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Child Development

9 Ways Your Old Programming May Be Holding You Hostage

How do outdated childhood beliefs sabotage your adult self?

From "Trolley and Aaron Child's Eyes" (Used with permission)
Source: From "Trolley and Aaron Child's Eyes" (Used with permission)

"Old programming" is one way to think about decisions you made as a child to better adapt to a conditionally accepting family. After all, when you’re highly dependent on your caretakers for comfort, guidance, and support, what could be more essential than feeling securely bonded to them? Obviously, when you’re young, you can’t function autonomously. So, inasmuch as you have no choice but to rely on your parents to take care of you and keep you from harm’s way, it’s imperative to form an “alliance” with them that’s as strong and stable as possible.

As a child, it’s hardly likely that you conceptualized your family situation all that consciously. But as nature has endowed us all with powerful survival instincts, it would doubtless have registered deep within you that disappointing—or disobeying—your parents could seriously threaten their attachment to you. For their harshly disparaging you in such situations would have left you feeling, if not exactly abandoned, certainly less loved and cared for. To avoid such expressions of parental disapproval—the “sting” of which would have greatly distressed you and overwhelmed your limited coping resources—you would have felt compelled to generate what I call “emotional survival programs.”

That is, based on your genetic blueprint, you’d contrive to do just about anything to minimize disappointing your caretakers in the future. Strategically modifying your behavior as best you could (for as a child you really couldn’t eradicate all your errant impulses), you’d at least optimize your chances of being—however conditionally—accepted by them. And assuming that your parents, because of their own unresolved issues, were incapable of loving you unless you behaved in certain constricted ways, your carefully calculated adaptations would have helped you to secure a relationship that otherwise couldn’t feel sufficiently safe to you. “Achieving” this somewhat tenuous bond would have allayed your anxieties about whether you could trust your parents to adequately care for you. (Of course, there’s a small possibility that you rebelled against such parental dictates ... but that would be a subject for another post.)

Hopefully, the dependency-rooted, adaptive tactics I’m alluding to should be easy enough to understand and sympathize with. Yet as an adult it’s essential to reevaluate what you earlier deemed imperative to protect your somewhat shaky parental tie. But if you’re like most people, you may not yet realize that the ways you felt obliged to accommodate your parents’ preferences (e.g., “children should be seen but not heard”) are no longer relevant—and definitely not in your best interests. What was once adaptive may now be clearly, if not flagrantly, maladaptive, or even seriously dysfunctional.

The implicit, or explicit, parental demands that you may have acquiesced to, maybe even internalized as a necessary way of being, may now be holding you back from the success, happiness, or peace of mind that seem forever to elude you. Much of what’s now commonly regarded as self-sabotage originates from a negative self-image that long ago you “adopted” to accommodate your parents’ seeming need to perceive you this way—as though your childhood thinking was: “How could you not love me? I see myself in the same negative way you do” (whether that be unattractive/dumb/clumsy/bad/guilty/weak/etc.). For all kinds of motives, your parents may, however unconsciously, been “driven” to put you down, discourage you, or even compete with you—basically to alleviate deep doubts about their own adequacy, righteousness, or acceptability.

As you review the nine negative programs outlined below, ask yourself to what degree they may have taken up residence inside your head. And consider how your caretakers—or your external environment (including peers, siblings, teachers, etc.)—may unintentionally have “planted” them there. Remember, too, that the messages these outside forces imparted to you may have taken place not only through what happened to you but what didn't happen as well. For example, if your caretakers took care of you physically but, when you were overcome with fear or sadness, never comforted you emotionally, you may have surmised that your feelings weren’t important to them—and then concluded that, in life generally, it was futile to share your emotions.

Finally, please be aware that I’m not at all interested in “parent-bashing.” I truly believe that all parents do the best they can, given their own unresolved issues, as well as their level of empathy, understanding, sophistication, and defensiveness. Yet it’s crucial to realize that the root of many of your problems today may have far more to do with their parental deficiencies than any failings or flaws on your part. If you can't believe this, how can you be expected to make changes that are within your capacity, and that you very much need to make if you’re ever to feel really good about yourself (and your prospects)?

So, here are nine dysfunctional programs that you may unwittingly have brought with you to adulthood. (And I’ve no doubt there are many more which, if you'd like, you're free to note in any follow-up “Comment."):

1. Underestimating your potential—and so believing that whatever successes you’ve had are largely fortuitous and not really reflective of your capability.

