Negative Thoughts and Shame Addiction
Addiction When we think about addiction, it seems we mostly talk about substances or activities and rarely about the deeply set emotions that come with being an addict. Recently I watched the HBO special Addiction, and was struck by its limited scope in relating dependence or addiction to thoughts. As I watched the segments, I wondered if they had considered the number of ordinary people struggling with the less obvious but equally debilitating addiction to shame. Shame drives tapes within the mind of each person in slightly different ways but the outcome for most of us is the same…unfulfilling choices.
In the HBO special they did cover how brain imaging research, MRI, illustrates the way in which the animal brain, the limbic part of our neural anatomy, overrides the decision making prefrontal lobe. It can be a smell or place or the intensity of a conversation…whatever the cause…once the addiction/dependence circuit is triggered there is little time for the “do you really want to do that” thought to emerge and take hold before the flight or fight response kicks into overdrive. What started as a survival mechanism, over time, becomes a sure fire method for self abuse and dis-ease.
For most of us there is a mental leap to be made between negative thinking induced by shame and addiction or dependence. We have trouble with the addicted label, at least in part, due to the stigma attached to the words “addiction” and “addict”. Addicts are portrayed as deeply troubled and often socially destructive people on the wrong path. If only it were that easy. Ask any addict where/why/how they started and you will find a story about messages of shame, self worth and connection gone awry.
My experience tells me, and this may only be true for me, that looping negative self talk is our first and most formidable of habitually negative, self defeating patterns. It stems from some form of “I am not ___________ enough.” Beating ourselves up with poor mental hygiene is often how we go from feeling bad to acting in ways that make us physically ill and ultimately numb from addiction. At the root of this cycle is how we think and process negative emotions.
Thoughts are numerous and relentless at times…consider the number we have in a given hour or an entire day. Most thoughts take place on a semi-conscious level; reaching for our wallet to pay for lunch or slowing down before we turn a corner. Some thoughts are clear and conscious; deciding to go see a new show or deciding to purchase a new car. The stream of thoughts in our mind is so incessant, picking out just one or two can be challenging. Except for our negative thoughts; these we tend to hang on to and get to know. Negative feelings literally stick around in the engrams of our thoughts wreaking havoc on our self image and sense of worth, sapping our inner genius.
Negative thoughts adhere to our psyche because they are connected to strong and often primal fears and feelings. Feelings we tried to process before we had the tools of language or the hormonal development of an adult mind. Whether these traumatic feelings are part of now or some past experience, they are painful and for most of us that means reaching for something to distract or numb the discomfort and terror. Once the process of numbing the pain begins it can be challenging to stop the cycle…if we could deal with the loss, rejection, failure…we would…right? This is where the whole pain/growth cycle gets really strange and interesting. The literature on trauma tells us that stopping a behavior induced to ameliorate feelings of pain is intensely dificult...understanding the thought process behind the behavior can be even more challenging.
How we feel about ourselves as adults and how we respond to “negative” stimuli can be directly correlated, in many cases, to how we learned to think about and relate to our environment as children. If the messaging was confusing or inconsistent or traumatic, it may mean that the only way we could “comprehend” our infant world was by believing we were lacking in some fundamental way. Those repeating loops of ‘I am not enough” may have been playing for decades; for some of us they are our first messages! These messages are powerful and they tap into the part of our pain we have the least control over; the flight or fight, limbic animal brain. For me the sensation, when I really sit with it, is akin to eating another piece of chocolate cake. The first slice was delicious and by the end of the second I feel nauseous and yet I keep eating…it is like I can’t help myself stop.
Whether I am teaching a yoga class, leading a teacher training or working with a client individually, allowing someone to be deeply seen is where the teaching really begins. When we are deeply seen by others we have the opportunity to drop our storyline and understand how our overactive mind is brainwashing us. We can do this in meditation as well just by sitting and watching our thoughts as they bubble to the surface and then dissipate. Over time we see how easy it is to take a passing thought seriously and literally run away with it, rather than sitting with ourselves. We may also notice how often we allow negative thoughts or anxious thoughts to crowd out the here and now reality of life. I see this most often in my most intimate experiences. I am being hugged or being caressed or listening to a close friend offer me words of empathy and my mind interjects feeling/word/echoes of “move out of this..don’t relax into it…pain is the result.”
