Leading up to Christmas, I noticed a seasonal increase in warnings about potential dangers around the house as the kids are now home all day from school. These are issued because the dangers are real: Children do not have the cautionary experience that most adults possess.
But we adults don’t often spot the most deadly poisons in our lives because they reside in our thought processes and not in a box under the sink. There’s an old adage that says “We overestimate what can change in a week and underestimate what can change in a year.” That Truth definitely applies to positive change. But poisonous thoughts can destroy us almost instantly. Literature explains this ability we have to scuttle our lives through examples like Jean Valjean, who gave up 18 years of freedom because he thought it was his role to steal bread for his family, and Smeagol/Gollum who decided that killing his cousin to get a ring would be a good life decision.
So for all of our “precious” poisonous thoughts, let’s heed these warning signs.
1. Poisonous Thought #1: “I am responsible for how my friends and relatives act.”
A few weeks ago, a counseling client called me in a panic because their life partner came home depressed. In the midst of this conversation, I heard these words, “I know if I just try to be more helpful, they won’t go back to drinking so much.”
Immediately I threw the brakes on that idea. This person is connecting their partner’s drinking with their own personal effort to be more helpful. This is a lost cause. Any time–I repeat, ANY TIME–you attribute someone else’s behavior to something you did, you have swallowed the Poison Pill. This is disrespect of the highest order, because it takes away another person’s right to make bad decisions for their own life.
The reality is much more healthy. No one does anything without choosing to do that. If your friends are unhealthy that has nothing to do with you. They are unhealthy because they make unhealthy choices. Your children are not messed up because you failed them, they are messed up because their thinking and behavior is childish and needs to grow up.
If one person could truly cause another person to make bad decisions, then every child in every abusive household would grow up the same. And, conversely, every child in every healthy household would grow up healthy. Neither of these scenarios is true. I know very healthy people who survived horrible upbringings. I also know of screwed-up individuals who had every advantage in life and all the love you could ever want. It’s all about the choices each of us make.
Antidote: If this is your particular “poison”, do a cleanse of the mind each night. Examine yourself and ask this question: “Am I taking responsibility for anything other people are doing?” The next question to ask is this one: “Have I loved the people in my life the way I ought to?” This is the question that will keep you firmly focused on what you need to do and not what others are doing.
2. Poisonous Thought #2: “There Is Something Wrong With Me.”
Let’s start with the reality. Of course, there’s something wrong with you. No matter what talents, skills, abilities, accomplishments you can claim, there will be glaring weaknesses in that resume. Howard Hughes was the world’s wealthiest man, an inventor, a daredevil, a mover and a shaker. And he struggled with Agoraphobia and OCD so badly it ruined the last years of his life. Tiger Woods was able to hit the golf ball better than most people, but we all know his raging libido buried him–perhaps permanently.
So why is this thought so toxic to people? It amounts to this: Even though all of us have things wrong with us, this is not a way to measure who we really are. The idea that there is something wrong with you is called Shame. Shame is debilitating because it makes several assumptions. First, it tells us we cannot or will not really change. Second, it attributes our failures to some undefinable thing we lack. Because of this, we conclude there are limitations we can never overcome. Third, because we live in shame, we feel that any time others hurt us, perhaps we deserved it.
Antidote: Accept that you have weaknesses, and work on the ones causing you the most problems. If you believe in God, acknowledge that you need God’s help to work on those areas you fail at the most (this is step one in any 12-step program). Focus on your strengths. Finally, talk to God about the shame you have carried and see what God wants to say about it.
If you do not believe in God, find groups that will help you focus on those elements in your life you want to improve. Additionally, join groups that celebrate the areas in your life you are strongest. If you are a painter, a poet, a woodworker, a golfer etc., then spend time with those people who can appreciate these abilities.
3. Poisonous Thought #3: “I Can Control the Future By Working it All Out in Advance.”
There is another word for this thought: Fear!
We often define fear by its effects on the surface. For instance, if we fear spiders, we assume that the problem is we just don’t like spiders. But that’s not Arachnophobia at all. I don’t like spiders and I’ve been bitten by Black Widows twice (I’m not that bright). But I don’t fear them. I know that spiders happen and that I probably will run across many of them in my travels. You can dislike spiders and not fear them. You can actively seek to avoid a spider and not fear it.
No, fear is a completely different thing when you dig below the surface. Brain analysis has shown a three-part process when fears begin to build:
- Fear forms first in the Amygdala, which is the Emotional Memory center of the brain. When you have a threatening situation as a child, you release a chemical which stores that emotion and connects it to the details of that memory. For instance, if the threatening situation happens when it is dark, you may associate fear with darkness.
- Fear “elongates” in the Hippocampus, an area of the brain where our autonomic nervous system and automatic responses are stored. When I say “elongates” I mean, this is where fear finds a permanent fixture. The Hippocampus may begin to tell the glands to produce sweat, the heart to beat faster so we can run, the throat to constrict, the blood pressure to build. All these symptoms can intensify and even bring on a panic attack. These phsiological responses then send the fear to…
- The Frontal Cortex. It is here we make decisions. It is in this part of the brain we can actually decide not to act upon our fears. Or we can choose to protect ourselves. Choices are made with this part of the brain.
