A client who has been coming to therapy for quite some time, recently had a revelation where she finally realised that her family had conditioned her as a child to behave in a certain way. Intellectually, she always knew this but emotionally she could not accept it. She cried for the first time in years and has vowed to see this as an opportunity to change her belief system. In our time together, she has often expressed terms similar to the following:
“My family has always been that way”
“That’s just the way I am”
“Because of my past, I can’t, won’t, will never be able to”.
These statements are often heard when people try to explain, justify or make excuses for their behaviour and attitudes, or the behavior of others. But just how much of our past experience really affects our present? One could never expect children who have been sexually, physically or verbally abused not to have some scars but even many of these have surely found peace and happiness through a process of closure and forgiveness,being able to love themselves and throwing off the shackles of the past.
The long-running debate about nature vs nurture has never really delivered a clear answer. Are we born with a genetic toolbox given to us by our parents that predetermines our future or do we come into this world as an empty slate, ready to soak up influence from the people and circumstances around us? My opinion is that it is somewhere in the middle meaning that we are influenced by genes and environment as we grow. That said,is it really possible to change this conditioning, if you need to? That is the million dollar question! A client recently said to me that you can only release the past and conditioning if you are aware of its influence. That is very true. Not only awareness but the desire to change has to be there. Some people, of course, could have the awareness but not the desire to change or vice versa. I personally know how difficult it is break with the past, live in the moment and look forward and not back. I come from a background of abuse and neglect, both physically and mentally and it has taken me many years to forgive and find my true self. I now realise that we are all victims of victims but it must stop somewhere and it has with me. Breaking free from your past conditioning is one of the hardest things to do in life but is essential if a fruitful life is to be had in the present.
There are many people who believe that we can change our moods and ultimately our attitudes by changing the way we think. These moods and ultimately depression can be often linked to our early influences. Negative thoughts make these moods worse and can lead to depression and anxiety. Let me make it perfectly clear: we cannot be happy all the time, despite what we read in self-help literature and it is totally unrealistic to think so. What we need is a recognition of the importance of analysing and changing distorted thinking with a view that one is able to see situations from a different viewpoint and not place a negative connotation on everything. Analysing the ‘ vital connections’ between thoughts and emotions is the first step in breaking out of negative thinking. Additionally, thoughts that bring anger, anxiety, guilt and frustration are often unrealistic and distorted even if they seem real at that very moment. The key to stopping this is to become aware of the presence of distortions and how they develop thought patterns. The old adage, we are what we think is certainly relevant here.
Being aware of negative thought distortions is the first step in recognising what thoughts are appropriate, which should be expressed and which should be changed. However, at times anger and irritability when expressed in the right way and in the right place is totally appropriate especially within the context of a loving, honest relationship. Many people have major problems accepting the way they feel and this can lead to further distorted thinking. Ask yourself questions to determine whether feelings should be expressed or changed.
1. How long has the feeling been held? If guilt is still being shown about an event that happened long ago, we have to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of holding it for much longer?
2. Are we willing to learn from the pain of negative experiences and thoughts and see them as part of a growth process?
3. Are we willing to change the way we think about a situation if we accept that our feelings are based on distorted thoughts patterns and then face the situation constructively?
4. Are we able and willing to judge if expressing feelings like anger at any given moment is helpful or hurtful? For example, avoiding conflict in a relationship can lead to feelings of resentment that can damage the relationship.
5. Are feelings shown against something that is completely out of one’s control such as frustration at a traffic jam or the economic situation?
6. Are feelings that are being shown a cover-up for the real problem that is being suppressed?
7. Are feelings of frustration to do with unrealistic views of the world aligned with ‘should’ ‘shouldn’t’ or must thinking?
8. Are feelings to do with unrealistic self-expectations that facilitate perfectionism and ‘ all or nothing’ thinking?
9. Are the feelings attached to a general feeling of hopelessness? Many people who believe they are hopeless will go to great lengths to find the evidence to support the theory.
10. Are the feelings attached to a sense of low self-esteem? People with high self-esteem can take criticism and rejection in a constructive manner. On the other hand, people with low self-esteem see themselves as inferior and display defensiveness and become angry quicker.