“I know I’m a good person,” Phyllis said earnestly. “I do a lot for my friends. They can count on me and they know it. I would never hurt anyone. I’m kind. The only thing is,” here, she hesitated, “I don’t treat myself nearly as well as I treat everyone else. Although I know this is ridiculous and objectively, I disagree with it, but deep inside, I don’t believe I deserve it.” A case of low self esteem that doesn’t have to be.

It’s as if Phyllis is split between her logical self which knows she is a good person in the same way that you and I “know” E=mc2, a knowing at a distance, and her inner self which thoroughly believes she doesn’t deserve to be treated well. It is the illogical, inner self that seems real and the logical self that seems fake.

How did this happen and how can Phyllis get past it?

Toxic Messages Are Just Stronger Neural Pathways

To answer this question requires a short side-step into the world of neuroscience. There is a lot of fascinating research going on all over the country on how the brain works and how it connects to our thoughts and feelings.

Apparently, the more we hear a message, the stronger the neural pathways in our brain become. That is, if certain of our actions were followed by particular messages by our parents as we grew up, then a pathway was constructed in our brains so that the instant we would behave in a certain way or something would happen, it would trigger the neurons firing. The more the pathway was used, the quicker future firings of the neurons would become. We’re talking split-split second, here.

Subjectively, a firmly laid down neural pathway “feels” real. Its message feels like the truth. It is for this reason that toxic messages we might have received in childhood by parents who did not understand human psychology or child development strike one as real and we can’t seem to get past that. Imagine that: It comes down to how often we heard the message. All the pain and anguish that Phyllis is experiencing comes down to how often she got messages that meant she did not deserve to be treated well.

Create Positive Neural Pathways

Within this depressing fact lies a source of hope and help. What Phyllis needs is to hear the positive messages, the ones that fit with logic even though they don’t feel real, enough times to etch new neural pathways in her brain.

In fact, only within this last decade or so have scientists learned that brain tissue prunes itself and regenerates. So here is Phyllis’ two-pronged approach: She must force her mind to stop thinking the self-destructive thoughts and she must repeat many times the positives that her friends and those who love her say. Eventually, the old pathways will die and new ones—healthier ones—will be laid down. In this way, Phyllis will get used to thinking she deserves good treatment. Deserving good will seem real.

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