Somewhere in the rows and rows of office cubicles that make up the emotional business of our brains, there’s one employee hellbent on burning the whole place down. Her name is childhood. Is it possible to pry ourselves from her fiery grasp? Or are we destined to live with one hand on the fire extinguisher? Psychotherapist and bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb, offers a way to set our childhoods free: changing the stories we tell ourselves.
A few of the curiosities in this episode:
- Why we’re all unreliable narrators of our life
- The long-term impacts of talking our kids out of feeling what they’re feeling
- The three questions to ask ourselves to help get rid of negative self-talk
What we don’t realize is that we’re all unreliable narrators. We tell a story through a particular lens. And that lens, of course, is determined by our past experiences.
And so begins our journey into the stories of childhood, or at least our versions of them. What is it about that first handful of years that can have such an impact on the rest of our lives?
So, our childhoods inform the present; they inform the ways that we relate in the world. And if you have some kind of old story from your childhood that you’re carrying around, like, ‘I’m unlovable,’ or ‘I can’t trust anyone,’ or ‘Everyone’s life is better than mine,’ or ‘I’m trapped,’ or ‘I’m a victim,’ or whatever. Whatever may have had some truth in it when you were younger, but is no longer true. Sometimes people don’t realize that they’re free, as adults and that they get to make choices. They have agency that they didn’t have as a child and they walk around with these stories that keep them stuck in the same place.
Don’t Ignore the Compass
Are there ways that parents can do that, to help their children, to give them the tools they need to be better at coping with their childhood than they were?
You know, people are not very skilled with accessing their feelings. And part of it has to do, too, with the way that we maybe talk our kids out of feeling what they’re feeling. So, your kid comes to you, and they say, ‘I feel angry about this.’ And people will say, ‘Don’t be so sensitive,’ right? Or ‘You’re angry about that, really?’ Or the kid might say, ‘Oh, I’m sad that this happened,’ and the parent will be like, ‘Hey, look, a balloon,’ or ‘Hey, look, let’s go get ice cream.’ As opposed to saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see why you’re sad about that. Tell me more.’ That is so much more helpful than ‘Let’s go get ice cream.’ Or go get ice cream, and then ask them to tell me more about the sadness.
What happens is you grow up…and you start to question anytime you feel something you were already talked out of. So, now what you do is you take on that role for yourself, and you start to talk yourself out of it. ‘Oh, yeah, I’m anxious, but I really shouldn’t be anxious because I have a roof over my head and food on the table. So, there’s really no reason for me to be anxious. I mean, other people have it so much worse.’ So, what happens is you stuff the anger, the anxiety down, or the anger down, or the sadness down. People then don’t show up in my office until they’re having a real crisis. But also, they suffered unnecessarily for all of those months or maybe even years when they talked themselves out of how they were feeling.
Our feelings are really useful because they’re like a compass. They help us. They guide us. They help us to see what is not working. And if you ignore that compass, it’s like you’re walking around with a glitchy GPS; you have no idea what’s not working or why.
Ditch the Negative Self-Talk
Why are we so critical with ourselves?
It depends on what you heard growing up, so that’s part of it. And part of it is a cultural piece. But I think that the personal piece, the interpersonal piece, is what happened between you and the people in your household when you were growing up. And a lot of times the messages were very critical for a lot of people…not because parents were trying to be cruel, but because parents maybe had that critical voice themselves. And sometimes that got externalized. So, when parents would get frustrated, maybe they would criticize their children.
And sometimes they didn’t realize that they were coming off so critically, just like people don’t realize that they’re being critical to themselves. They have no idea how they sound. I think if you gave people a test and said every time you speak, ask yourself, Is it kind? Is it true? And is it useful? But all the time we say things to ourselves and to other people that don’t pass that test.
To listen to the whole interview, use the player at the top of this page or visit this link. To get more information about Lori’s book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (in both written and audio form), and to check out the podcast she co-hosts called “Dear Therapists,” visit www.lorigottlieb.com.