Lesson 1 of 7  - free your true Self to guide you

About "Hitting Bottom"
 and Psychological Wounds

A requisite for personal healing

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW


 The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/gwc/bottom.htm

Updated 02-01-2015

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      This is one of a  series of articles in Lesson 1 in this Web site - free your true Self to guide you, and reduce significant false-self wounds. This article offers perspective on "hitting bottom" - accumulating "too much" pain and deciding to make permanent lifestyle changes to reduce the pain. It proposes why some people hit true (vs. pseudo) bottom, and others don't.

      This brief YouTube clip previews what you'll read in this article:

      This article is for anyone concerned with managing unhealthy compulsions like addictions, struggling with intolerable relationship, work, depression, and financial, family, or health problems. We'll explore...

  • perspective on pseudo (trial) bottoms, relapses, and hitting true bottom;  and...

  • how bottoms relate to normal personality subselves; and...

  • key action-options.

      To make this article more relevant, pause and say out loud any stressful and/or unhealthy habits you have that persist despite your attempts to change them. Keep them in mind as you read this...

      This article assumes you're familiar with...


      Have you ever felt "totally fed up" with some frustrating or unhealthy habit, relationship, or situation? Have you experienced a ceaseless inner battle to change (act) and not change (don't act)? Have you experienced trying to stop an unhealthy or unpleasant "habit" like using nicotine, over-eating or spending, or binging on junk foods, and being unable to stop? Do you know anyone who says s/he has "had it," "reached my limit," "hit bottom," or "hit the wall" about something?

      Here, "hitting true bottom" means exceeding some personal tolerance limit ("I'm 45 pounds overweight and having chest pains!"), and altering some chronic unhealthy or dangerous attitudes, behaviors, and/or habits.

      A popular alternative is hitting a pseudo or trial bottom - making superficial changes, but not altering core attitudes or priorities. 12-step "Anonymous" (addiction-management) programs call this "not walking your talk," "stinkin' thinkin'," and being a "dry drunk." Most of us grin ruefully when "broken New years' resolutions" are mentioned. These are vivid, universal examples of trying to achieve permanent changes before hitting true bottom.

      Hitting true bottom happens when a person experiences significant discomfort "once too often." Their ruling personality subselves' overwhelming weariness + despair + agony + disgust + frustration + rage overcome other subselves who fear and resist core attitude changes Then over time, the person repeatedly demonstrates new attitudes, priorities, and behaviors - often despite other people urging them to "change back."

      Hitting true bottom is a personal choice, and can't be done to satisfy someone else. People who try to persuade or manipulate others to exercise more; drink, smoke, or eat less; stop gambling, overworking, overspending, masturbating; lose or gain weight, "go to church," etc. know this never works (for long).

      Caring people can do things that may accelerate a wounded person's hitting true bottom - like respectfully asserting their rights, boundaries, and consequences - e.g. "Pat, if you insist on bringing pornography into our home, I'm going to throw it out from now on. I'm also going to randomly check our PC history to see what sites you're visiting, and start attending a 12-step meeting for mates of sex addicts."

      Self-esteem, relationships, and serenity suffer until people (like you?) learn and accept the core reason that blocks ending "bad habits" and making healthier choices... 

About Personality Subselves and Hitting Bottom

      From clinical research and experience since 1992, I propose that normal people (like you) have personalities composed of semi-independent ''subselves'' or "parts." They're like the talented players in an orchestra or sports team. These subselves often disagree with each other, causing inner conflicts..

      One group  wants immediate gratification to reduce current discomforts ("problems"), tho this inexorably increases the discomforts over time. Other subselves value delayed gratification and greater long-term benefits ("I know I'll feel better and be healthier if I commit to a regular exercise program.")

      People hit true bottom when the balance of power between their battling subselves changes permanently: i.e. the "delayed gratification" subselves gain steady control of the host person's thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

      The odds of this shift rise sharply when the wise, resident true Self consistently guides the other subselves. Lesson 1 in this nonprofit Web site offers effective options for freeing your Self (capital "S") to lead in all situations.

      Protective subselves that oppose healthy personal changes distrust the wisdom of the true Self, and resist giving up control. They're motivated by a powerful mix of doubts, fears, shame, guilts, and distorted perceptions - not logic. This is why you can't "reason with" someone who has unhealthy or harmful habits to change for their own (or your) good. 

      This implies that to hit true bottom and make healthy permanent personal changes, a wounded person must want to free their disabled true Self, and (b) reorganize and harmonize their other subselves over time. Paradoxically, they can't commit to do this without hitting bottom.

       Despite this paradox, many average troubled people DO hit true bottom and reduce their psychological wounds - e.g. the millions of people worldwide who work at 12-step recovery from addictions and maintain sobriety, while others repeatedly relapse.

