I believe that the primary goals of consciousness are to keep us alive and to stave off trauma or potential future trauma. Now if I am correct (and I may not be), then self-harm or the extreme of self-harm — self-annihilation — would be extremely difficult. Consider the statistics: each year, for every successful suicide in America (around forty thousand), there are twenty-five failures.
The human body is astonishingly resilient. Our survival instincts are extremely strong. We are hardwired to avert pain, and death is often preceded by pain. Let’s figure out how and why a human being could develop such an extreme form of “negative self-talk” that his or her inner monologue convinces him or her to attempt suicide.
If you have ever had the privilege of going to a rehab facility or twelve-step meeting, then you would think there is an epidemic of negative self-talk, of low self-esteem — of voices saying, “Not good enough” or “I will be happy in the future when I...” in the heads of people in Western society.
I believe we raise children and form them into productive members of society in much the same way that we tame pets: with rewards and punishments. Children want to sleep when they are tired, eat when they are hungry, defecate when they need to defecate, and play when they feel playful. But fairly soon after they are born, we put babies on schedules: there are designated feeding times, sleep times, and play times; when they get to school there are designated bathroom breaks.
Much of the taming comes in the form of negative feedback — frowns, negative languaging, love withheld in some manner — until the babies realize that something is wrong and that they must act another way in order to receive the sustenance they depend on to survive and the love they crave. However, according to most developmental psychologists, infants do not think, “There is something wrong with the situation — I must change my behavior.” Instead, infants think, “There is something wrong with me.”
When adult patients in my office make generalizations such as “I suck, I am bad at everything, nothing I do goes right, nobody likes me...,” I ask them: “Whose voice is that? Were you born with that voice? Were you born thinking that you cannot do anything right? Or by chance did you have critical parents, siblings, teachers, or caretakers?”
Many of us have inner critical voices that appear soon after we accomplish anything. On a grand scale this is also known as a “hedonic treadmill,” where the mind replaces desires with fresh desires soon after each is achieved.
This “you’re not good enough” voice tells us, “Yes, it is great that I made vice president, but I will be happy only when I become president,” or “I will be happy when...my net worth is north of $10 million, I marry the perfect spouse, my kids graduate college, my paintings hang in museums, my band plays in a stadium, my internet company goes public, I win the lottery, I have sex twice a day, once a day, once a week...ever again.”
Anyone who says “I will be happy when I...” will never be happy. Or, more precisely, there will be intermittent feelings of accomplishment quickly followed by new goals to accomplish. Ironically, one of the inalienable rights of Americans is the right to pursue happiness.
Here are my favorite quotes that convey the paradoxes of happiness:
Happiness cannot be pursued. You do not find happiness; happiness finds you. It is not an end in itself, but a by-product of other activities, often arriving when it is least expected. -- MICK BROWN
There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it. -- GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
America is among the richest countries in the world, and in 2016 it was ranked as the thirteenth-happiest in the world, behind Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Israel, and Austria.
How is it possible that we are some of the most privileged human beings to ever walk the face of the earth and not the happiest? According to Ken Dychtwald most human beings who ever lived never reached the age of forty (currently our life expectancy is almost double that); according to the World Bank, 767 million of our fellow human beings lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2013; yet over 20 million Americans take anti- depressants daily.
There is an old Freudian slip/joke that says, “Well, if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother!” I am not blaming post-World War II parenting styles for a few generations of depressed people; I am asking you to look at the Western paradigm buttressed by capitalism, science, and religion and consider whether there are unintended psychological and emotional ramifications to the way children are raised in our society.
There is no such creature as the perfect parent. It is a balancing act. It is a dance. And we are fortunate that there are so many wonderful resources to help parents today, such as Shefali Tsabary’s book The Conscious Parent and Mindful Parenting by Kristen Race.
Einstein said that the level of consciousness that created a problem will be unable to fix it. So it is time to start examining how the way we raise children correlates with the rise of mental disorders such as depression, ADHD, general anxiety disorder, and so on.
* Are our schools too competitive and stressful?
* Are sports and games too competitive and stressful?
* Is “fitting in” — being accepted by others and having friends — unduly competitive and stressful?
* Do media such as video games, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, texting, movies, television, popular music, romance novels, and magazines, as well as the apparent worship of celebrities, help to raise stable, well-adjusted children?
You may be familiar with what has come to be known as the “marshmallow test.” It was a study conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford University in 1960. Children four to six years of age were offered a treat such as a marshmallow, cookie, or pretzel and told that if they waited fifteen minutes without eating the treat they would receive a second treat.
Videos of various incarnations of this experiment available online, showing the children as they try to resist the treats confronting them, are hysterical, disturbing, and bizarre — with some children covering their eyes to hide the treats from themselves and one girl going so far as to bang her head against the desk in an attempt to thwart temptation and muster discipline.