Did either of your parents say or suggest to you that you didn’t have what it takes to succeed? that you had better not set your sights too high? Or possibly that you weren’t as smart, talented, or “qualified” as one of your siblings? If any of these statements feels vaguely familiar to you, in growing up you may have received—and whether your parents meant you to or not—such messages as: “I’m inadequate/ ...incompetent/ ...inferior/ ...behind the curve [or] 8-ball/ ...unable to measure up/ over my head/ ...unable to compete with others/ ...incapable of doing anything right/ ...slow [or] ... stupid.”

2. Constantly finding fault with, or attributing negative intentions to, yourself—and so “validating” the notion that you’re a bad person.

Do you beat yourself up—or morally castigate yourself—before anyone else might (or even think of doing)? Do you focus on your shortcomings? Question your motives? Obsess about how anyone could really like you (if they truly knew you)? If any of these negative self-portrayals seems to apply to you, ask yourself: “As a child, or adolescent, did my caretakers berate me pretty much on a daily basis? Routinely question my integrity or intentions?” In which case, you may have been prompted to believe a whole host of unfavorable things about yourself—such as “I’m not likeable/ ...lovable/ ...wanted/ ...honorable/ ...worthy of respect” [or] “I’m irresponsible/ ...blameworthy/ ...a mistake/ ...shameful/ ...lazy/ ...guilty/ ...selfish/ ...shameful/ ...contemptible [or] ... terrible.”

3. Regarding yourself as undeserving—and so believing that you have little to no right to ask for what you want or need.

Is self-assertion difficult for you? Do you deprive yourself of things you would enjoy, or that would contribute to your welfare? Do you maybe even reject others’ attempts to offer you what you desire because you feel insufficiently worthy to accept their gifts, or assistance? In such instances, your family-of-origin may have reacted negatively to you whenever you let them know what you wanted. Moreover, it’s possible that they gave you the message that you were ungrateful for what you did have—that you were lucky they even “put up” with you. In which case, they may have burdened you with one or more of the following self-defeating beliefs: “I don’t deserve love/ ...respect/ ...authority/ ...happiness/ succeed/ forgiven . . . [and do deserve] criticism/ ... pain/ ...punishment/ ...bad things/ ...abandonment/ fail [and/or] ... be miserable.”

4. Seeing yourself as an outsider or outcast—and so believing that you don’t, or can’t, fit in with others.

Did you feel with your family that you truly belonged to them—or, for that matter, did you have problems blending in with your peers? Were you criticized, or made fun of, for being different, or in some way peculiar? Did any of your physical characteristics seem to set you negatively apart from others? And in your life presently, do you sometimes feel almost like a pariah, as though you’re a stranger in a strange land? Consider whether as a child your parents (or environment generally) may have led you to think of yourself as abnormal, or whether those outside you “seeded” in your mind the sense that you were some sort of misfit. For they may have prompted you to believe: “I’m different/ ...not normal/ ...ludicrous [or] “I’m all alone/ ...lost/ ...don't belong [or] ... left behind.”

5. Perceiving yourself, or perhaps the whole world, as untrustworthy—and so believing that you should be suspicious of yourself and/or those around you.

Did your parents distrust you—whether or not their lack of faith in you was actually warranted? Were you yourself tempted to behave in untrustworthy ways, for that was the only way you could get basic needs met? Did your parents maybe teach you not to trust anyone, because they themselves had become disillusioned with others, or projected their own deceitfulness or duplicity onto them? In what ways—direct or indirect—may your parents have prompted you to see yourself as essentially dishonest? For if you relate to any of these unflattering descriptions, consider your possibly believing (or acting as though you believe): “I have no credibility/ ...can’t be trusted/ myself/ my perceptions/ judgment/ authority/ ... [or] anyone else”[or] “It’s not safe to tell the truth.”

6. Devaluing or belittling yourself—and so believing that you’re less worthwhile than others, regularly selling yourself short.

Did your caretakers typically disregard your needs? make light of them and give you the message that they didn’t much matter? And might you yourself have “bought into” their discounting the legitimacy of what was important to you? Among other things, ask yourself whether you’ve "adjusted" to this self-minimizing viewpoint by subordinating your needs to others in the effort to earn their love and acceptance (which is how you may have gotten it from your parents). If you’re guilty of such self-abuse, your family—however accidentally—may have encouraged you to believe: “I’m not worthwhile or worthy/ ...not important/ ...not significant [or] “I’m a nonentity/ ...don’t matter or count.”

