Mary came into therapy because she was depressed about her 25-year-old son. He was gay, using drugs, and engaging in high-risk sexual behavior. She believed the only way she could find peace again would be if she got her son’s behavior under control. As long as he was out of control, she believed she would be depressed.
This is the same belief any parent with an out-of-control child has: “The only way I can move beyond despair is if my child gets under control.” And the thinking inevitably develops detail: “If I could figure out the right thing to say or do, then they will change. Then I will be happy again.” And the underlying belief system is always the same: “I can’t find peace until they are straightened out, and they can’t be straightened out without my input.” This all seems logical, but it is still just a belief.
Sheldon Solomon, professor of social psychology at Skidmore College, demonstrates through controlled research that as our anxiety and vulnerability increase, the more likely we are to cling to our belief systems, whether or not they are accurate. That’s why many people think that increasing one’s income, helping a child stay ahead of the curve, or changing a spouse can make them feel safe and secure. So that’s what they work to accomplish. But when the anxiety and insecurity don’t change, instead of re-examining the belief system, they just work harder at the old one.
Mary would call her son almost every day with advice. When that didn’t work, she called treatment centers for him. She went for months mobilizing family and friends, traveling to where he lived, all in an effort to change him. She believed if she did the right thing, he would change and she would find peace.
The problem with these beliefs is that our brains can always find evidence to prove that they are true. If our paycheck goes up, the anxiety goes down. Theory confirmed. Child brings home a good report card and our worry seems to go away. Mary felt much better when her son told her he would start looking for a job. So then she was sure she was on the right track. The next day her anxiety returned when she began to wonder if he really meant it.
What if our beliefs weren’t true? What if money didn’t make us secure? What if our children’s achievement didn’t make them happy? What if Mary no longer believed that the only way she could find peace would be if her son changed?
During those terrible months, Mary went from panic to despair and finally to a genuine sense of powerlessness. She realized that she had no control over her son’s life and that she could only manage her own.
This was the beginning of a new theory. Mary began to entertain the possibility that she could reclaim her life even if her son didn’t. Over the next several months, she began spending more time doing things that brought her happiness and peace. She devoted her energies to combating the AIDS epidemic, and she spent more time with her loved ones.
She never stopped loving her son, nor did she stop feeling pain about the way he lived. But her son and his behavior became a part of her life and not the focus of her life. Her theory was wrong. She found a sense of serenity even though his behavior didn’t change.