Thinking that gets in the way of recovery
We don’t think as much as we think
Most of us believe that we are always thinking; it’s not true. The bulk of what we consider thought is just the mind going through its normal process, drifting past our consciousness like a river, full of debris that has been dumped there in the past. Much of this debris will have come from powerful figures such as parents, teachers, religious advisors and our early peer groups. Little of this will have been thought about at the time; rather it will have been assimilated as ‘truth’ with little or no investigation as to its value. This flowing river will be generating memories spurred by current input through the five senses and there will probably be some sort of intuitive linking occurring because of all this bumping together. This intuitive response is often accepted as another version of ‘truth’; but it is at least as likely to be wrong as right, and is one of the ways that many people with anxiety disorders maintain their inability to cope with life.
This is all mental activity but it isn’t thought. Thinking is a logical process that considers all the provable facts of any situation, not the biases, hopes and fears. To work it has to call on the part of the mind that looks at things rationally and logically. Unfortunately, most people with anxiety disorders lock into their emotions when the feared situations occur. This activates the part of the mind that deals with hunches, preconceptions and the willingness to swallow ideas whole and makes logical thought next to impossible. But the luckless person still believes that he or she is ‘thinking’ and equates this activity with the rest of his or her life where thinking actually does take place. This results in the situation where such a person believes, quite reasonably, that he or she is a perfectly and provably adequate thinker in many areas, so the anxiety-driven process has just as much value as the rest. Sometimes, the more successful a person is in the outside world, where his or her thinking is valued or makes this person a good living, the more difficult it is for him or her to accept that the anxiety-driven process not only has no value but is actively working against life-values.
Putting aside bad early learning is difficult for everyone. As babies we have to take everything on trust, we have no other choice. We do not possess the mental processes that allow us to sift and sort incoming data for its value. This kind of learning is very powerful and easily sets up a template in our minds for ‘swallowing whole’ things that we are told later by people we consider powerful, with little mental processing on our part. There is even research that suggests that there might be an internal genetic process that primes us to accept the teaching of powerful people and punishes us chemically (anxiety etc.) if we question it, as part of a primitive survival trait. This would be a breeding ground for accepting emotion-laden ‘facts’ whether they are true or not. And who knows, maybe the ‘punishing’ part of this has made us very ready to accept any ‘fact’ that comes complete with a shot of anxiety?
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Two sorts of intelligence
There is research that suggests that we have at least two sorts of intelligence: knowledge based and experience based. The former involves logical reasoning and the processing of information from books and other learning aids. The latter is based on life experience, intuition and the ability to have good and bad feelings about people and to make rapid judgements. This is the intelligence that runs our everyday lives.
It can be seen from this that life intelligence need have little to do with academic intelligence, ‘IQ’ and the rest. This gives all of us, the brilliant and the not so brilliant, pretty much equal chances in the everyday world. The big problem is that life intelligence, by definition, involves little rational and logical thought. It would be very difficult to live our lives if every activity had to be subjected to a lengthy thought process and the weighing of ‘do I or don’t I’ each time, taking into account all possible data and every piece of sensory input; so we don’t. This is fine if the life intelligence has managed to develop a healthy and reasonable intuitive and ‘knee-jerk’ response to life’s little (and big) difficulties. When it has, instead, assimilated an approach that is heavily weighted with irrational intuition, biases, prejudices and misperceptions, the already weaker ability to slip rational and logical thought in from the knowledge based intelligence side can be almost totally absent. This can leave people who apparently function well in the world, harbouring a minefield of misperceptions about themselves in relation to their environment and the people around them that is, basically, a disaster waiting to happen.
Even when people are helped to understand that their life intelligence is working against them, this is unlikely to change it. As said, life intelligence does not respond well to intellectual understanding, and the vaunted ‘willpower’ is equally unlikely to have any effect. Life intelligence changes only occur when better, more accurate and rational responses are undertaken and don’t prove cataclysmic time after time. This takes courage for if one’s total experience is saying that only one response to a situation is possible, trying something else is the proverbial leap in the dark. When it is understood that this leap will have to be taken over and over again before any lasting benefit is experienced, the difficulty becomes obvious.
