TAUGHT to Think or Taught NOT to Think?


facing childhood historyThe last few blog posts have covered how our feelings can get shut down, but what about our thoughts? Have you ever thought about how you were taught to think, or taught not to think?

In recovery and emotional healing, I hear people say all the time that when they are asked the question “what do you think?” they just jam up.  That they don’t know how to respond to that question in the same way that people freeze when asked how they are feeling.

Just as we learn to shut down our own feelings as a result of being told over time that they are “wrong” or that we don’t actually feel them”, learning to doubt our thoughts and opinions and to shut them down also happens in a very similar way. The details are different, but the damage is very comparable.

I have heard children trying to contribute to the conversation with the statement “well I think …” and the adult (or the bully) in the situation will respond by saying;

~ “well no one asked you to think”

~ “Well no one cares what YOU think”

~ “you are not capable of thinking”

~ “If I want to know what YOU think, I will ask you”

There are often subtle rhetorical questions that are designed to tear you down and put you back in “your place”. Although these questions are not necessarily meant to be answered, they have an effect. Even when the person saying these things has no intention to cause harm, these types of statements DO cause harm.  These proclamations might be in response to something you did, or to something you said. Usually they have the desired effect which is to communicate to you that you are wrong.

~ “what in the world are YOU thinking”? or “What in the world were you thinking”

~ “do you have ROCKS in your head instead of a brain”?

~ “How old are you?” inferring either that you are old enough not to say or think such stupid things OR inferring that you are too young to know anything.

These questions or sayings are invalidating and meant to remind you that you are “less than” or less important than they are and that you are LACKING.  They create self doubt and add to low self esteem. And if by any chance you believe what they imply they embed themselves in YOUR belief system.

The underlying message is always that your contribution is not welcome.

If you were not encouraged to share your thoughts as a valid person no matter what age you were, or if you were taught to keep your thoughts to yourself, these types of statements are likely at the root of the problem when it comes to freezing when asked for your thoughts. Being constantly reprimanded and told you were wrong when you did share thoughts will lead to self questioning the validity of your thoughts and ideas. This is equal to having been taught NOT to have thoughts.  No wonder there is fear and or freezing when asked “what do you think”

When someone asks “what do you think” and your whole life you were told (whether inferred or in direct words) that you are stupid and that you “can’t think” then that goes into your belief system and causes the fear of expressing thoughts.  It causes a fear of thinking; what if the thought is “wrong”?  And again, as with feelings, what will the consequences be if you ARE wrong?  Public humiliation? Sarcastic comments?  Rejection or fear of being kicked out of the group?

The risk of being wrong can bring up fears that we had in childhood that are no longer valid fears in adulthood, but we don’t know they are there in the first place.  Fears operate under the surface and we often don’t know what drives them.

If you have a history of being harmed in any way for having thoughts, such as being hit for thinking or for expressing a thought that someone else didn’t approve of, then you have a history of being punished for thinking. If you have been emotionally harmed or humiliated for expressing a thought, that is the same as being punished for thinking and you might still be afraid to think or to express an opinion.

Being ignored is another way that communicates “your thoughts are not important or welcome”. When a child speaks and there is NO response at all the child gets the same message. And think about where all this “communication” leads;  I concluded that if I had nothing of value to contribute to my family, then I had nothing to contribute to my community either and if I had nothing to contribute outside of my family, then I had nothing to contribute to the world. See how it happens?

I had to realize why I would freeze when I was asked what I was “thinking” or asked to contribute my thoughts to a conversation.  The fear of being “wrong” was huge and it stemmed from the fear of the consequences of being wrong and NOT trusting myself to have anything valuable to contribute because it was communicated to me that I HAD nothing to contribute.

Were you encouraged to think? Were you asked to contribute and was your contribution acknowledged, considered or valued? Were you encouraged to contribute your thoughts to a conversation or to a plan? Were you ignored which communicates the exact same message; that you have nothing to contribute.

Please share your thoughts and please feel free to use only your first name or a screen name in the comment form.

Exposing Truth, one snapshot at a time;

Darlene Ouimet

~ Related Posts with Discussions here on Emerging from Broken (click titles to visit)

Why didn’t I know how I felt about anything?

Stop Crying or I will give you something to cry about

The purpose of facing the past and childhood history

Psychological abuse, domestic violence and the belief system

Psychological Abuse ~ if you don’t like it, Leave.


88 response to "TAUGHT to Think or Taught NOT to Think?"