Send up a shoot
If you want to stop negative thoughts from derailing you and interfering with your experience of joy, then you will need to make a commitment toward growth. Saying we want to grow out of negative, self defeating thoughts is easy. Staying put and not running when we get uncomfortable is much more challenging. Remembering change happens over a period of time…sometimes a very long period…can be helpful when we feel like running back to the familiar negative mindset. Being comfortable with failing and trying and failing and trying and failing and trying is also very important. Growth is chaotic and imperfect. It is also helpful to recognize and to be honest about the difference between negative thoughts alone and habitual behaviors that reinforce our negative/anxious thoughts. Until we are willing to truly step back from the behaviors that feed the negative-self-talk system, it becomes very challenging to choose life affirming beliefs. Get sober!
Look me in the eye
I love teaching complex practices like yoga because almost everyone can get to the point in an hour long practice where their defenses begin to waver. As the executive functions in the brain become taxed and the body begins to fatigue, what we “really believe” often begins to surface more clearly. To some degree those thoughts were always there but with dedicated practice aligned with self awareness we can begin to make friends with and then question our reactions and thought patterns. There are lots of really obvious examples here but I want to share one not so obvious one from my own experience.
- I am bored with this practice
- I shouldn’t have decided to put myself through this
- I feel annoyed and I want to leave
I am not easily overwhelmed physically but the above thought sequence happens quite often. The underlying or root thought is, “You are not enough (fit, beauty, young, smart, cool, normal) for this experience/teacher to make it amazing.” “John, you know no one really cares as much as you do…so just give up, act out, get distracted, move on, run away.”
When I was in high school I had this cross country coach who really tried to help me understand how my mind was keeping me from succeeding. I excelled at swimming and I almost always hit a wall in cross country competitions. It felt like I just couldn’t go on, guys would start passing me and I would just want to give up. My mom would often come watch me swim or run and I recall after a particularly bad race, the coach wanting to talk with my mom. “I feel like John could run faster if he had something to run for, a reason to win.” My mom just sort of looked at him blankly. “Can you think of anything that would motivate him, give him a reason to run faster?” Blank stare. This is what I refer to as a somatic level negative thought…one learned from birth and passed on unconsciously. Overcoming negative conditioning requires "seeing" these basic misundersandings about reality and the stories they generate.
Reboot the machine
How do you learn to rewire a system built on a lack of motivation? How do you turn trauma into meaningful growth? How do you spin deep longing into a creative force? How do you convince yourself that you are enough in each moment? The only way I have found that really works is to ask, “why.” Why is this thought here at this time? Where does it come from? Is the thought based on reality and if it is what does that mean about John? If it isn’t based on present reality then why do I keep ruminating on it or replaying it? Can I see how I might use it to be present and if not can I learn to let it go? Some of these thoughts happen so fast that we can’t even see them until they have gripped us and taken hold. Some of them are so familiar that we believe they are who/what/how we are and replacing them is akin to disappearing.
Is it easier for me to believe I am “not enough” and continue the cycle of self hurt than it is to accept the intrinsic suffering of life? The hard truth for all of us, particularly for those of us who have survived the nightmare of addiction, is the realization that “broken” allows us to stay in a very familiar cycle of deep inner turmoil. Shame is the lash that whips and binds us to repeating behaviors and looking for signals that what we knew all along, “I am not enough…” was true anyway…so might as well fall back into the pain of self abuse.
Compassion, empathy and curiosity can soften our landing into our negative self. We/I can learn to stop feeling bored and start being curious. How did I get here? Is this narrative really who I am? Compassion for our own suffering is how we begin to shift the narrative. I mean enormous doses of compassion around things like choices and actions that have not served us again and again. Compassion for the confusion and the incredibly delicious line between anxiety and liberation. Compassion for our own version of mental and emotional compulsivity. Compassion for the addicted mind within each of us.
“Go to the Limits of Your Longing”
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night. These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me. Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in. Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me. Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness. Give me your hand.
by Rainer Maria Rilke • Book of Hours, I 59