If you spend any time with me in therapy, I’ll tell you about my theory of The Big Four. It’s a theory that goes to the core of our identity. It’s much deeper than what we show the world, our profession, political affiliation, personal opinions, or what I think of as the ‘mid-level demographics’ of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation and regional or national identities. It’s the very essence of what we worry or fear:
I’m too much.
I’m not enough.
If you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me (I’m bad).
Now, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this. It’s a summary of the clinical work I’ve been doing for nearly a decade. I’ve been looking to add to the list for a while but every time I think I have a new one, it falls into one of these categories. I’m still on the lookout if you’ve got a suggestion. In my experience, we’ve all got all of these but are vulnerable to a combo of two at a time. Usually it’s one of them paired with abandonment. There’s a specific type of defensive or offensive response when one of these core beliefs is triggered. These vary depending on your primary and secondary predispositions. I’ll explain.
I’m too much.
This is my personal fave. This message pops up whenever we feel deeply, ask for something, need something, set a boundary, advocate for ourselves, say no, or generally take up more space than usual. If this is your primary predisposition or core vulnerability, your defensive response is to ‘take it all back’ by negating or minimize your needs. If this is your secondary predisposition, the offensive response takes over and you’ll either reject or minimize others’ needs or ‘go rogue’ and do everything yourself.
I’m not enough.
Usually, we get this message when we think we’ve ‘failed’ or fallen short in some fashion. It’s a response to perceived or real criticism but also when someone asks for something from us. It’s especially strong when we believe we were earnestly trying to meet another’s needs and a request for yet another need is made. We also tell ourselves this when we’re not achieving or getting warm fuzzies from others. If this is your primary predisposition, your defensive response is to provide a list of all the positive qualities about yourself or the things you HAVE been doing. If this is your secondary predisposition, your offense is to become passive aggressive to ‘show’ others your value.
If you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me.
There’s lots of variations on this theme. The essential message is judgment and The Core of Everyone’s Struggles: The Big Four for who we are as a person. It’s telling ourselves that we’re bad at the core. It’s related to not being enough in that it drives us to hide and overcompensate. If this is your primary core vulnerability, you’re likely to react to triggers by anxiously undoing this internal message with good works, compulsively helping others, and staying a few points (or more) ahead on the scoreboard of friendship. If this is your secondary message, a response, on the offense, is being critical of others for their lack of giving, bitterness towards the world for not giving to you, and general anger at unfairness.
By now, I imagine you’ve seen a piece of yourself in all of these. That’s completely normal. We joke about abandonment issues but the truth is, we’re social creatures without an instruction manual for how to be social. In the words of Eve Ensler, “Everyone’s making everything up.” It makes sense that we fear people will leave because of our actions. Pairing abandonment with finally wearing someone out by being too much, disappointing someone with not being enough, or horrifying someone with our true ‘badness’ is such a vulnerable risk to connection. We all do the dance of connection. The defensive response is to dance faster, chase after the connection and shut down whatever triggered the relationship breach or conflict. The offensive response is to assert that we really don’t need or care for others at all. We act indifferent or cold. But it’s just an act to cover the hurt and fear.
Each of the Big Four deserves it’s own blog post. There’s so much more to explore – where they come from, how to raise your awareness in yourself, how to recognize them in others, how they operate in couples – especially in conflict. Most importantly is what you can do about it once you see them in yourself. Your greatest tool is an open, curious awareness, without judgment, about the voices in your head. We aren’t born with the story we tell ourselves and we can change it. Therapy is a powerful source for change but sometimes you need a more concrete plan. Stay tuned for more on this topic.
What do you think? Which ones speak to you? Can you think of another core vulnerability?
Also published on Medium.