A few years ago, I realised that I had lived most of my life in fear. Let’s qualify that. I was not scared for my well-being or that I would be attacked(directly)but fear of how others saw me, how I saw myself. This fear drove me to behave and interact in a way that guaranteed I would do all the pleasing, have terrible trouble saying NO, was never assertive and nearly never stood up for myself.
This fear of how others see us (or better how we feel they see us) is something I see every day in my work with my clients. It affects every aspect of their lives (as it did mine) and keeps them in a rut, unable to make decisions, improve their situation or start anew. Some are so paralysed when having to set boundaries or make a decision that they avoid this at all costs. They very often go fully against what they want and take the line of least resistance by agreeing to everything. The problem is that the guilt and shame felt afterwards keeps the cycle going.
Clearly there are always deeper issues at the core and these usually need dealing with as a background element in therapy. This might take some time and often needs a two-pronged approach from the therapist. Deeper work at the core and changing thinking patterns in the present. There is really a lot you can do in a practical sense if you are this kind of person. As a CBT Therapist, I believe strongly that the way we see an event determines fully how we behave towards it. This is where the major part of work with my clients is centered to try to effect change in the present moment.
The main issue here is conditioning. Throughout our childhood, we are expected to react and behave mostly in the way our parents decide. This can be positive if childhood takes place in a functional “ok” family setting. However, if dysfunction exists in terms of inappropriate parenting style, the learning is somewhat different and can lead to a dysfunctional adulthood. In effect, we all react in the same way we did as children by default. Here lies our dilemma. It is the only blueprint we usually know and given to us at a time when we couldn’t rationalise our parents behavior. They carry their baggage and so to speak, pass it on to their children to carry. If we look inside this “bag”, we will find our parent’s own conditioning that they failed or were unable to deal with.
A lot of functional work can be done when triggers occur by consciously changing our thinking in the moment. Once we become aware of how we generally instinctively behave in situations that cause triggers such as conflict, social events, rejection, etc, it is then a case of taking the sometimes small window of opportunity we have to change our conditioned thinking. Let’s get this straight, this is hard work and some never get past the awareness stage, finding the practice of the theory extremely frightening. Such is the power of conditioning. However, it is a choice, doing nothing is also a choice and every choice bears consequences. In this case, I am always reminded of a very profound quote I once heard…” we are 100% not responsible for our conditioning as a child but 100% responsible as an adult to change it”.
It is really a case of breaking the cycle of reactivity because this is the main issue. We have learnt to behave a certain way based on fear or an irrational defense mechanism. We naturally assume that the fears we have or the danger and threat we feel will lead to something. This kicks in our stress response…fight or flight, attack or defence. We feel doing this will protect us in the same way it did as a child and we react without really thinking as fear takes over.
I often teach my clients that they truly can control this thinking by placing a “breaker switch” in the process. This means consciously and with self-awareness analysing the situation in the moment. Instead of “what if” questions (the normal drivers of fear), more functional questioning can be used along with the tools of effective communication such as listening and paraphrasing. By staying in the moment, we are not allowing the dysfunctional past or an imagined future to rule our response. Hard work this may be but the rewards are great.