Lately I have been thinking a lot about how we can recognise and master our negative thought patterns. I am not a psychologist, these thoughts are just my own musings from personal experience and self-reflection. By negative thought patterns, I am not referring to clinical depression requiring professional treatment but rather to our every day thought patterns laid down over time from our life experiences and often from our childhood.
“For most people at the age of 5 or earlier, sometimes a decision is made in the mind which shapes the rest of our lives. For most of us we spend the rest of our lives trying to fix this and the problem is it isn’t a problem. When we realise this we are freed up.” Dylan Ayaloo, creator of Lliv Yoga.
I would say my negative patterns were laid down a bit later. From around 12 years old I suffered from bullying at school. It was the 80’s (crazy I KNOW! I don’t look old enough…) so it was all old school stuff. Nasty rumours spread, my name on toilet doors, things thrown at me, people harassing me in the street. It went on for several years.
I have only recently accepted that it was bullying and I realise that I dealt with it by turning inwards. I dipped in and out of anorexia and bulimia for many years, turning to party drugs, alcohol and unsuitable men once I went to university. The latter was kind of fun though, I won’t lie, but it has taken me a long time to build my confidence back up and to shake off the debilitating social awkwardness that is like a little monkey on my back.
I am fine now. Actually I am more than fine. I am very happy with a loving family and feel eternally grateful for my life but every now and then I experience a weird emotional throw back and I am pretty sure I am not alone.
I need to remind myself every time the bullshit spiral comes along that I am the master now, not a victim.
The first throw back was during my yoga teacher training last year, then at black tie event after Christmas and again at another course a few weeks ago.
During all these very different situations I was in a new environment with people I didn’t know and I was suddenly swept back to a time in my teens where I felt ill at ease, nervous about being liked and on the outskirts of being accepted. I could feel myself sinking deeper into this, questioning my likeability, feeling deeply uncomfortable and wanting to leave. I watched everyone laughing and chatting and just felt, oh my God, I do not fit in here, I can’t talk to anyone and I have nothing interesting to say. No-one wants to talk to me, I havenothing to add to the group. And on and on in went in this vein.
In my younger days, I would have dealt with this with a MASSIVE glass of something toxic, which to be fair has its merits, but drinking is part of my personal negative cycle and for me is a counter productive solution.
Instead I have been reflecting on the confusing and uncomfortable emotions that rear up every now and then. I’ve found that the following two ideas speak to me the most and I now understand why the same old feelings keep resurfacing. I hope they help you too.
The Spiral Affect
The first idea is that our past and the feelings associated with it are like a spiral in our lives, constantly moving around and around so our old memories and inbuilt responses come around every now and then. As such, we cannot leave our past behind.
We have the option of responding in the same way each time OR we can recognise it for what it is, a snapshot of the past that we have the power to distance ourselves from.
Rather than wonder why we are being plunged back to the 1980’s we can say to ourselves, oh it’s this again, it’s that bullshit spiral! Deep breath, let’s take a step back.
We can ask ourselves, is there anything we can actually do to change things now? If not then all we can do is accept this was part of our past, allow the emotion to flow and understand that the spiral will move on again.
I can’t erase the bullying and name-calling, the memories will always be there and the fact they keep resurfacing isn’t about who I am now, it is simply just the memory of it. I can choose to look on it from afar and not be completely consumed.
Befriending the bad stuff
So this one took me longer to get. It has been said that the worst experiences of your life can also be the best ones. I just did not get this at all. How can you turn physical or sexual abuse into a good experience?
What if we look at it from another angle? How did the feelings and emotions associated from our personal traumatic events serve us at that earlier time?
I realised that my recurring discomfort was a hardwired response to fear and coming from a primal survival instinct to protect myself and run away. My brain had stored my emotions during my pre-teen years and was replaying them when I did not feel ‘safe’ socially.
The turning inwards, fear of big groups and escapism in Party Land were all part of my natural instincts of self-protection. My emotions were keeping me in fight or flight as I was in a state of crisis. The light bulb moment for me was realising that I could choose to view my fear and anger as ‘friends’ as they were on my side during a frightening time. I just don’t need them any more.
For the future, the next step is to arm myself so that I can deal with social situations in a different way. How can we rewire our patterns?
The 2004 book Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self by Anodea Judith is a yoga-based study of why we behave as we do, particularly after childhood traumas. Yes, I know, the word Chakra sounds a bit woo woo but, honestly, this book is enlightening.
According to the author, the steps towards rewiring our negative thought patterns are:
- Noticing how we are feeling;
- Understanding where that emotion stems from. What was the original trauma?
- Asking, what is our programmed response to the emotions? Do we want to run away, close up, lash out?
- Feeling that emotion.
- Arming ourselves so we deal with the same situation in a more positive way.
For me, the army has come in the guise of Yoga.
Practising yoga has allowed me a greater awareness of how I am feeling, physically and mentally. I notice more now when my body feels tight and mind overwhelmed. Before my training I hadn’t allowed myself to identify the original trauma and just closed down when the feelings emerged.
It took me 30 years to work out my pattern so rewiring will take time. It is my life’s work and I need to remind myself every time the bullshit spiral comes along that I am the master now, not a victim.
And I can honestly say that this has changed everything for the better.