  1. By: Mem Posted: 8th September

    PS With mixed results I may add. I just know I was an intelligent young child who could’ve done so much ‘better’ than I have, given less dire circumstances. This is not about pitying myself, this is trying to make a reasonably objective reflection…!
    I wonder if anyone else thinks similarly?

  2. By: Mem Posted: 8th September

    Ah! And let’s face it: your ability to think may have led to your thinking they are not who and what they say they are. It may have led you to put two and two together. Far far too dangerous – for you and them. I really do believe my ability to think clearly on a consistent basis was so muddied it was very much compromised then and still profoundly affects me to this day. We know the brain changes in radical ways with toxic stress. The scans are in as evidence.
    So, it led to a belief I held unconsciously, of course, for a long time: thinking is indeed dangerous. There may be conclusions you may not want to reach. Best not to!! I’ve been vigilantly reevaluating such a premise lately.

  3. By: Lorraine Posted: 27th July

    My father used to say you twit or you dill if I tried to talk at the dinner table. My mother used to tell my father and us kids to shut up. The conversation at dinner revolved around our mother either telling dad to shut up because he made to much noise eating or mum telling us children off. Not pleasant

    • By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 28th July

      Welcome Lorraine
      Yes ~ NOT pleasant at all!
      Thanks for sharing!
      Hugs, Darlene

      Welcome to EFB ~ sounds like you were set up to get told off. That is really common with abusive controllers. They want to ‘yell and berate’.
      Yuck! Thanks for sharing,
      Hugs, Darlene

  4. By: Julie Posted: 27th July

    I recall one occasion where my narc dad asked me some political type question and wanted to know which side I was on. I was a kid and knew nothing about the issue and had no opinion and said so. He demanded an answer from me. Since I knew he’d hit me if I didn’t, I picked a side. He then proceeded to berate my choice. I can’t even tell you what the topic was. Crazy.

  5. By: W Posted: 8th February

    Hey Davina,

    I kind of had a break trough last new years eve. (or rather the week after). I had a particularly bad new years eve. I was confronted with a lot of my issues, and in combination with alcohol my thoughts became increasingly depressive and irrational. The next day, when sobered up, I was shocked by the thoughts I had that night. But these thoughts also magnified the issue, and in the coming days I realized what these issues and feelings originated from. These feelings originated from a past being bullied at school. And particularly I realized that my life is currently completely different, making these feelings completely irrational and not applicable to the situation. This realization turned a switch in my head.
    I decided that my new years resolution would be to turn around my life, and actually do the things I want to do. Persue my dreams, and stop worrying about what other people would think about me.

    This did not have a direct connection to the procrastination issues I talked about before, but had a lot to do with other issues regarding more social situations.
    I completely changed my attitude towards life, and towards my ambitions. And I became much more motivated to do the things to accomplish these ambitions.
    It is this attitude and motivation that I lacked before, which was causing me to postpone all these things like taxes and important e-mails and even laundry. It were not the fears related to my past that caused the procrastination, but rather my general attitude towards life resulting from this past.

    I wouldn’t say that these procrastination issues are now solved over night, but I am at least motivated to work on it. I used to think that I somehow lacked the discipline and that this was just my nature. I now realize that discipline is not related to your nature, but to your general attitude and motivation towards life.

    So you will need to work out what is actually bothering you. Then look at your current life: are the reasons for your fears still present in your current life? If your issues result from your past, then you will probably notice that your fears are actually completely irrelevant an applicable to your daily life as it is right now.
    Now this sounds a bit easier than it is. Before new years eve, I thought I knew all this already. But like every thing in life, you do not realize the actual reasons unitl something happens. It can be someone saying something on the right moment, or it can be something extraordinary. But usually it is an event, unpleasantly confronting you with yourself. In my case a very depressing new years eve…

    If your issues are persisting, these kind of events will undoubtedly manifest themselves in your life. But only if you keep trying to become aware of the origins of your issues, you will learn from these events.

  6. By: Davina Posted: 7th February

    W @ 73 and 81-

    I have this problem also. I quickly do small things like laundry, repairs and errands but often delay important things for years.

    I once “ran” from filing taxes because I was afraid I’d owe a ton of money on a house I sold (as if that would solve anything). Ultimately the IRS garnished my wages which motivated me to file my back taxes. My accountant then determined that I wouldn’t have owed taxes in the first place!

    I’ve been putting off resolving for about 9 years a matter where I believe I’m owed about $15,000. I have every single piece of paper connected to the matter, but just won’t sit down, write it up and pursue it.

