Saving Yourself from the Identity Spiral

Dec 7, 2016

Shock. That’s the only word to describe what I felt when I learned what my child had done.

I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t wrap my mind around the truth. Surely not. There must be a mistake.

Only there wasn’t. The buffer of shock wore off and reality hit. I cried, of course. One of those innocence-lost cries of a momma who’s certain the fabric of her existence is about to tear in two. Fear, worry, too many what-ifs. On the coattails of that cocktail came a more ruthless emotion:

Guilt. Overwhelming guilt. And blame. The ugly volley between assuming all responsibility and transferring it.

I’m a terrible mother. A mom is supposed to teach her children, coach them and keep them from harm. Good moms don’t let these things happen. Besides, I told my husband (the teachers, the neighbors, the church workers, etc.) this was a problem. I told them! No one listens to me. No one ever listens.

I wrestled with that truckload of fun for a solid two hours. Then, to wrap it all up in a nice self-loathing package, I added this final bit of self-talk for good measure:

It’s too late. The mistakes are irreparable. The damage is done. Things will never change. I’ve failed.

Now. You should know this particular situation happened years ago. Years. And I’m happy to report the situation wasn’t nearly as desperate as it appeared at the time. Significant and serious, but not fatal. It’s now resolved, and has been for some time. And yet I still recall the throat-closing emotions. And my quick descent into a place of despair.

This is the destruction of the downward thought-spiral. If it hadn’t existed long before my time, I’m pretty sure I would’ve invented it. After marriage, middle age and six kids, I’m pretty sure I’ve perfected the skill, turned it into an art form.

More than once I’ve turned hard life circumstances, challenges and heartache into universal and unalterable tragedy. The problem is for a long time I didn’t see the pattern. I didn’t recognize how I contributed to my own despair. And I didn’t know how to stop myself mid-crucifixion. The result? I stayed in a constant fragile, broken, defeated state.

Anyone else been there?

Now. I’m going to get personal. Are you ready? (And if you’re not, click over to adorable puppy videos on YouTube. It’s no problem, I promise).

I’ve seen evidence of the downward thought spiral all over social media recently. Not that it’s entirely new. It isn’t. But it’s become far more prevalent than before.

Before you ball up your fists and prep a heated defense, please hear me: The tension in our culture is significant, serious, worthy of grief and angst. This post has nothing to do with the validity of emotion. You have every right to feel the way you do, just as I had good cause to feel the way I did about my child.

We can’t change all our circumstances. But we can choose what kind of people we become in the middle of them.

I’ve decided I don’t want to be an anxious, stressed, angry woman who constantly loses sleep over what she can’t control. As I said in last month’s election post, I want to be concerned, not consumed.

How about you? Many of you face personal situations overwhelming you to the point of terror. You’re convinced there’s a good chance your entire existence is at stake. And maybe it is, in part. Even so, you don’t have to live a slave to the spiral. You don’t have to let your identity be dictated by your circumstances. You can find fresh reasons for peace and security.

But you and I need to learn how to resist the negative thought spiral.

A few years ago, I heard Dr. Henry Cloud deliver a presentation to thousands of leaders at the Global Leadership Summit. At the request of Bill Hybels, Cloud talked about key difference between those leaders who die, figuratively, and those who thrive. In almost every case, the leaders who thrive in impossible circumstances intentionally construct a healthy thought pattern that counteracts the human tendency toward negativity. In short, they avoid thought patterns that include these three fatal flaws:

1. Personal. Some examples of unhealthy personalization include thoughts like, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m a terrible person,” and “I’m a failure.” You may not say these things out loud, but the thought thread packs a powerful punch. Subconsciously, we equate an unwanted circumstance with an internal lack of value or worth. Even if you made a mistake, you are not a mistake.

