The Little Saboteur:
All the Clever Ways We Undermine Progress in Imago Therapy
by Maya Kollman, MA
Have you ever noticed how things can be going along really wonderfully in your partnership. You have both shifted into more loving behaviors, each giving the other what is needed and asked for--and yet, all of a sudden, it all blows up?
Well, welcome to the saboteur ... that little creature inside of us that rings warning bells when things begin to change and we relax our defenses. This little creature has one agenda in mind and that is to keep us safe. The only way it knows to keep us safe is to maintain the same defenses that helped us survive childhood. When the saboteur gets the signal that these defenses relaxing, it gets very anxious and begins to work on our unconscious to reinstate those old behaviors. Remember, our decision to use those behaviors in childhood was a brilliant decision, because it kept us sane and alive. These defenses, all the variations on the themes of fight, flight, freezing and playing dead, get in our way today and we know that. but our saboteur could care less what we know in our heads.
WHAT IS IT THAT CAUSES THE LITTLE GUY TO GET SO UPSET AND RING THE ALARM BELL?
- When we begin to get the love we want, we don't know what to do with it. We know exactly how to behave when we are in the old wounding environment, but we don't have a clue how to be when we are faced with this new environment. One of the scariest feelings is not knowing what to do; and so the little saboteur feels unsafe and rings the alarm bell.
- When we get the love we want, it touches the longing inside of us and makes us feel the hurt of all the times we didn't get this love, and so this hurt and longing comes up. It feels uncomfortable and sad and so the little saboteur feels unsafe and rings the alarm bell.
- When we begin to get the love we want.. we want it all the time! Because we often had childhoods full of disappointments or unpredictable losses, we are sure that sooner or later this love too will leave us, and so the little saboteur feels unsafe and rings the alarm bell.
- When we get the love we want, we are reminded that we have needs. We remember a time when we were shamed for having needs and consequently we learned to hate the needs inside of us. Realizing we have needs makes us feel that shame again and the little saboteur rings the alarm bell.
- When we get the love we want and give the love that heals, we begin to stretch into new parts of ourselves, parts that in childhood we were told we must not have. We get scared; and the little saboteur feels unsafe and rings the alarm bell.
- When we get the love we want and are coaxed into changing, we face the terror of giving up the old and familiar without assurance of what the future will bring. We experience our changing as if we were standing on the edge of a cliff and we are being told to have faith, that when we jump it will be warm and soft and safe down below. We aren't at all sure this is true and so we need to keep reminding ourselves that if necessary we still have those old weapons in the closet; and the little saboteur helps us to remember by sounding that alarm.
For all these reasons it is difficult to hang on to the wonderful things that are beginning to happen for us and so we must help to soothe our little saboteur and keep it from getting frightened. The little saboteur is actually the little Child inside us that believes that it is still in the environment of childhood where those defenses were life-saving. We must work to soothe our little inner child and help it see that the environment is becoming safe and the grown-ups that house them are committed to keeping them safe.
THERE ARE VARIOUS WAYS WE CAN ACCOMPLISH THIS SOOTHING:
- We can have conversations with the little child inside us and reassure them that we are working hard to pay attention and be conscious and they can relax and go play.
- We can pay attention to our body signals that tell us that our little child is anxious (like a jumpy stomach, or a stiff neck). We can then get information from our partners about what is going on--do a reality check--and in this knowing, begin to feel safety.
- We can get held by our partners and talk about how scary it is to finally get the love we want and ask them to reassure us that even if we don't do things perfectly they will still love us.
- We can help each other understand more clearly the signals that sometimes set off our little child and try to find new ways to talk about these signals rather than just reacting.
- We can remember to do caring behaviors and have more fun. Nothing soothes the little child better than pleasure and playfulness.
These are just a few ways to soothe ourselves and each other. Think of some of the ways that could work for you and your partner.
When we begin to realize that the "breakdowns" that occur after our "breakthroughs" are only the calls for help from our frightened child. and not a sign that our relationships are hopeless, we can relax and roll more easily with the ups and downs. We can become partners... allies, and help our inner children get along with one another.
The unknown often seems dark and terrifying and change leads us and our little children into the unknown. We must have compassion and understanding for our own fear and our partner's fear and be patient and gentle with one another. Remember it is progress not perfection that we're after, and getting up one more time than we fall down.
© 1994, Maya Kollman, M.A. is a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, Workshop Presenter and Master Trainer in private practice in Pennington. New Jersey near Princeton. Call (609) 737-3023.