What is it with negative thinking? I mean, why is it so attractive?
As I type this, I am currently frustrated. I’m working with a guy now who is utterly, completely negative; everything that comes out of his mouth is awful. His life is awful, his past was awful, and his simple-minded calculations for what his future holds is, of course, awful. I try to give him some things to work on, and next time I see him, he has ignored them, has not done the work I recommended, and he is completely unhappy. He is helplessly resistant to trying, in part because everything he’s tried in the past failed, and he doesn’t want to fail again. For now, he’d rather be miserable. It’s frustrating for both him and me. He’s so tied up in pain, he can’t see the forest for the trees. I’m frustrated because I can’t just lay my cloak of recovery over him and make magic happen. He’s gonna have to work for it. However, I am very aware of how I felt just a couple of years ago, so I take a deep breath and feel the compassion roll through me and how that compassion motivates me to understand his plight and allows me to be helpful.
When I first came into the program, my first mentor, Roger, would often take me by the shoulders, walk me up to someone, and say, “Tom, this is Jake. Jake this is Tom. Tom, speak to Jake.” Jake, invariably, would be some understanding soul who had experience in recovery and could actually speak in complete sentences. “Hi Tom, How are you?” I, on the other hand, could barely utter words. “Hi,” I would reply, then I would attempt to mumble something without parting my lips, while staring down at my shoes. I could hardly look people in the face, much less in the eyes.
One day, after Roger had forced me to go to lunch with a “crowd” of maybe three people, we went back out and sat in his car. My emotions welled up and completely over-took me. I busted into tears. I sat leaning forward with my hands over my face. I couldn’t stand for someone else to see the strange twists my face created when I cried. “It just hurts so bad!” I began, “Being away from my girls – it’s just killing me! How could I do this?!” I cried for a long time, perhaps a very long time. I made loud noises and heaved to the point of hyperventilating. I didn’t look around to see if anyone was watching in horror – that’s how much pain I was in. Fortunately for me, Roger sat quietly and provided me the space I needed to express my pain. I am so grateful for that. I hate it when someone tries to fix me. I just wanted to cry. I can feel the water-works starting to engage even now when I think of how blessed I was to have those moments.
Early recovery was just so damned painful. Any and everything that came out of my mouth was self-damning. It was my fault. I sucked. My life sucked. I had been dealt a bad set of cards, so it was their fault too. I had failed miserably and I was an awful person. If you didn’t see that, then you simply didn’t know how bad a person I was. It was just a matter of time before you’d see that, and then you’d want to get rid of me.
It turns out Roger had seen all this before, in fact, all of the people around me had seen this before. But how could they? I was unique! I was special and my story was exclusive and private. How could other people be as “bad” as me and live to tell about it? I just wanted to die, and they seemed to understand that, and somehow, it was okay.
My thinking was so negative, and I don’t mean partially negative, I mean completely negative. I could talk myself down with the best of them. I would come to learn, much of pain came from wrong conceptions about life, which in turn was producing some crippling negative thinking.
I’ve always been a tinkerer. Even as a child, I seemed to have a remarkable ability to take my toys apart, expose their inner workings, then reassemble them back to working order. My parents were amazed. I think I was a mechanical engineer in another life. I was fascinated by how things worked, and I’m fascinated by how my brain works too, and thus, I’m fascinated by what motivates my thinking.
I’ve always been kind of a “hack” when it comes to figuring out what’s going on in the world and in my brain. My approach has been informal and undisciplined. I’d enjoy intellectualizing with folks, as long as they weren’t actually the “real thing”; someone who was accredited like a philosophy professor, or an anthropologist. I stayed away from those people because they intimidated me and might reveal me as being full of crap. When I thought of actually taking a course in studies like psychology or biology, the portion of my brain that was interested in improving my knowledge would get overruled by my fears about being discovered as someone who struggles with focus and reading, and remembering facts. I didn’t do well on tests. I’d rather just think about it than do something about it.
