There are at least seven toxic thinking patterns that can put a hold on our brain, and imprison it with pseudo feel-goods, and other lies.
As noted in Part 1, functionally, these topsy-turvy beliefs are protective strategies, designed to activate our defenses when something triggers us. Because this lowers anxiety in varying degrees, it also stimulates the reward centers of the brain — and explains why, at least subconsciously, we associate them with pseudo feel-good feelings.
Our conscious mind likely disagrees, of course. How can thoughts make us “feel good” when they make us feel so bad? Doesn’t make sense, right? It makes sense to our brain and body, however. And, that’s the purpose of this discussion.
To break the hold of toxic thinking patterns, we need to become aware of them, and yes, to understand how tricky they are.
Their power to trick our brain exists largely when they operate beneath the radar of our conscious mind. It how these fear and pleasure-inducing thinking patterns, for the most part, “trained” our brain to automatically react in unhealthy ways.
It is also why conscious awareness is foundational to healing and change processes. Our thoughts, accordingly, shape our behaviors, and the direction of our lives. Healthy thinking patterns are — a choice — and that means they must be cultivated and learned.
It’s a question of who we want to put in charge of our life? The born-to-be-a-wise-thinker part of us (conscious, cultivated) — or our body’s nonthinking sensory system?
How do pseudo “feel-goods” trick the brain?
The subconscious mind is in charge of all autonomic processes of the body. Also known as the mind of the body, the subconscious is its operating system. Unless we consciously choose otherwise, the mind of our body naturally gravitates toward what makes us feel good or comfortable, and simultaneously, what avoids making us feel bad or uncomfortable.
The brain and body make no distinction between feels-good that are physical, mental or emotional. In practical terms, this means we are inwardly motivated to do more than just survive, to thrive.
We are much more than servants of biological survival — and some of the latest findings in neuroscience seem to support what sages have proclaimed from the beginning of recorded history.
- We are hardwired with inborn drives that propel us to want to “feel good” about our self and life – in a meaningful sense.
- We are wired with circuitry for caring, empathy and connection. Our brain “is a relationship organ,” as Dr. Daniel Siegel puts it; we are relationship beings.
- We share impulses – inborn motivation that shapes our wants, thoughts, desires, aspirations, passion, behaviors, thoughts – driving us to find a myriad of ways (actions, ranging from effective and fulfilling to ineffective quick-fixes and non-fulling) to love and be loved, to connect meaningfully, and, among others, to contribute value in life.
Essentially, we are meaning-making beings driven by heart energies to seek and find purpose in life.
In our heart of hearts, our highest impulse is to “self-actualize,” a term psychologist Abraham Maslow coined, and described as a universal drive to reach a state of being in which we experience a spiritual oneness with self, others, and life, a seeking to find purpose by meaningfully contributing to life in some way.
Toxic thinking tricks our brains to rely on easy and quick-fix pseudo “feel-good” feelings, that:
- Make us feel “needed,” “important,” “caring,” etc., by worrying, working hard to please or fix others, or blasting them with our anger.
- Help us “feel-good” by feeling “better than,” “superior” or “self-righteous,” i.e., by focusing our attention on how “right” or “good” we are versus how “wrong” or “bad” others are, etc.
- Relieve us of pressure or responsibility to change or grow (which is a feel-good!) by giving us “reasons” (excuses) to avoid doing the inner work this (always) involves.
- Provide comfort and safety in staying with the familiar, i.e., not stretching out of comfortable zones, such as old childhood neural patterns (early survival-love maps).
- Give us a pseudo sense of “feeling close” with someone, i.e., when we complain/gossip about how another has hurt or wronged us, doesn’t appreciate us, etc.
- Elude us into “feeling” that we are “solving” our issues when in fact all we’re doing is wasting (valuable) energy complaining, whining, blaming others, etc.
- Keep us in feelings of anger, resentment, or bitterness, which “help” us avoid feeling our feelings of vulnerability, such as rejection, abandonment, loneliness, powerlessness, etc.
Like other addictive substances or activities, toxic “feel good” thinking patterns can be described as futile attempts to help us get control over our life that lead us to increasingly lose control instead.
Also like addictive substances, they provide cheap thrill ways of instantly feeling “okay” or “important” or “valued.”
Like junk food, drugs or alcohol, additionally, these thinking/behaving patterns are defensive strategies that “help” us obtain quick-fix releases of “feel good” hormones. They stimulate certain reward centers of the brain. Albeit only brief and temporary fixes, nevertheless, they instantly lower anxiety, thus, producing pseudo “feel goods” in the body.