    I’m currently procrastinating on a couple of other issues like that. I’ve been wondering what’s at the bottom of this and wonder if it’s my way of living up to (rather, down to) the bashes that my dad/mom made to my self esteem. I’m actually unusually accurate and competent but I think of doing these things my heart starts to pound and I feel panicky, then get busy taking care of minutiae.

    There’s a book called “Eat that Frog” that discusses this problem. Maybe it’s just human nature or maybe it’s a side effect of abuse?

  7. By: W Posted: 29th December

    Hey Amber, thanx for your reaction. But I don’t think aiming for perfection is the problem in my case. There is no perfection in paying taxes, doing laundry etc. It is just doing or not doing it. And no one that will judge me for doing laundry or paying my taxes.
    So it is very frustrating to see that I keep procrastinating these things, without being able to find any rational reason for it. When I should pay my taxes, I always tell myself that there is no reason for not doing so, nor for procrastinating it. I have enough money, time, etc. But nonetheless there is something in my mind that is stopping me from doing so.
    Sometimes I find the strength to do it in time; other times I’m waiting several reminders untill the pressure is very high, before I finally pay my taxes (and the fines for paying late). And afterwards I blame myself for unnecessarily procrastinating it, ending up paying more than double… and frustratingly not knowing the reason for doing so.

  8. By: Amber Posted: 22nd December

    Yay DXS for holding them accountable! It’s always supposed to be us doing the accountable dance, so they’re very uncomfortable if it’s reversed!

    I don’t remember red marks on those math papers. But I guess I did the best I could erasing them. It wasn’t good enough to fool the teacher because SHE yelled at me for handing in sloppy work, but somehow I preferred her anger to my mothers.

    As far as freezing goes, I was always afraid of reading the script wrong and not giving the “right ” answer which is translated. As what mother dearest wants to hear. So it was better to say nothing.

  9. By: DXS Posted: 22nd December

    Amber (#77) I remember you telling us about erasing your papers! I’d like to know how in the heck you erased the teachers red marks. Red Pencil is hard to erase! Holy cow! And to even have to do that…. I’m just saying, wow, wow, wow…..

    And yeah, you hit it why I freeze when asked how I “feel.” My reaction to “how do you feel” question is to say, “what’s motivating the question so that I can address what the real issue is?”

    Sometimes people back away when I do that, because they don’t like being put on the “held accountable” spot.

  10. By: Amber Posted: 22nd December

    DXS, message 75, it sounds like you freeze when you feel because your feelings were invalidated. If you express your feelings and someone tells you that you don’t feel that way, you feel some other way, you start doubting how you really feel. I’ve had this happen to me too.

  11. By: Amber Posted: 22nd December

    DXS, that doctor visit must have been traumatic! I have a developmentally delayed daughter, yet I explained to her exactly what the doctor was going to be doing at her OB/GYN appointment, and my daughter did amazingly well and was not upset. Some people would rather save themselves the discomfort of talking about this topic, and end up causing someone else damage as a result. And it must have been a double whammy for you when your mothers concern was that you were “rude” to the doctor. I’m sorry you had to how through the trauma of the unexplained exam, and then be further invalidated by having your feelings ignored and the focus placed on something superficial like how you reacted to the doctor.

    I too was treated like I was being a pain or an inconvenience any time I expressed feelings so I shut down. I got slapped across the face by my mother at a fair in front of lots of people because I was getting tired and made a comment about not wanting yo walk around anymore. I was about 13 or 14. I was also ignored if I was upset about something. I was NEVER asked what was bothering me. My mother did not want yo be inconvenienced with helping me through anything. I got yelled at for needing things for school so I stopped telling her and used to erase my math papers and reuse them rather than inconvenience my mother by asking her to buy more. One time I needed money because our class was hoping yo be buying the daily newspaper. I froze up when I tried to ask her for the money. Instead of telling me it’s okay, just relax and tell me what you need, she chased me around the kitchen table with a belt whipping me with it. She couldn’t see that I was paralyzed with fear over asking for money for a newspaper! That made me shut down even more when I needed things. I was 11 at the time.

  12. By: DXS Posted: 21st December

    I started to cry and Mom turned around angry and asked me what I was crying about. I was being a pain to her by showing distress. Anything could have been wrong with me, but she was being “inconvenienced”.

