Painful thinking can come in many forms. Worry and self criticism are two of the most common forms of painful thinking, but many other forms exist, including obsession, regret, certain kinds of fantasy and vengeful thinking. As nearly all forms of thinking generate some kind of physical sensation if we are closely enough attuned to our bodies, these forms are often much easier to recognize, although even the stress of worry and the pain of self criticism can get buried under denial and disassociation.
If you are reading this, you might have had a childhood similar to mine, where the skill of parenting was not that evolved, and where there might have been an abundance of anger, dysfunction, fear and at times violence. Most of the time, for me, it was hard to imagine I was loved or even liked. I believe now that my parents tried their best, but they had few tools at their disposal and suffered from their own trauma and neglect, and lack of awareness.
As children, we absorb like sponges that which is around us, learning from our caretakers how to speak, act and think. From an early age, probably around 4 years old, we start to develop our own strategies for keeping safe and getting our needs met. Depending on the level of function in the household, this may have translated into poor, unwholesome strategies or if you were one of the lucky ones, more skilled methods to meet your needs. Either way, we would be influenced by and adopt what we saw others do, especially if it seemed certain strategies were working.
Our thinking mind develops thought patterns based upon what is communicated to us. If we are regularly criticized or praised, our mind will usually develop similar patterns of criticism or praise. Criticism and praise are just strategies to motivate a person to behave in a certain way. So is shaming and attempts to create feelings of guilt. These methods may not seem like attempts to express love, but at times they are the best we can do.
Parents are concerned for their children’s future, but due to limited skillfulness or other emotional issues are often unable to motivate their children with loving encouragement, so they criticize. The child’s mind then develops this pattern of thinking. Depending on how deep the pattern is imbedded in the neural pathways of the brain, this type of self talk might last a life time.
In the practice of mindfulness of needs, it is important to recognize that our thoughts are only attempts to meet needs. Sometimes the need is immediate and apparent, and at times the thoughts are habitual and the needs are historical. Either way, the thoughts are signs that there are unmet needs. From this awareness, we can then hold the thoughts with some compassion and inquire to ourselves what needs should we address.
Even if the thoughts are harsh criticism this premise holds true. In fact, the harsher the self talk, the more “needy” we usually are. Sometimes it is helpful to name the part of us that criticizes. This “inner critic” always means well. What is important is to not believe the content of the thoughts, but more to see the thinking as a sign that something deeper is a play. This is worth repeating: Most of our thoughts are not worth believing.
This caution can also extend to beliefs.