      Implication: attempting to cure "bad habits" like overeating, shoplifting, lying, over-working, not exercising, addictions, interrupting others, swearing, gossiping, unhealthy diets, avoiding health checkups, skipping breakfast, etc. - is often a frustrating waste of time. These are symptoms of the real problem: "instant gratification" subselves overruling other subselves who want to forgo local comforts to make long-term healthful changes.

      Note that addiction recovery is a requisite for psychological-wound reduction ("healing"). Hitting true bottom is required for both of these. Unaware people whose dominant false-selves choose pseudo recovery from toxic compulsions risk repeated relapses, because they haven't freed their true Self to guide their personalities. "Instant gratification" is another way of saying "I (we governing subselves) don't care about the future. Reduce my inner pain now!"

How Subselves Resist Hitting Bottom

      Dedicated Guardian subselves' sole concern is the current comfort and safety of one or more Inner Children. They have three common strategies for avoiding changes that scare or threaten young subselves:

denial (reality distortion) - e.g. "I/we really don't have to stop eating so much salt, sugar, and fat now!"),

rationalization ("Smoking cigarettes is really OK because it keeps me calm, and I only do it outside the house.")', and...

procrastination ("Yeah, I probably should stop working 70 hours a week, but I'll wait until ___ before I do.")

      Perhaps the most common subself blocking permanent healthy changes is the Shamed Chold. S/He firmly believes s/he is worthless and unlovable, and doesn't deserve health and happiness. A rigid misconception this young subself retains from childhood is "I don't care if I'm neglecting myself - I'm not important." A companion myth is "I'm bad, and I deserve my pain!" This common Inner Child is often living in the unsafe, painful past - and doesn't know it.

      The concepts of healthy self love and self-nurturance are totally alien to the Shamed Child and her or his devoted Guardian subselves. This is specially true for Grown Wounded Children who have never felt loved or lovable, and are unable to bond with (care about) other people or living things.

       The Abandoned Child and loyal People-pleaser subselves may contribute irrational fear that if the host person asserts healthy limits and self-care, key people will scorn and reject the person for being "selfish" and "self-centered."

       The Guilty Child may add something like "If I focus on my needs instead of other people's needs, I'm bad." Like normal physical children, typical Inner Kids steadily focus on short-term safety and comfort. They haven't learned to defer immediate gratification for long-term rewards.

      Have you made that vital shift yet?

      Whatever mix of young subselves resist hitting bottom and making core changes, several common Guardian subselves work diligently together to soothe and protect them:

  • The clever Magician distorts reality by creatively making self-neglect and self-abuse acceptable or "good." The basic spell this well-meaning subself casts is denial. "We don't really have a problem - we are and will be OK!" This manifests as persuasive thoughts justifying harmful behaviors, and minimizing potential harm - "Come on - have that Dove bar / drink / marijuana joint / horse-race bet / _______ - one more won't hurt!"

      Another alluring illusion the Magician skillfully provides is "We can always quit if we want to [i.e. we can control (our compulsion)! ]" This is why the first of the 12 addiction-recovery steps centers on admitting "my life is out of control," and why the Serenity Prayer suggests identifying what we can't control, and turning it over to our Higher Power.

  • The Distracter subself soothes upset, anxious Inner Kids by shifting the host-person's focus to less alarming topics - e.g. "I wonder what's on TV tonight. Let's look."

  • The tireless Procrastinator joins in by adding persuasions like "Come on, we can confront (someone) or  go to the health club / doctor / dentist / dietician / support-group meeting / lawyer tomorrow (or "soon.").

  • The Catastrophizer may evoke vivid images about terrible things that could happen if the host person makes major (healthy) changes - "If you get a physical checkup, you'll discover that you have cancer like your ancestors did. Then we'll simply live each day expecting to die a slow, horrible death. Don't go for a checkup - it's better not to know!"

          A variation of this is the Catastrophizer urging you to not honestly assess for psychological wounds because "You'll discover...

    • your childhood was really awful, and...

    • your (idealized) parents did a lousy job, and...

    • you're mentally screwed up, and...

    • you'll never have what healthy (normal, unwounded) people have, and...

    • you'll see that you've completely messed up your kids," or equivalent. (Whew!)

  • The Cynic / Doubter Guardian subself may chime in with warnings like "Ah, baloney! This 'recovery' stuff is just New Age psychobabble for wackos. It probably won't do anything good for us, so forget it."

      Each wounded person has a unique combination of young and Guardian subselves like these - i.e. a unique false self. Can you see how their combined beliefs and urgings - and outdated distrust of the resident true Self - can defer  hitting true bottom for years? One uncontrollable factor that offsets their combined power is aging, and admitting that death is an approaching reality.

