People sometimes tell me that daytime “self-help” shows leave them with the impression that their parents are to blame for many of their problems. I suspect it’s a lot more complicated than that, and, by the way, the vapid banality of daytime TV is NOT the place to go looking for help.
The truth is simple: You are responsible for your actions. You’ll be hard-pressed to hear that on daytime TV, but the fact is that you are not responsible for the actions of your parents. Parents can shape some of your thinking, but I cringe when people say, “When I’m faced with a problem, I tell myself I’m stupid. I can’t help it.” This “self-talk” had to start somewhere, and the unpleasant fact is that it most likely began with a parent.
And it works both ways. Some emerge from childhood with a sense that “I’m special, I’m great.” That’s fine, but young people with this attitude are sometimes convinced that things should come easier than they do. They’re surprised when it doesn’t work out that way. They now have to cope with the real world, in spite of the emotional cheering from their parents.
As we approach young adulthood, we are able to examine our parents’ (and our own) beliefs and attitudes to the extent that they could be mistaken. The sooner a young adult starts this process, the better. They can stand back and ask questions like, “What do I think of my family? How did they train me to think about myself and the world? Where do I agree — and disagree — with them?” It’s called introspection, and it’s essential.
Is it your fault that you might hold mistaken beliefs encouraged by your parents? No. Is it your fault that you never looked closely at these beliefs and questioned them? Yes! You’re never too old to introspect.
We’re fortunate to live in a society of constant innovation. The same attitude applies to our lives. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t let yourself coast along on stale assumptions that may be just plain wrong. I know that sounds like common sense, but when somebody feels stuck, they often assume that change is not an option. I see this happen as people get older, and it’s a shame.
Of course, not all change is automatically good. But to routinely rule out major life changes until you’re miserable is not a reasonable solution. Beware of what I like to call “silent premises” that reveal themselves as the automatic self-talk I mentioned earlier. They can lurk back there in your mind, and many of them can be dead wrong.
One example of a particularly insidious silent premise is the underlying belief that, “I’m such a klutz! I can’t figure anything out.” If you can’t figure something out, then move on and try the next best thing. Look a little closer, perhaps, or ask somebody. People often ask me about the central purpose of cognitive therapy. I see it as encouraging people to develop a more positive, “can do” attitude about real, everyday things by believing that there’s a solution for every problem.
Sadly, a lot of emotional damage is done to children in their early years. Much of this damage is unintentional, but many of us emerge from childhood with less confidence in our ability to solve problems than we deserve to have. There’s no purpose in dwelling on who did the damage; what’s done is done. It’s more important to concentrate on the business of restoring that confidence.
Look at the natural happiness, optimism and easy resilience of a young child. This is their natural state. Unhappily, it takes an adult to undo it. But we CAN put it back. It all boils down to attitude. We can’t choose our parents or our childhoods, but we can choose our adult outlooks and beliefs.