If you’re stuck, it’s not always your fault.
I am hearing from so many sources so many elegant pieces of advice, usually with a number attached. Maybe they are useful for you, maybe not quite so.
They are useful, if they are universal or if they correspond to the life stage you currently go through.
If however, you catch yourself experiencing strong negative emotions that keep holding you back in some way, this short read may serve as a suggestion what to do about them.
It is a part of a series of articles where I’m reporting a case I came across with one of my clients. I present explanation of possible mechanism at play. If you find a similar pattern in yourself there’s always a link or a hint where to find the source of a given model, theory.
How often during your day do you happen to have a negative thought of some kind?
If you’re like most people, you have on average around 12–20 thousand thoughts daily. Up to 70% of them are of a repetitive and negative character.
One problem is that these dysfunctional thinking avenues make our lives more troublesome, causing more suffering, in extreme cases leading to depressive disorders. These are characterized by people’s dysfunctional negative view of the world in general, their future or views of themselves.
The latter is probably most widely present: the fear of unworthiness that underlies many other difficult emotional events like explosions of anger. It may also manifest itself in its „native” form as expressed by Jim Carrey: “if they ever find out that I’m worthless, if they find out that I’m not enough, I’ll be destroyed”.
On the performance level you may feel that this negative thinking inhibits your growth potential. The bugs in our operating software are using lots of resources, running many dysfunctional processes in the background. Procrastination is one of the most obvious symptoms, because “procrastinator worries that he will suffer shame and embarrassment from the opinions, criticism, or invalidation of others” (D. Parker).
“Hope and fear are vectors that push against each other, and the sum of those two vectors is your overall motivation level. If you can remove the vector of fear, then hope will predominate, and your overall motivation level will be higher.” BJ Fogg
The bottom-line is this: It’s OK to have negative thoughts. But only to a certain extent beyond which, we struggle. 20% of us will be diagnosed with depression or other mental disorder at some point in our lives. Our operating system is not running at its full capacity, inhibiting natural growth inclination — i.e. our desire to become the best version of ourselves.
What if there was an explanation for these types of thoughts…
These processes running in the background are fear-based beliefs that we use to make sense of what happens in our lives. When your fear-based beliefs are triggered, you react emotionally according to your conscious and unconscious memories.
You would have never guessed but it looks like these abnormally negative thought patterns can be traced back to our childhood years. “Home is where we start from” as expressed by Donald Winnicott, an English psychoanalyst, best known for his ideas on the true self and false self.
So, in the words of O. James, “it is normal to be screwed up to some extent, that everyone suffers problems in childhood and that all of us will be the better for changing our notions of what is normal.”
“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.” M. Rosenberg
The unmet needs Rosenberg mentions are those that should have been taken care of during our early life stages. Following A. Maslow, they can belong to three different categories: survival and safety needs, relationship or belonging needs, and recognition and acknowledgement needs.
If, for example, a child is left alone for long periods of time, its ego will likely form subconscious fear-based beliefs that the world is an unsafe place and that other people cannot be trusted (survival need). A person with an unmet belonging need will find it difficult to build long-term relationships, as they aren’t sure whether they can love and be loved. And the third kind — recognition need? A confession of Jim Carrey above is a good example.
These unmet needs remain unmet and demand our attention. They color all of our perceptions and distort reality, making demands on a person’s whole being: “Feed me! Love me! Respect me!”
Even if we have some understanding as to what could contribute to our well-being we struggle as we continue to “drag a long bag behind us”. This bag contains all the unmet needs from our previous developmental stages — a process also very thoroughly explained by Erik Erikson in his Theory of Stages of Psychosocial Development.
Would you agree that in order to move forward, you need to leave something behind?
The only criteria most of us have for what we should pursue is what pleases us in the moment. It makes sense from the evolutionary perspective: the things that gave us pleasure — such as food, sex, conserving energy in resting — also allowed us to survive as a species. Freud called it the pleasure principle, Frankl called it the will to pleasure.
This works as a compass for our life decisions, but only to a point. Yes, you probably guessed it: that point is midlife.
“You wake up one day and you are unexpectedly out of gas. The atmosphere of personal ownership sinks; the sweet milk of achievement is sour; the old patterns of coping and acting pinch your feet. The ability to prize your favorite objects — your works; children, possessions, power positions, accomplishments — has been stolen and you are left wondering what happened last night?” — Murray Stein
As we reach the middle of our lives, a shift happens. We become arrested in our evolutionary development. If we are in our forties, we should be in our self-actualization phase of development but sometimes, we simply don’t know that. All we realize is that our happiness algorithm is not working anymore. We’re running on a hedonic treadmill, adding more and more to our possessions or pleasant activities that make less and less sense.
