The Surprising Root of Self-Sabotage: Unconscious Contracts
What needs are you meeting by remaining small? Surprisingly, most often those needs are survival and integrity. How do you then transcend these self-made limitations?
I was teaching a multi-day training in Europe two years ago, and one of the participants, a man in his 60s, said that he was not able to market his classes. He could design them, he could teach them, but when it came to getting the word out, he was paralysed.
“As you think about taking action to market yourself, what sensations come up?” I asked him.
“I lose all the energy in my body and I want to fall asleep. What could be going on?” he asked.
This question takes us all into the heart of self-sabotage and self-limitation. What is happening when we make ourselves smaller than we are? And what is it with the crippling punishment that we suffer when we exceed our own self-imposed limitations on expression, creativity, longing, passion, celebration, mourning or simply existing? Why might it be easier to watch TV than to write up a flyer? Why might it be easier to stay in bed than to work on a poem or compose a song, paint a painting, or create a sculpture?
How about making the phone calls, posting the blogs, following up on the contacts that would further your work in the world? Do you believe that you don’t take action because you are lazy? What if the truth is that you entered an early nervous system contract to only express the amount of life energy that your caretakers were comfortable with? And that you are still living within these constraints?
What does it do for you to stay small?
If we were to put this into a ’Nonviolent Communication’ context, the deep question here is, what needs are your nervous system meeting by remaining small? Surprisingly, most often the needs that we are meeting by staying in bed are survival and integrity.
Starting in 2001, researcher Beatrice Beebe discovered that four-month old infants are already curtailing their emotions by limiting their facial expressions to those which their mother can easily respond to on a moment-by-moment basis. The baby integrates its caretaker’s emotional language, just as the infant learns the spoken language that it hears.
You won’t remember signing this contract
We grow up to live within the emotional limitations of our original family. We learn to suppress our own life energy in order to support our survival. It’s not a choice; it’s a biological imperative, a contract that we are made the signatories to without our conscious knowledge. However, we can remain in thrall to this contract for the rest of our lives. One possible route to renouncing this contract and claiming our full power and emotional fullness is to name this original riddle. We then transform implicit experience into explicit knowledge.
I explained this concept to the participant, and asked him if he had a vow that sounded anything like this: “I, George Muller, solemnly swear to you my mother, that I will not let anyone know that I am here, in order to protect you from…”. I told him that I didn’t know what he might be protecting his mother from. In fact, it might be someone else, rather than his mother, that he was swearing to.
“It’s my mother,” he answered, “and I’m protecting her from, and accompanying her in, her own invisibility.”
After he repeated this vow in his own words, I asked him if his mother wanted this vow. “Let’s see if she wants it,” I said. “Would you be willing to ask her?”
“She’s dead now,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter,” I told him. “You can still ask her – what happens if you step inside her experience and see how it lands for her?”
George closed his eyes and checked in
“No, she doesn’t want this,” he said. “It’s the exact opposite of what she wants for me.”
After a few moments of George letting his body relax into the reality of being released from his vow, I asked him to think about a marketing task. “How do you feel now?” I asked.
“Relaxed and energised,” he said. “I feel like I can take action now. It’s different.”
Over the last two years of my doing this ‘unconscious contract’ work in workshops and sessions all over the world, people have released vows that they have made to parents, grandparents, self and the world. These vows have been made in infancy, as well as later in childhood, in moments of loneliness, broken innocence, and trauma, and in moments of deep mourning and consciousness about the world. Again and again, as people do the work, the shell of paralysis and limitation falls away. People can move toward more freedom and a simpler existence in the present moment.
Try for yourself
Here is the general format of the unconscious contract, or vow, for exploration: “I (your name here) solemnly swear (to myself, or my parent, or to the universe) to (self-sabotaging behaviour) in order to (meet a deep need for survival, or to accompany, or to honour, or…..) no matter the cost to myself.”
How does it feel to begin to let yourself understand that your nervous contract has tied itself in knots to help you survive? As you work with this tool for self-discovery, you will find these contracts in every area of your life and in the lives of others you care for, and you will have a new tool for freedom, ease, and for existing right here, right now, in the present moment.