This misleads our subconscious mind into thinking that these protective strategies “work” well. It also “thinks” it’s doing a great job whenever it reminds us to use one or more of these “quick-fixes” when, in reality, it’s acting more like an alarm system that gets jammed in “on” position in certain situations (that trigger us).
The subconscious mind is stuck, and guess who holds the key to its (and our) freedom? We do. We can make self-directed changes not only to the thoughts on our mind, but also to the neural structure of our brain.
Examples of toxic thinking patterns?
What are some examples of toxic thinking patterns? Here seven toxic thinking patterns that trick our brain and body into relying on them as “trusted friends”:
1. Fault-finding or complaining
EXAMPLE: “Well, you did it again” OR, “I think it’s awful that you always …”
EXAMPLE: “If only he/she hadn’t or wouldn’t … everything would be fine.”
3. Triangulating, gossiping
EXAMPLE: “Well, he/she did it again” OR, “I think it’s awful that he/she always …”
4. Communication blocking
EXAMPLE: “Don’t tell him/her; it will only upset him.”
Or “Don’t let her have the last word; she won’t respect you.”
5. Rescuing others
EXAMPLE: “This is too much for him/her” OR, “I must fix him/her so they don’t get upset, angry, etc.
6. Portraying self as a victim, helpless, or needing to be rescued
EXAMPLE: “I wouldn’t be in this mess if weren’t for my mother/father.”
7. Making excuses
EXAMPLE: “I’ve tried everything; nothing works.”
What makes these thinking patterns toxic to us? They:
- (Pointlessly…) Activate the body’s fight or flee response with thoughts that trigger our core fears, such as fear of rejection, inadequacy, etc.
- (Needlessly…) Keep our brain out of “learning mode” (reflective, possibility thinking) and instead in “protective mode” (or alert status), perhaps for extended periods of time.
- (Unfairly…) Prevent us from growing our capacity to regulate our fears (to calm our mind and body so we may remain empathically connected whenever we feel vulnerable).
It’s not a pretty picture, is it?
Though well-intentioned, these toxic thinking patterns cause feeling states and behaviors that can never nourish us or satisfy our drives for emotional fulfillment. At best, they are mere futile attempts that, instead, leave us with insatiable cravings for more quick-fix feel-goods.
At worst, they “protect” us from what we need most: to feel our feelings, face our fears. Our inner world of sensations is a source of vital and life enriching information that is designed to inform our choices and potentially help us make wiser decisions.
For example, just because someone feels upset or angry, or does not give us what we want, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not loved or appreciated. When we defensively resort to quick-fix options in dealing with these ongoing issues in our life and relationships, however, such as giving them the “silent treatment” to “teach” them to appreciate us, will this solve or more likely exacerbate the problem?
We know this doesn’t work deep inside. Defensive behaviors – our own or others’ – most always produce more of the feelings and behaviors that left us feeling lonely, unappreciated or emotionally detached to begin with.
It is pointless, needless and unfair, and can be baffling, but doesn’t need to be.
Toxic-feel-good thinking patterns are held in place by beliefs that, in effect, cause us to feel fearful in situations that are actually not a “real” threat to us. These beliefs, in turn, produce reactive behaviors, ranging from emotional manipulation to aggressive bullying, all of which are pseudo ways of restoring balance to the energies of our body. These are only a few of many good reasons to replace them with healthful, life energizing thinking patterns!
The “real” threat to our health and future?
Toxic-feel-good thinking patterns are excuses or lies we have learned to tell ourselves that are rigidly held in place by fear-based beliefs. They are toxic as they block change and healing processes essential to living healthful, fulfilled lives.
In effect, toxic thinking is the real threat to the health of our body, mind and relationships – and not what stresses us or triggers our fears and painful emotions.
It is toxic thinking that blocks us from what we, as human beings, most need and yearn for in life: To feel alive in meaningful connection to our self and life around us; to feel our love is “good enough” and contributes value in our life and relationships; and to love courageously, thus, authentically with our whole hearts, with no “need” for approval or things external to ourselves to feel “complete” or deserving of love.
How many of the above patterns do you use?
They are not easy to break. It will require consistent effort, and determination, as they are self-reinforcing. They can be stubborn, as they are rooted in fear.
Your mind is a treasure, however. It is in your highest interest to change and replace them, and it is achievable as it is worthwhile.
Your imagination is working memory for the creation of yourself and life. The words you use, and the thoughts you think, activate dynamic processes in your body. In many ways, you are … whomever you think or say you are.
What is more, you deserve to give yourself the gift of a life free of toxic thinking patterns.
It is a matter of how willing you are, how much you want to break their hold, and … what you believe is possible for you.