we are separate from and unworthy of love. I share my studies with you here on how the pain of the separate ego can heal.
Our core pain is most often invisible to us because it formed when we were babies. Our degree of separation away from unconditional love is our "normal" emotional pain set-point. Our preferred, presenting personality hides and denies the core pain of separation and relegates it to the unconscious part of our mind, sometimes never to be discovered or understood during our life span.
Our "normal" emotional setpoint is so deeply integrated into our biology; rarely do we question or investigate the possibility of feeling differently. Our hidden negative emotional set-point seems to be "our nature". It is the familiar water that we swim in. And, our secret core pain drives nearly everything we do in life, from our most troublesome addictions and darkest depressions to our greatest achievements and successes.
Our core negative belief - which is the very worst of what we feel about ourselves - is our particular primary negative self-concept, which organizes our entire compensating mask psychology. Finding out what our particular core pain belief system is, and dismantling its unconscious hold on nearly every aspect of our behavior, is the task of emotional, psychological and spiritual transformation. To do this we can look for ongoing themes of frustration in our everyday life, listen to the negative, self-negating words we repeat in our thinking, and take note of our re-occurring dreams of lack.
The Separation Trauma
We first experience our core wound when we realize we are separate from unconditional love. In psychological terms this is called the "narcissistic wound." Psychology points to the first time a child is shamed as the cause of the narcissistic wound, which is our deepest, darkest belief about ourselves. From a transpersonal perspective, we actually organize our entire being around a particular feeling of lack much earlier in infancy - when we first feel the vulnerability of being separate from the unconditional love of our mother or primary caregiver.
I am informed by, and I offer my own personal understanding of psychologist Stephen Wolinsky's depth perspective on healing the root of core pain below. For a fuller picture of his work see his excellent book "The Way of the Human - Volume II.
We each have our own recipe for experiencing separation away from love. In fear, we contract our body, mind, and emotions down in systematic, repetitive and specific ways.
This particular way of contracting away from love is the root of all of our emotional and psychological pain. Our connection to our family lineage provides strong clues to the negative core belief we may be struggling with. We often inherit wounds our parents could not heal.
We create our Compensating False Self based on the Core Wound Beliefs below:
I am Imperfect
Negative Core Belief: "There seems to be something wrong with me."
Compensating Personality: I must be perfect. I must prove there is not something wrong with me. Seeking internal and/or external perfection, this personality appears as distant but is actually inwardly clingy and controlling - wanting to perfect self or others. "If I do it perfectly, I will be healed."
Core Pain Distractors: Because our negative core belief is unconscious, the personality would rather feel a distracting pain that is less intense. In order to feel and avoid the intense pain of "I am imperfect" this personality feels resentment, so the False Core does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
I am Worthless
Negative Core Belief: "I have no value."
Compensating Personality: I must prove I am not worthless. I must prove that I have worth and value. This personality caretakes and over-gives to get value. This personality also needs flattery from self and others. This personality struggles with dependence and the need to appear overly independent.
Core Pain Distractors: Because our negative core belief is unconscious, the personality would rather feel a distracting pain that is less intense. This person distracts away from "I am worthless and I have no value" by focusing on feeling dependent, weak willed - or compensating by appearing totally together, independent, valuable, contained and worthy. The distractor emotion is self-pride through imagination and self-flattery so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
I Cannot Do or I Cannot Do Enough
Negative Core Belief: "I cannot do, decide or act." Or, "I cannot do enough." "I must have done something bad and that is why I am separate from love. Therefore it is better not to do - or else something bad will happen."
Compensating Personality: I must prove that I can do, decide and act by becoming an over-doer or an overachiever. This personality becomes grandiose about what it can and did do to the point of self-deceit. This personality struggles with over-efficiency and vanity.
Core Pain Distractors: Because our negative core belief is unconscious, the personality would rather feel a distracting pain that is less intense. In order to avoid the intense pain of "I cannot do - or cannot do enough" this person uses deceit and lies to hide what they have been doing or not doing. This false core and compensating personality exaggerates to themself and others about who they are, and what they do and don't do, so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
I am Inadequate
Negative Core Belief: I am inadequate.
Compensating Personality: I must prove that I am not inadequate. I must prove that I am adequate and smart. This personality struggles between feeling stupid and smart and tries to be overly adequate by being over-analytic and over-reasonable.
Core Pain Distractors: Because our negative core belief is unconscious, the personality would rather feel a distracting pain that is less intense. In order to avoid the pain of "I am inadequate" this personality's emotional distractors are melancholy, depression, jealousy, envy, abandonment, and betrayal, so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
I am Non-Existent
Negative Core Belief: "I don't exist. I am nothing. I have nothing." This false core develops earlier than others - often in utero - and is more deeply embedded in the body than any of the other False Core/False Selves. This false core self believes, "I am nothing. I am empty. I don't know." Because of this, this type of person is unsuitable for Buddhist (no-self) and non-dual spiritual practices because they reinforce the False Core assumptions. This False Core can make itself quite invisible but invisibility is a two edged sword because they become invisible to themselves and their own needs.
