How Errors in Thinking Contribute to Emotional Instability

In psychology we talk about an internal versus an external locus of control. 

For those who have an internal locus of control, life is easier and less chaotic. Such individuals are likely to feel more centered, calm and focused.  For the individual with an external locus of control, life is chaotic, lacking in boundaries and at times completely unpredictable. Locus of control has a great deal to do with early life experiences, especially parenting.

Read more in the Errors of Thinking Series
Part 1 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Prevent Good Problem Solving
Part 2 of Series: “How Errors in Thinking Destroy Relationships
Part 3 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Contribute to Anxiety

Should statements locus of control

Making “should” statements is believed to have come from the Pig Parent in transactional analysis. Transactional Analysis (TA) is a psychological theory, developed by Eric Berne in the 1960s, that helps explain why we think, act and feel the way we do based upon our early childhood experiences with parents and authority figures. For example, one visual I have of the Pig Parent is of the parent wagging his or her finger in the child’s face and saying something like “Good boys do not wet their pants.” Or “Good girls eat all of their vegetables and don’t act sassy.”

pig parent

A Pig Parent can be seen as demanding particular achievements or behaviors irrespective of whether the demands are realistic or not, putting a great deal of pressure on the child. A psychologically disturbed parent (parent with no boundaries and an intense fear of abandonment) may expect the child to read his/her mind, even a very young child. When the child is unable to do so, there is hell to pay. So much so, that the bright child gets very good at reading the parent’s mind in an attempt to ward off disappointment or rejection. The problem is that this behavior is hard to turn off. As a result, the child grows into an individual who may use a lot of energy trying to read everyone’s mind. Obviously, this sets us up to fail in relationships as mind-reading is not an accurate or healthy way to interact with others as we saw in a previous error of thinking.

In general “should” statements imply a right and a wrong way to interact with others. When they are internalized, they make us feel guilty.  When directed at others, they take the form of a judgement, causing feelings of anger and frustration towards the other person. “You should have brought the garbage cans in without my asking.” instead of “Thank you for bringing the garbage cans in today. I’d really appreciate it if you could remember to do that without my having to remind you.” 

Individuals with a history of being Pig Parented often feel controlled, which can lead to rebellious thoughts, problems with authority and even drug and alcohol abuse, which represents the ultimate in thwarting authority and doing your own thing.
We all have some Pig Parent in us.  In Freudian terms it would be the super-ego.  But it can be a dark, evil, looming influence, settling over our minds like a suffocating blanket, as well as a nagging, insistent, critical voice. The problem is that for those who grew up with a Pig Parent, it seems rational, even moderate.  It is business as usual.  In fact, if the child/adolescent of the Pig Parent complains, the parent shames the child by calling him/her a “big baby” and making fun of him/her for making a mountain out of a mole hill.  If you had a Pig Parent, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  A part of you understands that your parent is in the wrong, but it is still you who feels guilty and ashamed. This is especially true when you have a parent who loves you but just isn’t good at parenting or communicating. 
No matter what form the Pig Parent takes, the essential issue for its survival is that it not be challenged by its victim.  In other words, it has control over us because we allow ourselves to be controlled by something external to us.  If on the other hand, we have a well-developed inner locus of control, Pig Parent messages may be a nuisance, but they do not control the way we feel about ourselves or others. 
How do we stay in control?

  1. First, locate the Pig Parent. What form does it take? What are its specific statements? What feelings does it prey on? Guilt? Shame? Fear? Low Self-esteem?
  2. Second, how do you stop supporting the messages and end up with an internal locus of control so that the Pig Parent returns to its external form; an oppressive influence which needs to be denied access to you, your feelings, thoughts, fears, and needs.
  3. Third, what specific techniques are effective to counteract the Pig Parent’s influence? DBT therapy, re-parenting and EFT have shown great promise.
Personalization and Blaming locus of control

When we personalize something, we blame ourselves for something we have no control over.  You walk into your son and daughter-in-law’s house and receive a less than warm welcome. If you personalize their behavior, you assume that they are not happy to see you, and you blame yourself for not having been there in so long or for not bringing enough food, or whatever you hit upon to blame yourself for not doing at all or doing wrong.

