My counseling teacher taught me that the dysfunctions we have as adults are often rooted in coping mechanisms as children.
For example, Tim grew up in a family with parents who were constantly fighting. He learned to cope with the strain and turmoil by avoiding conflict. Whenever his parents seemed to get into a heated exchange, Tim would do what he could to steer the conversation to calmer waters. Tim learned to avoid conflict, since conflict would inevitably lead to fights. But as an adult, whenever his wife Barbara brings up a difficult topic, Tim shuts down. Even though he is 40 years old, part of him is still that 8 year old, the sound of his parents’ shouting ringing in his ears. He isn’t even conscious of the role his childhood trauma plays in his current life.
The key here is to recognize where the dysfunction comes from. Oftentimes, we try to will our dysfunctions away. We resolve to do better, to be more attentive, to be more emotionally open. Yet if we remain ignorant to the deep well of our habits and patterns of thinking, resolve will only go so far.
For myself, one such coping mechanism/dysfunction is an expectation of rejection. It manifests as a little voice that says “No one really likes you. All these people that are nice to you, they are just being polite. If they said what they really felt, they would want nothing to do with you. The best thing you can do for everyone is to leave them alone, so they don’t have to put up with you.”
The story behind this coping mechanism is long and involved. Suffice it to say, I know that it isn’t true, but it still triggers within me at times. Yet when these thoughts come back, knowing the story behind them and how to speak truth against them is transformative. Instead of becoming hopeless or upset when these thoughts come up, I can ask myself: Where does this come from, and what is the truth?