Automatic Thought Associations
Automatic thought associations are links between a particular thing or experience and certain emotions, beliefs, or thoughts. They are forged through what we come to know early on and what we experience on a repeated basis. Whether or not you run when you see a snake or investigate it curiously depends on your past experiences and the messages you've picked up from others. For instance, one preschool classroom has a ball-python as a pet, which happens to be a docile animal and is much less likely to bite than a hamster or gerbil. It's called a ball-python because its instinct is to curl up in a ball when threatened or upset, so it's one of the least aggressive creatures you could encounter on planet earth, (so long as you're not a mouse). The kids at this preschool tote around 'Jake the Snake' on a regular basis; reading him books, playing outside, and taking him out regularly to hold. True to its nature, it provides years of classroom service without harming a single child. Every youngster who was enrolled in this particular classroom will have their perceptions about "snakes" (their metaprograms on the topic) altered from these experiences. They would certainly react differently than a child whose first and only experience was picking up a rat snake in the field that bit them. If a child from each background were at the zoo, and a worker asked if they wanted to hold a snake, whether or not a child responds enthusiastically or withdraws in fright is based largely upon these automatic thought associations. They've formed an opinion about a potential experience before it even occurs, and are capable of creating two different perceptions completely opposite of each other, based on past associations.
How you feel about fathers, or mothers, or siblings in general has a lot to do with your own experiences. Was your father loving, or critical? Mother warm and nurturing, or abusive? Siblings close friends or bitter rivals? If I were to tell you that I was visiting my fathers house this weekend, your automatic thought associations would already lead you to form an idea of this action that is tainted by your past experiences, and all of this happens without any conscious thought. Whether you feel warm and fuzzy inside or get nervous and imagine just "trying to get through the weekend" depends on the automatic thought associations, the metaprograms of your mind, which tell you whether to be excited or nervous based on your own expectations about what fathers "are."
Much of the time these associations don't disrupt our lives too greatly. Some associations are positive. Some may be fairly accurate. Others are extremely destructive, distorting reality and turning our entire world upside down. A bigger problem with automatic thought associations is that it's a type of learned prejudice, much akin to racism or bigotry. We become prejudiced either for or against certain things based on what others have taught us or what we've discovered to be true in the past from our own experiences. Just like racism, the foundation which forms these automatic thought associations is often baseless.
Let's take an example from a subject we've done a lot of work with ourselves: sexual abuse. Let's say you were to find out that while your daughter was playing at a friend’s house, the girls’ uncle had your 7-year-old take off her clothes, and he proceeded to take nude pictures of her. If you're like most parents, your brain is already conjuring up images and messages of horror, despair, anger, and immense injury to your child at the mere suggestion of such an occurrence. You don't even have to think about it, such thoughts come to you automatic. But where do these thoughts come from, and are they accurate?
They come from automatic thought associations in the mind, delivered through negative messages which over and over again over the course of life have told us that this is a horrific, life altering event. All the shame and scoldings over sexual play or exposing ourselves that our parents dished out to us when we were little combined with attitudes we are exposed to from the outside world, lead us into such thoughts. So would you be surprised to know that all of these automatic thought associations, all of the despair you would feel in such a situation, have absolutely no merit and may have little to do with reality?
All of these negative thoughts, the feelings of despair, the mental anguish; it's all completely imaginary, grounded not in "fact" but in abstract meaning and belief. How can we be so sure? Children in nudist colonies have their pictures or videos taken in the nude all of the time. They even have these images reproduced in promotional materials, and sometimes even sold to others to promote the nudist lifestyle. Not only does this occur without the slightest bit of harm being done, but research shows kids who grow up in such a lifestyle actually fare far better psychologically than children who are taught that those areas are a shameful thing that must be covered at all times. (Smith & Sparks, 1986) Ask any scientist or psychologist in the world, not one will be able to give you a logical or legitimate reason as to why a child's penis or vulva should be regarded with any more shame or embarrassment than their fingers or toes. In fact, it's not uncommon for children to initiate exhibitionist behavior or to show themselves off to others. (GCF, 2009) Furthermore, child development experts will tell you how important it is for children to be raised in a sexually healthy environment. (see our page, What experts say about a sexually healthy environment online at http://www.keepyourchildsafe.org/sexually-healthy-child/page1.html) "Sexually healthy" means avoiding shameful attitudes towards the body, nudity, or sexuality in general. It's good parenting for children NOT to be ashamed of their body, which also means that it should be regarded as no big deal should anyone see them in their most natural state. So in the end, the action itself, someone taking nude pictures of a child, does not necessarily come with the slightest bit of injury, and can even be quite healthy in the right environments. It's only in our mind where this despair is created.
Yes, our feelings tell us the preceding situation is "weird." Yes, we've been told that anyone who would do such a thing is also the type of person likely to kidnap and murder our child at any moment (another fallacy). And yes, there could be aggravating factors that would change the situation, and the mere fact that such an action occurs behind a parent's back or in secrecy makes it morally unacceptable. But in terms of real, tangible harm, all of our initial thoughts of horror are completely wrong. In a sexually healthy environment, something all parents should be advocating, a child needs not be any more injured by such a scenario than they would be by going down to Wal-Mart and getting a set of family photographs. So imagine all the despair you'd feel if this happened to your child. As hard as it may be to believe, all of this despair, all this potential for injury resides not in the action, but in your thoughts. The misery is entirely self-created.