A common problem that people struggle with is self-attacking thought patterns and beliefs that are harmful and discouraging. Before we talk about healthier ways of thinking, we need to understand the origins of these beliefs.
The Origins of Self-Attack
Our conceptualization of who we are begins when we are children. As children, we are new to the world, our brain is still developing, and our survival and well-being is dependent on our caregivers. Therefore, our self-image is formed by our early environment and by how we are treated.
Sadly, all of us underwent some trauma in our lifetimes. Sometimes it’s physical. Other times it’s sexual. It can be psychological or emotional. It can be active, like verbal abuse. Or more passive, like ignoring or medical neglect. Many traumatic experiences are never identified, processed and healed.
When we are children, we tend to internalize the treatment and words of others. Consequently, this shapes our sense of self which includes our conceptualization of self-esteem, self-worth, self-relation, and self-reliance. It also affects and determines our future relationships because it is tied to our understanding of things like trust, love, responsibility, and so on.
And so, we learn to see ourselves as how we were treated. If you were explicitly or non-verbally told that you are worthless, you might think that you are worthless. If people made fun of your appearance, you might think you’re ugly. If people sexually abused you, you might think that the only value you have is sexual, or that your body will bring you pain.
For more, read my previous article titled How Childhood Abuse Becomes Self-Abuse.
Changing Toxic Beliefs into Heathier Ones
The first step to changing your false beliefs and harmful thoughts is identifying them. Sometimes, the harmful thought is triggered by a certain emotion. Other times, it comes up as a response, or an interpretation of a certain situation. Whatever the case may be, learn to recognize these thoughts.
When you know what your toxic thoughts are, you can change them. When you do, you will change how you feel about yourself and how you act. For example, if you know that it’s not your responsibility to pathologically take care of everybody, then you won’t feel guilty if you don’t do what others want.
Below are some examples of common thoughts and beliefs people struggle with, and how you can think more rationally and positively.
Toxic: “I failed. I always fail.”
Healthy: “I tried. Sometimes it works out, other times it’s not quite what I wanted. And that’s okay.”
Toxic: “I deserved the abuse.”
Healthy: “I didn’t deserve the abuse I suffered. Nobody deserves abuse.”
Toxic: “The abuse was my fault.”
Healthy: “I’m not responsible for the abuse. People who initiate violence against others are responsible for the abuse.”
Toxic: “I’m ashamed of the abuse I went through.”
Healthy: “I have nothing to be ashamed of here. The shame belongs to the abuser because hurting others is a disgusting and vile act. I did nothing wrong.”
Toxic: “I am worthless.”
Healthy: “Like all of us, I have some flaws. But I have good qualities too. I should remind myself of them more often. And if I really dislike something about myself, I can always work on it.
Toxic: “I don’t deserve love and respect.”
Healthy: “All of us are born deserving love and respect. The fact that I was mistreated as a child doesn’t mean it was right. Actually, I know it was wrong. I don’t have to accept hurtful and disrespectful treatment from others now that I’m an adult. As long as I respect and don’t hurt others, I am worthy of love and respect myself.”
Summary and Final Thoughts
In conclusion, at some point in our childhood we internalized the treatment we experienced from others, especially from our primary caregivers. It is from then that we know how to self-regulate. It becomes our inner dialogue and our survival mechanism.
In the book Human Development and Trauma I write:
The child adapts by being what their caregiver wants them to be, not who they really are. And since a small child can’t consciously accept that their caregivers might be bad, defective, disturbed, ignorant, or unjust, they internalize the negativity and eventually believe themselves to be innately bad, unworthy, or unable to do right. Children in this position commonly say to themselves, “I have to do better,” “I have to try harder,” and “I have to do something to make them love me.”
In order to overcome toxic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, you need to identify them. With some self-work, therapy, and self-therapy, you can start noticing certain patterns in your thinking and actions. Eventually, you can learn to catch yourself before your thoughts snowball out of control. You can learn to regulate your emotions better, and you can learn to act in healthier, self-loving ways.