Personalization is assigning personal blame disproportionate to the level of control a person realistically has in a given situation. In all likelihood, they just had a fight about the house not being clean enough for an honored guest like you.
Here are a few other examples:

  • A foster child assumes that he/she has not been adopted because s/he is not “loveable enough.”
  • Your child gets bad grades or gets caught smoking pot in the bathroom. When called in to speak with the principal, you personalize the situation, become defensive and miss the chance to join the staff in helping your child.

 Blaming is the opposite of personalization. In this distortion, you are the victim, and someone else is always to blame.  The victim is able to avoid taking personal responsibility, and if successful, may convince other family members to take up the slack.  A good example would be blaming one’s spouse entirely for all the problems in the marriage.
The locus of control is still external.  The victim is the perfect example, nothing is ever about her, her coping skill, problem solving abilities, ethics or standards.  It is always about the cruelty of those around him or her.

Always Being Right and Gaslighting locus of control

In this cognitive distortion, being wrong is unthinkable. This distortion is characterized by insisting, all evidence to the contrary, that one’s position is correct, irrespective of the reality or the impact on those involved. It is common for such individuals to state “I am never wrong.” The individuals I have known who say this, are often being very cautious about what they say and when they say it, because it is so important to them to be correct and to be able to make this statement. Such individuals are not necessarily treating others badly or working a situation for their own gain. They just need to be right and to be seen as being right. Or more accurately, to be seen as “not wrong”.

This is still an external locus of control, although not quite as obvious as the others we have looked at thus far. Here the emphasis is on controlling one’s image. I have a very close friend who tells me on a regular basis “I am never wrong and I never lie.” It is very important to her that I believe that.

But the big story that I have to share is about the man I dated who had to be right. We were preparing dinner for his sons and best friend one evening and they all started to tease him about always having to be right. The best friend reminded him of his insistence that Saran Wrap never leaked. Long story short, I was making marinara and spaghetti and he insisted that I put the boiled spaghetti in a bowl which he then covered with Saran Wrap. (Did I mention that this was our dinner?)

He turned it upside down and low and behold, noodles all over the kitchen floor. Ta dah!

We were all howling with laughter. His sons and best friend were pointing the finger, making fun. They were merciless. They finally had him. “Admit that you were wrong! Just say it!” You know what he said, quite calmly? “I am not wrong, I am absolutely correct. Saran Wrap doesn’t EVER leak when it is properly sealed. We (meaning he) just didn’t seal it properly.”

Now it was very quiet. You could have heard a pin drop. But actually what dropped was the rest of the noodles that I had prepared for dinner, because he got the bowl, loaded it up with the rest of those noodles, covered the bowl again with Saran Wrap, “sealing” it correctly this time, held it upside down and within a few seconds, BAM! More noodles all over the floor. There wasn’t much jeering this time as we all realized we’d be eating our marinara sans the noodles.

Now I felt sorry for him, and I expected him to say “Ok, you guys win.”

But, no. He said and I quote, “I know you all think you are right and that I am wrong, but you are wrong. Saran Wrap does not leak. This was a failed experiment, but that does not mean that I was wrong and it does not mean that Saran Wrap leaks.”

At that point I found myself questioning my own eyes and my ability to process what I had just seen….he was so convincing. I actually found myself thinking, maybe he’s right…..

That’s called gas-lighting. Not saying he was doing it on purpose, or that he even knew he was doing it, but that was what was happening. Gas lighting causes us to question our own senses. It challenges our reality. There’s a lot of that going on these days……

Next time, we will continue with the final article of this 5 part series. If you would like to explore your own thinking or correct thoughts and internal dialogue that may be holding you back contact Norton Wellness Institute at 513-205-6543 today. It’s always the right time to start living well! Call today!

Read more in the Errors of Thinking Series
Part 1 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Prevent Good Problem Solving
Part 2 of Series: “How Errors in Thinking Destroy Relationships
Part 3 of Series: “Errors in Thinking That Contribute to Anxiety

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Materials contained on this site are made available solely for educational purposes and as part of an effort to raise general awareness of the psychological treatments available to individuals with health issues. These materials are not intended to be, and are not a substitute for, direct professional medical or psychological care based on your individual condition and circumstances.  Dr. J. Renae Norton does not diagnose or treat medical conditions. While this site may contain descriptions of pharmacological, psychiatric and psychological treatments, such descriptions and any related materials should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health problem without consulting a qualified mental health care provider.  You are advised to consult your medical health provider about your personal questions or concerns.