Compensating Personality: "I must prove that I am something, have something, and that I exist." This personality "thinks" feelings and does not feel them. This could be because of rejection from the mother in utero. This personality dissociates from feelings early and become an over-observer as a defense. They can use their capacity for dissociation or blankness towards a spiritual path that reinforces that it does not have a personality and does not exist. This personality contains the structure of rejection and because they assume they will be rejected, they reject first, and begin to isolate and psychologically disappear.
Core Pain Distractors: Because our negative core belief is unconscious, the personality would rather feel a distracting pain that is less intense. In order to avoid the pain of "I do not exist" this personality accumulates information because they imagine they are nothing and have nothing. If I have "something" (ie., information and ideas) "I exist." This personality also struggles between the polarity of being social and anti-social, so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
I am Alone
Negative Core Belief: "I am alone. I fear being shunned."
Compensating Personality: I must not be alone - I must connect. This personality is the over-connector. At the time of connection there is a "high" and a relief from "I am alone" however, like a drug addict, the False Self Compensator needs more and more connection to get the same "high".
Core Pain Distractors: Because our negative core belief is unconscious, the personality would rather feel a distracting pain that is less intense. In order to avoid the pain of "I am alone" this personality uses the main distractor of fear, weakness, paranoia, self-doubt, and terror, or the preoccupation with being strong and being able to handle it all, so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
I am Incomplete
Negative Core Belief: "I am incomplete. There must be something missing. I am not enough."
Compensating Personality: "I must get whole, complete, completed or full through having many varied, extraordinary experiences."
Core Pain Distractors: Because our negative core belief is unconscious, the personality would rather feel a distracting pain that is less intense. In order to avoid the pain of "I am incomplete" this personality uses the distractor identities of false optimism and over-idealism as well as the polarity of super-standards or rules, with no standards or rules, as well as the struggles between feeling superior and inferior, so the False Core pain does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
"I am Powerless."
Negative Core Belief: "I am powerless." "I am powerless because I have no force, no influence, got screwed over, etc.
Compensating Personality: "I must prove I am not powerless by acting "as if" I am overly powerful." This compensating personality has such an unacknowledged powerlessness it can have psychopathic tendencies or can compensate by acting overly blown-up, imagining themselves to be much more powerful than they actually are.
Core Pain Distractors: Because our negative core belief is unconscious, the personality would rather feel a distracting pain that is less intense. In order to avoid the pain of "I am powerless" this personality is fixated on revenge and range and can also turn love into lust. Love is warm and vulnerable, but for this personality it reactivates the trauma of separation and so they resist love. Consequently, they move from experiencing vulnerable love to having the imagined "power" of lust, so the False Core does not have to be experienced, known and felt.
"I am Loveless."
Negative Core Belief: "I am loveless. There is no love."
Compensating Personality: "I must prove I am not loveless by appearing "as if" I am overly loving and accepting of what is happening." Underneath this loving, accepting mask lies a passive, sometimes aggressive coat of armor that is difficult to penetrate because of the spiritualized insistence on appearing loving. This type seeks spirituality, and seeks to act loving and loveable but with all roles plays, it cannot receive the love that it wants. The "loveless" struggle with passive-aggressive repressed anger for this reason.
Core Pain Distractors: Because our negative core belief is unconscious, the personality would rather feel a distracting pain that is less intense. In order to avoid the pain of "I am loveless," so the False Core does not have to be experienced, known and felt, this personality has a core of underlying anger which manifests a dual identity that is passive on the outside and aggressive on the inside. This personality acts "passive" and projects "aggressive" onto another, getting the other to "act out" by frustrating it.
If we think of ourselves as souls coming into the denser experience of our human bodies to grow, purify and learn, we can imagine what a shock it would be to come from an unlimited loving realm to a place where most people have forgotten who they are.
We live in a world that seems separate from love. It is rare to meet a completely authentic person. Most people are lying and are wearing compensating masks, pretending that they do not feel lacking in love.
We live in a world of crystallized egos - the hardening and rigidifying of self that happens when we spend our lives defending away from, and compensating for false fears that we are lacking, un-whole, inadequate, loveless, powerless, incomplete, alone, non-existent, worthless, imperfect, not enough etc.
The Birth of Our Core Pain
Biologically speaking, our first experience of realizing that we are separate from love is a shock to the nervous system. The "shock" of this separation happens in our earliest pre-verbal, instinctual brain.