7. Viewing yourself, codependently, as more responsible for others’ welfare than your own (and see—here and here—to access my earlier posts on this subject).

Closely related to # 6 above, did your parents give you the message that you were selfish—and thereby unacceptable—–whenever you placed a priority on your own needs? Did they hold you responsible for catering to their needs? Might you have been told that it was your job to take care of your younger siblings? Were you taught, through their conditional approval, that it was virtuous to sacrifice yourself for others (namely, your family)? Or were you made to feel that it was your proper role to defer to the wishes of others—and to deny your own? If you resonate to any of these characterizations, you’re probably “afflicted” with one or more of these self-sacrificial beliefs: “My needs are unimportant/ ...unacceptable” [or] “I can’t stand up for myself/... to others/...have to please others/ ...can’t disappoint others/ ...can’t set limits on others/ ...have to take responsibility for others/ ... can’t depend on others [or] ...have no right to be my own person.”

8. Perceiving yourself as weak or defenseless—and so living your life as a helpless victim, or being excessively dependent on others.

In growing up, were you overprotected? Given the message that you were frail or fragile and couldn’t fend for yourself? Might your parents have instilled you with their own childhood fears and insecurities? Did you—and do you still—have problems with anxiety? Maybe you see the world as menacing? Do you see yourself as avoidant or risk-adverse? In such instances, you might be carrying around such self-referencing beliefs as: “I’m weak/ ...helpless/ ...powerless/ ...defenseless/ ...vulnerable/ ...fearful/ ...not safe/ ...trapped/ danger/ ...a victim/ ...not in control” [or] “I can’t make my own decisions/ ...cope with stress.”

9. Seeing your feelings as only adding to your vulnerability—and so disallowing their healthy expression.

Did either (or both) of your parents criticize, or possibly make fun of you when you got angry, cried, or showed fear? Might they, in general, have ignored your feelings, making you feel even more alone or isolated when you couldn’t help but let them out? Did they maybe shame you when you were overcome with emotion—making you feel you were a “sissy” for having feelings, or unacceptable as the girl or boy you were expected to be? As a result of such parental disapproval, neglect, or censure, you may, however unconsciously, have adopted any number of the following beliefs: “I have to keep my feelings to myself/ ...can’t let myself open up” [or] “My feelings are stupid/ ...foolish/ ...weak/ ...wrong/ ...silly/ ...shameful/ ...not to be trusted/ ...can’t be taken seriously” [or, finally] “It’s not safe to have—or show—feelings.”

Having reviewed this list of, I’ll call them, “child-to-adult woes,” can you (albeit sadly . . . or irately) identify with any of them? If so, and assuming you now realize that the unfavorable messages you received from your caretakers didn’t really depict who you were—or are—can you begin to positively alter them? Can you start questioning how justified their authority really was when you were a needy, dependent child, and so couldn’t resist giving them adult “jurisdiction” over your thinking?

The key to seeing yourself today in a genuinely more favorable light is to develop the ability to question the assumptions (now inwardly accepted as conclusions) that you made about yourself because of the messages you got (or thought you were getting) from your so-influential parents. For unquestionably, back then they had infinitely more power and control than you did. So can you perceive that what they may have induced you to believe about yourself may actually have mirrored their own confusions and frustrations, or their unresolved anger, anxieties, and self-doubts?

To free yourself of the negative impact that your parents may have had on you, you’ll need to do nothing less than reconceive yourself. (Call it, if you will, an “existential make-over.”) And remember that if, to-date, your life hasn’t been particularly successful, it hardly signifies that it doesn’t have the potential to be. Rather, it may be that unconsciously “keeping faith” with your family’s unflattering evaluation of you, you’ve repeatedly acted in ways to “confirm” it.

So it’s essential to consider your tendencies toward self-sabotage as deriving largely from your caretakers’ own original efforts, however unrecognized, to sabotage you. For now it may be high time to prove them wrong: step by step, to undo whatever damage they unknowingly did to your self-image.

Note 1: If you could relate to this post and/or think others might identify with its various descriptions, please consider forwarding them its link.

Note 2: Should you be interested in checking out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today—on a broad range of topics—click here.

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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