When we are growing up, we learn from everybody around us. We learn how to interact with others; how to share, how to eat, how to think. We believe most of what we are told growing up, and if we don’t believe it, we might be shouted at, or told we are wrong; and we soon learn not to speak up, to ‘swallow’ others’ opinions we don’t necessarily agree with at the time.
It could be argued that, if we grow up healthily, we are encouraged to question the world.
Ideally, we would be taught to form our own opinions and respect other people’s opinions, but not necessarily subscribe to them. However, if we aren’t encouraged to question things, if we are told lies by adults we look up to and trust, we’ll probably learn to follow what we are told. We will learn to think as we have been told and act on this information without questioning its validity.
Take this all-too-familiar scenario: Mary’s third marriage is coming to an end. She’s depressed and angry at herself for ‘ruining’ another marriage. She tells me that the same thing happened in the last two marriages, which proves that she’s a useless person and terrible wife.
For one, she’s incorrect because she’s globally rating herself as useless, and that’s irrational. Second, she’s taking all the blame, another thinking error. It doesn’t take much questioning to find out that her mother left her father when she was 3 years old, and her father told Mary that her mother left because of her. It was all her fault!
Really? It doesn’t take a genius to see how utterly crazy and untruthful that comment is. Yet, because Mary was told this by a significant authority figure, and was too young to cognitively question the irrationality of that statement, she internalized it. The lie became her truth. It was because of her that her mother left. End of story.
This type of internalized irrational belief can be devastating to a child’s life and growth. Just imagine: You’re 3 years old and you have the power to push a grown woman away from her husband and family. You somehow make it impossible for two adults to support each other. You make it impossible for them to manage a small child. You even have the power to prevent them from asking for help from others, if they so need it. Wow! That’s power.
Now imagine taking that belief into every relationship you go into. As soon as it looks like the other person might be moving away from you, that familiar, irrational belief kicks in. “They absolutely must not leave me. I can’t bear it if they leave me, because it means nobody will ever love me again.”
You’ll probably react one of three ways:
- Desperately hold on. Beg and promise to do anything the other person wants as long as they stay.
- Withdraw and let them leave because you know it’s inevitable
- Go look for a carving knife, because you’re not letting them leave – ever.
None of those solutions will work in the long run. To move on, somebody like Mary needs to understand that her thinking is at error here. The irrational belief she’s cultivated since she was a child is what drives her in all her relationships. It’s unhealthy and destructive.
To change this behavior pattern, she’ll need to uncover that old belief, and figure out a new, healthy way to think. Once she’s done that, and practiced the new rational belief over and over, the next time she starts a relationship she’ll be on stronger footing. It probably will give her an opportunity to make better, informed decisions about her future relationships.
It’s all too easy for a lie to be taken as truth, but it still doesn’t mean it’s true.