Robert F. Mullen, PhD
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This is a draft of Chapter Five – ‘The Trajectory of Our Self-Annihilation’’ in my upcoming book on moderating social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities. I present this as an opportunity for readers to share their ideas and constructive criticism – suggestions that I gratefully consider and evaluate as I work to ensure the most beneficial product to those with emotional dysfunction (which is all of us to some degree). Please forward your comments in the form provided below.
The Trajectory of Our Self-Annihilation
“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything.
Maybe it is about un-becoming everything that isn’t really you,
so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.”
— Paul Coelho
While we remain conjoined with our social anxiety disorder, we continue to view ourselves as helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless. These become our core self-beliefs as a result of childhood disturbance. By dissociating ourselves from our condition, we perceive things more rationally. It is SAD that compels us to think irrationally, and it is this compulsion that causes us to view ourselves as helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless. In my experience developing and implementing programs to challenge the self-annihilation of those living with SAD, I have identified the overarching integrant. We are lost. Like the preverbal wandering lamb, our flanks are exposed to the wolves of our irrationality.
We are the personification of the fabled protagonist wandering, helpless and hopeless, in the forest. Our hunger for safety and comfort drives us to grasp onto anything that offers sustenance, no matter how destructive to our well-being. We encounter the house of candy and voraciously consume it even though our instincts advise us of the likelihood of villainy within.
Mindful we are not accountable for having SAD should relieve us of the unjustifiable shame and guilt we have relied upon to rationalize our condition. Since we are not at fault for having SAD, we should no longer feel the need to beat ourselves for our condition. Yet we continue to do so. Why is that? The answer is obvious. While we are not accountable for the cards we have been dealt, we are responsible for how we play the hand we have been given. In essence, our resistance to recovery continues the cycle of guilt and shame that causes us to continually beat ourselves up.
It is a common refrain that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. That is especially true for social anxiety because we find ourselves trapped in a vicious cycle of irrational fears and avoidance of social interaction. Contrary to what SAD tells us, we are not stupid. We know, after decades of denial, that our thoughts and behaviors are self-destructive yet feel doomed to repeat them ad nauseam. Then we beat ourselves up for our failure to escape this prison of self-abuse. We hate our life, and we hate ourselves for putting up with it.
So, in this chapter, we are going to learn the history of our negative thoughts and behaviors so we can put an end to this endless cycle of fear that alienates us from our true nature. We will see the development of our self-destructive proclivities as a series of stages. It is not a perfectly linear trajectory. It is a collaboration of associated events. For example, the onset of SAD corresponds to our negative intermediate beliefs which are associated with our perceptions of childhood disturbance. Like the simultaneous mutual interaction of mind, body, spirit, and emotions in all human endeavors, each stage in our trajectory complements, influences, and overlaps.
The negative cycle we are in may have convinced us that there is
something wrong with us. That is untrue. The only thing we may be
doing wrong is viewing ourselves and the world inaccurately.
It begins with our core beliefs that underscore our understanding of self. Core beliefs are our deeply held convictions that determine how we see ourselves in the world. We formulate them in childhood in response to information, experiences, inferences and deductions, and by accepting what we are told as true. They mold the unquestioned underlying themes that govern our perceptions, and they, ostensibly, remain as our belief system throughout life. Even if a core belief is irrational or inaccurate, it defines how we see ourselves in the world. When we decline to question our core beliefs, we act upon them as though they are real and true.
Core beliefs are more rigid in individuals with SAD because we tend to store information consistent with negative beliefs, ignoring evidence that contradicts it. This produces a cognitive bias – a subconscious error in thinking that leads us to misinterpret information, impacting the accuracy of our perspectives and decisions.
Space is Limited
During the development of our core beliefs, we are subject to a childhood disturbance – a broad and generic term for something that interferes with our optimal physical, cognitive, emotional, or social development. The word disturbance generates images of overt and tragic abuse, but this is not necessarily the case. As explained in Chapter One, any number of things can be defined as childhood disturbance. It can be intentional or accidental, real or imagined. (The suggestibility and emotional creativeness of the pre-adolescent is legendary.) I gave you the example of the toddler who senses abandonment when her or his parental quality time is interrupted by a phone call. It is safe to posit that every child perceives disturbances daily. They are universal and indiscriminate. Cumulative evidence that a toxic childhood is a primary causal factor in lifetime emotional instability has been well-established, and experts speculate that each of us will develop at least one diagnosable emotional dysfunction at some point in our life.
Negative Core Beliefs
This confluence of developing core beliefs and childhood disturbance generates negative core beliefs about the self (I am abandoned) and others (you abandoned me). Feelings of detachment, neglect, and exploitation are also common consequences of childhood disturbance. It is our self-oriented negative core beliefs that compel us to view ourselves in these four ways. As helpless (I am weak, I am incompetent); hopeless (nothing can be done about it); undesirable (no one will like me); and worthless (I don’t deserve to be happy). Our other-oriented negative core beliefs view people as demeaning, dismissive, malicious, and manipulative. Other-oriented self-beliefs incentivize us to blame others for our condition, avoiding personal accountability. We hold others responsible for our feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and worthlessness.
