Try as we might to avoid it, we’ve all fallen down the rabbit hole of toxic thinking and it can be hard to find your way out.
But at least you know you’re not alone. It’s a core concern felt amongst the majority of us according to our recent research taken from thousands of women.
The key is learning how to break free. What tools can we use or drawn on. Once again we have spoken with Clinical Psychologist Lynn Jenkins, and on the subject and she shares her pearls of wisdom with us. Lynn works with parents and children and specialises in the areas of anxiety, perfectionism and mindfulness and has written several books on these topics. She’s also a mother of three.
The way we think of course leads to the way we feel, which leads to the way we behave and the choices we make in life. So thinking is really just perception of various things and this is something that is built over time.
Toxic thinking may stem from our early experiences
Some of the main building blocks of this perception are things such as our values or beliefs and in particular our early experiences. We can’t escape our early experiences when it comes to understanding how our values and beliefs shape and form the way we think of ourselves. The two are tightly bound to each other.
And these experiences date right back to babyhood. It’s incredible to learn that babies come into the world with their survival system in tact.
As Lynn explains, “This is because we are all animals and we need to survive so they know what’s safe to move towards this with their senses – smell and sound.
“They can also understand what’s not safe through what feelings are being detected, and if those feelings are safe or unsafe. Other things have to be shaped over time and quite literally need input for our social and emotional brain parts to develop.”
This is where the formation and development of our thinking depends on the quality of the input received, and what is received most regularly.
Beliefs and values start in childhood
Our beliefs and values get absorbed into us as children mainly as we are like little sponges at that age. We need to get on in a certain direction and we depend on the adults around us for this input.
When it comes to toxic thinking as adults, the good news is that we can change and modify our beliefs and our values over time. A lot of these beliefs and values stick with us depending on what they are, but if we consciously choose to we can change them, or choose to change how our toxic thinking affects the destructive way we perceive ourselves.
We so often have the belief that we are not good enough which can be so toxic if left unchecked.
Research shows the most common, the most unhelpful and often the root cause of everything is the belief we’re not good enough as a person. And this belief stems from childhood.
This means a crucial part of parenting is speaking and knowing about where your children are up to developmentally in these early years because children are great observers, and yet terrible interpreters.
Lynn adds “That means they can hear what’s going on, they can see what’s going on but they don’t have the cognitive development yet to interpret it correctly.
“But our brain needs to make sense of the world so their little brain does whatever it needs to – to make sense of the world and put things in categories but it’s often wrong.”
An example of this could be misrepresentation of why mum and dad separated. A child could believe it was because they didn’t eat their broccoli or behaved badly on any specific occasion. They could then they go through life thinking the separation was their fault. This so easily morphs into an “I’m bad” type of thinking.
This speaks to another developmental level we’re at as children and that’s called egocentric. And this simply means everything is about them. ‘Mum and dad broke up because of something I did’. And this is how it all starts. This concept of children being great observers but terrible interpreters is a very tricky aspect of parenting and one we need to be very aware of.
How the mind works
The other thing Lynn talks about that is very interesting and speaks to the concept of how programmable children’s minds are is the idea of hypnotherapy and brainwaves.
“We have beta, delta, theta. Theta is when we are in deep sleep and it gets faster and you go up. Research found that between 0 – 2 years of age the most dominant brainwave is the smallest brainwave and then from 2-6 or 7 it’s the second slowest brain wave that is the dominant brain wave.
“And I find this fascinating because with hypnotherapy the idea is to get the brainwaves slower so we are more programmable. So they naturally function at those slower brain waves. So they are exceptionally programmable and suggestible. And that’s why they are like sponges.”
In going back to thinking about how toxic thinking forms, it’s really about delving into what your upbringing was like, what was presented most regularly to you, and how you were interacted with most regularly.
Quite often how we interpreted things as children translates to negative thinking as adults and is not the case, but it is the cause of toxic thinking. And this spiralling negative thought pattern is not their fault and it is not the truth.
It hasn’t been the truth right from the beginning but it feels like the truth because children also don’t have the ability to say no and that’s a big part of it.
Understanding toxic thinking
When it comes to understanding toxic thinking and how it affects us Lynn also talks about the power of two arrows, which explains how we suffer.
The arrows represent real things that happen to us in life where being shot in the shoulder with an arrow represents real pain and real consequences. They’re often things we can’t do anything about.
“But what we tend to do just through the way we think it’s like we pick up a second arrow and inflict more suffering on ourselves. And that is the way we think. So being aware when we are picking up that second arrow is one of the key things when it comes to managing this stuff.
“It’s really about remembering we are the boss of where we direct our attention. And when we are aware that we are really going to town on ourselves, and really being unkind to ourselves that’s the first step.”
How to stop our mind going down the rabbit hole
Lynn is the queen of analogies and they are wonderful in explaining concepts in a memorable way. They are fabulous take away tools that can be in the forefront of our minds when we start to travel down rabbit holes.
Another concept that relates to toxic thinking is her idea of “dropping the banana.” She explains how in countries where they catch little monkeys, and this may not sound too ethical but we’ll run with it for the sake of the golden analogy!
The method is to put little boxes around with a banana inside. They cut a hole just big enough for them to put their little hand in and grab the banana but they then they get trapped in trying to get their hand out of the box with the banana. But of course the hole’s not big enough. So they are trapped because they keep hold of the banana.
In us humans the banana is representative of our toxic thinking, and the way our thinking causes us grief or suffering. The little monkey has the choice to hold onto the banana and be trapped or drop the banana and run away.
This highlights our awareness and understanding of where we choose to direct our attention. If we think of our thoughts in these metaphor analogies it’s easy to consider “yeah I’ve got to drop the banana” or “I’ve been putting all my attention on this toxic thinking no wander I’m not feeling too good.”
“Dropping the banana means shifting your attention to something else just for the moment. Even if it’s just the colour of the curtain in front of you or the movement of the tree in front of you, that’s representing dropping the banana.
How to let go
Because you are putting your attention on something other than what is causing you suffering etc. And you can say things like “it’s only a thought” it’s really cool just to have that general attitude that any thinking is allowed to be there but I’m choosing to not put my attention on it, that’s all. It’s not pushing it out because that’s putting energy to it”
Focussing on the smells and the sounds and the things around us is nice because they are always available to you. You can use your senses and be aware, which is just another word for mindfulness.
We are all familiar with the concept of mindfulness and many of us practice this already. Exercising our awareness muscle is so important as awareness is the first point in anything.
Awareness is a smart brain activity, and as soon as you are aware of something, and it can be anything, if your attention is there it’s not focussed on negative sinister messages going to your brain.
And it’s all about the messages that are being sent to the brain. We can CHOOSE the messages that go to the brain and we can control and manipulate this over time.
- How being a perfectionist can damage your mental health
- Breaking the cycle of self-criticism and toxic thinking
For more about Positive Thinking see our complete Wellness Programs in the Healthy Mummy Wellness App
The Healthy Mummy Wellness app is built to support mums’ mental, physical and social wellbeing. We have expert advice to help mums makeover their minds, transform their mood, manage their hormones, sleep better and engage with their family. You can listen to podcasts, read blogs, work out with our trainers and find healthy, family-friendly recipes from the palm of your hand.