The core pain that we hide from for most of our lives covers up the shock and trauma from our original separation from unconditional love. This separation from love inevitably happens with our mother at age 5-12 months, or in some cases in utero. The core wound explanation is only an idea that comes later. At a later verbal age, the "newer" level of our brain makes up a real-seeming story to explain why we are insufficient and unworthy of love.
Our core pain organizes our ego identification. Our core wound filters our reality so we do not become emotionally overwhelmed, as we did as babies. Re-experiencing the pain of our original separation from unconditional love seems unbearable to our biology. Our ego structure seems to control the chaos of our life but it also limits the spontaneous surrender to love, creativity and sexuality.
Because our biological nervous system so vehemently resists chaos, many of us do not ever feel safe enough to encompass the spiritual essence of who we really are. Overcoming our resistance to chaos often requires that we hit "rock bottom" or go through the "dark night of our soul" to find out that we can come through challenge and be connected to love. For many people, a crisis of health, love, loss, or desperate circumstances needs to occur before the open-hearted vulnerability of love and compassion can feel real and important enough to become stabilized in one's awareness.
The Inevitable Failure of the False Self
Our false compensating personality (ego) seems to be who we truly are. Most of us rarely get to know, confront or move through our core pain into the full experience of the unconditional love that underpins all of our human reality. Most of us live our lives in the mask personality that compensates for our darkest but untrue fear that we are not sufficient enough to be loved for who we authentically are.
Resisting our hidden core pain of lack can occupy us with a lifetime of psychological work, spiritual disciplines and self-help programs. Because our core pain is created pre-verbally, it is both biologically embedded and unconscious. Left unexamined it runs on automatic. And yet, our compensating personality is doomed to fail at "winning" love from the outside because it is trying to change an untrue conclusion about who we are - as unworthy of love on the inside.
It should be noted that the tendency of the compensating self to try to prove its opposite positive qualities is always weaker than the negative false core's unconscious desire to prove its fear of lack. The reason for this is that the chaos of letting go into the unknown structure of unconditional love is feels unbearable to the ego.
Most of us tenaciously hold onto the fear of our ego as a way of organizing our personal world. In simple terms, our fear of unorganized chaos cuts us off from the love we crave. Lack and fear is always more powerful than our compensating attempts to appear positive.
Trying to change our core pain into something more positive in the midst of feeling excruciating lack only reinforces it. To stabilize love in our awareness we need to see the organizing beliefs of our core pain. We must sense into, and remember who we were in our essence self before we took on our belief that we were separate from love. It is possible to sense into what our authentic self feels like and stabilize its truth into our daily life.
The organizing principle of our nervous system does not trust the benign holding container of unconditional love. There is an obsessive-compulsive aspect to our mask self that strives to prove our hidden core pain wrong.
But, our core pain desires the repetition of its false conclusions as a biological organizing principle. Our unconsciously held fearful beliefs help us to feel familiar and protected - so we have a known self to hold onto.
Feeling our earliest separation away from our soul - as we come into our human life - is the source of our greatest and most agonizing biological/emotional pain.
But within our mistaken belief in lack is the energy of Essence that can be opened up to and trusted. Our particular feeling of lack is always the portal to the return to unconditional spiritual love.
Being willing to feel the pain of our original separation away from love, shows us where our "hole" or emptiness resides. Our lack manifests as an "aching hole" in some part of our body. As we sit wordless, in presence with the spiritual lack and seeming absence of love in our own body, it becomes our portal to the re-inviting unconditional love to arise from the inside.
To go beyond Core Fear, I offer my variation on Wolinksy's directives based on my understandings of the biological conflict between love and fear:
1. Trace the belief: Be aware of the belief that drives your core wound - see above for the description of the common core wound beliefs.
2. Notice your belief in lack - in your body: Find where your core pain is located in your body. Find the particular "hole" of lack of in your body when you are in your core pain. Notice exactly how you close your body down in fear of feeling your core pain.
3. Without believing it, feel your fear: Strengthen your ability to stay present to your core fear and its resultant emotional pain without trying to change it. Come to know it as a biological part of yourself. Do not attempt to compensate your way out of your fear or try to make it positive.
4. Experience your vulnerability: Be willing to feel the vulnerability of your core pain fully - without any labels. Experience your seemingly unbearable pain as energy, staying as open as you can to it.
6. Invite in unconditional love: Sense into the larger quality your essence prior to your core pain and its beliefs. Surround your fear with the powerful comfort of the unconditional spiritual love that underpins all of reality.
The Biological Fear of Essence
"As soon as you begin to sense your unity with the real Self, the psychological identity is going to rise up for its biggest fight; a fight to protect its very survival. It will not give up its illusory hold on the beingness that easily. It will use every trick to prevent you from discovering your real nature.
