By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
If you’re like me, then you must have wondered before if you’ll ever really believe better about yourself. You’ve been on the “try harder” treadmill long enough to have discovered that it is a hamster’s wheel you’re running on – just going round and round – burning yourself out in the effort to become “good enough” and be satisfied with yourself at heart level. Who knows, maybe you’re still trying to perform your way into lasting self worth, and I just burst your bubble?! If so, honestly I’m not sorry. The sooner it happens the better. Although, it’s actually my hunch that you’ll need to learn this for yourself – most of us do.
So, when you do reach the point that you find out that you’re never going to be able to shine bright enough, to find that something to super excel at, or to be good looking enough or smart enough, then what? I mean, after feeling like crap, that is. I think this is when you either cope by running away and falling into some kind of addiction – eating, drinking, sex, work, etc. OR, it is when you actually begin to ask the deeper questions – like what is worth living for, what really matters, and hopefully something along the line of: “Can I change my beliefs?”
We don’t really think much about the nature of beliefs. We just have them. But when our beliefs become contradictory, or confusing or burdensome enough, then we may begin to wonder about the origin and function of our beliefs about ourselves. And that is good. Because a lot of our beliefs about ourselves were never developed through a rigorous evaluation system, non tested for their integrity and reliability. In fact, I think if we examined the system through which many of our beliefs came to be, well, beliefs, we may be disappointed. Why? Well, mostly because you have been believing them! We’re all hoodwinked much more than we want to accept.
For the most part, if we were to look over how these beliefs about ourselves came about, we’d find that they were formed through other people’s declarations and opinions about us. If someone significant to us through our formative years thought we were smart, then we are likely to believe we are intelligent. Or creative, or good with words, or music, or were determined or kind or had a big heart. However, if someone important to us during that time expressed to us that we were slow, ugly, an annoyance, always messing up or getting in the way, unhelpful, lazy, a trouble maker, too noisy or too this or that, then we likely took that inside of us. Or maybe the people we longed to speak into our lives and define us were absent or neglectful or too self centered to invest in us. And that experience spoke volumes as to our value to them. It wasn’t really what was true of us. But the big people of our life declared that that was what we were and we weren’t able to reason out that they were mistaken; that they had been unfair or negligent or uncaring. We believed them. And it became our identity.
Over time we played the role that was assigned to us and so we made it true of ourselves. We often will live up or down to our assignments in life. By the time we reach adulthood, these definitions and roles become rather solidified and built in and they go unchallenged.
Does that mean we are doomed to the conditioning of our flawed families? It really doesn’t. I wanted to go over how this process happens in us, not to discourage you but to set a framework for helping you have hope and to see how we can change our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves.
I believe the most glaring, poignant truth we can pull out of this understanding is that the development of our self concept never was based on accurate truth. The foundation of our understanding of our very selves is based on what people said and perceived about us and on our forming opinions and perceptions about ourselves.
Now consider the nature of your perceptions and opinions – and how often they change and how they change. Frankly, they usually change when I gather new information which I analyze and decide is a better fit, or is more accurate or reliable than what I had before and so I replace the new with the old. And so, tada, I change my belief. For example, I have a friend that lives far from me and we talk on the phone with regularity. But let’s say more than a month passes and he doesn’t call. I get miffed. More time passes and I decide that he is a jerk for blowing me off. But then the call comes. He tells me that he was in a serious car accident and that he was in recovery for the past month plus. My beliefs instantly change, from “he’s a jerk”, to “I’m an insensitive jerk”. The point is that my perceptions were wrong and when I adjusted them my beliefs aligned more accurately. We do this kind of thing all the time in our lives, except when it comes to our core beliefs about ourselves.
And there’s the rub. If you’ve been contending with such things and are burned out on the tread mill of trying to perform your way into feeling okay about yourself, then you’re probably really with me – but you’re saying – yeah, but how can I change these shame based core beliefs?!! Yes, those don’t seem to change so easily. But I am proposing that they can change. They are based on perceptions, just like the beliefs that you do change pretty easily. What is different about these core beliefs is that they are core – and that means that we actually cling to them like we need them.
That doesn’t sound right, does it? I didn’t just suggest that your shame is something you hold on to b/c you need it? That’s crazy talk. You hate these beliefs and how they make you feel and how they sabotage your relationships and your endeavors and you would do anything to change them. I know, because that was exactly what went through my mind when I was challenged in this same way. I went away frustrated and in a funk for awhile. I couldn’t get my mind around what I had been told. It was a slow process I went through to come around to realize that I was shaming myself and that I didn’t have to keep doing that.
Except I was.
You see, it was excruciating to realize that I perpetuated my struggle with shame because I believed it defined me accurately. I had to get outside of my thoughts, outside my own paradigm, to see what was going on inside. And from the outside I was able to realize that letting go of shame would redefine me in ways I wasn’t prepared for. It would mean that I was capable and that would mean I was responsible. And if I was capable and responsible then that would mean that my neediness and helplessness was really about manipulating others – because I really wasn’t helpless. The reason I did not want to let go of my shame was because then I would have to find other ways to experience care and acceptance from others. And I would have to trust that I could get that without eliciting it by being weak, needy, afraid, and shameful.
And that’s a lot to ask of anyone who’s experienced people not providing nurture and empathy and affirmation. Heck, that’s how we got here – because of people not believing in us! So you’re saying first you have to begin to believe that those who did not love you well were wrong about you and then you need to turn around and begin to trust that people (not everyone, but safe people) can accept the flawed and real you – ? My response is yep. Exactly.
In this process of learning about how beliefs are formed, we realize that we can change our beliefs as we grow up and mature. In fact, that could be a good understanding of maturity – to restructure our beliefs to align more accurately with reality and then to live them out more consistently.
Okay, so now you’ve gotta be wondering, what are the accurate beliefs about yourself and what are those based on? That’s what I’ll explore with you next time.
See you then!
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