    I’ve mentioned this in another part of the blog. Age 12, I had to have an OB/GYN exam. Mom did NOT prepare me for this. She said, “oh, they will just check you over…” She KNEW exactly what was to happen, but failed to tell me. I was traumatized. After all was said and done, all she cared about what that I had been “rude” to HER doctor. She was embarrassed. the male doctor did not do anything wrong, but I still felt violated. And all mom could do was criticize me for being “rude.”

  13. By: DXS Posted: 21st December

    Fortunately, my family didn’t do this, but I have observed other families who did this to their children. I always felt bad for those children. Plus, it was always machismo fathers who did this.

    For some reason, I hate the phrase “shut your pie hole.” It grates me when I hear that phrase.

    However, when I’m asked, “How do you feel” I, too freeze. I’m usually thinking, “what do they want to hear” because my mom constantly told me, “no you don’t no you don’t, you feel X way.” Thus, I’m wondering, “what do they want to hear?”

  14. By: Amber Posted: 21st December

    W, through being squelched by parents and through being bullied by classmates, I became very withdrawn. I didn’t express opinions or wants or needs at home because I feared being ridiculed or punishment. I didn’t express opinions or show preferences for things around my classmates because I feared I would be laughed at. And I also held back on other things too, some individual tasks too. I believe it came from the same fear. After being criticized by parents and peers, I thought I had to do things perfectly yo be approved if. So, if I didn’t think I could write the perfect report or letter, or hostess the perfect dinner I would become fearful and put it off. I eventually did these things but if I had put them off for too long ( example would be when I was in college and had towrite a term paper) I did end up doing a not so good job, but the reason was that I hadn’t left myself enough time to do it well because I was worried about perfection. had I not been worried about perfection, I would have started earlier, and would have gone a better ( but probably not perfect) job.

    The reason I wanted to do a perfect job was not for me. It was because I was seeking approval. I was trying hard. I was caught up in the dance that Darlene talks about a lot, trying harder and thinking that if I finally got it right I would finally win the love and approval I longed for. But I. Learning that that was not the answer. I’ve stopped the dance. Because if I need to try that hard then I never had their love and acceptance to begin with, and never would. So, no more dancing down the futile road to perfection, and I’m beginning to accept that it’s okay to be less than perfect, and that someone who truly loves me, loves me for who I am, imperfections and all.

  15. By: W Posted: 21st December

    Still though, I have a question.

    The thing about me holding back my actions that bothers me most, is the things that actually interfere with my daily life. And those are usually things that are done indiviually and do not involve other people judging me, like paying taxes, , buying new clothes, sending important e-mails etc.

    I seem to be holding back from doing those taks too, postponing them to such an extend that it is sometimes even to late. And the frustrating thing is that I cannot seem to pinpoint any reason for it. Similarly to that I could not find the reasons for the issues described in my previous post before I read your article.
    Again here I’m scared that I’m just lazy and should not be crying about it… but then again it can’t be just lazyness, as it sometimes even is about an important e-mail I postpone to write, when I’m already looking at my mailbox on my computer… and it seems impossible to overcome this issue, especially as I don’t know what I’m so afraid of.

    As I said, with the actions that involve other people and their opinions about me, it makes sense that I’ve been taught not to have opinions about anything. But in these other tasks it doesn’t seem to make sense at all..

  16. By: W Posted: 21st December

    Hey man, thanks a lot for writing that article! Reading it actually made me realize a lot of things about myself.
    I used to think I did not really have any opinions about anything, and that I could not like anything such as a simple pair of pants. And that I did not have any kind of specific taste when it comes to style or music. And I did not now the reason for it. I thought I had a stupid superficial blank personality.
    And although it has improved since leaving high school and starting university, (I actually have some hobbies and a music preference now) it still wasn’t clear to me what was holding me back from expressing myself. I still doubt myself every time I try something new, and still wonder what other people think about it.

    But now I realize that the bullies at primary school and high school just thought me not to have opinions about anything, not to like any particular kind of music or styles, and that my feelings of being hurt are not legit, cause words don’t hurt right? And now I’m apparently still subconsciously scared that I will be humiliated or laughed at when I try to express my taste for anything.
    I even seem to be scared to visit a psychologist about it, just because I’m afraid that he will tell me that my issues are no issues and that I’m actually just a blank superficial person and should not be a crybaby about it.

    Before I just couldn’t figure out the reasons behind me holding back, but now seem to start to understand where it is all coming from, and that there actually are definable reasons for it too.
    I still find it hard to overcome these fears, but at least i’m starting to understand them. So thanks again! It helps a lot!

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