This difficulty will be further aggravated when the life intelligence concerned is linked to beliefs that make trying new things difficult. For example, the person with low self-value who sees every mistake as further proof that he or she is inadequate as a human being.
Here, everyday activities are already fraught with danger: mistakes proving this irrational belief. Why then would people who feel like this risk new ways of doing things? They already have low expectation of getting things right even when they respond in what they perceive as a ‘normal’ way; doing it differently, ‘wrongly’ as they are likely to see it, would, to them, ensure failure and just prove, once more, that they are as pathetic and inadequate as they believe themselves to be. And nobody’s self-value is so low that they enjoy feeling like a waste of space; it hurts. Trying new ways has to be viewed as having at least some chance of success before a person will attempt them.
Two examples of harmful life intelligence
Two prime examples of harmful life intelligence are those whose self-worth is locked in to individual achievements, and those who fear they will be ‘found out’ if they don’t keep tight control of their lives.
In the first situation: self-worth linked to personal achievements, this is a potentially destructive way of approaching life. When a comfortable appraisal of self-worth is not seen as viable by a person with regard to his or her ‘whole-life’ value: that is as a reflection of this person on an everyday basis, it is often linked to single achievements instead. Naturally, when feeling good about oneself only occurs when a person feels that he or she has done something worthwhile, this is a temporary state of emotion that has to be reached for over and over again with an endless string of achievements. The other side of this is that such a person will almost certainly view failing in anything as a reflection of worthlessness.
We all feel good about ourselves when we do well and at least disappointed when we don’t, but here we are talking about people whose whole life-value is geared to individual situations. This could probably be viewed as an example of people with ‘naturally’ low self-value. That is, people who have not been helped, by parents or other power figures during their early years, to build up a vision of themselves as worthwhile human beings irrespective of how successful they are at school, in sport or in any of a huge number of different youthful endeavours. When the young person perceives him or herself as valued only in as far as getting high marks or sporting success is concerned, then self-value may easily become linked semi-permanently to such individual ‘highs’ with self-doubt and anxiety populating the times in between. As life is made up of a lot of ‘moderate’ and ‘low’ and much less ‘high’, people feeling this way will naturally spend a great deal of time trying to recreate the good self-feelings through individual achievements, because the rest of the time they feel bad about themselves. Here achievement is not striven for as a part of life but as the whole of life and the need for success becomes unbalanced and potentially destructive.
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Being found out
The fear of being ‘found out’ is common to many people. There was a research project many years ago in America where many successful businessmen admitted to the fear that, one day, somebody would come up to them, tap them on the shoulder and say: ‘we know about you, give it all back!’ This could be seen as healthy self-doubt that keeps a person focused and working hard. The alternative, when somebody feels they are perfect and deserve all the good things as some kind of natural law, makes such people impossible to associate with and not particularly committed to work.
As with everything else, the middle road is best: not over weaning self-confidence that leads to slapdash activity; nor grinding self-doubt that leads to obsessional focus on situations where the fear of failure fills more of the mind than completing the task at hand. Instead, working at life must involve the possibility of mistakes and failure. If one is not prepared to fail, then new ways of doing things will be ignored because the risk is too high. Very few of the inventions we take for granted today in our lives, such as microwave ovens, cars, video recorders, computers and the rest, would be available if their inventors had suffered from a self-worth valuation that demanded success every time. So ‘being found out’ usually means, as a worst-case scenario, being found out to be fallibly human, and that’s not a bad thing.
Within the charity there have been many service users whose successes, even huge successes, were never enough. If they feared ‘being found out’, that is if their self-valuation was that of a basically worthless person who had ‘got lucky’, then no success would have lasting value because it would be seen as ‘just luck’ among the ‘real’ list of failures and incompetence. The truly successful person is one who is comfortable with his or her failures or misjudgements and who can be open with people, not hiding the ‘true worthless self’ but able to be natural in the knowledge that he or she is a good enough human being.
