Just recently, I wrote about the role of my inner child in my life. Who I am as an adult is largely due to what that boy went through and how he reacted. While adult thinking and time has changed some of that, the insecurities that boy felt are often present especially in relationships and my view of myself in this world.
I have always had the great fear that I would end up like my father. A man who brought dysfunction and terror to the family and ended up a shadowy figure consumed with guilt and being punished daily by my unforgiving mother who made his life hell. Not that I have ever done anything to the magnitude of his efforts but my real fear has always been ending up a pathetic, insignificant individual who nobody really cared about. Seeing his demise from self-appointed ‘local man about town’ to a shrunken figure sitting in the corner was sad in itself. I know he had many insecurities himself but made terrible decisions and projected most of the consequences onto others. I know these fears have led to aspects of avoidance in my own life, especially staying in relationships longer than I should and promoting codependency issues.
While I am not like him in any way, the passage of time inevitably brings certain reflections to mind. Upon recently reaching sixty, I realise I have achieved something that neither of my parents did. They both died horrible deaths in their fifties through cancer and a heart attack respectively. Their deaths ended a long chapter of dysfunction and toxic behaviour that engulfed the whole family at different times and in different ways. It divided me and my siblings into ’team mum or dad’ (or neither, as in my case, though that was not my choice) and led eventually to the state of affairs that exists today in that we have no contact with each other.
Just how do you escape the consequences of growing up in such an environment? An environment of abuse, neglect with no guidance but punitive punishment handed out by two people who really had no idea what they were doing. Not easily but at this point, I would like to state clearly that this might be a reason for their behaviour but not an excuse. Everyone has the ability to learn new things, even parenting skills but they chose to continue generational abuse and dysfunction.
Back to surviving, actually coping is probably a better word. As a child, we learn how things work by observing events going on around us. This is consolidated by the frames of reference we build around behaviour and language used and exhibited by our caregivers. Because it is them giving us this information, we deem it to be true and build a blueprint for life around it consolidated by our brain chemistry and thought patterns. Only when we reach an age where we can see that there might be different ways of seeing the world, do we start to feel that we need to make changes. Hence, many people going through therapy and personal growth journeys as adults.
One of the key elements of any change process is challenging deep-seated thinking patterns we have developed. These thinking patterns or ’parts’ manage our view of ourselves and dictate behaviour. They are versions of protection measures and coping skills we adopted as children in order to survive and navigate our way through what we perceived to be a dangerous, insecure world. They were acquired also from ineffective parenting based on shame and a failure to draw a distinction between child and behaviour, all again consolidated by the language used. It is this very language and the frames of reference that derive from it that trigger us into reaction when experienced again later in adult relationships.
One of the key aspects of this concept is the perpetual avoidance voice or inner dictator. This is a group of thinking parts that have been developed in our minds in order to protect us from our big fears. Those fears are usually things like rejection, abandonment, not feeling good enough, feeling unlovable or that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. When we feel we are about to experience any or all of these things, our mind will monitor our language and thoughts for threats, build stories and produce thinking to deal with the pain. This usually means avoidance and the absence of mindful conscious thinking.
The perpetual avoidance voice is actually a group of thinking patterns that will pop up when we feel triggered. We all know the inner critic and the escape voice but there may well be shame, guilt, anger, people-pleasing or fear, who all want to have a say. The result is that we spin our wheels and don’t take action as the harsh words from these concepts take hold. These parts are a direct link to our development and the people we grew up with.
As adults we have a choice to either believe these concepts or make the choice to face our fears. Scott Peck, in his famous best-seller, The Road Less Traveled states that self-esteem and confidence can be gained by constantly facing our fears and challenges we will inevitably face in this ’difficult’ life. The problem is that this is truly the road less travelled and as a species, we want things as easy as possible and avoidance is a big part of that. All the while we shame, criticize and devalue ourselves, we are missing a great opportunity for growth. We may feel protected in the moment but long-term, it brings nothing useful.
Going about our daily lives, we encounter and see many things. Some of these things mean nothing to us and thoughts about these are just fleeting, just observations of our environment. We notice them and they are like ships in the night, here and gone quickly. However, sometimes we come across a situation that gives us a reason to think a little longer about something, something is expected of us, we have to make a choice, a decision or go further than we are comfortable with in that moment. This is when our mind starts to build stories.
The key, of course, is to stay as mindful as possible and help ourselves move forward by challenging our voices. These strong feelings about ourselves need to be faced and dealt with by staying firmly in the moment and assessing what is truly happening. This can be done by standing back and asking basic questions of ourselves:
“What is truly happening here?”
“What are these thoughts trying to protect me from?”
“What fears am I avoiding by believing these thoughts?”
“What do I need in this moment?”
Controlling and influencing thoughts and judgments is key to releasing yourself from the trauma of the past. Many people find staying in the moment difficult as our modern brains are programmed to process and solve issues continually. We are always on the go mentally and physically and our culture values and encourages this. The cultivation of mindfulness has roots in Buddhism, but most religions include some type of prayer or meditation technique that helps shift your thoughts away from your usual preoccupations toward an appreciation of the moment and a larger perspective on life. It has been demonstrated that practicing mindfulness can bring improvements in both physical and psychological symptoms as well as positive changes in health, attitudes, and behaviors.
Being conscious of what you feel, the emotions you are feeling and what is best for you in that moment will always point you in the right direction.