In his forties, my dad entered a Master’s of Psychology degree program that was offered in his rural community as an extension of the university 100 miles away. When he entered the program, he had not yet finished his Bachelor’s degree, but was admitted on the terms that he would have the Bachelor’s degree finished before the Master’s program was concluded.
Distance learning had just been introduced, so he was doing packets for his Bachelor’s program while also working full-time, and participating in the part-time Master’s program.
Up to this time in his life, he had been afraid to participate in higher education because he thought he was “dumb.” He grew up in a town of about 80 people. He was sure his rural education was inferior and that he couldn’t compete. When his principal was handing him his high school diploma he said, “Gibbs, you will never amount to anything.” Such experiences reinforced the internal dialogue that he was dumb.
Despite many experiences in his adult life that suggested otherwise, it took him until his forties before he was willing to challenge that script that had been running in the back of his mind since his childhood. He graduated from that Masters program with perfect grades. He had to work very hard for this to happen, but he learned that the thought, “I am dumb” was a script that was not true.
After all, a thought is just a thought. Just because you think it doesn’t make it true, but because you identify with the thought it feels real to you.
We all have both good and bad experiences in our childhood. They can be small with little consequence, or large and trauma-inducing. The interesting thing is that even though we grow up and mature in many areas, we hang on to some of those thoughts with tenacity and without any insight on our part.
In many ways, we are still looking at the world through a child’s eyes. The scripts born early in our development often form the foundation of depression or anxiety.
Operating Scripts Carry Forward
Another example is a client I will call Samantha. Samantha was born to a 15-year-old. Samantha’s mother was not ready for motherhood. She spent her days partying and moving from one relationship to another. Samantha experienced a childhood of neglect.
Samantha felt shame at her very existence due the criticism her mother flung at her. Samantha believed that she was inherently unloveable–that at her very core she was worthless. As a child, she was sure that her mother’s drinking was because Samantha was a “bad” girl.
Samantha carried these same thought patterns into adulthood, and then extended them to other relationships in her life. Samantha felt worthless when her child didn’t do well in school. She felt unlovable when her husband got cancer.
When Samantha came into therapy at around fifty years old, her mother continued to be a serious alcoholic. In Samantha’s worldview, she was still responsible for her mother’s drinking.
Samantha had grown and matured in most areas of her life. She was successful in her schooling, in her ability to manage money, and in her career. She was a dedicated mother. She had great problem solving skills. She was kind and compassionate to others. Yet, when it came to her own self-worth she still saw the world as the little unwanted child. The low sense of self-worth fed her depression.
I introduced Samantha to the link between her thinking and her depression. She was certain her thoughts were factual. It was very difficult for her to separate herself from her thoughts. Over time, she learned that her thoughts were not always accurate.
Just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true. But because you think it, and believe it, then it is real for you. Once she came to recognize this she could have more empathy for the neglected little girl within herself. She learned to nurture herself with the kindness and love that most people get from their mothers.
These destructive scripts can affect anyone.
For example, Joan, a colleague of mine, once shared an experience from when she was in first grade. She described how she was seated in the very front row. Her teacher, Mrs. Walters, was at the chalkboard giving instruction.
The class was to reproduce on their papers what she had created on the board. She noticed, as she turned and looked over her shoulder, that Joan was not following her instruction correctly. She walked over to Joan’s desk, took a handful of Joan’s hair in her hand, and while shaking Joan’s head yelled “You will never get math if you don’t follow along.”
What Joan heard was that she was too stupid to do math. For years, even into college, she had an aversion to math, thinking that she was not capable of doing it. Likewise, she did not like to sit on the front row. Although she identified with this unhealthy script for many years, once she became a therapist she learned the connection between her mood and her thinking.
She had gained confidence as she matured, and she determined to look this fear straight in the face. She went back and audited the Math 101 class she had barely skimmed by in her undergraduate studies just to prove to herself she could indeed do it.
She had to work very hard and hire a tutor, but she did pass that class as a statement of letting go of that harmful childhood belief.
Your Scripts Don’t Have to be Your Reality
We all have a personal history with beliefs that come from childhood. These beliefs are at the foundation of our understanding of what is real.
The self-loathing that comes from negative childhood scripts does not serve you. Depression thrives on these negative beliefs.
The scripts that suggest you are worthless or not loveable are lies. But if this script is running in your mind, it feels very real, and your body will respond with depression as if the script is true.
Challenging these scripts can bring intense fear because you have held them for so long. They can feel familiar and almost comfortable, and change is difficult and strange. Don’t try and talk yourself out of the script; rather, separate yourself from these scripts as an observer (see Anxiety: “Anxious Thinking”).
From the role of witness rather than participant, you can be more objective about the lack of truth in the scripts that seem to have always been with you.
Be nurturing to yourself in your self-talk and when dealing with the experiences that led you to have these beliefs in the first place. You can learn to re-write these scripts by following the Empowered LIfe Solutions articles offered in the Healthy Living and Happiness sections of the web site.
Samantha, Joan, and my dad are all examples of how our experiences in childhood continue to affect us as adults. We have more wisdom as adults, but it is hard to make a different choice without the insight of how our thoughts link to our emotions.
We can look at the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are. We are more than what we thought in childhood. As an adult, it is time to challenge those scripts. (For more information read Healthy Living: “Self Worth”)