But here is the real source of the problem. Though this is the process we go through when we meet something we consider a threatening situation, this is the reverse of how we ever developed the process. At some point in our lives, we spotted a pattern with the Frontal Cortex. This pattern suggested to us that at the end of the process there will be pain, danger or an unwanted event. So we stored those feelings and memories together (in the Hippocampus) and in that storage process we decided that if we don’t want this to happen in the future, we will do whatever we can to avoid it (emotional reactions in the Amygdala).
This is what fear is. It’s a conscious decision at one point in our life to try and spot dangerous patterns and prevent them in advance. Well, when you put it that way, is fear so bad?
Let’s come back to our spider example. Let’s say you were bit by a spider in the backyard shed. From that point on, you associated spiders with: a) pain; b) a sense of being out of control; c) sheds; d) Any small rooms. There could be literally a hundred other possibilities. Now, as an adult, you have to clean up the yard. For some reason, you start to feel panicky every time you come near the shed. It seems irrational, but it is actually quite rational. You are reacting to a belief that you had where you felt unsafe and insecure as a small child about a particular building.
This is toxic because it gives us a false idea that we can ever control the future. The spider might be in your pantry; but it can also be on your pillow. (Mike, please, you’re not helping). You cannot control the future. You never could, and this idea will poison your mind. Realize that these childish memories are not happening today, and do not need to be perpetuated.
Antidote: If it is a simple fear, when you experience it, release the idea that you can control what is about to happen to you. Then make decisions based on what you feel you need to do for right now. If it is a much deeper-seated fear (like is often experienced with Post-Traumatic Stress) get some good memory-processing counseling with EMDR or TPM.
4. Poisonous Thought #4: “I Will Not Be Loved.”
Dr. Robert McGee calls this thought “The Universal Destroyer”. It is the thought that can cut you off from the potential for love. It can destroy legitimate relationships over doubt and sadness.
Bill had been married in his early 20s. Even though he described his wife as “loyal, kind and funny”, he began to withdraw from her. In his heart, he firmly believed at some point she would come to realize how unlovable he really was. He pushed her away passively. He told her that she probably couldn’t love someone like him. Though she spent hours and hours reassuring him, he was never convinced. Finally, after enduring this for just so long, she left Bill and never came back. His personal belief that he was unlovable was now a fulfilled prophecy.
There are variations of this thought:
“I won’t be loved.”
“I can’t be loved.”
“I must earn love”.
Each of these variations has different origins, but they all poison our relationships. The reality is much healthier: Some people will love you, some will not. Some will appreciate you. Some will not. You however, can love whomever you want as much as you want. If someone will not love you in return, you are not required to be in a romantic relationship with them. But you can still love them.
The Bible tells us “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” The Bible talks about how love is a unilateral act by God, irrespective of how any of us feel about God.
In the book, “The Alchemist” there is a revealing statement about love:
“One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.”
This is simply saying that we do not need to be constantly questioning why people love us. If we feel love from them, then it is enough that we have that. We accept it from our dogs, why not from people?
Antidote: There is a simple antidote to this. Accept that God created you and loved you and therefore, you are worthy of love. Or, if by choice you do not believe in God, accept that you are no less lovable than anyone else by virtue of being like all other beings. If you can give love you are capable of receiving love.
5. Poisonous Thought #5: “I Don’t Need Anyone.”
This is the unofficial motto of the old west cowboy. This independent mindset is drilled into us very young, hoping that we will gather from it that codependency is dangerous. But just as dangerous is the idea that you can do everything yourself.
I once had a person who worked with me whose favorite saying was “I just need to pull myself up by my bootstraps.” James Joyce is supposed to have coined this phrase in “Ulysses”. He meant it as a perverse joke (along with most of that book). He was implying that it is impossible for a man to pull up his own bootstraps, since his own weight weighs down upon him as he tries. He wrote this to describe how Leopold Bloom had wasted so many relationships not relying on the strengths of others.
When I was 8 years old, I had a horrible moment with this idea. My dad was an alcoholic. He was hung over every weekend. All of my soccer games were Saturday and Sunday mornings. He promised every weekend he would come and see me play. But he never did. Walking home after one discouraging game, I lamented that he had broken yet another promise to me. I was devastated. Then a thought occurred to me: “I don’t need him.” At the time, it felt liberating and life-giving.
Little did I know that it would suck life out of so many of my friendships. By the age of 36, I was depressed and failing. In a therapy session, we processed this memory. The counselor asked if this felt true (i.e. that I didn’t need anyone). It did feel true to me as an adult. As we processed the memory, I realized that most of my life I had cut off other people from me just as they got close. That day, I decided to let go of this poisonous belief and begin to include people into my life in a more intimate way.
Immediately it affected my marriage and the way I related to my children. My friendships began to soften and deepen. I have never been the same since.
The idea that we don’t need anyone is another self-fulfilling prophecy. We end up isolating and then wondering why no one ever gets close to us.
Antidote: Take time to appreciate the people in your life right now. Tell them what they mean to you. Process older memories and look at how much people have done for you in the past. Perhaps write them notes and let them know how they have helped you. Develop gratitude for the people in your life. When you have to say goodbye to someone–whether it is your choice or not–decide that they still had an impact on you, even if they were not healthy for you. Never say goodbye completely without some sense of appreciation.