Free will doesn’t exist
Hiding the perceived ‘true self’ takes an enormous amount of energy and virtually ensures that such a person can never be content with life; but, as said earlier, knowing that this is negative behaviour will not make it change. There is research that suggests that, given our genetic makeup, environment, upbringing, experience, memory and thought processes we can’t help but react the way we do to every situation: that is we don’t have free will, we just respond as we are programmed to do. This can bring comfort as in; ‘its not my fault’ which might be true but doesn’t make for a better life. It can also bring a feeling of hopelessness: change is impossible. This isn’t true. We cannot change our genetic makeup and upbringing at all; it may be difficult or impossible to change our environment; but we can have some effect in the present on our experience, memory and, most of all, our thought processes.
Although experience and memory are from the past, they are not solid objects. We colour both with the way we process our thoughts. Certain parts of an experience may be unchanging: a thunder storm for example, but the way an individual remembers it will vary enormously. The person afraid of storms will hold it in memory as terror, the person who enjoys them as an interesting diversion. The event is the same but the experience is very different. We cannot change that experience, but we can begin to question whether or not it was valid. A person afraid of storms can be helped via behavioural therapy for example, to overcome that fear and treat future storms as a very different event. This will not change the original experience of them and will colour future ones, if only slightly.
Difficulty with life experiences
More subtle experience is difficult. For example, a man might believe that, as a child, his interaction with his father was something that taught him to ‘be a man’: not to cry, work hard, be physical (maybe brutal), unemotional, dominant with women and generally ‘strong’. According to his genetic makeup and personality tendencies, this might have been useful or cataclysmic or anywhere in between. And the experience would have been a very personal one that might have had little to do with what his father had actually tried to teach him. The old phrase; ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’ has been part of many parents’ teaching credentials for a very long time regardless of the fact that children learn much more from practical experience and observation than they do from verbal instruction.
In such a case, the male adult might view his child-self as mistreated, lied too, abandoned, misunderstood, helped, defended or any variation and combination within those. The experience, in memory, has boundaries and substance but it is smoke held together by this adult’s personality and the way his mind worked then and works now.
The problem is that all this past experience has built up to make some reactions; some thought processes, ‘normal’ and ‘right’. When this has resulted in a bruising collision with life rather than a smooth interaction, we have to re-evaluate. We have to understand that our experience and our memory of it is complicated. We also have to understand that memory and the thought process we use on it can be a very personal thing too. For example, some people mark the memory and perception of their lives with the big events, the major activities such as birthdays, holidays, illnesses and the like; others work with the smaller things such as lying in the sun or walking in the woods; still others mark it with emotions: fear, rage, joy. And, as always, some ‘pick and mix’ and have a patchwork of memory that may give equal memory-weight to a family death and a beech ball bouncing in some sandy cove.
Memory too is often processed by the individual now as what ‘must’ have happened, what he or she ‘must’ have been feeling at the time, with no real concession to what actually was occurring; and all of this while, very probably, putting him- or herself in the best possible light within these memories. Memory is also a very personal perception of the event or of the ongoing life experience. For example, Anxiety Care has encountered siblings whose descriptions of their parents’ personalities and attitudes have virtually nothing in common. That is, for example, daddy was a frightening ogre to one and a pussycat to the other.
All this is not meant to confuse or alarm, it is meant to show that we have and always have had a personal impact on the way we perceive our lives. There is very little ‘etched in stone’ in anyone’s existence. We are undoubtedly the result of all we have ever thought and done, regardless of how selfless or downright nasty these thoughts and acts were; but mostly we are the result of the way we processed these thoughts and acts in our minds; and how we continue to process them.