The next step in our trajectory is the onset of emotional dysfunction as a result of childhood disturbance. Roughly 90% of onset happens during adolescence. Two exceptions are narcissistic personality disorder and later-life PTSD. The symptoms and characteristics of emotional dysfunction often remain dormant, manifesting later in life. The susceptibility to onset originates in childhood – emotional viruses that sense vulnerability. Experts tell us that SAD infects around the age of thirteen duo to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Researchers recently discovered a specific serotonin transporter gene called “SLC6A4” that is strongly correlated with SAD. Whatever the causes, it is our perception of childhood disturbance that produces the susceptibility to infection.
Insufficient Satisfaction of Needs
Self-esteem is mindfulness of our value to ourselves, society, and the world. It can be further understood as a complex interrelationship between how we think about ourselves, how we think others perceive us, and how we process and present that information. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reveals how childhood disturbance disrupts our natural development. The orderly flow of social and emotional development requires satisfying fundamental human needs. Childhood perceptions of abandonment, detachment, exploitation, and neglect subvert certain biological, physiological, and emotional needs like familial support, healthy relationships, and a sense of safety and belongingness. This lacuna negatively impacts our self-esteem which we express by our undervaluation or regression of our positive self-qualities. This does not signify a deficit, but latency and dormancy – underdevelopment of our character strengths and attributes due to inactivity.
Negative Intermediate Beliefs
The confluence of SAD and the disruption in self-esteem generate life-consistent negative self-beliefs sustained by cognitive distortions. The onset of SAD happens during the development of our intermediate beliefs. These establish our attitudes, rules, and assumptions. Attitudes refer to our emotions, convictions, and behaviors. Rules are the principles or regulations that influence our behaviors. Our assumptions are what we believe to be true or real. Despite similar core beliefs, we each have varying intermediate beliefs developed by information and experience, e.g., social, cultural, and environmental – the same things that make up our personality.
Negative Self-Beliefs and Image
These SAD-induced attitudes, rules, and assumptions result in distorted and maladaptive understandings of the self and the world. In psychology, experts present two forms of behavior – adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive behavior is behavior that is positive and functional. Maladaptive behaviors are dysfunctional behaviors. that unique characteristic of SAD. They distort our perception and we ‘adapt’ negatively (maladapt) to stimuli or situations. To analogize, if the room is sunny and welcoming, SAD tells us it is dark and unapproving.
Automatic Negative Thoughts and Behaviors
We articulate our fears through preprogrammed, self-fulfilling prophecies called ANTs. Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) are involuntary, anxiety-provoking assumptions that spontaneously appear in response to the places or circumstances that provoke our anxiety. Examples include the classroom, a job interview, a social event, and the family dinner. Dysfunctional assumptions caused by our negative self-beliefs impact the content of our ANTs. Even when we know our fears and apprehensions are irrational, their emotional impact is so great, they run roughshod over any healthy, rational response. We will delve deeper into all of this as we progress. Then, together we will develop a targeted plan to dramatically moderate your social anxiety.
We briefly discussed how SAD utilizes propaganda to convince us of the validity of our self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. Propaganda is the distribution of biased and misleading information. SAD utilizes propaganda to convince us of the validity of our self-annihilating thoughts and behaviors. We manifest the effectiveness of SAD propaganda through our maladaptive behaviors and cognitively distorted responses to our fears.
Cognitive distortions are the exaggerated or irrational thought patterns involved in the perpetuation of our anxiety and depression. Everyone engages in cognitive distortions and is usually unaware of doing so. They reinforce or justify our toxic behaviors. They twist our thinking, painting an inaccurate picture of our self in the world. We distort reality to avoid or validate our irrational attitudes, rules, and assumptions.
Part of our counteroffensive is recognizing these cognitive distortions to challenge and counteract them. Throughout this book, we will analyze and discuss each of the thirteen cognitive distortions most applicable to SAD and analyze how we utilize them to reinforce and justify our irrational thoughts and behaviors.
The bulk of this chapter focuses on the origins and trajectory of our life-consistent negative self-beliefs, illustrating the slow but inexorable progression of the SAD army on our emotional well-being. We are now beginning to understand SAD’s tactical advantage. This will help us forge the tools and techniques to (1) defend ourselves and (2) overwhelm or conquer our fears and avoidance of social connectedness. In Chapter Seven, we will look at some of these tools both scientific and psychological.
One of the repercussions of living with SAD is our self-annihilation – our compulsion to beat ourselves up for our difficulties rather than embrace our character strengths, virtues, and achievements. You are challenging your social anxiety. That is positive neural information, the cornerstone of proactive neuroplasticity. Acknowledge your determination, take credit for it, and give your psyche a hearty pat on the back.
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
— Lao Tzu
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Comments. Suggestions. Constructive Criticism.