Good to Know: Why We Think the Way We Think

Woman looking thoughtfully out the windowKnowledge is a powerful resource for navigating life. We have endless internal dialogues that assist with interpretation of information and decision-making. Knowing why we think the way we think is the gold standard for healthy functioning. It affords us an opportunity to appreciate where we are in life and to choose where to go from there, a starting point for change.

Unhealthy thinking is, in large part, a function of negative belief systems, often installed by others and reinforced by our childhood experiences. Many people exhibit profound self-doubt, blame themselves, apologize profusely, and excuse their parents’ abusive behavior. This constellation of negative beliefs and behaviors presents in conjunction with stories of verbal and physical abuse that begins in childhood and follows people into adulthood. The longer we think a particular way, the harder it is to change our thoughts and beliefs.

I am a psychotherapist in private practice. Here is a hypothesis for consideration: Parents raise their children in their own image to fit into the world the way they see it. I ask people who come to me for therapy to stop and think about the developmental and environmental realties of their childhoods. I remind them that kids are captive learners who have no choice, no voice, and no mobility.

There is a big difference between grieving that you didn’t get what you needed as a child and spending your life blaming parents for your life as an adult. A middle-aged man told me he had stomped out of a doctor’s office because his physician asked him how he felt about being hit by his father. He tearfully pointed his finger and said, “My dad was a good man, a hard worker, and I probably deserved what I got.” It was a clear message to me that the subject was off limits. It was a defensive response.

Interestingly, the man’s presenting issue was that he was “at his wit’s end” trying to cope with a 30-year-old son’s excessive pot smoking and slovenly behavior. The daily arguments were driving him and his wife crazy, but neither had successfully implemented and enforced boundaries in their own home.

Why did a middle-aged man protectively defend his deceased father when, as an adult, he never tolerated being hit by others? He relied on a system of justifying his dad’s abuse while blaming himself because it once worked. He learned to be a peacekeeper at a young age. It reduced the likelihood that his dad would get angry and violent. However, this role did not allow the man to honor his true feelings about being hit, berated, and shamed.

He was profoundly uncomfortable, consumed with constant doubt about his worth and ability. He’d worked for five companies but had been let go because he was “a loyal employee but an ineffective leader.” His home life was less than satisfying. The worse things got, the more he loved and the harder he tried to make peace. He parented his son from this place of low self-esteem. He was incapable of setting reasonable limits, highly deferential to the needs and wants of his wife and children. His coping system ceased to work, but he didn’t know how to change it.

We owe it to ourselves to identify why we do what we do. Then, we may decide whether we still want or need to stay with the program. Defensive responses are protective and serve a purpose. A great example of this is the use of avoidance. Most people who avoid refer to themselves as “lazy” or say “I’m a procrastinator.” Two significant things are successfully happening. One, they internalize the blame. It may not be pleasant to criticize oneself for being lazy, but it reduces the likelihood of argument. This is terrific for people who hate conflict. Two, it bypasses being angry with others and helps us feel in control.

Early coping strategies for dealing with life, especially for navigating interactions with others, are rooted in familiarity. People rely on and repeat these even when the results are painful and no longer work.

Anger gets a bad rap in our culture, which suggests that to be angry is to be out of control. It is an appropriate affect in certain situations. There are normal ranges for angry expression, as there are for all emotions. Anger is frequently role-modeled in extremes—demonstrations of screaming, verbal put-downs, and physical violence.

Early coping strategies for dealing with life, especially for navigating interactions with others, are rooted in familiarity. People rely on and repeat these even when the results are painful and no longer work. The human drive for consistency pulls dominance over curiosity for exploring new ways of coping. These methods worked well at some point in life, especially during childhood, when they were appropriate for emotional and physical survival.

