For many years I’ve been interested in “conditioning,” the process by which a person adopts beliefs, values, and patterns of thought. Conditioning represents automatic and unconscious learning that enables a child to fit with his or her family and community.
Conditioning has its downsides. We pick up views of others and especially of ourselves that we may have to unlearn as life goes on because the patterns are incongruent with deeper instincts about who we are. I may have grown up with biases about work or politics or religion, for example, but at some point I may begin to reject those biases as inconsistent with other values I have adopted based on my own experiences. Or I may have a view of myself, given to me by my conditioning, that I want to overcome.
Many years ago, I found myself confronting persistent, intrusive negative thoughts about myself, thoughts I had been constantly in the process of hiding from others (and myself to a degree). I was embarrassed by these thoughts and also privately believed I could not be successful because of them. When offered a plum assignment that tested my knowledge, for instance, I might have fantasies about how I would at first take on the challenge but then inevitably fail miserably, eventually ending up unemployed and a “pathetic, rejected person.” Managing the project in the face of these ongoing negative thoughts could leave me feeling exhausted before I even began. The smallest events could set off compelling negative images and assessments. For instance, I remember going to a private invitation conference and I was the only one who didn’t have a name tag waiting for me. Of course, I knew somebody just forgot or there had been a glitch of some kind, but for a moment I mentally heard myself saying, ‘They didn’t want me here. I don’t belong, so they didn’t make a nametag for me.’ It’s laughable in retrospect but at the time it was making me crazy — and sad. For years I had been suppressing these painful thoughts, trying to control them out of existence. I understood their irrationality, but couldn’t seem to stop them from showing up.
As I learned more about conditioning I began to ask the question, “How did I learn to think this way, anyway?”
And I could see right away that my mother and father both possessed depressive thinking styles that I unconsciously adopted. My mother often “catastrophized” about what negative thing was going to happen. If she couldn’t get the household accounts to balance by a few pennies, it meant that she was probably off by thousands and we’d soon be on the streets. Sometimes her catastrophes seemed to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Her excessive worry about car accidents, for instance, seemed to generate accidents, like the day she forgot to set the emergency brake and the car rolled backwards down a hill and across a busy street. My father, by comparison, focused on convention, duty and hard work — “keeping your nose out of trouble by not making mistakes.” In his world, not making mistakes was an expected state that seemed to take much of the joy out of life and work, and I had picked up this same expectation. Now as a grown-up, all I could see when I was triggered by stress were mistakes and catastrophic outcomes. There were days I dreaded going to work although I seemed to be successful and doing a very good job.
Over time I began to look into the exact mechanism of my conditioning. I saw that I had received recognition and approval, like most kids, from mimicking my parents. I saw that with my mother, for example, my expressions of anxiety and fearfulness could get her attention, affection and reassurance. I saw that with my father any imperfection performing household chores or some other blunder (like an A minus on a report card) could guarantee my father’s attention, although the style of that attention was painful.
What seemed to help at a certain point was writing down every one of the negative thoughts that intruded so that I could look at them. It struck me as a very consistent pattern, or rather a cluster of thinking patterns that were like a row of dominoes. When the first one went down, the rest were sure to follow. Starting from a single incident, such as the lack of a name tag, there was a process of negative personalizing (what awful thing does this mean about me?) that in turn propelled a series of other negative assessments and possibilities, leading in the end to a sense of difference, rejection, isolation, and failure. The thought, “They don’t want me at this training session,” for example, followed a familiar path of depressive self-isolation. But what, in fact, was this self-rejection buying me?
A significant breakthrough came one day when I began seriously challenging the whole premise of the conditioning. I saw that I was not just mimicking my parents to get their love or approval. I was doing it to get any form of recognition from them for the real me — which seemed to have been missed in a big way. If they had seen the real me, they would have seen how much I actually enjoy life, living expressively, and just being. I saw that I was not naturally fearful. I discovered I did not naturally make mistakes or fail at things I tried to do. But I had adopted those thinking patterns so that they could give me recognition they understood. I wanted them to see the real me, but the way they thought controlled what they did and that was the closest they could get. The closest I could get, too, at the time. I kept trying to get that recognition, and there was only one way to obtain it. If I was fearful, afraid, a screw-up, they could rescue me from that or shame me for it, and I took that as the only recognition available. As a consequence, I became dependent on it and ultimately learned to identify with it. But the truth is their rescue and their shaming were for them, not me. They were trying to get what they’d been taught to get for themselves. The whole thing seemed to be the product of generations, and it was not about who I was at all.
And, of course, it wasn’t about who they were, either, creating a path toward forgiveness I soon learned to follow.
Somehow at some point in this incremental process I seemed to have broken a big link in the chain. Certainly not the last, but a big one, for sure.
Looking back now at those moments of insightful rebellion, they seem to circulate around the familiar Zen riddle, “Show me your original face, the face you had before your parents were born.”
Link to blog posting.
Link to Oestreich Associates website.
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