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The charity helps people, within an environment such as a face-to-face or online mutual support group where trying new ways is less frightening, to question their thoughts and beliefs, even those powerful early ‘truths’ that might, as mentioned previously, have a little chemical punishment attached to the questioning.
It is absolutely essential for recovery from an anxiety disorder, to question beliefs that are working against us. For example, why does making a mistake mean you are stupid? What proof do you have? Would it have been a different result if you had had more experience, better instruction, more time, less alcohol last night? Is the mistake more likely the result of carelessness or laziness? If it is, does that mean you are more comfortable with being stupid than being careless or lazy? Why?
With more painful truths, the childhood ones for example, the questioning still has to be rigorous. In the case of the hypothetical man above and his relationship with his father, he might say: ‘my father taught me to be a man’ and mean a dozen different things by that in many shades of good or bad. If his concept of manliness is causing him problems, the questions there might be: what’s a man? Whose definition do I live by? Is it valid? If the thought of questioning its validity worries me, why does it? Did my father tell me how to be a man, or did I pick it up from his example? If he told me, were his beliefs valid? If they were, are they still? If I picked it up, I was just a child; what did I know? Would any reasonable adult try to keep someone to a promise he made to himself at age three or four? And, always: why do I believe that particular thing is true? What proof do I have? And added to this must be the absolute understanding that questioning the teachings of a parent does not mean disloyalty to that parent or lack of love for that parent.
A reason to question
If the latter seems difficult to accept, it might be an idea to look at the way the world has changed in the last two hundred years. Before that, blindly following parental direction would have been reasonable as life changed little from generation to generation. It is true to say that someone from England in the seventh century would have had a lot less trouble adapting to being dropped into the seventeenth century than our great-grandparents would have, suddenly finding themselves in 2001. So the genetic ‘wiring’ to follow what worked for previous generations and to revere the parental approach, has had a lot of time to establish itself. Now the world is changing more rapidly than it ever has and it could be viewed as the duty of all parents to be willing to adapt and change and question old ‘truths’ in order for their own children to be able to do the same and so fit more comfortably into the modern world.
Our experience might have ‘proved’ to us that the world is dangerous; that nobody cares, that dog-eat-dog is the way to live. This might indeed have been true at a certain point in life and served some purpose; at the very least enabling a person with this background to exist and function. But when beliefs like this have come between a person and a bearable current life, then they have to be challenged. As most people with anxiety perceive that they are barely functioning with what they have already, being ready to junk some of it takes an act of faith.
Here, it is important to understand that the mind can change the way it looks at the world. Our personality and past experience give us certain ‘mind-sets’: the way we process input coming in to the mind through the five senses. For example, someone who has the experience of the world being dangerous, as mentioned above, will process most sensory input through this ‘set’. That is, he or she will be more willing to process any event as dangerous or a possible threat than to perceive it in any other way. This will be a habitual response that the person concerned is not even aware of. In this way the world stays dangerous because that is the main component of all sensory input for this person.
In the same way, someone who feels inadequate is unlikely to view opportunities for change as a challenge but rather as a threat. And as mentioned in other literature this is not conducive to learning new ways. Accepting a challenge makes us ready to gear up and open our minds to learning. Perceiving an offer as a threat makes us defend ourselves, stop listening, stop considering the offer in any positive way. This shows how emotion accompanies every thought, something of which many people are unaware.
Where a person has a negative mind-set, there will be negative emotion accompanying thought: suspicion, fear, aggression etc. And, as mentioned, with a person’s life intelligence working with emotion rather than reason and logic, there is little chance of these responses changing. It might then be useful to consider whether a person might then change the mind-set in order to bring more positive emotions to bear, as emotion cannot be kept out of the equation whichever way the mind is pointing.
