Knowledge is a powerful resource for navigating life. We have endless internal dialogues that assist with interpretation of information and decision-making. Knowing why we think the way we think is the gold standard for healthy functioning. It affords us an opportunity to appreciate where we are in life and to choose where to go from there, a starting point for change.
Unhealthy thinking is, in large part, a function of negative belief systems, often installed by others and reinforced by our childhood experiences. Many people exhibit profound self-doubt, blame themselves, apologize profusely, and excuse their parents’ abusive behavior. This constellation of negative beliefs and behaviors presents in conjunction with stories of verbal and physical abuse that begins in childhood and follows people into adulthood. The longer we think a particular way, the harder it is to change our thoughts and beliefs.
I am a psychotherapist in private practice. Here is a hypothesis for consideration: Parents raise their children in their own image to fit into the world the way they see it. I ask people who come to me for therapy to stop and think about the developmental and environmental realties of their childhoods. I remind them that kids are captive learners who have no choice, no voice, and no mobility.
There is a big difference between grieving that you didn’t get what you needed as a child and spending your life blaming parents for your life as an adult. A middle-aged man told me he had stomped out of a doctor’s office because his physician asked him how he felt about being hit by his father. He tearfully pointed his finger and said, “My dad was a good man, a hard worker, and I probably deserved what I got.” It was a clear message to me that the subject was off limits. It was a defensive response.
Interestingly, the man’s presenting issue was that he was “at his wit’s end” trying to cope with a 30-year-old son’s excessive pot smoking and slovenly behavior. The daily arguments were driving him and his wife crazy, but neither had successfully implemented and enforced boundaries in their own home.
Why did a middle-aged man protectively defend his deceased father when, as an adult, he never tolerated being hit by others? He relied on a system of justifying his dad’s abuse while blaming himself because it once worked. He learned to be a peacekeeper at a young age. It reduced the likelihood that his dad would get angry and violent. However, this role did not allow the man to honor his true feelings about being hit, berated, and shamed.
He was profoundly uncomfortable, consumed with constant doubt about his worth and ability. He’d worked for five companies but had been let go because he was “a loyal employee but an ineffective leader.” His home life was less than satisfying. The worse things got, the more he loved and the harder he tried to make peace. He parented his son from this place of low self-esteem. He was incapable of setting reasonable limits, highly deferential to the needs and wants of his wife and children. His coping system ceased to work, but he didn’t know how to change it.
We owe it to ourselves to identify why we do what we do. Then, we may decide whether we still want or need to stay with the program. Defensive responses are protective and serve a purpose. A great example of this is the use of avoidance. Most people who avoid refer to themselves as “lazy” or say “I’m a procrastinator.” Two significant things are successfully happening. One, they internalize the blame. It may not be pleasant to criticize oneself for being lazy, but it reduces the likelihood of argument. This is terrific for people who hate conflict. Two, it bypasses being angry with others and helps us feel in control.
Anger gets a bad rap in our culture, which suggests that to be angry is to be out of control. It is an appropriate affect in certain situations. There are normal ranges for angry expression, as there are for all emotions. Anger is frequently role-modeled in extremes—demonstrations of screaming, verbal put-downs, and physical violence.
Early coping strategies for dealing with life, especially for navigating interactions with others, are rooted in familiarity. People rely on and repeat these even when the results are painful and no longer work. The human drive for consistency pulls dominance over curiosity for exploring new ways of coping. These methods worked well at some point in life, especially during childhood, when they were appropriate for emotional and physical survival.
Compartmentalization and detachment are subconscious coping mechanisms. The same man adamantly defends his father’s dictatorial parenting style but parents his children with a “marshmallow” approach—no rules or consequences. One part of him agrees with and condones his dad’s treatment of him. Another part parents in a diametrically opposed manner. It’s fascinating to observe these disconnects in action. People complain about feeling stuck. Change is challenging and often feared. Familiarity and years of reinforcement make moving from negative to positive thinking difficult. I guide people on a journey of awareness and choice. We nonjudgmentally search relevant files of experience to identify significant influences and resulting patterns of thinking. The pace of raising awareness is based on each person’s comfort level and learning style.
Awareness is a starting place. The brain does not have a delete button for experiential files, but it is possible to update and integrate files. The password for reprogramming? Choice.