One-third of the children were able to resist enjoying instant gratification. But that is not the interesting part of the experiment; what is interesting is that twenty and thirty years later, researchers found that the children who were able to delay gratification had done better in school, had better careers and better relationships, and were more successful overall.
If parents want to raise successful children, and they know that self-discipline is essential to success, then how do they instill that quality while avoiding inadvertently informing the children that there is something wrong with them? Again, it is a balancing act, a dance. And luckily there are books such as Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by Shauna Shapiro and Chris White to help parents today.
I am not suggesting that we blame our parents for our failed relationships as adults. Instead I am trying to provoke you to ask the question “If many of my redundant and negative thoughts can be traced back to my childhood, then what is my authentic self?”
Myriad factors contribute to how our minds develop as we grow up, but why is it that people in WEIRD populations (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) are plagued with redundant and negative thoughts? Obviously this epidemic of negative self-talk, which psychotherapists can attest to, is inauthentic. No understanding of authenticity would include such horrifying low self-esteem or its converse — narcissism — which, I argue, is often just a mask for low self-esteem.
There may also be even more esoteric factors that are not scientifically provable and that influence who we are and how we think, such as karma, astrology, meridians, chakras, kundalini energy, doshas, koshas, birth order, how and what we were fed, where and how much we slept, and the infinite interactions we had with others before we could think or speak. The important question to ask when we notice negative voices that we obviously were not born with is: “Whose voice is that telling me I am not good enough? Whose voice is telling me I will be happy or happier if/when I accomplish X in the future?”
Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” Although Americans enjoy more privileges and freedoms than people in many other countries, we grow up in a highly competitive society, where children are constantly pushed to get good grades and “achieve” various goals daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. Whoever pushed us — usually our family members — wounded us by subconsciously informing us that whatever we did was “not good enough.” Even positive statements like “You’ll do better next time” may have unintentionally informed us that we were failures in some way.
In adulthood, all of that (totally unintentional) wounding during childhood adds up to low self-worth, low self-esteem, and feeling unlovable or only conditionally lovable because we “do” certain things or look a certain way or have attained certain goals or a certain status.
Ram Dass’s famous quote becomes particularly poignant later in life whenever we actually do visit our primary caretakers, because that is often when we get triggered and our childhood wounds, or core wounds, are reopened.
If I receive emergency phone calls from patients during the holiday season, I usually end up telling them: “That fight you are having with your mother/father/sister/brother is not about what you think it is about.” And then we discuss things that happened during the patient’s childhood — abandonments, betrayals, violations, humiliations, frustrations, feeling unheard, resentment for being told what to do and who to be, and so on — and we figure out what is going on at a subconscious level and at least develop a more interesting narrative.
The best tool I have found for these situations is mindfulness, because it teaches us to cultivate nonreactivity. Not reacting to dynamics that were established twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years ago is definitely the best way to modify them. And then we can make healthier, more compassionate long-term decisions that bode favorably for peace, love, and harmony.
The next time you are with family members and the situation gets heated, try thinking phrases to yourself such as: “Wow...isn’t that interesting! All of my daddy abandonment/ withholding [whatever your core issue is] buttons are being pushed right now! I thought I had resolved that issue a long time ago! This is so interesting!” And then you can decide to take a walk or do something healthy instead of reacting and exacerbating the situation.
In particular, all “observing thoughts meditations” can be helpful. Please visit YouTube and spend a few minutes doing such meditations every day. You can think of it as exercising a muscle, as going to a gym for your mind.
Once we learn to sit and observe how our minds operate, then when we are in situations that trigger us, we can make healthy choices — like choosing just to observe the triggers and being proud of ourselves for not reacting.
For example, let’s say we are visiting our parents and our father or mother asks us to drive him or her to the store. Everything is going swimmingly until we have to park and our parent starts looking around nervously, then tells us: “More to the left, no now to the right — I said more to the left...no, more to the right.” He or she is trying to help us parallel park, but the wounded child in us hears: “I can never do anything right.”
Mindfulness helps us direct our attention to the present moment, be in the present moment, and ignore and dissipate the negative voices that stem from our childhood.
©2017 by Ira Israel. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com.
How to Survive Your Childhood Now That You're an Adult
by Ira Israel
In this provocative book, eclectic teacher and therapist Ira Israel offers a powerful, comprehensive, step-by-step path to recognizing the ways of being that we created as children and transcending them with compassion and acceptance. By doing so, we discover our true callings and cultivate the authentic love we were born deserving.
Ira Israel is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Mindful Relationship Coach. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has graduate degrees in Psychology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. Ira has taught mindfulness to thousands of physicians, psychologists, attorneys, engineers and creative professionals across America. For more information please visit www.IraIsrael.com