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Within Anxiety Care, people with a mind-set that sees most mistakes as proof of inadequacy, have been helped to undertake activities that can get round this attitude. One example is doing something that they are fairly comfortable with and building up the level of difficulty. This avoids the instant: ‘I’ll fail!’ that almost guarantees that the first problem encountered with unfamiliar or feared activity, however minor, will result in the mind diving into a mire of anxiety and memory of all the other failures, that will stand solidly between such a person and dealing with the new problem. When familiar activity is undertaken, the mind is set to deal with any glitches and increasing difficulty here does not draw the same, emotional response; or not until the difficulty has reached a far higher level than confounded this anxious person with new or feared activity. Being shown that failure is not automatic can begin the process of questioning ‘truths’ about personal competence.
Another example is helping people to understand that we all have many ‘minds’ which all have varying degrees of ability and understanding. That is, we all have within us such areas as the mathematician, engineer, cook, carpenter, artist, orator, philosopher etc. Parts of us that come into play when these specialities occur in our lives. These myriad areas will vary hugely in their abilities: the classical absent minded professor, for example, who is the best in his field but can barely tie his own shoelaces.
Many people coming to Anxiety Care are unaware that their abilities in some areas are quite poor. They tend to assume that excellence in a chosen sphere translates to excellence elsewhere. While they are unlikely to believe that being a brilliant carpenter would then automatically make them a brilliant artist, they are often capable of believing that an intellectual ability to work out complex engineering problems, for example, should make them equally capable of working out their anxiety problems; it doesn’t.
One charity counsellor states that his most difficult clients are people trained to work with their minds such as lawyers, journalists and teachers. He states that their skilled thinking in one specific area encourages them to believe that they can think through anything, and long experience has shown that this just isn’t true. The best (or worst) such word experts are likely to manage is to build up a web of theories and beliefs that excuse or obscure their behaviour, not deal with it. His response is to help such clients to look at the ways their minds are set when they are confronted with anxiety-generating situations and to help them to deal with the rational reality of this, not their perception or construct of a reality they would prefer to accept.
Another area where the multi-mind approach can work is in helping people with skills in certain areas, who see themselves as helpless when confronted with anxiety, to use these skills to deal with the problem. An example of this is the master carpenter helped to approach his anxiety as he would a particularly difficult piece of work with wood: to see it as a problem he is capable of solving, not some demonised weirdness that he is helpless to confront.
These two approaches might seem to conflict, but they don’t. The word experts can be helped in the same way: not beating at the problem with their minds, trying to think themselves out of trouble, but using the craft element in their training to devise a solution. This might be the lawyer, throwing out the thinking ‘argument’ and looking for one that works better on the jury; the teacher devising a lesson to reach a particularly difficult pupil; the journalist writing an article about better ways to approach anxiety for people who don’t understand it: all of these aimed at themselves. When naturally high levels of skill are brought to bear in this way, it can be surprising how quickly the feared ‘mental problem’ is understood and dealt with.
As mentioned earlier, our minds tend to work in ways that help us deal with the day in the easiest way possible. Because of this, many of our processes for dealing with sensory input will involve little or no interpretation of each happening. That is, we tend to accept things we know from experience will not harm us, or that are ‘good’, or ‘normal’ with no thought input to speak of. The problem occurs with this acceptance of ‘normal’. It is fine to process a sunny day, a passing bus or a smile from a neighbour with no thought input. It is not fine to accept things that hurt us as ‘normal’.
Here it is important to be aware of ‘impact’. This is an internal process whereby the body and mind respond to some input with mental pain. As we all learn very young, pain is a vehicle that helps us to avoid being damaged a second time; we become careful in certain situations. Pain is not something we can safely ignore. This is never truer than with mental pain.
If we process something that hurts us mentally as normal, what does that say about us? That we deserved it? That we are so worthless or bad that we should be hurt? Why is that true? Where did we pick up this nonsense from? We have to be aware of the impact of mental distress on ourselves. Some is inevitable of course: in bereavement, the departure of a loved one, the loss of a job and many other ‘losing’ situations. But when this losing involves self-esteem and self-confidence it is not inevitable and those that try to make us believe it is so are doing us enormous harm. Nobody deserves to be treated as worthless, least of all by themselves. When something hurts us emotionally, when we feel this impact, we must stop and question it, the more so if our first tendency is simply to accept it as ‘normal’.
