Problems that Usually Need Psychotherapy or Psychiatry Treatment

Painful Emotions from the Past

(this is not an official diagnosis or disorder)

For many people, unhappiness is chronic or even constant. People who suffer in this way often say that they were unhappy for much of their childhood or adolescence, and that this unhappiness has persisted into their adulthood and shaped their lives. They report poor self-esteem (even when to others they are obviously attractive and capable), depression and anxiety, hopelessness about the future, frequent relationship problems, and self-defeating behaviors. They often say they have felt this way for as long as they can remember.

Surprisingly, there are many people who feel this way even though they are successful, and loved by friends and family. People whose feelings about themselves and their lives are chronically out of synch with their reality are plagued by negative ego states. Negative ego states are sets of thoughts and emotions about ourselves in relation to others and to the world around us. For example, feeling helpless and overwhelmed is a very common negative ego state. It contains thoughts about the self (e.g. “I am not capable of handling this”), thoughts about others or about one’s situation (e.g. “this situation will never get better”, “won’t help me or won’t like me”) and emotions (usually fear and shame). Other common negative ego states include feeling unattractive and rejected, feeling dominated and controlled, feeling incompetent, feeling abandoned, feeling misunderstood, feeling used, and many more. Some negative ego states have thoughts mostly about the self, some have thoughts mostly about the nature of others, and some have both. We all experience such negative ego states, sometimes with good reason, sometimes not.

People whose chronic unhappiness goes back to childhood are usually suffering from negative ego states that they frequently experienced during their childhood, which had a basis in reality at that time. Now they usually don’t. Let me be clear: chronic negative ego states that go back to childhood are usually illusions when experienced in adulthood. They are emotional illusions rather than perceptual ones, and they are illusions because they are reactions to past experiences rather than present ones (this is what keeps psychologists in business).

To understand this properly, you need to understand a bit about how the brain works. (Here I must apologize in advance to readers for a sudden technical digression, and to neuroscientists for the rough approximation that follows.) The brain cells that transmit information are called neurons, and they have long, string-shaped projections called axons that carry electric potentials. For this reason they are often considered similar to wires in an electric circuit. Neurons are connected to each other, with tiny spaces between them called synapses, and electric potentials are transmitted from one neuron to the next by chemicals (neurotransmitters) that diffuse across the synapses. When neurons are closer to one another, synapses are smaller, and therefore neurotransmitters can go from one neuron to the next more easily and reliably and thus transmit electric signals more readily. Now, whenever an electrical signal is transmitted between two neurons, they grow a bit closer together, and therefore that same signal is more likely to be transmitted in the future because the synaptic gap is now a bit smaller. This is how we learn; this is how the brain changes physically to encode experience.

When you learn how to do something complicated, many neurons are involved. If you learn, say, a dance routine, many neurons and nerve cells in your brain and body are firing (carrying electrical signals) and so causing other neurons to fire in sequence. This is called a synaptic firing pattern. Whenever you practice the dance routine, you cause all these neurons to fire in sequence, and all the synapses involved then shrink a bit so the signals can transmit more readily in the future. The result is that after a while, when you start the dance routine, you go through it almost automatically, because the synaptic firing pattern becomes ingrained.  Once some of those neurons fire, they all fire.

We are used to thinking of learning when it comes to thoughts or physical skills. These types of learning involve the parts of the brain and nervous system that govern thinking and movement. But emotional learning happens by the same process, involving neurons in the brain regions that govern thinking and feeling. Now, we all know that it is possible to ‘learn’ things that are wrong. At times we ‘learn’ facts that are incorrect, or learn ways of doing things that are inefficient or ineffective. Well, this is certainly true with emotional learning, and especially true with negative ego states.

When we spend a great deal of time in a particular ego state during childhood or adolescence, the synaptic firing pattern that corresponds to this ego state occurs so often that it becomes ingrained. So, when a negative event occurs during adulthood, it activates the entire firing pattern, and we experience the negative ego state all over again.

This is why negative ego states are usually illusions. For example, suppose a stress at work triggers in you a negative ego state of feeling helpless and overwhelmed. There probably were times in your life when you really were helpless, overwhelmed by events beyond your control, and your mind “learned” to pair stressful situations with feeling overwhelmed and helpless. This learning now causes the feeling to be easily triggered in any stressful situation.  However, the fact that the feeling is easily triggered does not mean that it is true. The work stress might well be something you can handle. Even if you are quite competent as an adult, this ego state will still be triggered by any events similar to those that produced the ego state when you were young. What you must do is realize the illusory nature of the ego state, calm yourself down, and talk yourself through the stress. Analyze the ego state you are experiencing and ask yourself and others you trust whether it is rational or not.

If it becomes clear to you that the ego state is from the past and is not a rational reaction to the present, then you must try to separate your emotions from your actions. You must become aware of your impulses and the thoughts behind them, and if these thoughts are driven by the negative ego state, you must remind yourself that you do not have to act on every impulse. Sometimes, our minds encourage us to make poor choices because they are using information from the past, instead of really taking into account who we are now. As children, we are often powerless to change what is happening around us, and sometimes have a difficult time coping with these upsetting situations. However, as adults we generally have much more power in our relationships and more control in negative sit- uations. It is important to remember that what was a problem as a child does not have to continue to be a problem as an adult. We must also remember that the people around us now may be very different from the ones who were around us as children.

Strategies for separating impulses from behavior include: hesitate if angry, calm yourself if anxious, look for hope if depressed, and love yourself if even if you hate yourself. Ask yourself what would be the best thing to do if you were not afflicted by negative ego states and try your best to do it. And above all, be brave.  Overcoming negative ego states requires a tremendous leap of faith that your rational self knows better than your emotional self. Your emotional self will not stay quiet. It will be screaming at you to stop during the whole process of change. Again, be brave. Only when you challenge an emotional illusion will you see that it really is an illusion.

When my patients have been able to see when negative ego states are illusory and not real, they have made great progress in being happier and better functioning. Sometimes psychotherapy is necessary to really see and understand this, sometimes not. Either way, I hope this helps.

Thomas B. Hollenbach, Ph.D.

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