“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.” ~Jonathan Safron Foer
Are you aware that we all make unconscious vows early on, and they become our internal blueprint for life? These vows dictate who we can be and are often deeply engrained.
Our vows are attached to a deeper need we’re trying to meet—the need for love, acceptance, safety, connection, and security. They’re not bad or wrong, and neither are we for having them; they come from a smart part of us that’s trying to help us feel safe.
Vows are more than a belief; vows are a “never again” thing or “this is the only way to be because my survival is at stake.”
What is a vow, you may ask? Well, let me paint a picture for you.
When I was a little girl, I was teased for being fat, stupid, and ugly. Soon enough, I started blaming my body for being hurt and teased. I thought that because I was “fat, stupid, and ugly” there was something wrong with me, and that was why I didn’t have any friends.
At age thirteen my doctor told me to go on a diet, and that’s when I started to believe that I was a “defect” because I was fat. At that point I made a vow: “I will never be fat again.”
I started cutting back on my food, I became a maniac exerciser, and being thin became the only thing that mattered
Then, at age fifteen, I entered my first hospital for anorexia, and for over twenty-three years I was in therapy and numerous hospitals and treatment centers. No matter how much weight I gained in these programs, when I left, I went right back to losing weight by limiting my food intake and exercising excessively because I’d vowed to myself “I’ll never be fat again.”
The process of gaining weight only added to the trauma and fears I was already experiencing. Instead of being compassionate and understanding and helping me offer love to the parts of myself that were hurting, staffers “punished” me when I didn’t eat my whole tray of food by taking away my privileges and upping my meds.
When we experience trauma like I did as a child, it’s not what happened to us that stays with us; it’s the vows we made and what we concluded it meant about ourselves, others, and life in general that stay.
We concluded who we needed to be in order to be loved and accepted by our family, and that became our unconscious blueprint that started dictating our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
“I will never be fat again because if I am I won’t be loved and accepted” was a trauma response, which turned into a vow that carried a lot of fear and anxiety. I used undereating and compulsive exercising as survival tools, and I would not let go of this pattern no matter how much anyone told me I needed to.
If I couldn’t exercise, especially after I ate, my heart would race and I would panic, sweat, and shake. Those symptoms were my body signaling to me that I needed to exercise so I wouldn’t get fat
This was the only way I knew how to be. I was living in a trance, an automatic conditioned response. And no matter how much conscious effort I exerted to change my habitual ways, something inside would bring me back to limiting my food intake and exercising excessively.
When we’re forced to let go of our survival mechanisms without healing the inner affliction, it feels like jumping out of an airplane with no parachute; it’s scary and overwhelming. This was why I became suicidal, too, especially when I perceived I was getting fat again; I would rather leave my body than be traumatized and teased.
Eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety, pain, or illness are often symptoms showing us where our energy is frozen in time, where we’re carrying deep wounds and holding onto vows we made from traumatic or painful experiences.
When someone is anxious or depressed, it may be because they’re not living their truth, and this may be because they feel they’re not allowed to. They may think they need to meet everyone else’s expectations, because if they don’t, they may be punished and/or abandoned.
They may use food, drugs, smoking, or drinking as a way to find ease with what they’re feeling and experiencing. They may be using a substance to numb the pain stemming from traumatic experiences or from the idea of not being “perfect” or not feeling “good enough.”
Why is it hard for some people to love themselves and ask for what they want and need? Because, if you’re like me, you may have been screamed at or called selfish for doing these things when you were a child, so you may have made the unconscious vow “I’m not allowed to ask for anything or take care of or love myself.”
The habits and behaviors we can’t stop engaging in, no matter how hard we try and how destructive or limiting they may be, are meeting a need. The goal isn’t to override our impulses and change the behavior; instead, a better approach is to understand why they exist in the first place and help that part of ourselves feel loved and safe.
No matter how many affirmations we say or how much mindset work we do, our survival mechanisms and vows are more powerful, so a part of us will resist change even if it’s healthy.
Often, when I’m working with a client who struggles with addiction, anxiety, depression, and/or loving themselves and allowing themselves to have fun, when we go inside and find the root cause, it’s because of a vow they made when they were little, when they were either being screamed at, teased, left alone, or punished.
They concluded that they were bad or wrong for being true to themselves, asking for things, or wanting to be held and loved. They learned that having needs and acting naturally wasn’t okay, so they started suppressing that energy, which created their symptoms as adults.
“I don’t need anyone; I’m fine alone” may be a vow and a way to protect ourselves from being hurt again. The challenge with this is that, as humans, we need approval and validation; we need love and caring. This is healthy and what helps us thrive and survive as human beings.
When trauma gets stored in our body, we feel unsafe. Until we resolve it and reconnect with a feeling of safety in the area(s) where we were traumatized, we’ll remain in a constant state of fight/flight/freeze, be hypersensitive and overreactive, take everything personally, and seek potential threats, which makes it difficult to move on from the initial occurrence.
So, how do we see what vows are dictating our life journey?
We can notice our unconscious vows by being with the parts of ourselves that are afraid. They often come as feelings or symptoms in the body. For instance, I would panic, sweat, and shake if I couldn’t exercise, especially after I ate.
When I sat with this part of myself with unconditional love and acceptance and a desire to understand where it originated, instead of using exercise to run away, it communicated to me why it was afraid. It brought me back to where it all began and said, “If I’m fat I’ll be teased, abandoned, and rejected, and I want to be loved and accepted.”
Healing is about releasing that pent up energy that’s stored in the body and making peace with ourselves and our traumas.
Healing is about reminding our bodies that the painful/traumatic event(s) are no longer happening; it’s learning how to comfort ourselves when we’re afraid and learning emotional regulation.
Healing is about getting clear about where the hurt is coming from; otherwise, we’ll spend our time going over the details and continuously get triggered because we never get to the real source.
Healing is not about forcing; it’s about accepting what’s happening. It’s a kind, gentle, and loving approach. We’re working with tender parts that have been traumatized and hurt. These parts don’t need to be pushed or told how to be. They need compassion; they need to be seen, heard, loved, and accepted; they need our loving attention so they can feel safe and at ease.
They’ve been hiding; in a sense they’ve been disconnected. When we acknowledge them and bring them into our hearts, we experience a loving integration. When we experience a loving integration we experience a true homecoming, and in that we experience a sense of inner peace. Then we more naturally start taking loving care of ourselves and making healthy choices.
About Debra Mittler
Debra Mittler is a warm and compassionate healer with a unique ability to touch people’s hearts and souls. She enjoys assisting others in loving and accepting themselves unconditionally, feeling at peace in their body, and living authentically. Debra is a leading authority in overcoming obstacles and supports her clients by holding a space of unconditional love and offering encouragement, effective tools, and valuable insights allowing them to experience and listen to their own inner wisdom.