Some thoughts about coming from a difficult background…

One thing that I think needs to be noted is that it is not a coincidence that almost every person I see in my anxiety clinic has come from a ‘difficult’ background. A difficult background simply means that objectively a person has, on average, experienced more distressing events in her or his childhood than other people have experienced. These events could be all sorts of things, like parental separation or divorce, death of someone close, serious illness, school bullying, excessive parental criticism, physical or sexual assault, excessive moving from place to place, or over-protection from parents (which teaches children that the world is a frightening place that they need protection from, and, which also teaches children that they cannot trust themselves and depend upon their own resources and, therefore have to be rescued or over-protected).

Although a difficult background can definitely have some good outcomes where people have to develop the motivation and depth to overcome tricky obstacles, it can also result in thwarted outcomes often due to self-doubt, missed skills and lower levels of confidence. If a child is having to focus on staying alive or not rocking the boat with a critical or aggressive parent then that child will be unable to focus on other important life skills and will later, as an adult, feel as though they are missing half the rule-book of life.

As part of this, a difficult background teaches a child to develop negative assumptions about the world, other people and self. This is simply because we build our brain exactly in response to whatever environment we find ourselves born into. So, if you happen to be born into a situation where you are terrified of one of your parents or you get bullied consistently by someone else, then you will form assumptions like: ‘the world is dangerous’ or ‘other people are hostile’ or ‘I am a powerless victim’. Since our brains don’t like cognitive dissonance (internal conflict), if we hold one negative assumption we tend to hold them all, although some will be more salient to us than others.

We all have to form assumptions early in life, as a basic organising principle of our brains – so our brain can direct our behaviour in situations we encounter. If our brains didn’t do this, then we wouldn’t be able to respond in the real world and we would be paralysed and unable to decide upon what action to take in different situations.

The assumptions we form in our brains are quite basic but once they are formed we tend to not review them and just act in accordance with them. This is simply because we are very brain-efficient and once we think we have learned something we don’t want to keep re-inventing the wheel, so to speak.

Once we have formed assumptions then our behaviours reflect those assumptions, even though we are not usually consciously aware that we hold them. For example, usually a person is not aware that they see themselves as a powerless victim. If you look at your own or others’ behaviours you can accurately assess the underlying assumptions even where the assumptions are not overt or obvious – because the behaviours are logically consistent with the assumptions.

I learnt very early on in my clinical work to read peoples’ behaviour and not necessarily to accept what they were saying (since we are all very good at lying to ourselves and repeating those lies out aloud to others to try to strengthen their intenal validity). Whereas when we look at behaviour it generally tells us what assumptions a person is acting upon. This works in life generally too. So, if someone is telling you they ‘love you’, but in their behaviour they treat you with contempt (like consistently arriving late, preferring to spend time with their friends and not you, or they fail to consult you about important decisions that are relevant to you and so on) then you can be pretty sure that despite what they are saying (and despite what they are telling themselves), they DON’T love you… believe me, you should trust that…

But, back to difficult backgrounds and the long-term effects of forming negative assumptions. If you hold the assumption that ‘the world is dangerous’ then your brain will have worked out a strategic response to that objectively real danger (when it first happened and you were a child) and depending usually upon the level of danger you learnt to either withdraw or approach. If possible, people generally try to withdraw and attempt to hide or diminish themselves so as not to aggravate any perpetrator or threat – since this usually keeps them alive.

Sometimes though, especially in very volatile situations it is not possible to withdraw, so a child can be forced to use an approach strategy in a dangerous situation. When this happens the child has to approach despite ‘the world being dangerous’ and that child has two choices: approach compliantly or approach aggressively. There are other choices but the child or teenager does not yet have the brain capacity for more sophisticated choices and will not have their full pre-frontal cortex area of the brain until about the age of 25.

