Updated: Aug 10, 2020
I've always known I have 'issues' surrounding friendships and relationships. Small worries pop into my head, turn to catastrophic fears, and ruminate around my mind for days - and 9 times out of 10 never actually come to fruition. Like the friend I was sure would fall out with me if I cancelled, or the girlfriend I was convinced didn't find me attractive anymore. I live out the 'terrifying' consequences of events before they've even happened, and the majority of the time they're completely irrational.
What does it mean when certain events or situations trigger an irrational emotional reaction within us? In simple terms - and I'm sure there's a much more scientific explanation for this - when things cause us to have a sudden, negative emotional response it's because it's reminded us of a negative event or situation that happened in our pasts.
As my last blog focused on how our negativity bias tries to protect us from future dangers - this is the same function acting, believe it or not, in our best interests. And when you think about it, it makes complete sense. Something happens that reminds us of a bad a situation or a bad feeling we had in the past, then sends signals to our bodies (in the form of an emotional response) to warn us so we can attempt to avoid it happening again.
The issue - as we saw in my last blog - isn't the intention, but rather the bias our brain has when deciding what's dangerous and what's not.
We're meaning making machines
From the day we were born, our brains have sought to understand and process the world around us and in order to do this it attempts to attach meanings to everything as a way to connect the dots in our brains and make sense of things. But these meanings are often incorrect and incredibly limiting.
For example - imagine your a small, 3 year old girl called Bethany. Bethany loves her dad and wishes he was home more to spend time with her, but her dad is an alcoholic and spends most of his time at the pub with his friends. Unable to make sense of complex conditions like alcoholism, Bethany believes she must have done something wrong for her father to not want to be around her.
A few years later, Bethany is in school and is called a 'geek' by the 'popular' girls in her class. She feels cast out and rejected. Her brain connects this similar feeling to how she felt when she was younger, and comes to the conclusion that she isn't 'good enough'. Her dad didn't want to be around her, and now neither do her classmates.
As her life progresses, there are of course other situations that make Bethany feel rejected. Her first boyfriend breaks up with her, she doesn't get a job she interviews for, each time solidifying the belief in her mind that she is not 'good enough'.
This belief then rears it's head every time Bethany faces the slightest feeling of perceived rejection, e.g. a friend cancels their dinner plans because she's feeling unwell. Rationally Bethany knows that she's most likely telling the truth and there's no malice behind it, but she feels an anxious knot in her stomach - the same she felt when her dad didn't come home or when she felt excluded by her school friends.
Don't negotiate with brain terrorists
I had a spiral moment yesterday - and when I say spiral, I mean something happened that triggered negative memories and feelings within me and I spent hours inside my own head trying to argue and reason with myself to make them go away.
What I've come to realise, is trying to 'solve' my anxiety or convince my brain everything is fine doesn't work. It's like negotiating with terrorists - rarely recommended.
Instead, what I've found helps is:
1. Identify what the automatic thought is
It's tempting to try and move quickly passed or around thoughts that make us feel uncomfortable. But this is where you need to be brave and face those ghosts. What has this situation made you instantly think? For example, yesterday a thought that popped up in my brain was 'your friend isn't a real friend to you - you're going to end up falling out with her and lose her'
Now I won't dive into an explanation about the situation - but trust me when I say my extreme emotional reaction of intense anxiety was a complete overreaction.
2. Try and remember when you've had similar thoughts
When I took a moment to stop freaking out and try and inquisitively probe my brain for the origin of these thoughts, I realised exactly where they'd come from.
My worry that my friend wasn't a real friend to me and was going to betray me came from situations in my past where girls in high school had acted badly towards me, and from a particular friend I was close with after college who said cruel things throughout our friendship. This meant my mind had created the belief that 'people aren't to be trusted'.
Secondly, the belief that if she were to break my trust that we would fall out and I would lose her came from an intense fear I had about confrontation. Ever since I can remember I've believed arguing is terrifying and I've avoided it at all costs. When I search my memories for where I first learnt that, I think it originated from my dad and his short temper, which made me constantly feel like I was walking on egg shells to avoid an outburst.
Being 26 years old now, I can rationally say that I know arguments happen sometimes and it doesn't mean you're in danger or anything really bad is going to happen. But as a child, I wasn't able to see the bigger picture or know that everything would turn out okay. I saw each of my dad's outbursts as a threat to my secure family, and feared I would lose it completely. So now - I see all disagreements as threats to my security with a pending threat of loss.
3. Uncover your hidden limiting beliefs
After analysing my thoughts further and looking at the patterns of these thoughts that often arose, I identified a few limiting beliefs I'd carried with me throughout my life.
People, including your closest friends, often hurt you and let you down
Arguing is scary and leads to terrifying outcomes
Being 'rejected' by someone means you're not valuable or good enough
4. Interrogate your bad beliefs
It may feel overwhelming when you first realise what the belief actually is that is producing these horrible thoughts and feelings, but just remind yourself that just because you THINK it, doesn't make it TRUE. Is there evidence that the things you believe are perfectly sound or is there room for debate?
People, including your closest friends, often hurt you and let you down - Is that always true? Do I have good friends who would never let me down intentionally? And has this particular friend behaved in ways that show their loyalty in the past? If someone lets your down does this mean they're completely bad and a horrible friend? Or are they simply imperfect, like all of us are?
Arguing is scary and leads to terrifying outcomes - Does it? Have you ever argued with someone and then it's actually made you understand each others points of view and made you closer? Have your friends ever fallen out with any of their friends and then been completely fine with them just a week, or even a day, later?
Being rejected by someone means you're not valuable or good enough - Again, does it really? If one person doesn't like you does that mean you have no value to offer anyone? At all? What does good enough look like? Does good enough only happen when every single person in the world likes you? Or perhaps if 75% of people like you that's good enough? Or what about 50%? Is it possible that despite one person not liking you in a certain way, you could still be funny, kind, great company, and completely enough for someone else?
5. Forgive yourself for being human
When our emotions overwhelm us it's very easy to get frustrated with ourselves and beat ourselves up for the perfectly rational, yet unhelpful workings of our brains. But doing this won't help you feel any better. Instead, treat yourself with the kindness you'd show a child - because that's who you're really dealing with here - your inner child.
Often uncovering where these beliefs have originated from can take the sting out of them completely, but if they still insist on debating with you, simply question their accuracy and offer them a more helpful belief to fixate on. For example - I can handle any confrontation that comes my way with confidence or I'm a valuable and great person with a lot to offer, no matter who does or doesn't like me.
I can't promise it'll be easy - but the more you get to know your ghosts, the more friendly they become!