Posted by: Barbara Hunt | June 14, 2015

Irrational, Painful Thinking

The way we think about ourselves, others, life, and events determines how we feel both emotionally and physically – and how we feel often determines how we act, meaning what we say or do or what we don’t say or don’t do.

All of us grow up making assumptions about ourselves that are not based in fact. No matter how healthy or dysfunctional your family is, all children come out of childhood with a certain set of irrational thoughts. These irrational thoughts cause many painful feelings such as worthlessness, inadequacy, shame, hurt, anger, depression, despair, fear, anxiety, hopelessness, confusion to name a few. These thoughts and accompanying feelings of worthlessness are the beginnings of our low self esteem.

The main irrational thoughts that children think are:
1. There must be something wrong with me.
2. I’m not smart or I’m stupid.
3. I’m not loveable.
4. No matter what I do, it’s never good enough.
5. I’m bad.

I call this “the tragedy of the childhood brain” because children have no other way to interpret many of their experiences. Children think in black and white: If I’m not perfect, then I’m bad. If Mom or Dad are mad at me, then I’ve done something wrong and if I’ve done something wrong, there’s something wrong with me: I’m bad, or unloveable, stupid, can’t do anything right, etc. Children also are self absorbed quite naturally. So if Mom is mad at me or neglecting me, then that must be ABOUT me and, again the assumption is, something is wrong with me. Children have no way of knowing the facts, such as Mom isn’t feeling well or Dad is an alcoholic or Mom or Dad are emotionally immature, and THAT’S the reason they are acting toward me the way they are.

Over and over as we grow up, we have experiences with parents, other children, and other adults, that we interpret as meaning there is something wrong with us. These thoughts become deeply ingrained beliefs. These beliefs, when triggered, lead to the negative, painful feelings. Our responses to those feelings are varied: withdrawing, acting out, being aggressive with others, not speaking at all, avoiding other people, trying to control others to name a few. We may try to numb this pain through dissociation – numbing out, overeating, substance and alcohol abuse, zoning out in front of the TV or the computer, overwork, staying busy, making sure we are never alone – all these will either deaden our pain or distract our minds from thinking those painful thoughts.

Our entire lives are colored by those conditioned, subconscious, untrue beliefs. If I believe that I’m not smart, I may not try things because I’m already convinced that I’ll fail. So, to avoid feelings of worthlessness and failure, I won’t try. Or I may move in the opposite direction, being a black and white thinker, and try to be good at everything and PROVE that I AM smart. This won’t save us from those feelings of worthlessness, however. Because none of us can succeed at everything. So when we DO fail, we feel bad. The same goes for believing I’m not loveable. I may avoid people and relationships because I have it set up in my mind that no one will love me and so to avoid the pain of rejection, I won’t try to get close to anyone. Or, I may go in the other direction, again black and white thinking, and try to please everyone and make everyone like me to PROVE that I AM loveable. But we can’t please everyone. Not everyone will love us. So we are back to the feelings of worthlessness and shame.

How do we get out of this painful mess?

Next time, I’ll write about how to change those beliefs and think with compassion and love about who we are.

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