Again, people generally choose to approach compliantly because it is lower risk and more likely to keep them alive. But, once this type of brain-pattern is set up, it results in passive, powerless-types of behaviours in life in general over the longer term. For example, where a person has learnt to see themselves as a compliant victim, then later when they experience a major stressful life event (that causes more outputting of corticotrophin releasing factor known as CRF in the brain – leading to more agitated, threatening and anxious thoughts and feelings), then that person is likely to respond to those anxiety-provoking thoughts by believing they are powerless to stop them. Such a person would see themselves as a victim of their anxious thoughts and feelings. These scary and threatening thoughts might then feel so overwhelming that the person is likely to start to avoid situations where the anxiety might be worse in case the feelings and thoughts just took them over. Whereas, realistically, we all (by virtue of being human and having a brain that exhibits executive control) have the capacity for excellent control over all our thoughts and feelings once we understand how to do this (more on this in another blog).

Not only does a compliant response lead to more problems with anxiety because of the underlying assumption of being a powerless victim, unable to control mental and physical behaviours, but it leads to all sorts of other difficulties too.

For example, if you fundamentally see yourself as a powerless, passive victim then you are likely to behave in other passive types of ways. Once you are holding the assumptions that the ‘world is dangerous’ and ‘other people can be hostile and scary’ then any conflict will be perceived as threatening – even when it is not. The compliant response then produces a myriad of similar expressions of passivity, such as a passive-aggressive response to conflict (where you can insert ‘barbs’, indirect criticisms, jokes, resentments, or put-downs into conversations without having to take the risk of taking responsiblity for the these mean comments) or it might lead to stubborn responses whereby you might appear to agree with a plan but then passively resist and sabotage the plan. It might just result in you rarely (if ever) expressing a controversial opinion in case it aggravates another person, or it might simply stop you in your tracks from properly learning to verbalise or take a proper role in conversation (the silent type).

Often high levels of compliance lead to deep, festering resentments and bitterness because passive responses tend to achieve lose-lose outcomes rather than win-win outcomes, so when you lose enough you naturally get deeply resentful. On the other hand, win-win solutions generally arise from clear, direct, friendly, non-defensive communication (more on this in another blog).

These passive behaviours, although learnt in response to legitimate threats initially, have now become part of a brain set-up (or brain pattern or habit) which will severely limit good outcomes for yourself (or others) for the rest of your life unless you decide to change them.

Sometimes though, a person is forced to respond to ‘the world being dangerous’ by becoming overtly aggressive. In this case, the threat is usually so severe and dire that the person feels they have nothing to lose by becoming overtly aggressive. This is pretty rare to see in children because it is just too risky to get physical when under threat when you are physically very small – especially if that threat comes from an adult. Children would usually only become overtly aggressive if there was absolutely no other choice (and their life depended upon it) or if there are no limits placed on their behaviour (absolutely no trace of threat) and the child simply acts out increasingly badly because they are allowed to get away with it. This is just poor parenting (excessively libertarian) – and is a separate problem to the one I am discussing in this blog.

However, teenagers often come up against threat and have to produce a response. They are different to children, in that they are physically bigger (often bigger than an aggressive parent) and they have had some significant neural changes where much more frontal lobe in the brain has come online. More frontal lobe gives the teenager more capacity for independent/autonomous thought so they can more readily differentiate themselves from the perpetrator by holding a stronger self identity.

If the teenager is sufficiently threatened and thinks that the danger is so great that he/she has nothing to lose, then the teenager may be forced to dig deep and for the first time in life, aggressively fight back against the perpetrator verbally or physically. If this strategy or response appears to work, then the teenager has just learnt a new brain pattern – one of aggression. If there is a lot of subsequent threat encountered and therefore many situations in which to practise this brain habit then the strategy will be reinforced and become more entrenched over time. This is how ‘bullies’ are formed and it is also how ‘psychopaths’ are formed. On the other hand, if there are only rare threats then the strategy will not become excessively dominant.

