Write a list of all the important people from your early childhood. Note that these significant adults must have been:
1. With you before the age of six.
2. Older than you (to a four-year-old, a five-year-old is an adult).
3. With you a considerable amount of time (living with you or having regular contact over a period of at least six months).
If you can’t remember some of these people, ask family members, neighbors, and friends.
Peter would like to believe that he doesn’t need anything from anybody. However, the truth is that we are all desperately trying to get certain needs met. The self-defeating way he went about doing so was the problem.
When we talk about needs, we’re talking about those that get met through relationships. We’re not talking about the primal drives—to feed, flee, mate, and so forth—that you share even with reptiles who are incapable of making relationships.
In our view, only four basic categories of need exist: physical safety, emotional security, attention, and importance. We are not the first to come up with a set of basic human needs. However these are, we believe, the simplest and the most useful in creating supportive relationships.
If a child is brought up well, all of these will be met in functional ways. However, in our society the unsupported nuclear family is under enormous stress and struggles to achieve this most fundamental of tasks. Often parents simply do not have enough time to give to children. The kids are forced to adopt dysfunctional strategies to get what they need.
In a family with more than one child, each will take on different characteristics. One will become the scholar, one the clown, one the rebel, and so on. Which attributes a child adopts depends to a large extent on which niches are already occupied. If one sibling becomes the scholar, then that position is filled. The next in line may become the athlete, the “loser,” or the “stupid one.” Also, to some extent the child will adopt the behavioral strategy he thinks his parents expect him to take.
However the characteristic came to be adopted, the object is the same: to get physical safety, emotional security, attention, or importance. Even being the black sheep of the family will get attention of a kind, and any attention is better than none.
Your family conditioning is itself formed, and reinforced by, society. Our culture can keep us depressed and make us pessimistic. It can reinforce the negative aspects of the program, and it can have a damaging effect on our sense of self.
When we talk of societal influences, what exactly are we talking about? “Society” is not a uniform voice, it is an amalgam of disparate voices: of churches, schools, the media (including advertising), politicians, various business interests, our peers. Each can be subdivided and some have more influence than others.
The two aspects of society that influence our program most as we develop in childhood and adolescence are our peers and the media, and one is affected by the other. The media, of course, are not confined to radio, the press, and TV. The media also encompass films, video and computer games, the music industry, the Internet, and so forth. A person’s mood is very much affected by what he reads, listens to, or views. Watching a film with an uplifting or inspiring ending makes us feel optimistic— Field of Dreams, for example, or Star Wars. As Paul Martin points out in The Sickening Mind, a film that makes us laugh raises our immune system, as well as our mood.
On the other hand, according to a 1993 report from the APA, television violence accounts for about 10 percent of kids’ aggressive behavior. Is that a big effect? It’s about as big as the link between smoking and cancer.
Constant viewing of violent or depressing films, TV, or video games can also instill pessimism and depression into a young mind, particularly if one or more of his parents is depressed.
The influence of peers begins early—though in the first six years it’s not nearly as significant as that of parents—and is shaped by them. Families that contain secrets, such as Peter’s did (his father’s and his uncle’s failures), tend to discourage socialization. In our experience, children of these families become shy and withdrawn or socially maladroit, which sets them up to be shunned by their peers and for a downward spiral of further rejection. In many cases, this leads to violence and aggression. Also, if parents don’t adequately encourage social activity by their offspring, the children will take on the message that the outside world is inherently dangerous and they will set themselves up to be rejected. Just like Peter. Whatever the cause, feeling shunned by other kids is one of the prime causes of both depression and pessimism later in life and can also foster aggression and impair intelligence and reasoning ability.
As we get older, we tend to be increasingly influenced by our friends, although, of course, we select them on the basis of our early conditioning. An abused child, for example, will gravitate toward an abusive group.
As adolescents or preadolescents, we’re even more directly influenced by social messages. We try to conform to what society teaches us and seems to expect. If we can’t meet these ideals—because our bodies aren’t the right shape or we don’t have the money to buy the right clothes—we feel rejected and pessimistic.
Exposing the Inner Saboteur
As they say about alcoholism in AA, the inner saboteur is “cunning, devious, and powerful.” It wants to keep you confused and in the dark about its workings. It hides its own motivations, origins, and influence. It encourages you to bury the reality of your early experience under the myth of a perfect childhood. But by truthfully examining your programming, you’ll expose its machinations and begin to break its power. And you don’t need hours of complicated and lengthy psycho-analysis to do this.