2. Pervasive. Some examples of pervasive response patterns include phrases like, “Life is bad,” “I am bad,” “Everyone hates me,” and “Everyone is disappointed in me.” Truth is, when a marriage suffers, a child is struggling, or a job is failing, it’s not a big leap to feel like life is, in fact, terrible. And yet, life is never all bad. And everyone doesn’t hate you. Challenging the pervasive thoughts is a solid step toward kicking the spiral and finding a solid sense of identity again.

3. Permanent. Some examples of permanency include things like, “The pain will never end,” “I’ll never change,” and “Life will never be any better.” A bad situation or bad day or bad decision quickly becomes a “bad life” and “bad person.” Turning temporary circumstances into permanent ones turns us into paralyzed victims of our circumstances, which further complicates and traumatizes.

Here’s the ugly truth: When I’m overwhelmed with life and drowning in defeat, insecurity and despair, it almost always goes back to Personal, Pervasive or Permanent self-talk. Often, all of the above. But if we want to live as confident, secure, hope-filled people in spite of the unexpected nature of life, we need to fight back against the thoughts wanting to take us down.


[reminder]Which of the three flawed thought spirals do you slip into most easily: Personal, Pervasive or Permanent? [/reminder]

[Image Copyright: gudella / 123RF Stock Photo]


  1. Mike Sohm

    Excellent, honest, and helpful blog. Now to stop that “crucifixion” before it gets started

  2. Jerolyn Rosentrater

    Sigh. Personal, I’m afraid. Especially when it comes to my kids. After reading your msg, it feels like I’ll be working on turning around a cargo ship. Those thought patterns don’t go away easy.

  3. Jeannie S

    I think I own all three. My internal response to social media this Christmas season is my house & family look nothing like the pictures I see. That’s on top of all the stuff that’s drowning me the rest of the year.

  4. Linda Lochridge Hoenigsberg

    Michele…so true. I teach against the spiral, but find myself in the same pattern. Here’s an easy way to stop it in its tracks and I hope it helps your readers. ABCDE A-Activating Event. This is what happened. Just the facts, Jack. B-Belief. What do I believe about it? (“That woman doesn’t like me”. C-Consequences: The consequence of holding that belief: Sadness, fear, even depression or anxiety. D: Dispute. Wait a minute. The truth could lie somewhere else. Maybe the person didn’t see me; didn’t hear me; is having a terrible day; just got some bad news; needs my help! E: New emotions if you would have had these thoughts in the first place. Maybe a little worry about the person who you think spurned you. No sadness from thinking you aren’t liked. I’ve seen this so often in my work. Women who will spend hours and hours (or days or even weeks) in the downward spiral, only to find out they were read the situation completely wrong. New emotion? Relief. But wasted hours/days/weeks in negativity. The above is based on the work of Albert Ellis and is called Rational Emotion Behavior Therapy. It is easy and accessible to everyone. It’s Biblical too! Phil. 4:8 tells us what things to think on in order to have peace. There’s plenty of beauty around us if we look. Great post Michele. I saw myself in your words, believe me.

  5. Sue Schechtman

    Michele, once again thank you for your boldness. I personalize issues. Sadly, even when the problem could belong to anther family member. I am slowly learning to get off the merry go round of my mind as you said in a previous book.
    I am not responsible for peoples emotions in all negative situations. I pray that I turn to grace and love and walk thru the “tragedy” as it were not get bogged down.

  6. Tiffany Olson

    Good Morning Michele! Well, I’m thinkin that I slip in and out of all three categories all the time. I don’t want to be this way and I find myself repeating Philippians 4:8 to myself over and over and over again. It’s truly amazing how quickly I forget and how easily I can get myself into a place of despair and wonder if anything will ever be right with the world again. Zig Ziglar talks about the whole idea of putting motivational talk into your life every day or you will quickly stray from those thought patterns. It is absolutely essential for me to constantly and consistently expose myself to positive and motivating writing and podcasts or I become a mess rather quickly. I need to be reminded every single day several times a day how much God loves me, that I am not a failure but rather a work in progress, that my best life is not behind me but yet to come and that life is good and God is in control. This life is hard and there are so many people that suffer tragedies beyond my comprehension. If I spend time focusing on it all then I forget about the one who has overcome this life and is truly working all these things for his glory. My hope is that eventually

    Philippians 4:8 … whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.

    becomes so second nature that all else fades away. I sure do love your heart sweet Michele. Have a fabulous day!