Compartmentalization and detachment are subconscious coping mechanisms. The same man adamantly defends his father’s dictatorial parenting style but parents his children with a “marshmallow” approach—no rules or consequences. One part of him agrees with and condones his dad’s treatment of him. Another part parents in a diametrically opposed manner. It’s fascinating to observe these disconnects in action. People complain about feeling stuck. Change is challenging and often feared. Familiarity and years of reinforcement make moving from negative to positive thinking difficult. I guide people on a journey of awareness and choice. We nonjudgmentally search relevant files of experience to identify significant influences and resulting patterns of thinking. The pace of raising awareness is based on each person’s comfort level and learning style.

Awareness is a starting place. The brain does not have a delete button for experiential files, but it is possible to update and integrate files. The password for reprogramming? Choice.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Pandora L. MacLean-Hoover, LICSW, therapist in Lexington, Massachusetts

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Mack


    September 8th, 2015 at 9:28 AM

    You got it exactly right by stating that this is all about choice. It might not feel that way but everything that we do is actually determined by us, our own actions and our own choices. It is time to make a change with those things when it is change that you would like to see in your life overall.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    September 8th, 2015 at 12:44 PM

    Thank you for taking the time to read my article and write a comment.
    I am so glad that the subject resonated with you. Awareness can be tough. It is the only way to make sustainable changes.
    I wish you well with your efforts to make meaningful changes in your life!

  • Teri


    September 8th, 2015 at 2:28 PM

    A large part of who we are and how we view certain things is going to come directly from how we were raised as children.

    The more we sometimes do not want to be like our parents, the more we open our mouths and we start to hear our dads or our moms coming out.

    But again like others are saying this is what we are choosing and the only person who can go about changing that is you.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    September 9th, 2015 at 5:01 AM

    Thanks for writing a comment Teri.
    Yes, sometimes the word “choice” triggers shame in people because they feel responsible for not changing themselves. The influences of others, especially parents, create automatic responses, about which we are often unaware.
    It’s best to be willing to explore our beliefs and think about the merits of the people who influenced us. That way, we will be more informed to decide what we may wish to change.

  • Grace


    September 11th, 2015 at 3:51 AM

    There can be times when you are actually afraid to look at those reasons, it is hard to learn the truth behind our actions at times.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    September 14th, 2015 at 9:08 PM

    Thank you for reading my article and for your heartfelt comment.
    You are absolutely right. There are times when it’s too scary to think.
    I advise my clients to listen to their fear. I meet them where they are by encouraging them to trust themselves. If it feels too frightening, then honor the fear and postpone digging.

  • Julie


    September 13th, 2015 at 3:12 PM

    While it can be difficult to accept that we find comfort in repeated patterns even if they are uncomfortable, I feel getting to a place of acceptance and peace with that idea has been what has helped me be aware that I have choice. Thank you for sharing this information with us, and for having a progressive approach for adults to make sense of their reality and learn how to use their own knowledge and experience to improve their lives.

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    September 14th, 2015 at 9:13 PM

    Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my article!
    I cannot emphasize enough that you are the expert on yourself, even during times of depletion. Who can know you better than you know yourself?
    I love what I do.
    It’s an honor to work with each and every client who wishes to understand themselves. It truly is through awareness that we may choose to make sustainable changes in ourselves.

  • Eileen


    September 14th, 2015 at 8:28 AM

    When reading this I kept thinking,”what about the kids who had a great normal childhood w no issues as body images, self esteem issues, no abuse of any sort at home, a good happy childhood, who end up with all kinds of issues such as was written.

    Where do they start to understand?
    “Part of me is like this cuz I had a happy childhood?”

  • Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    Pandora MacLean-Hoover

    September 14th, 2015 at 9:24 PM

    You have asked a very valid question!
    My simple answer is to say that experience is our teacher.
    If you experience profound struggle and dissatisfaction in your life, it is quite likely that you are going through negative experiences that challenge you to the core. These may easily happen long after childhood. Traumatic events, for example, may be of great enough disruption to your life as to render you off-balance.
    People who have had great childhoods may never have developed tolerance or adequate coping skills for dealing with unfamiliar things like betrayal, death and loss.
    Thanks for reading my article and for leaving a thought provoking comment.

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on