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Unconscious Imperatives and Self Empathy

You work your way through the steps of self empathy ( and it helps, yet something seems to be missing.  Often what's missing is naming unconscious imperatives.  An unconscious imperative means you are telling yourself that you have to do things or show up in a particular way.  

Unconscious imperatives that cost needs are usually habits that were adaptive at one time, but no longer serve their original purpose.  For example, if you grew up in a family where connection and harmony was tenuous, you may have taken on the role of family mediator.  You were vigilant for any sense of threat and you moved quickly to smooth things over and maintain harmony.  Today things aren't tenuous and the family system has changed or at the very least, you would like to cease participation in that system.

But you still find yourself driven towards all sorts of little peacekeeping behaviors:  facilitating communication, keeping agreements at any cost, being present for every interaction, setting your needs aside to avoid potential conflict, managing little details so everyone is more comfortable, etc.  Engaging with your family in this way leaves you exhausted and has you making decisions that you later regret.  At the end of one of these family gatherings, you remember to practice self empathy.

Your self empathy practice will likely include many specific moments of decisions and family interaction.  With this practice you are able to connect with the feelings and needs you may have denied in the moment while feeling the grief of abandoning yourself.  Going through these moments one by one with compassion will strengthen your awareness and connection to feelings and needs.

When you look at the big picture, you see how many of these specific interactions fit into a larger pattern.  You see how much of your thinking and behavior was fueled by an unconscious imperative, in our example, to be the family mediator.  Applying the same self empathy steps is useful at this systems level view.

You can identify the needs that the unconscious imperative is meant to serve and with gentleness and compassion notice if that need is actually threatened or actually met in the current situation.  You might then consider what new perspectives and behaviors you would like to bring to that situation.  That is, what might it look like if you weren't following the unconscious imperative?

In the case of the imperative to be the family mediator you might recognize that it was meant to meet needs for safety, harmony, belonging, stability, and connection.  Regardless of how your family has evolved, you likely have many of these needs met consistently in your life now.  Grounding yourself in this truth may be enough to help you access new behaviors with your family and show up with a greater sense of freedom and authenticity.


Take a moment now to ask yourself these questions to help uncover unconscious imperatives in your life:  In what situations do I feel like I am not quite myself?  Are there certain behaviors that only show up in a particular context?  In what situations do I freeze or lose access to my skills?  Are there particular times when I am compelled or driven to do something?

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