    • Michele Cushatt

      I love how you’re preemptively surrounding yourself with positive messages, Tiffany. So wise.

  7. Jo

    a bit of all three but pervasive is the main one I feel

  8. Marne

    Definitely Permanent. So hard to stay hopeful when major life altering events happen one after another. This has been happening for the past 6 years and it gets so depressing that it does seem as it will be Permanent. But I am exhausted of living in this downward spiral.

    • Michele Cushatt

      When one thing happens after another, it’s easy to believe life will never be “good” again. I understand the struggle, Marne.

  9. Jamie

    Mostly personal :/
    The last few years have been a complete upheaval and rebuilding of my life and “identity crisis” seems to be a running theme through it all. Thanks for sharing tools to help us clean up our perspective. I think that’s a wired in beauty of this crisis — it forces us to join together intimately to remind one another who we are, both individually and together as one. No crisis, no connection. Xoxo sisters 🙂

  10. Sandy

    My problem would be with the “personal.” I fight feelings that I should be everyone’s lord and savior. If someone fails, it has to be my fault. It’s a struggle.

    • Michele Cushatt

      Goodness, I’ve felt that way at times too, Sandy. If something goes wrong, it must be my fault. So hard.


    Michele, you NAILED it again! Thank you for the excellent reminder. I needed it.

    • Michele Cushatt

      Thank you, Rodney. I need the reminder, too.

  12. Erica

    Really like the distinction between concerned and consumed. Martin Seligman’s book on Learned Optimism also talks about pessimism (personal, pervasive, permanent), learned helplessness and optimism – a real eye-opener. I tend to oscillate between pessimism and optimism. I think I am probably meant to be an optimist but I learnt some very poor habits as a young woman that are incredibly hard to break.

  13. Anita Herzig

    I just LOVE your heart, Michele. I was privileged to hear you speak 2 years ago in Plymouth UK at the Stillettos conference and amidst all of the people when I`came to speak to you at the leaders lunch what really impressed me was how you really gave me your full attention and really listened. I love your books, I love your heart and have been so inspired by your life, authenticity and passion for Jesus. I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be just come and visit you and have coffee with you – (you actually invited me!!) but I’m sure you are surrounded by others who feel the same. Thankyou for making yourself so vulnerable – I know its a huge risk

  14. Susan Sage

    I love this sentence. “We can’t change all our circumstances. But we can choose what kind of people we become in the middle of them.” It’s so true. We have control over that. I appreciate the heart you share with everyone who meets/knows you. Your vulnerability and transparency are examples for all of us of how much those two touch other hearts.

    Again, good job.

  15. Hermione

    Thank you Michele. This is what I strive for, but it’s so hard sometimes. Last year I discovered my child was self-harming. I was terrified and devastated and absolutely crushed with guilt that I had dropped the ball and had failed as a mom. In the 5 years leading up to this I’d survived the devastation of discovering my husband of 20 years was a long term liar and cheat and cared for my mother who suffered a breakdown after being diagnosed with a terminal illness and went on to have an horrific death. Discovering my child was in so much pain and hiding it was the last straw. It sent me into a deep depression, but I found my child a psychologist who helped them and also pulled me aside to tell me pointedly that this wasn’t my fault and that crucifying myself for it wasn’t helping me or my child. Hearing that helped a lot. Since then I’ve made a point to remind myself when the dark thoughts come that I did the best I could under the circumstances. I was a good wife, daughter and mom. Bad things happened, but I did and continue to do my best.


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