Did the title get your attention? This is an important topic. Let’s face it; we are usually our worst critics. How often this week already have you thought, “I should have done this…”, “I shouldn’t say that…,” or your form of self-shaming? Our thoughts, when left unchecked, can get dark, unsavory, and sometimes even scary. We can all get stuck on the bullet train of thinking, taking ourselves seriously and assuming our thoughts are reality.
In this series segment, I want to focus our lens on our thoughts about ourselves and the world. This is what one of my favorite OG thinkers, historic psychologist Alfred Adler, would refer to as our apperceptions: our filter for how we see and relate to information. We develop filters in our earliest world experiences, from the womb to about nine years of age. In these stages of our lives, we are like sponges storing and filtering information and filing it away deep within our nervous systems so that later in life, we can adapt to keep ourselves alive. While they may seem harmless, these filters can send signals throughout our entire bodies, leaving us spiked with adrenaline and ready for action, immobilized with deadness, or spinning in a wheel of procrastination. Does this sound familiar?
Deb Dana, author, psychologist, and polyvagal theorist explored how, like Adler described, we construct a pattern and filter how we react to our world. In her studies, she looked at how our bodies internalize information from these early moments and respond accordingly. For example, she explains in her writings how we consistently discern cues of safety or danger; our nervous system responds by creating pathways for deeper connection or protection. The goal, whether in looking at our belief patterns or within our autonomic nervous system, is to move beyond these defenses to create deeper connections and awareness of ourselves and others.
One cue, often perceived as threatening, is how we interpret and respond to anger. As children with intense feelings and little ability to regulate, our feelings of aggression and anger toward our primary caregivers can appear to be dangerous. Rather than lash out, we may have learned to direct those feelings inward by cursing ourselves, self-shaming, or hurting ourselves. However, as adults, we continue these behaviors unknowingly and might awkwardly turn our upset feelings inward rather than using them to create changes where we need them the most. This might look like passive aggressive behavior and procrastination, followed later by self-loathing.
Think about the stages of development, from being in the womb through early childhood, and how we express and learn to attune to our worlds. As babies, we are bright bundles of emotional expression, moving from crying and screaming to cooing and giggling at any given moment. As we navigate those stages, we look at our primary caregivers for safety, security, and what is acceptable in their eyes. We learn how to regulate from their responses to us and our caregiver’s availability to regulate themselves. If our cries and upsets were matched with their frustration, we might have internalized beliefs that something is wrong with us, we don’t matter, we are not okay, or we are a burden. If they completely ignored us, we might have questioned our existence. If our caregivers were violent or aggressive, we might have internalized that somehow this was our fault. Whatever style of thinking evolved in our families, it likely originated from that childlike mind that couldn’t understand the depth of challenges our parents and caregivers face. As children, we didn’t have the scope to comprehend the stress they may be experiencing, whether it be surviving paycheck to paycheck, navigating divorce, grief, losing parents, or worse.
So, what does this mean? You might have a dysregulated toddler recreating a childhood script by giving a play-by-play commentary on your day. This might look cute as a YouTube video but scary when you consider this as a reality.
Let’s look at this as an example:
You get dressed and start your day. You have been used to being primarily on Zoom, but now you are going into the office for a big meeting, and you hope to make a good impression with coworkers and higher-ups. You look in the mirror, and the thought is that you are a mess. You feel hurt, scared, and angry. Your body reacts with a similar feeling as an infant when you see your caregiver making a face that is disaffirming. Inside, a rush of chemicals surge through your body from your autonomic nervous system, and you are now experiencing your unique brand of dysregulation, moving you to protection mode. The spiral continues as the automatic thoughts flood, “What are you wearing?” “You should have lost weight.” “You should have gone shopping.” “You should have gotten a haircut.” “You should have prepared more.” “Who do you think you are?” “No one cares what you have to say anyway.” You then avoid eye contact and choose not to speak up. You get by unnoticed. However, this only deepens the thinking, “You don’t matter.” Then, the pattern continues. You are in what is called in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), The Black Hole of a Spiraling Feedback Loop.
Don’t let that black hole swallow you up, bright star! CBT can shed some sunlight for a different pathway. It teaches us to develop an observing ego or self, watching, and listening to our thoughts. When we pause to listen to them rather than assuming they are a reality, we begin to have more choices on how to navigate them. Automatic thoughts, however, are faster than your favorite superhero and hard to catch without practice. When you notice, you can start to see the inner toddler translating the moment to moments of your life. Slowing down the translation frame by frame and noticing the emotions tied to each response will help you dissect and see the faulty logic running at any given moment.
What now? Let’s begin to insert a little lightness. When you have a negative thought, imagine the younger self is talking and remember that they don’t see the whole picture, and they might not even be able to read the subtitles. Slow it down. Check-in with your body and notice the start of dysregulation. Use the power of breath to slow everything down and get grounded. Then begin to question your reality. By being more open and curious with a bit of lightness, you can start to discern if your colleague is scrunching their face because their contacts are dry, they are nursing a hangover, or they ‘actually ARE judging you.’ It’s more likely one of the first two, by the way.
If you want to adjust the filter on your internal processing unit (YOU), READ ON!
If you need additional support, we are here to help. Contact one of our therapists today!
In the meantime, here are some tips on how to remain anchored at the center of your Solar System:
Thought Journal: Tracking your thoughts helps you to understand your patterns and learn to create distance from them. Set a timer for a day every 20 minutes to track. Track your Situation, Feeling, and Distortions. See the example below from the book, Thoughts & Feelings:
When, Where, Who, What?
Rate from 0-100 intensity
What did you think just before the emotion?
Didn’t drive right away when the light changed, cars honked.
Fear, anxiety, embarrassment
I’m an idiot. They think I’m an idiot. Everyone hates me.
Late to daycare pickup.
Anxiety, fear, anger, embarrassment
My kid doesn’t think I love them. I am a bad parent. They will kick me out.
Ate chocolate after everyone went to bed.
Depression, anger, hurt, lonely, sad
You are alone. You will never lose weight fatty. No one loves you.
Click here for a downloadable template.
- Notice what it feels like in your body when you have a negative thought. Do you get hot, cold, or sweaty? Does your heart race? Do you yawn? Be aware of your cues to let you know when you may have automatic thoughts.
- Also, notice what it feels like in your body when you feel a sense of safety with others. Maybe it is when someone is smiling warmly at you. Do you feel calm, grounded, or warm?
- Notice the difference between the two next time you notice the negative thought.Then breathe and change the channel back to that grounded, safe sense. Try humming or tuning into your five primary senses as you change the channel. What can you see, feel, hear, taste and smell?
- Be curious about your thoughts rather than seeing them as fact.
- Be interested in others’ thinking.
- See if you can notice if you or someone you know might be stuck in a dysregulated state.
- Have empathy for both you and others.
- Remember, We might be listening to our inner toddlers.
- Meditate and track yourself slowly.
- See if you can shift your thinking, self-soothe, and test the false reality if you still need to.
- If you have the quick thought that the person next to you is mad at you, ASK!
Good Luck and have fun!