It started with a flippant comment from a work colleague, they meant no harm — in fact they’re really lovely — but it triggered automatic thoughts and brought on my most recent bout of depression. It was a simple joke about something that, unbeknown to them, I despise myself for and also carry a lot of guilt about. I have a good sense of humour; I’m also the first person to laugh at myself (and regularly do) but I was particularly vulnerable on this topic. Just like that, I descended back into the dark abyss…
Although it was an innocuous, passing (and intended as humorous) comment, past therapy has enabled me to understand how I can become triggered. Here comes the “science” bit…
The template of automatic thoughts
I have a template of automatic thoughts, in fact, we all do. The template is formed from our experiences, especially our early formative experiences. These automatic thoughts are our default setting, so to speak.
Here are some of the early experiences that formed my template:
My weight was a big focal point for my family. It was referred to all the time. I had a nickname — “Porky Pig” — and in fact my family bought me a pig hat to wear (and got me to pose in photos with it on). My Mother once refused to buy me a skirt on the grounds that I was too fat to wear that style, whilst buying the same skirt for my slender sister. As a young girl and adolescent I was to understand that my physical being was abhorrent to those who had helped bring me into the world.
I was regularly told that I was dopey and unintelligent. As a child I was an introverted daydreamer who lacked confidence. It would take a lot to snap me out of my daydreams. If I didn’t give my Mother my attention quickly enough she would call me a “Dopey Cow”. My earliest recollection of this was at around 5 years old. My Grandparents, resentful of the empirical evidence of my academic success at school, would mock my ambitions to go to college and university and get a “good job”. They would take great pleasure in telling me I was stupid and that I’d never amount to anything.
Told I was useless
Useless. Where my confidence was low, when I was asked to find something or do something from my (highly volatile) Grandparents, if I didn’t find the item/find it swiftly enough or do the task to their satisfaction they would shout at me and tell me how useless I was. Of course, part of my ineptitude was driven by the blind panic of knowing the outcome of not getting it right; the panic would paralyse and hinder me, thus becoming a self perpetuating cycle.
I was a burden/we were a burden. When my Father left us, my Grandparents would remind my sister and I how they didn’t have to take us into their home and how grateful we should be. Likewise, my Mother would also make us feel obliged for not walking away. When we were naughty or we hadn’t pleased them, we were threatened with being dumped at my estranged Father’s house.
I paid the price
My family hated my Father for his treatment of my Mother and for leaving them in financial difficulty. I paid the price for this because I was his favourite child. All of his negative attributes were levelled at me. I was my “Father’s Daughter”, “You’re just like your Father…” followed by a list of negative traits.
My Grandparents argued incessantly and were incredibly moody. Being caught in a crossfire of shouting and swearing was the norm. The dread of the walk home from school, knowing that as soon as you walked into the house, that vitriol would be redirected onto you somehow, even without doing a thing. The apprehension of “What will they call me or say to me today?”, “What will they blame me for today?” Their moods and arguments were always my fault somehow.
And finally, the classics
My Grandparents told my sister and I we were mistakes, that my Mother didn’t want us and she’d wanted boys (she later denied this).
They also told us that when we were babies our Father used to molest us but we didn’t remember it happening because we were babies. (I subsequently found out this wasn’t true in the slightest, but as an adult I’ve struggled with physical contact with my Father as a result.)
Needless to say, my default thinking pattern goes like this (not in order):
I’m fat and disgusting. I’m useless, stupid, a burden, not good enough and everything bad is my fault.
Ergo, packaged up-my core beliefs are:
I’m not good enough
The worst things I could think about myself
Every day of my life I have automatically thought the worst things you can think about yourself. When I say automatic, I really mean that — these thoughts aren’t a conscious choice, I haven’t known any other way. However, as a result of these thoughts/template, I’ve behaved in ways that have sought to solicit constant approval and validation. It’s worked marvellously, in so much as it’s given me a successful career but one that came at a price. I threw myself into my career for so long in order to escape my past. I didn’t foresee how vulnerable I was to developing mental health problems. Then one day it just…happened.
So take the “every day of my life I have automatically thought the worst things you can think about yourself” part and overlay that with crippling, constant and debilitating self hatred that you can’t control, then you’re kind of almost there.
Nobody knows what a person has gone through
You hear a lot these days about “Snowflakes” and how easily offended people get (for the record I didn’t react to the comment and the person in question would be mortified if they’d realised the impact). But nobody knows what a person has gone through. To that end, if someone does seem “overly sensitive”, don’t judge and DO bear in mind they might have been triggered. Finally, to all of you who berate yourselves for “overreacting” when you’re triggered just remember, you’re not “overreacting”; there’s likely to be a valid reason for your response and if you’re not sure why, then maybe therapy can help you identify it in the same way it has for me.