Calling the brain a computer is such a mechanistic, oversimplified image of this miraculous organ. But there is one way in which the metaphor is exact: the brain’s vulnerability to alien programs that are bad for the operating system, otherwise known as you.
In the computer world, these alien programs are collectively known as malware. They include things like viruses, Trojan horses, and worms. Some colorful terms call them “drive-by downloads” that can cause “zombie computers.” Whether the goal is a complete takeover of your computer or just messing with some files, these malicious codes are used by someone who has gained remote and unauthorized access.
It is interesting how viruses get into computers. Often you have to click on something that you innocently see as desirable. This opens up your computer to let the alien program do what it wants. There is a reason why the slang terms for computer malware are things like Trojan horse, virus, and worm. They all refer to things that get inside in order to do harm, often under the guise of offering you something useful.
If you are a computer novice, you might not notice the presence of a bug until your computer starts showing problems. But a specialist would instantly recognize the virus and take steps to debug your system. When it comes to mental viruses, we can do the same. We just have to know how.
Mental malware can get into our brains at any age, as long as the hacker is charismatic and plausible enough. But the real action occurs in childhood when we are socialized to believe all kind of things that make life easier for our parents and teachers. Because these socialization viruses are based on expediency and not on any real internal logic, they often are a confusing hodge-podge of contradictory messages. These contradictions can kick in simultaneously, paralyzing us between two equally insistent values.
One of the characteristics of early brain malware is that it speaks in a convincing, authoritative tone. Sometimes it uses our own voice, sounding like the voice of conscience. But the tip-off to mental malware is that you feel caught in a bind. Internal conflict rages as the virus runs against our healthier instincts and even common sense. The virus uses commanding, moralistic language like “should” and “ought” to tell you what you must do in order to be a good person. If you do not obey it, you “must” feel guilt and shame.
The first step in debugging your mental computer is to realize that this bug was installed before you were old enough to know the difference. Undoubtedly, you were given the message it was for your own good. But any thought that makes you feel bad or hopeless is probably some form of malware. Legitimate guilt and remorse tend to be fast-acting prompts that move us to corrective action. When we have actually done something wrong, we feel a strong, healthy urge to remedy it. On the other hand, mental malware just makes you feel like a failed person.
You can use the bad feeling that comes from early childhood malware to point you to the hidden virus. Ask yourself what forbidding inner statement is tying you in knots. Then clear your mind and question it with the simple inquiry, “Is that really true?” For instance, disliking or disagreeing with a beloved family member is a big taboo that gets put in the system early. Or wanting something just for yourself is labeled selfish. But these normal human feelings are our guideposts toward healthy self-protection. It is not an option to not to have them.
There is no harm to anyone in being honest with yourself internally about your true thoughts and feelings. No feeling or fantasy makes you a bad person. If you are not doing anything harmful or illegal, knowing your feelings is simply a matter of private emotional honesty with yourself. But early childhood malware tells us that certain thoughts and feelings are bad and say something about our worthiness. It is all a control tactic. You are being run by an invisible download installed in childhood that has remote access to your will. It makes you waste copious amounts of time and mental energy trying to get yourself to think the right way and causes you to feel bad when you fail. You become the perfect host for a virus that says you can never be good enough.
A good way to catch these viruses is to write down any thoughts that give you that sinking feeling. When you record them over a day, you will have a fair idea of how far this computer worm has spread in your thinking. You will find contradictory messages, mutually exclusive values, and absolute commandments that are full of exceptions.
Your next step is to pick one and identify its source code. That would be the one-sentence draconian rule that your guilt or low self-esteem is based on. It might be that good girls love their families, or fathers are always strong and right. It might tell you something like self-interest is bad, while success is good. (Just try to make that combination work.) You will see that these sweeping statements do not hold water or even make sense.
The final steps are to deprogram the virus, stop the worm from spreading, and send the Trojan horse packing. We do this by meditating on each thought that makes us feel bad until we can see its illogic and where it likely came from. We question it, disagree with it, argue against it like a lawyer’s cross-examination. We acknowledge that we have been unwittingly programmed, and we declare an inner “No” every time it starts to make us feel bad.
To reprogram ourselves, we then substitute realistic adult beliefs that make sense now in our grown-up world. It helps to make a two-columned list, writing down your new values and literally crossing out the virus-infected mental content. Our families probably did not intend their programming to cause us so much trouble, but to let it linger in our brains is the worst kind of self-sabotage. An awesome Trojan horse can look like a gift from the gods, but your feelings can tell you when it’s time to close the city gates.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.