Reneau Peurifoy
From Anger: Taming the Beast

The various people we meet and situations we encounter often resemble those from our past in some way. This similarity causes many people to react as if the present person or situation were the same as the past one. I use the term time tunneling to refer to this tendency.

Time tunneling often is the force that triggers inappropriate anger and drives the distorted thinking discussed. Sharon is a good example. Because she had experienced so much negative criticism from her mother, she tended to respond to simple disagreements or helpful suggestions as if they were critical attacks. Even when people disagreed in a very appropriate and friendly ways, she would react to them as she had to her mother, immediately lashing out at them. Her anger was often accompanied by thoughts such as “Who do they think they are?” “Why can’t they just leave me alone?” “Why is everyone so critical?” These were all thoughts that she had experienced as a child when she was criticized by her mother. Even though the situations she encountered as an adult were usually very different, they still “felt” like her mother’s criticism, and she continued to respond as if she were still a child being harshly criticized.

Time tunneling occurs because of a type of learning called conditioned response learning. A conditioned response is an automatic response triggered by some stimulus or cue. This term was coined by I. P. Pavlov at the turn of the century as a result of his experiments with dogs. He would ring a bell, then immediately place meat powder on the dog’s tongue, causing it to salivate. After repeating this many times, he could stimulate salivation simply by ringing the bell.

We all have hundreds of conditioned responses that have developed over the course of our lifetime. Conditioned responses play an important role in many daily tasks and help us to function with little conscious thought. Unfortunately, some of our conditioned responses, like Sharon’s reaction to disagreements, interfere with our ability to function effectively. Once we identify them, we can, over time, decondition ourselves. After working through the exercises in this and the following chapter, Sharon found herself reacting to disagreements and helpful suggestions more appropriately.

When a collection of related conditioned responses is interfering with your life, it is useful to give them a descriptive label in order to easily identify them. I call these labels core beliefs. A core belief is a descriptive label used to identify a related set of conditioned responses. To understand the concept more fully, let’s take another look at Sharon’s inappropriate response to simple disagreements.

When Sharon was young, her mother was overly critical. Sharon even comments that it “seemed like I never did anything that pleased her.” In addition, her mother was often distant and so overwhelmed by life that she had little emotional energy left over for her children. As Sharon and I looked at this, she realized that her mother had not been very good at showing love and affection. One way that Sharon had tried to connect with her was by doing things to please her. Unfortunately, because her mother was a perfectionist who did not adjust her expectations to the reality of children, she only rarely seemed satisfied with what Sharon did. As a result, Sharon began to believe she could do nothing correctly. Of course, if you had asked Sharon if she actually believed this, she would have said no. But when she made mistakes, she would experience tremendous anger and berate herself with such self-talk as, “Why can’t I do anything right?”

Because these conditioned responses are mostly unconscious, you’ve probably never thought much about them. Fortunately, there is an easy way to identify them, based on the old adage “If it looks like a duck, talks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Applying this adage to the concept of unconscious core beliefs, we can say, “If you act like you believe something, speak like you believe something, and think like you believe something, you believe it.” Again, such beliefs are probably not conscious. Instead, they are a collection of conditioned response patterns. Sharon truly believed that she was skilled at many things, but whenever she made a mistake or was criticized, she acted and thought as if she believed “I can’t do anything right.”

As you review your genogram, descriptions, and early recollections, ask yourself, “What kinds of beliefs would a child growing up in this situation develop about him/herself, others, and the world?” How did you respond to various people and events as you were growing up? Keep in mind the idea that “if you act, speak, or think like you believe something,” that belief is probably playing an important role in your behavior, whether you consciously agree with it or not. What beliefs does your behavior reflect?

As you identify your core beliefs, you will find that they can be grouped into four general categories: beliefs about yourself, beliefs about others, beliefs about the world around you, and beliefs about God. Here are the negative core beliefs that Sharon identified while doing the work outlined in this chapter.

I can’t do anything right.
Something is wrong with me, I don’t measure up.
Intimacy is painful.
People aren’t reliable, they’ll always let you down.
The only one you can depend on is yourself.
Only the strong survive, I must never show weakness.