Nonetheless, like all of us, I’ve tended to assemble pieces and parts of things I’ve been exposed to over my lifetime; in my case, things I’ve read, words friends have spoken, and the shows I’ve watched on cable television. Here’s my stab at how I think my thinker works:
*Note: If you’re having any trouble sleeping, read this.
We are essentially animals with advanced brains – so advanced in fact, that we have self-recognition. And because we don’t have exceptionally large muscles or claws or fangs, and because we can’t run really fast or climb trees easily, my far distant cousins had to find a way to survive, so they spent ten million years or so developing adaptive behaviors which culminated into a socially designed networking structure. Those cousins found it beneficial to work together, hunt together, mate, and forage for food together. Through the magic of successful mutations over a millennia, they developed all sorts of adaptive behaviors which allowed them to communicate with each other, learn from each other, and protect one another in order to survive all the beasts and threats from the wild kingdom surrounding them. Any individuals who didn’t play along with the rules of the social structure were rejected or banned, and found themselves out of the club. Consequently, those individuals had a family tree that did not branch. Their unsuccessful social behavior brought an end to their lineage. Therefore, successful social behavior became extremely desirable, and was built in to the DNA of gene pool of those who went on to pro-create.
Across those millions of years, generations of successful mutations have ultimately provided me with a wonderfully crafted body – which includes my brain and its capacity to assimilate and reason. Without even being aware of it, I have been furnished with innate design components developed to give me the necessary intuition for success in a social network, including a high degree of sensitivity toward other creatures like myself – humans. Not just any humans, but humans that look like me and generally act like me. I have an internal monitor that dictates my behavior by constantly reviewing all interactions, and it bids me to have like-minded patterns of thoughts and actions, and a similar appearance and behaviors, that ensure I find success amidst my tribe of fellow brethren. And with my big brain, I attempt to interpret the full range of social cues that provide me with the on-going training necessary to promote my success within the clan. The process is so innate, that when I do the right things and have successful interactions, I receive goodness in the reward centers of my brain. And when I do the wrong things, I receive badness signals in my brain that apparently cue some version of pain or anxiety. My behavior is thus motived both by a longing for such goodness, and an avoidance of such badness. It is a systematic series of biological events within my brain that inspire the core of my behavior.
All this forms what I think of as my ego. My ego is my innate, social-engagment circuitry. I’d like to think of my ego as highly advanced; and that’s the way my ego would like you to think of it as well. Without my ego, I cannot have success with other human animals. My ego, as it stands, is probably only one or two steps up the evolutionary ladder from that of a baboon, or a chimpanzee. Often, it feels more like a baboon.
I started my journey to sophisticated social communication right out of the womb. When I was hungry, the millions of years of DNA development in my naked, lumpy little infant body said, “push lots of air through your tightly-squeezed vocal cords and make an abhorrent noise that draws attention.” Thus the closest human, hopefully my mom, ever conscious of successful social assimilation, quickly sought to remedy the problem, and I was fed. First lesson: Make disagreeable noises out of my mouth and I will receive a reward.
The lessons continued over my lifetime and my ego continued to develop. It did its best to guide me through the rigors of social engagement, learning more and more lessons along the way. In my particular case, some of my most valuable lessons had to do with “stuff.”
Stuff turned out to be a big deal for me. The more stuff I gathered, the more my ego said I was doing well, and my brain would send me some goodness rewards. If my stuff was nicer than other people’s stuff, then its value would make me appear more important to my clan. It gave me a feeling of security within the network. That was the path for me: stuff.
Stuff came in different forms. An attractive mate also made me compare more favorably. Personal interaction skills between my potential mate and me did not matter beyond a certain functional point, as long as my possible mate had a physically desirable appearance. I wore my attractive mates on my arm, much like a rare furry animal skin. As I walked with her, a voice would announce, “Look at me and how valuable I am. I’m going to have sex with her, and you’re not.” It stood to reason that an attractive mate obviously made me appear more valuable. It did not matter if she was whinny or even nuts – my ego was happy, and I often seemed to be willing to put up with a ton of crap to keep my ego satisfied. In one case, I signed a legally and culturally accepted document that committed my ego to be responsible for a mate for my entire lifetime. Wow. However, when I was still early in my understanding of mating rituals, I found that if a mate lost interest in me, especially if her interest became focused on another male, then the level badness signals in my brain could go berserk and “adaptive behavior” would kick in, and things could get ugly and often regrettable.