      This often combines with some traumas like divorce, bankruptcy, job loss, a law suit, a DUI, a major illness, someone's suicide, or similar major stressors, to trigger hitting bottom. This helps explain why many people hit their true bottom in middle age.

      If your instant-gratification subselves are dominant and avoiding some personal bottom, you may agree intellectually with what you're reading, and do nothing about it now. Reading this article will not cause your subselves to hit bottom, tho some of them may see real benefits to doing so.

      Recall why you're reading this. You have several options to meet your needs...

Action Options

      Whatever you need, the vital keystone option is to assess yourself honestly for symptoms of (a) one or more addictions and of (b) underlying psychological wounds (inner pain). Reluctance to do this suggests you may be controlled by a false self, and probably haven't hit true bottom yet.

      If you find significant symptoms, your next option is to learn more about addiction recovery and inner-wound reduction. Your third option is to adjust your current life priorities to include commitment to addiction and personal-wound recovery as required. Recall that "pseudo recovery" is a common creative false-self attempt to promote the illusion of recovery without really risking core attitude and belief changes.

      After assessing for psychological wounds and deciding what the results mean, see if you see your current need/s here:

  • You're not sure you need to hit bottom. Clarifying this is a surface need. The real question here is "Do I need to free my true Self and commit to reducing psychological wounds? Even if you honestly assess for significant wounds and conclude "Yes, I need personal wound recovery now," your ruling (instant-gratification) subselves will probably block you from acting on that until you hit true bottom.  

  • You feel you should hit bottom, and may have felt you have, several times (pseudo bottoms) - but "something gets in the way," and you relapse into the old ways. Same comments as above. Learning about subselves, psychological wounds, and wound-recovery; and observing people in true wound-recovery, can pave your way...

  • Someone you care about hasn't hit true bottom, and you want to promote their doing so. Option - use wounds and recovery terms and phrases when you talk with the person, without trying to convince her or him to act. That may include your talking honestly about your own wounds and recovery, without moralizing. See this article for more perspective and options.

  • You want someone else to review these ideas and discuss them with you. The most direct option is to print this article or ask the person to read this on the Web using the URL address at the top of the page. You may want to just inform the other persons, or you may have an agenda.

      One possible goal is to interest the other person in personality subselves, family nurturance levels, true Self, psychological wounds , and wound recovery. Another goal may be to alert the person to the explanation for relapses here, and get their reaction to it. Another option: bring this article to a family gathering or recovery support group and discuss the main ideas in it.

  • You want to break a vexing impasse with yourself or another person, and you don't know how. When the impasse gets stressful enough, you may hit bottom and overcome some cautious subselves' reluctance to try using "parts work" to identify which of your subselves are opposed.

      Then try out having your wise Self (capital "S") meet with each opposed subself, and mediate a compromise. If the impasse is about relapsing and breaking a "bad habit," expand this option to identify the immediate-gratification and delayed-gratification subselves who are stuck, and mediate with both groups. Using the effective-communication skills in Lesson 2 will raise your success odds!

 or you may need...

  • Something else.

      A final option is to do none of these, and "keep doing what you've been doing" Consider this observation from veteran therapists Steve and Carol Lankton:

"If you always do what you've always done...

you'll always get what you've always got."


      This article describes "hitting bottom" - reaching an emotional and mental state where you (or someone) accumulates "too much" inner pain, and decides to make significant personal changes. The ancient metaphor about a straw breaking a camel's back symbolizes this experience.

      The article also describes "pseudo, false, and trial bottoms" as well-meant attempts to make lasting changes that fail, causing "relapses" into the old attitudes and behaviors.

      This article proposes that average kids and adults are often conflicted between personality subselves who want instant gratification (often Inner Kids), and other subselves who want to delay gratification for greater benefits. As long as the former dominate, the person is apt to hit repeated trial or pseudo bottoms ("I've tried to quit smoking at least four times").

      This steadily increases frustration, anxiety, and guilt, which amplify inner pain, which promotes craving immediate relief (self-medication). Because this craving is emotional (irrational), trying to use logical persuasion to induce permanent change ("You've got to quit gambling because...") will always cause guilt and frustration. Recall your last broken New Year's resolution...

      The article closes with a summary of practical action-options, all based on assessing for significant psychological wounds and committing to reduce them over time. Committing to long-term self-healing (recovery) is a core-attitude (permanent) change, which usually requires hitting true personal bottom. This often doesn't occur until mid-life. For some wounded people, it never occurs

Selected Resources

  • Lesson-1 articles, worksheets, and resources, and the related guidebook "Who's Really Running Your Life?";

  • perspective on making superficial and primary changes, and managing change successfully;

  • perspective on addictions and preliminary recovery from them;

  • healthy three-level mourning, because hitting true bottom always follows and/or causes significant losses (broken bonds); and...

  • Selected recovery books and resources

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?  

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