Select Page

The PPD: Understanding Negative Associations

Ike & Tina played by Angela Basset and Lawrence Fishburne
Actors Angela Bassett and Lawrence Fishburne portrayed the toxic and abusive relationship of Ike and Tina Turner in 1993’s 'What’s Love Got To Do With It?'. Tina tried her damnedest to please and Ike was her abusive controller. I watched this film when I was 16 and I remember identifying with it so much because the themes were what I already associated with aggression and why I felt that it was better to try to tow the line and tell people what they want to hear.

Like me, you have associations that you make with aggression and assertiveness. In fact you have a hell of a lot of associations that you make with a hell of a lot of things – these are mental connections that you make between ideas and things that prompt imagery, certain feelings, thoughts, and habitual responses.

If we had to think about every last thing that we do, each and every time that we do it, we’d be bloody exhausted. This is why we learn habits that help us to automate some of what we do. They do the ‘heavy lifting’ for us. When we get cues and triggers, our brain quickly pulls together associations that we’ve been using and we ‘respond’. We will feel something, think something (even if it’s momentarily) and we will do something. We will go into a sequence.

Associations are very useful but if too much of us is on autopilot and we’re still using old associations from childhood that don’t reflect an adult perspective, our true capabilities, or even reality, we end up living in the past and projecting it into the future. We stop thinking. We engage in life by numbers. We end up being automatically compliant when we’re pleasers and passive, and we also keep defaulting to habits that hurt and/or are unproductive.

Not every thought is a fact. Many associations are based on assumptions and putting together what may be unrelated items and drawing conclusions, as well as over-correlating information. This is why I hear from so many people who keep falling for their same type or who are blinded by intelligence, appearance, status or a simple act.

We all have negative associations.

A negative association is where you have a negative connection between certain thoughts, ideas, beliefs, assumptions, memories/experiences, situations, expectations, things etc, that in turn bring out negative thoughts and feelings and resulting actions off the back of this mentality.

Some negative associations are useful - I have taught many thousands of people to make negative associations with code amber and red behaviour by providing context. Equally, you have learned lots of healthy negative associations on your journey that is life and these help to protect you and alert you to be more mindful or to step up or even protect you in some way.

Negative associations however, can fuel unhealthy habits of thinking and behaviour when they become inaccurate generalisations and reinforce unhealthy beliefs which in turn reinforce unhealthy habits of behaviour attached to them. Sometimes our negative associations are ‘false negatives‘; this is where we associate two or more things incorrectly and draw a conclusion that drives our subsequent thinking and behaviour in situations that pertain to it.

A ‘false negative’ results from making a generalisation that affects all of your thinking and behaviour. It turns the assumption that the association is true into a fact, and it doesn’t distinguish between factors and conditions that would affect this perception, nor does it account for the accuracy of the belief.

If each time that I thought about doing what I needed and wanted (responding to my true self and listening to my inner voice), I then made an association between that and the potential to be verbally or physically abused or to be manipulated, I would opt to be passive because I would be assuming that all instances of expressing needs, wants, and expectations result in abusive consequences and I’m obviously not going to expose myself to that! See how it works?

This is where the consequences of negative associations and the resulting false negatives kick in. It’s not true that all instances of expressing needs etc result in abusive behaviour or other negative consequences. In fact, it’s not expressing needs, wants, feelings, opinions, and expectations that are the cause of abusive behaviour; abusive behaviour is the actions and thinking of the other party and stems from a desire to control and to get their needs, expectations, wants, feelings, and opinions ‘asserted’ by force and without regard or restraint for others.

The negative association treats their behaviour and thinking as ‘correct’ when quite frankly, it isn’t.

If I continue with this negative association, I make a blanket association and I’m then taking up a passive role by default regardless of who I’m engaging with, the situation, and the validity of this association in that instance. Negative associations treat all people and situations as threats and it means that you’re automatically passive and responding to that association with your typical habits of thinking and behaviour, regardless of reality and whether there is a true ‘need’ to do so. There also isn’t just the one way or sequence of ways to respond.



Negative associations stem from projection; taking past experiences and treating them as a statement of your present and future without (1) sanity checking the projection with reality (2) being present to do due diligence and respond to what is happening, (3) and without circling back, learning from the insights gained, applying this, and also ensuring that over time your perspective grows instead of remaining static while you remain passive. You are basing your current actions on inaccurate estimates and forecasting - predicting that you're going to experience X if you do ________ or Y if you don't do it.

An example of projection is treating your assumptions as facts, so deciding what you think a person is thinking and then predicting what they're going to do, and then planning your [pleasing] behaviour around this. You will see threats where there aren’t threats (which will trigger fear, anxiety, tension etc that you will want to relieve) but you will also prevent you from actually being present and being accountable and responsible enough to engage with the person in reality so that you can do the due diligence of getting a sense of who they are.

Projection is fantasy but negative associations mean that you’re in a nightmare of your own making.