My ego comes with all sorts of preprogrammed adaptive behaviors which are often used to help me get stuff, and are also there to keep me from losing stuff, but always functioning to make me look better when compared to others. These behaviors can bring out the best of my natural talents; I can be charming, interesting, witty, sexual, intelligent, congenial, thoughtful, and manipulative. If there is a risk of losing my stuff, I can be defensive, protective, mean, resentful, even violent, and again, manipulative. Additional behaviors include the “Call for Mommy” request, which tends to sound something like, “Somebody feel sorry for me!”
During my lifetime, my ego’s adaptive behaviors continued to expand and become more refined, all the while staying loyal to the mandate of successful social engagement; a desire to improve my value within the clan. Over time, I developed a kind of contract of terms and conditions that guided my actions in order to meet with success and inclusion. Violating the terms of my contract would mean failure and ultimate doom. Much of the details of the contract were not actually written down anywhere or visible, instead they were made up of sets of emotions or feelings, and the feelings were the facts. Feelings where naturally, therefore, facts.
Given these parameters, I set about in my adult life to achieve success. More stuff meant more social security. “Relationships” with others tended to serve primarily as a means to an end; people were valuable to the extent that they helped me meet my goals.
It is almost shocking now to admit all this but yet, I believe that may be a primary motivation for my behavior. I wanted to be included socially, but I seemed to suck at “real” relationships, so I endeavored to circumvent that trouble-spot by having more and better stuff than those around me. The reasoning in my ego-centered brain said they couldn’t throw me out if I had more “value” than them, and value meant stuff. Consequently, I tended to only interact with people who I could “out perform” or at least be comparable to.
Everything it seems, was somehow centered around me – even those I “cared” for; children, wife, parents and close friends, had me at the center. My kids needed to be better than other kids. They needed to excel at sports or the arts, so I coached them in soccer and performed with them in plays. My wife, who didn’t seem to be caught up in my particular paradigm, didn’t really need to be. She had the gift of being valuable and interesting to others just based on her ability to “connect” with people. I didn’t have that. I needed stuff, and she was part of my stuff. Very often, I “rode in on her coattails” during social events. She could disarm and make friends with anyone, and since I was with her, I was immediately accepted. I, on the other hand, was silently monitoring, judging, and calculating my responses to best suite my ego-centric desires. My wife had a great mom, an almost saint-like woman who was loved by all and devoted to the church in a charitable and loving way. Her father had charisma and friends, and played poker every week and golfed at a country club for most of his life. With her wonderful, loving parents and close extended family, she was exposed to nurturing and training, and she developed social acumen. She had that advantage. I did not. I had to make up for it.
There has been throughout my life, a sense of pain I’ve often experienced when I’m around people, whether with individuals or in groups. I’m not sure I can adequately describe it to you. It comes, I believe, from an innate desire to be accepted by others; to be a valuable a part of my clan. When I say “innate,” I mean that it is like breath to me; biologically, my body can’t actually function absent of it, and my existence will terminate and I will cease to exist without it – or at least be deeply depressed. Acceptance of others is that important to me, and when I feel it waning, I actually feel the pain of death. I have for most of my life, without necessarily having the words to describe it, felt the basis of my language, and the source of my desire to communicate, are built upon this core desire for social value and inclusion, and the fear of social rejection. This type of pain can be highly motivational, of course, and the regular fear of that pain caused stress, and the basis of my depression. The thought that I would never be relieved of this pain caused a certain lack of hope which I found depressing.