But don’t be afraid. You have the real power on your side and it is important to remember this when the mind attacks. You can transcend its influence by remaining as the formless and unmoving Witness."
We originally close our body down around our vulnerability as babies. And, our biology triggers fear whenever we feel psychologically or emotionally vulnerable as adults. When we resist our fear as adults, our "inner work" can take on a repeating pattern that can seem to have no end. Our fear arises again and again as a biologically driven organizing principle, until we can remind ourselves that it is no longer necessary to reflexively resist our vulnerability. As mature adults, we can become present for our pain.
Our repetitive inner work gives the organizing principle of our ego something to do. Most people fear that if they let go of their personality structure they will not exist. In this way, the survival of our hidden fear of insufficiency and the resultant emotional pain seems central to our survival as human beings that need to survive and self-protect. Fear biologically asserts itself when we get close to our spiritual essence because there seems to be a great lack of safe organization within its vast emptiness.
Our Desire to Remain Separate
Our ego and all of its defenses arise out of our nervous system. Our ego self has a great desire to survive - as it is the foundation of our entire biological organizing system. Our biologically rooted survival system aims to prove our fear true in order to remain feeling stable.
I desire and want to prove there is something wrong with me. I desire or want to prove that I am worthless. I desire and want to prove I cannot do. I desire and want to prove I am inadequate. I desire and want to prove I do not exist. I desire and want to prove I am alone. I desire and want to prove I am incomplete. I desire and want to prove I am powerless.I desire and want to prove I am loveless. I desire and want to prove I am not safe. I desire and want to prove I am crazy. I desire and want to prove I am out of control, etc.
This re-enforcing and self-fulfilling capacity of our core pain always wins over the compensating personality's efforts to be positive. Forever working like a machine, our hidden core fear set us up our biological defense system of ego separation.
Essence is what we were born with, and our organized ego identity is what we acquire later. With great determination, we can become present for our emotional pain, so that we can allow the larger organizing principle of unconditional love to come to the foreground of our daily life.
When unconditional love comes forward as our new organizing principle, our innate spiritual power and dignity arises, and we can no longer be so shaken by life's circumstances.
Because our core pain's fear that we are lacking and unworthy of love is biologically driven, it comes back whenever we feel vulnerable and/or are under stress in our life. But, as we grow more grounded in our real spiritual core, our false core self will stay in the background of our awareness. It will not be the driving force of our life any longer.
As we solidify the strength of our present moment connection to whatever arises from within, the frequency of our emotional triggering and the amount of time that we stay emotionally charged will lessen. With such functional awareness of our core fear and its compensating personality behaviors, we still might feel biologically triggered by life's challenges, but our fears will no longer "take over" our psychology.
Because our innate spiritual field of attention has been restored, it automatically weakens the power of our core fears and its compensations. Our attention is no longer so narrow that we live only in our head. When our attention is relaxed, we no longer limit our perceptions to the habitual organizing framework of our ego.
Why Does it Take So Long to Heal?
When we are psychologically strong enough in our individuated separated self, we can turn back the way we came, and make our way back to our authentic essence-self where we remember feeling unconditionally loved just as we are. On the journey back we can train ourselves to not close down around our emotional vulnerability. Not closing down is the presence work that stays open to everything that arises inside, so that we can process and release the emotional imprints of our human life.
Our nervous system makes the map of our reality, and its fear/contraction structure holds the imprint of all of our human experiences in our body. And, curiously, each psychological and emotional imprint has its own life span within our biology. In this way, we cannot rush or force our own healing.
Each emotional and psychological imprint has a specific period of time where it seeks to exist and function through us. It also has a time to release and pass away out of our existence. This is why we can struggle with particular emotional pain for many years on end, and then all of a sudden it releases. The change is so profound, we might wonder, "Why did that ever bother me?"
Unconditional loving presence - and learning to soften and relax into whatever emotional material is arising in our awareness - is the only inner work we need to do. Our psychological defenses each have their own biological survival and fight/flight instincts built into them. And, each emotional fragment has a life span that will return back to Essence in its own right timing.
Each "layer" of emotional healing must be processed in it own inherent order and timing. Each layer waits until we feel strong enough to stay present to our emotional pain. This openhearted practice may involve staying present to imprints of fear, sadness or anger for brief or extended periods of time before the emotional imprint releases. Each emotion is like a seed. Each emotional seed has its own lifespan. And one day, with constant loving attention, it will complete its life, and pass away for good.
Unlike cognitive-behavioural therapy, which provides effective short-term coping skills, emotion focused therapy is a relational process that supports you to accept, express, regulate, make sense of, and transform your emotions so you can become who you really are.