Your boss is evil. Your spouse is lazy. Your teenager doesn't listen. Your best friend won't return your calls. Your relationships are complicated. Any attempt to create lasting harmony when facing the inevitable flaws and countless complexities of another human being can make you feel powerless. But before you condemn yourself to a lifetime of solitude, consider this: the one common denominator in all of life's miscommunications, arguments, break-ups and falling-outs is also the one thing that you have control over: you.
Yes, we will all face many an injustice at our jobs, and yes, we will probably date at least one person who treats us poorly. We will have to deal with a cranky salesperson and withstand an unruly family member. It is easy to feel victimized by our lives, especially when we find ourselves at one of life's low points and we are pouring all of our energy into just picking ourselves back up again. But how much of our destiny do we control? How much are we victims of circumstance and how much are we victims of ourselves?
Attachment and early life experiences have a significant impact on our development and our adult relationships. Negative events in childhood shaped our minds, our emotions and our behaviors in ways that we are often unaware of, which is why in certain situations in our lives today, we have reactions that puzzle us. For example, why does that one little annoying quality in our partner provoke us more than anything else? Or why do we "lose it" whenever our children engage in a specific behavior?
Certain people, characteristics and events trigger the emotional memories of early stresses we felt as kids and reactivate the behaviors we developed to cope with those feelings. When these triggers are set off, we are instantly transported from the present day back to when we were small. If we were forced to shout to be heard in our household, we may find ourselves shouting at our own family in our current home. If we were shut up as kids, we may find ourselves keeping quiet and not speaking up in our work environment.
For example, a friend of mine couldn't stand one of his co-workers, whom he saw as pushy and insensitive. Whether she was entering his office without knocking or speaking over him in meetings, he'd often find himself overtly expressing irritation and even yelling at her in the office. Even though his behavior was unacceptable to him and left him feeling resentful, he had trouble coming to grips with his incensed reaction.
After exploring what would ignite such an intense reaction in him, my friend remembered feeling extremely intruded on as a kid. Having not been allowed to close his bedroom door during the day and having been constantly interrogated by his parents on everything from where he was to whom he hung out with, my friend was extremely sensitive to intrusion. The realization sparked by a fellow employee made him recognize that this sensitivity was affecting him in all his relationships. It left him at odds with authority figures like his boss and created distance between him and his wife.
So what can we do about these early influences that now sabotage us when we play them out in our adult lives? In my 30 years of research at The Glendon Association, a nonprofit psychology research organization, I have observed the consistent presence of an inner critic in every person that comments on and informs his or her actions. This inner critic encourages us to see the world through a negative filter. It's that internal dialogue that roasts us during a job interview, shuts us down during a first date and sends foreign words flying out of our mouths in moments of tension.
The Critical Inner Voice, a concept generated by my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, is formed early in life during stressful and traumatic events. Just as positive childhood experiences lead to confidence, ability and optimism, negative experiences lead us to low self-esteem, self-destructive behaviors and pessimism. The Critical Inner Voice thus describes a dynamic operating within each of us that causes us to relive rather than live our life.
Identifying what our inner critic is telling us about ourselves and other people enables us to become conscious of the unconscious influences from our past. To break from our own destructive patterns, we must gain an understanding of the defenses we formed as children that once helped us deal with hardships but now hold a negative influence on our lives. For instance, if someone grew up with a negligent parent, they may have an inner voice that tells them, "You are fine on our own. You don't need anybody." This thought may have made them feel secure when they were young, but as an adult they may not trust easily and actually push away people who show them love and kindness.
Once we know what our voices are and how we are acting on them, we can separate ourselves from them and act according to who we truly are. A friend of mine recalls starting college and waking up every day feeling positive and motivated to speak up in class and meet new people. Then, as she would trek across campus, she would find herself listening to a long inner monologue explaining just how shy, creepy and quiet she was and insisting that she'd never make any friends. By the time she got to class, my friend would no longer resemble the un-self-conscious, upbeat person who left her dorm. Instead, she'd become timid and unsure of herself, barely able to utter two words to the person sitting next to her.
Unfortunately, our Critical Inner Voice is so well integrated into our thinking that it not only affects how we act but also facilitates how we are treated by others. If we shut ourselves up and refuse to be social, people may perceive us as timid or unfriendly. These actions not only influence us but help shape our relationships.
When we aren't mindful of the voices that are influencing us to relive old patterns, we tend to select people who fit in with our old identity, and we relate to them in ways that recreate a comfortable negativity from our past. For example, if someone's inner coach keeps telling them they will never be picked on a sports team, the anxiety it creates can impair their performance. If it tells someone that no one will want to go out with them, it will flood their head with self-criticism that hurts their confidence.
Like an internal enemy, this voice is driven to keep us from our goals and divert us from our destiny. Why is this? Because no matter how painful or unpleasant our past experiences may have been, we adapted to them, and they became familiar and comfortable, even in their negativity. If we grew up feeling like a loser, we continue to tell ourselves that we will fail throughout our lives.
Identifying the voice is the first step in fighting this internal enemy. Recognizing this enemy helps us understand our behavior and make sense out of bad choices, while comprehending the source of outbursts and over reactions. Next, we can learn to distinguish when our voices are triggered and resist the temptation to get on the "train" of these negative thoughts. We can instead take actions that are in our own self-interest, such as applying for a new job, taking a chance on being vulnerable in a relationship, or apologizing to our child for hurtful words said at a moment of frustration.
Taking these actions will increase our sense of self and weaken this internal enemy, our Critical Inner Voice. Eventually we will feel more comfortable with these new behaviors. With people all over the world fighting for their freedom, what if the most important freedom to fight for is freedom from our own Critical Inner Voice, which limits our lives and undermines our relationships?
When we know ourselves, we're able to make conscious, informed decisions about our lives. By taking action to challenge the thoughts that lure us into the same bad habits, the same troublesome interactions and the same destructive relationships, we can have integrity in our choices. We can reshape our self-perception and understand who we really are and what we really want in our lives. And every healthy, resilient relationship begins with knowing yourself.
To read more from Lisa Firestone on healthy relationships, visit PsychAlive.org.