To help you understand your own program better, let’s take a closer look at Peter’s.
Clearly Peter’s mother was dominant in the family and the major influence in his early life—the significant adult who was his chief programmer. Her criticism and pessimism were the main internal voices driving him. Peter would seek out critical, controlling bosses and friends who he felt were impossible to please. If they weren’t like that at first, he would often provoke them into these behaviors and then leave.
Peter tended to make everyone he came into contact with a surrogate for his mother, even his daughter. He tried desperately to please her and allowed her to criticize him. During his therapy he tried a number of times (unsuccessfully) to get Bob to criticize him, to confirm his mother’s opinion.
He was also apathetic about work and pessimistic about his ability to advance himself. He was stuck between needing to be good enough to at last win the praise of his internalized mother (an impossible task) and yet needing to prove her right.
On the surface, Peter shared his mother’s low opinion of his “slovenly” uncle, yet in reality Uncle George was also a role he came to play as an adult. The escape from his mother’s criticism and pessimism was to intellectualism—to books, to collecting, to his uncle. Peter also took on his uncle’s ineptitude at relationships and his reclusiveness. This was reinforced by the example he had of his parent’s unhappy relationship, which was reproduced in his own marriage. Brenda was critical and overbearing, constantly putting him and his interests down.
From his father Peter got his sense of hopelessness and failure. Peter thought that no worthwhile boss would want him and that he would be unable to keep any well-paying job. To put it simply, the childhood roles relating to early idealized figures and being played out in Peter’s drama were:
Peter George (the intellectual) Father (business, career failure) Brenda, Daughter, Boss, Friends Mother
Externalize Negative Beliefs
The key to understanding your habitual patterns is to recognize the true origin of your negative assumptions about yourself. These beliefs are the real blocks to optimism and self-fulfillment. For many of our clients, the hardest thing to take on board is that the notions they hold about themselves are not theirs.
The controlling beliefs may not be conscious. They may only be discovered through the self-derogatory remarks we make about ourselves. In this way, Peter’s assumption that “I’ll never amount to much” is both highlighted and reinforced by phrases such as “I’m a complete loser!” Each time he says such a thing and it’s not contradicted, he reinforces his unconscious belief system. The inner saboteur’s insidious damage remains undetected and unexamined.
Bob was able to get Peter to see and externalize these beliefs by helping him find the significant adults behind them.
Bob: Tell me how the interview went on Friday.
Peter: Oh, you know. The same. I do the same stupid . . .
Peter: Yeah, stupid.
Bob: Who called you stupid?
Peter: No one, I am stupid.
Bob: Who made you feel stupid?
Peter: In my early life? Everybody!
Bob: Who is everybody?
Bob: How did she make you feel stupid?
Peter: Said I never got anything right. She said the same thing to Dad as well. Never actually used the word stupid that I recall. But that’s what I felt all right. Stupid, just damn stupid.
Bob: So it’s her voice.
Peter: Yeah, I guess. But I really do do stupid things.
Bob: Yes, to make her right.
Clearly Peter’s beliefs that he would always fail at a career and that he couldn’t make friends came from his mother’s constant criticism of his father (a “failure”) and from her remarks that Peter would “turn out just like” him. Although he tried to make these beliefs come true, they were lies.
Behind every belief there’s a voice. Identifying this voice and attributing it to someone in your past is a powerful tool to distance yourself from negative beliefs.
As Peter rightly says, his mother might not have used the words “you’re stupid,” but criticism, a tone of voice, an expression, an action, a silence, or even an omission—the lack of praise or encouragement—all these speak loudly.
Arrest the Inner Saboteur
The following actions will start you on the path to freedom from the dictates of the inner saboteur:
Three Actions to Arrest the Inner Saboteur
1. Identify your program.
2. Recognize how your habitual patterns show up day to day.
3. Make choices that counter the program.
Action 1: Identify Your Program
This action has two stages. First, identify and externalize the negative voices from childhood. Second, look at the program overall.
The exercise Identify the Sabotaging Voice will help you discover the voice behind one of these beliefs and the self-defeating behaviors that stem from it. We suggest that you do this exercise at some point for each of your negative beliefs.
(extracted from) Creating Optimism: A Proven, 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression, Based on the popular Uplift program, written by Bob Murray Ph. D., and Alicia Fortinberry, published by Mcgraw-Hill