Ever decided that somebody is bound to say no or reject you (based on your own internal dialogue) and then opted not to even bother trying? That is negative associations and false negatives at work. Here's what happens: When you are driven in part by a fear of rejection, you not only fear actual rejection but also the possibility of it so if you are, for instance, dating somebody and you hear from them every day and then on one day, you don't, rather than pick up the phone or consider other reasons, you would decide that you are going to be experiencing rejection.

Another example: You have a negative association with sharing your feelings because you think that each time you do, something bad happens. You're dating somebody and you express your feelings to them (even though you know they're not truly available) and then they tell you that they don't want the relationship that they didn't want anyway, feelings declaration or not. And are you going to allow you to be vulnerable if you're afraid of sharing your feelings? Exactly. Who you gonna call? Nope, not Ghostbusters but you will gravitate to unavailable partners that limit your vulnerability.

Negative associations when they’re inaccurate and basically false negatives mean that you end up unnecessarily limiting your capabilities and experiences and this leads to resentment, frustration, and regret.

It’s also important to note that projection means that you’re also over-empathising – putting yourself in another person’s shoes but then making it all about your perception of things instead of the reality of who they are and the situation. It paves the way to excusing, denying, rationalising, minimising, and justifying continuing something unhealthy or not trying something. Case in point: When you’re passive around aggressive people, you rationalise that if you are passive then you will restrict their aggression because that’s what you believe is prompting their behaviour. You may be over-sympathetic to what you believe are reasons for their actions and use this as justifications for being passive, while actually ignoring the facts of the situation including that they are not doing things on the basis of your thinking.

I once spoke with a woman who had been pleasing and passive for the past few years with her boyfriend because he had a bereavement and she felt guilty for drawing a line on the neglectful and at times abusive behaviour. She was crossing her own boundaries with her over-empathy but she mistook pity for empathy and this spared him from experiencing some natural consequences, while also suppressing her feelings, needs etc. This is why she felt so resentful and she wouldn’t have felt this way if she didn’t have an inner critic in there telling her that she’s a ‘bad girlfriend’ for having needs or speaking up, and that ‘good girlfriends’ throw their needs aside. By addressing her negative associations and dismantling the assumptions that she’d been making, she was able to stop silencing herself even just to her, which was the  first and all-important step.



Another problem with false negatives is that when you have one, you assume that other people share the same outlook. You think that being assertive is ‘bad’ and assume that everyone else around you does too. OK some people might but what you’re actually doing is taking the negative association and blanket applying it to everyone. If your father gave you the impression that being assertive was bad, it means that you then make the generalisation because ‘everyone’ is ‘dad’ when they’re not and in turn this keeps you in a child role where you give away your power and designate people as authorities. You automatically comply based on the projections from the negative associations.

The attitude and mentality that affects the way in which we regard and engage with others, is this whole treating our adult world like a giant-sized replica of our childhood, so we can go from our childhood environment to treating everyone as if we have to engage with them like a parent/caregiver, sibling, bully, or significant person from our past. This is the work of negative associations and false negatives and why we need to sanity check our attitude and perspective to reclaim ourselves.

It keeps us locked in a child role where we give away power and it causes us to continue with habits of thinking and behaviour that no longer work for us, because we’re now in the big wide world and we’re adults who have more power than we did in our childhood. We also get to be the stakeholder in our lives and we get to decide what our needs, wishes, and expectations are so that they reflect who we are and our values, and we also have an opportunity to begin listening to and respecting our own feelings and opinions, even where others haven’t in the past. When we continue with old habits, this doesn’t happen because we’re blindly following a path that hurts.

When we continue these habits of thinking and behaviour, it’s as if all bonds get treated similarly hence if we believed that we would experience negative consequences such as abandonment, the withdrawal of approval, attention, or love if we weren’t ‘enough’ or ‘perfect’ for our parents / caregivers / significant people in our childhood, or that certain bad things that happened to us were the result of our seeming inadequacies, we’ll go into adulthood and try to right the wrongs of the past with our relationships, romantic and otherwise.

While we might continue to do this with the people from our childhood, we are also going to do this with people who come into our lives that ‘vibrate’ or ‘chime’ with our beliefs and habits. We get to remain in our uncomfortable comfort zone where we continue on with our habits while at the same time looking to right the wrongs of the past and at the same time having the association with being abandoned and scared of affecting ties or bonds that we have with people, even if they don’t exist due to us not truly knowing the person or us having a mutual, healthy interaction with them.

By continuing with our pleaser habits, we’re basically saying that in most or all situations, and with all people regardless, if we don’t please and if we don’t mask our feelings, we will experience the negative consequences that we fear and may even be abandoned. We feel bad whether a person is abusive or not, whether they're over the line or not because we're focused on our associations, projections, predictions etc. We're in a bind.

This is why we can feel so affected by people who on a logical level, we know that we don’t know them enough to feel so greatly affected by whether they approve of us. It’s because of the negative association.

The blanket approach of passivity (and possibly instances of passive aggression) that gets continued into adulthood also means that it’s being applied in situations and to people who actually, we would not have experienced the negative consequences that we fear because they don’t treat and regard people in the same way that our parents or caregivers, or in fact any person who reflects the negative association does.

We are moving to a new site! Set up your new login by 30th April