The reason I choose to frame the acceptance issue as “pain” is curious. Why not frame it from the perspective of the joy I feel when I attain acceptance? I think it’s because the pain is more common, and it seems ever-present or vigilant. The joy, on the other hand, has always been fleeting and short-lived, whereas pain is something I have to constantly attend to in order to keep it at bay. It’s right around the corner, and likely to show its face at any moment. I must be constantly on guard and prepared for its appearance. It is apparently, what has motivated my behavior since I can remember. And maybe “joy” as I describe it, is not actually joy but absence of the pain, or success at improving my security. Maybe true joy is something I’ve yet to experience – especially since I’ve never possessed the skill set to develop “real” relationships. Perhaps, for me, there is a strong correlation between joy and learning how to form “real” relationships.
I know that I found relief from this quagmire through the altering of my mood – which I experienced from the affects of drinking alcohol. It “successfully” relieved the tension and anxiety brought about by the vigilance of the pain and the memory of painful past failures. At first, I found alcohol enabled me to be more comfortable in social situations. This effect was, of course, very attractive to me. However, as my shame grew, due to my failures in maintaining the responsibilities of my life and my supposed inadequacy, I became increasingly isolated. This is the progressive nature of alcoholism.
By the time I entered recovery, my reasoning, as it was then, told me I was a failure and that naturally it was my fault. This makes perfect sense. The shame I felt came from the “proof” that I was indeed invalid and deserving of exclusion – in essence, of death. I was supposed to feel that way because my innate system of social monitoring told me so, and I was now feeling the badness signals in my brain that I had worked so hard to avoid. My ego had tried to direct me in life but failed – people tended to get hurt or bored. Alcohol sustained me for a while but its acute side effects had now contributed to ruining my life. I was in deep desperation and profound pain.
My thoughts and words were extremely negative. I was in two places at once: I was still dependent on my lifelong thinking, which proved beyond a shadow of doubt that I was a failure, yet I was also realizing that my reasoning was possibly wrong, and if it was wrong, what the hell was I supposed to do? As I thought about that, the feelings would be so unsettling, I’d start to sense an approaching panic attack. I’d reach down in my pocket and make sure the klonopin was still there.
If you would have told me I’d come to be okay without klonopin in my pocket, I would have said you were wrong. In the fog of my frustration and confusion, I interpreted most of the things people told tell me as wrong. It turns out that this was the nature of my dis-ease. Yet somehow, those same people seemed reasonably at ease. They laughed and spoke of their struggles openly while I sat back quietly and judged them for their short-comings. Sometimes, when I couldn’t stand to sit there quietly anymore, I’d attempt to speak. Most of what came out of my mouth was broken; broken sentences, broken trains of thought, some gibberish, and often tears.
Finally, after a while, I began want what they had, and I began to slowly open up to the idea of trying the path they recommended. But it wasn’t easy. I wanted instant results. I wanted dramatic results today in exchange for dramatic work I’d do tomorrow.
The “facts” my ego had been telling me about how to live were significantly challenged one day. I guess I had said something out loud regarding what I was struggling with. Afterward, an older man with a gruff voice walked right up to me and spoke in a somewhat irritated but loving way. He said simply, “Son, what other people think of you is none of your business.” I remember staring back at him, completely dumb-founded. I was confused but somehow able to realize he was absolutely right, even though I couldn’t conceive of how it could be true. I had never, in my entire life, heard anything like that. My ego quickly spoke up and said, “Don’t listen to him. He’s just an old fart.”
My ego speaks loudly in my head. It often says things which seem a little confusing, “We’ve got this. Don’t worry. You’re a piece of shit so you need to go get some more stuff or convince someone to like you.” Looking at it now, the voice seems simple-minded, and superficial. It is, however, deeply ingrained and not interested in giving up its position in Command Central.
But there was another voice speaking now. I couldn’t hear it very well, but it was there. It tended to say, “Listen to these people and watch what happens.” Thus, I began to get a peek at a different path. This path would lead to a show-down with my ego. I laugh now because I want to say, “It’s a challenge to the death!” I still tend to be dramatic.
Recovery has taught me to go easy on myself. Early on, a friend said, “You’re a sick puppy Tom. Don’t hit the puppy.”