This act of aggressive survival does have a useful side to it – it forces self-differentiation – where the teenager clearly defines what the perpetrator stands for and, in differentiation, what she/he stands for. It forces the teenager into clear opposition: “I stand for this, and you stand for that”. This is why people who are aggressive often appear to have a strong sense of self – they know what they want and they don’t mind telling you and they don’t mind going after it (aggressively). Whereas someone who has used the compliance response for a lifetime will have very little idea of what they stand for, what differentiates them from others, what they want in life. They often have to attach to an aggressive person as a partner to guide them through life. This is why you often see a passive person partnering with an aggressive person.

Notice though, that both the compliance response and the aggressive response came out of seeing the world as dangerous (and it was, in order to form that assumption in the first place). In both cases, fear is driving the response – thinking this is so scary I have to hide and minimize myself or this is so scary I have to pull out all stops and crush the threat through aggression. Fear is the driving force.

This results in problems for both responses. Compliant people are too passive as I described above and aggressive people are often rigid, inflexible, black and white thinkers – going on the aggressive without due self-reflection or without proper attention to consequence. Without due self-reflection we cannot learn properly because we fail to acknowledge our own role in problematic outcomes. We can get frozen in time, repeating the same useless pattern over and over.

Someone who is aggressive might have altercation after altercation for which they blame others, not realising that they are the common denominator. In this profile it is common to see very low trust (almost paranoid) towards others’ ‘hostile’ motives. There are many physical displays of aggression that the person is often unaware of simply because they still fundamentally perceive themselves as a victim, so much so, they see themselves as having to very aggressively defend themselves.

Aggressive people often feel enormous levels of anger and it is often the main (or sometimes only) emotion they can access. Even in the most minor conflicts they frequently adopt highly hostile body language, closing down their face and speaking between clenched teeth, clipping short their words, needlessly escalating situations and so on. Of course, the more scared they get the more ferocious and one-dimensional – becoming closed down and rigid, hardening the body, face and the mind, using it like armour to defend against the threat. The more we perceive the world as threatening, the more we persist with these self-sabotaging strategies.

Fundamentally though, both these responses of either compliance or aggression (and so many other problems I see in my work like anxiety, depression, relationship breakdown) often arise from these negative assumptions about a dangerous world, hostile others and a powerless self. They lead people to think that negotiation is pointless and that conflict cannot be resolved. People assume that real fairness cannot be achieved through open communication and direct strategies. These negative assumptions lead people to behave by either concealing the self and manipulating outcomes through passive-aggression or to adopt an overtly aggressive response which results in ‘my way or the highway’. Both signify no trust and both result in lose-lose outcomes.

In light of all this, it seems important to question these assumptions in case they are not correct. For example, what if, the assumptions were correct when you were young and your brain was forming itself – but what if that is not actually how the wider world works now?

If you were to start to flip over your assumptions so that you behave as though the world is safe, as though others are cooperative and friendly, as though you are strong, secure, capable, and able to act as your own advocate – then your behaviours would start to reflect that. Instead of shutting up but then being resentful, stubborn and withholding or instead of getting aggressive, threatening and cruel when you feel scared you could just relax, soften and interact with others in a friendly way – not being scared of conflict is the important thing – seeing conflict as something playful – welcoming it as a way of resolving problems. Of course, this involves an assumption of fairness, equity, being on the same side and just having a mutual problem to solve – it assumes that all problems can be resolved transparently (without hiding from or crushing the other person ). In other words it requires a non-oppositional approach: where differences are openly acknowledged but not seen as rigid barriers. It assumes that with enough discussion, complexities can be worked through – all interests can be heard and taken account of – all parties can be engaged and involved rather than alienated to a fixed position of either compliance or aggression.

Overturning these negative assumptions helps enormously with anxiety also. As you come to see yourself as an active agent in your own life – not a victim of your scary thoughts and feelings – it is much easier to take charge of your life and impose the discipline, direction and structure you want to take in your life. As you will see in further blogs, taking charge and mental discipline are at the heart of recovery of almost all ‘clinical’ problems.

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