Life is a continuous stream of choices, where during the first half of our lives we try to maximize our desire for happiness. During the second half of our lives, if we continue to evolve, we need to follow our desire for meaning and fulfillment or, as Jung put it: “what youth found and must find outside, the man of life’s afternoon must find within himself.”
Your growth potential will only wait for so long. If by the time you reach middle age, you have not been able to master your basic needs, you will begin to feel a growing sense of unease. Your energy field will become unstable. You might even become depressed.
“When you have a lot of anxieties and worries about satisfying your deficiency needs, your mind never gets a chance to focus on exploring opportunities to meet your growth needs” — R. Barrett
In the second part of your life you need to grow, you need to build on your experiences. You either follow your soul’s purpose, or you spend the rest of your life in regret only to realize on your deathbed that you could have lived a life true to yourself, that you simply could have lived a happier life, that you could have saved yourself from “the feelings of bitterness and despair” — E. Erikson.
“Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.” — Bonnie Ware
Your limiting beliefs or assumptions only have the energy if they stay in the dark recesses of your mind. What is negative cannot survive in the light.
How to place limiting beliefs in the light
One way to start the process would be to find out “how your parents cared for you when small, whether through your own memory or by asking those who witnessed it or by analyzing the way you relate to others today.” O. James
Once you uncover your limiting beliefs, it is sometimes possible to observe how they trigger emotional upsets. You can then try to change how you react and start to question the validity of your beliefs.
“We use our reason and experience to find out where the problem came from and where it leads. Next, we investigate backward, to see the process by which that problem arose. You understand where anger, guilt, depression, and fear come from; you see how they grow inside of you. When you see these things clearly, you’re able to catch them early; and because you know they are unwholesome and unskillful, you’re able to do something about them.” Ajahn Brahm
When you manage to realize what secondary motivations are holding you back in your development and decide to work on them, your life will improve as a result. You’ll get a chance to silence the mental clutter and to slow or entirely stop the train of negative thoughts running in your head. It’s like uninstalling those processes running in the background. You will need it that way so that you could stand a better chance at your self-actualization phase.
You begin to discover your calling, but to be able to sail out into the ocean of possibilities, you need your boat to be secure enough. As explained above, you need to make sure that you looked into what secondary motivations might be holding you back.
It is not your fault
If we have unmet needs which weren’t satisfied in our childhood, they have a huge impact on how we perceive reality. They contribute to our suffering and inhibit our natural tendency to move forward in our development. They are like brakes on our path to self-actualization and make it difficult to understand where our life purpose lies. O. James in his book “They f*** you up” blames our parents for not doing their homework. A poem placed in the beginning of the book may serve as the summary of James’ thesis:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn by fools in old-style hats and coats” — Philip Larkin
Irving Yalom puts it in a more subtle way when he says in the documentary “Yalom’s cure”: “It is important for people to understand their parents and to understand what their parents were going through too. Their parents were exposed to certain kind of parents and that it has been passed from generation to generation and what we have to do is to try to break the cycle”
In most cases, there was probably a good reason our parents did not manage to establish an environment where 100% of our needs could have been satisfied. Adam remembers how his parents struggled to provide basic provisions and had they devoted more time to him he would have had lower quality food on the table and more funny clothes to wear. Adam came to understand that it had to be that way and that now, at last, he needs to face his secondary motivations and work with them.
He has started precisely as described above: by analyzing the areas where he felt peculiar resistance in pursuing life projects that otherwise were perceived as key milestones in his development. With a help of psychotherapist Adam was able to exactly understand which kind of negative thinking patterns inhibited the actions that he planned. He was, for instance, too afraid to present his ideas anticipating negative feedback.
He came to realize that the underlying belief was that the world is not a safe place and that he can get hurt by other people’s opinions. But he also acknowledged that in order to move forward, to grow, to focus on his primary motivations, on his growth, he needed to take care of the negative belief that had its origin in his early years.
The corrective process is still ongoing. Adam learns to question the validity of thoughts as they appear. He is happy to notice that the dysfunctional, automatic impact his thoughts had on his feelings and behavior is no longer working so smoothly. In more and more cases he is now able to choose aware response that would serve him, instead of block him in his life as it unfolds.