In this situation we have to make the effort to process the painful input: to think about it. And then be ready to act on ways to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. All sensory input that gets beyond the ‘normal’, ‘good’, ‘harmless’, stage requires thinking about. This is true for everyone. We have a lifetime’s experience of doing this so it is essential to group the damaging events we ‘just accept’ in this area that requires thought, and build a habit of seeing them as such.
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Listening to yourself
This requires the ability to listen to oneself. Most of us become so used to the internal dialogue that we no longer listen to it and this can be a huge mistake. It can be time well spent to take a few hours during one specific day and note every negative self-comment encountered. It is quite likely that these will number in the hundreds during a normal day for a person with self-esteem problems. Realising this, how readily we ‘knock’ ourselves without thought, can be a turning point in the struggle against negative self-talk.
Some people find a visual aid useful here. If you wish to try this, you could invest in a pack of self-adhesive notelets, write ‘what am I saying to myself now?’ on each and stick them up around the house. Then each time you encounter one the process is triggered. If the life situation makes this obvious reminder difficult or potentially embarrassing, small coloured adhesive dots or stars, available at any stationers, can be used instead.
Good self-listening helps us to develop the habit of responding not reacting to situations and learning how not to confuse the two. That is, situations that trigger negative emotions about ourselves are almost invariably reactive: something that does not trigger thought but an emotional ‘knee-jerk’. We are so used to it that we don’t think about it anymore, we just do it. Responding to a situation means that we consider it, we look at its pros and cons and take action through conscious choice. As very few of us will consciously hurt ourselves, this habit is one well worth building.
Be kind to yourself
Following on from self-listening is the requirement to be kind to oneself. Most people reading this will be a lot harder on themselves than on any other person in their lives. This is never useful. Self-disgust leaves very little room for healthy positive attitudes of any sort. The man who hates himself easily hates others. The woman who finds nothing likeable in her herself might have a completely unbalanced approach to judging the niceness of others: expecting too little or too much.
Obviously we are all capable of performing acts of which we later become ashamed and because of which we feel guilt. Some acts in our lives will richly deserve this response, others will not. The trick has to be deciding which is which. Many people coming to Anxiety Care have absorbed a sense of guilt and/or shame from a very early age; their ‘mind-set’ is towards feeling worthless or in need of punishment.
It is not possible to say that a certain type of parent makes this inevitable because it does not, only more likely. How much we take guilt upon ourselves depends, to a large degree, on our personality. However, guilt is only useful if it leads to change. Guilt and shame that pounds away, telling us we are worthless or deserve to be treated badly or should punish ourselves, is totally useless and works against leading a reasonable life. Here again, it is vital to catch the thought and ask ‘why?’ Why should I be treated badly? Why should I punish myself? And if the answer is a blanket: ‘because I am bad’, why is this true? Who told me that, or let me believe that?
As mentioned elsewhere in our literature, some parents’ attitude to their children encourages them to feel worthless, bad, unloved, even undeserving of love. This is the parents’ inadequacy, not the child’s. But as a very young person, it is almost impossible not to integrate such a parental attitude, or perceived attitude, into one’s life. This is painful and very sad for the child; but the adult grown out of this child can put the feelings aside. Only he or she can look at it all and say: ‘I am not worthless!’ ‘I am not bad!’ Other people can’t talk us out of such a perspective; we have to do it ourselves. To achieve it we have to develop the techniques described above and build up a more rational vision of the self. Just saying it won’t make it happen, nor will ‘positive thinking’. We have to work at it every day and prove to ourselves that we are worthwhile. We have to change the beliefs of a lifetime and this is not easy. But only then will it become part of us rather than a meaningless mantra that brings shallow comfort not honest, positive, personal growth.
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