Sitting on the love seat in the office of her therapist, a 30-something professional woman tells her that she is coming to sessions to “figure out what’s wrong with me, to uncover old issues and fix them and to be happier in my life.”
While those are her stated motivations for seeking treatment, they are also emerging from a place of broken-ness, rather than wholeness. The therapist encouraged a strengths-based perspective, as they explored what was working in her life and how she could maximize those skills in the service of living a more satisfying life.
This client has, as many do, entrenched beliefs about who she is and what she expects of herself and the world around her. Known as ‘confirmation bias’, it is defined as: “The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.” The intention of the therapist was to help her unveil those possibilities.
These beliefs might also be referred to as cognitive distortions, which are the mind’s way of convincing us that certain thoughts and feelings are facts, when they are perception. When viewed through those lenses, even the most seemingly inocuous events can be seen as negative.
Common entrenched beliefs:
- I’m not enough or I’m too much
- S/he is smarter, better looking, more successful than I am
- I’m a failure
- I will never reach my goals
- I will be alone forever
- Life is hard
- I’m a loser
- No one loves me
Where do these messages come from?
- Family of origin
- The culture in which we are raised
- The media
- Role models in our personal lives as well as those in our extended circles
- Internalized interpretations
- Teachers, therapists, mentors
The impact they have on our lives:
- Limiting thoughts about our potential
- Belief that our history is our destiny
- Maintaining the status quo
- Regrets for opportunities not taken
- Estrangement from relationships
- Contributing to poor self image
How it operates in our lives
Imagine you have a friend who tells you she will call at a certain time. You were counting on her to be reliable, since she made that agreement. An hour later, no ringing phone. Two hours later, you are tapping your foot and becoming more distraught by the minute. Your mind is running amok with thoughts of, “She doesn’t care about me. She’s really not my friend. I can’t count on her. What’s wrong with me that she didn’t call? I’m not a very good friend or she would have called. I can’t count on anyone. Why bother trusting anyone? I’m going to be alone forever. No one cares about me.”
Remember those cartoon thought bubbles over the head of characters? At that point, yours is filled to overflowing so that the words break through the outline and spill down over you. A limiting litany of all the reasons why the call didn’t happen, is hammering your brain. The next day, she does call and lets you know that an emergency had occurred and she wasn’t able to reach out to you. Even though you might feel a sense of relief, you are left with the residual self depcrecating thoughts. The next time she, or anyone else doesn’t follow through as expected, you may (consciously or unconsciously) dip into that drawer into which you had filed the interpretation of the experience.
It isn’t what happened, it’s how you see it
Our minds are marvelous meaning making tools. How we perceive something becomes the basis for how we respond to it. Envision a desk. See the size, color, texture, how many drawers it has, and what is on its surface. It reminds you of the desk of your sixth grade teacher. If you enjoyed that year of your education, did well in your studies, had friends and maybe were even the teacher’s pet, sitting near the imaginary desk might evoke positive feelings and perhaps even put a smile on your face. On the flip side, if you hated school, had performance issues, few friends, and experienced bullying and were sitting next to a desk that reminded you of that particular piece of furniture in the classroom of your youth, it might bring up far less pleasant emotions and with them, phsyical reactions such as racing heart and sweaty palms. The reality is, it is simply a neutral object. Such is the case of those perseverative thoughts. They are fed by the same cognitive distortions.
Re-program your radio
Do you listen to the radio? There are all sorts of choices you can select up and down the dial. Some programming is entertaining, some educational and still others edu-tainment; a blend of both. What you listen to feeds your mind. Let’s imagine that at one end is a station called WFER (Fear) and at the other end resides WLUV (Love). On the former, there is shock jock, peppered with gloom and doom talk. On the latter are inspirational presentations and uplifting music. Depending on which programming you prefer, it will greatly impact your mindset and mood. Perhaps you remain on the first station because it is all you know or were taught to accept, since your parents listened to it. What might draw you to the second station is a desire to uplevel your energy and performance in the personal and professional realms of your life. You may find yourself toggling back and forth between them to get a sense of the polarity. It may initially feel uncomfortable to leave the first in favor of the second.
What are ways to dig out from entrenched thoughts?
- Do a reality check: Is this thought fact or perception? Fact is, your friend didn’t call when she told you she would. Perception is, ‘she must not really be my friend.’
- Ask yourself what the payoff is for holding onto a belief that doesn’t serve you
- Make a conscious decision to change the thought. Before you insist that it is hard or even impossible to do that, remind yourself of all of the things you used to believe that you no longer do. When I was a very young child, I believed that what were then called bucket seats in sports cars were made from real buckets. There was a movie theater in my home town called The Fox Theater. Boy, was I disappointed the first time I went there and found out that we really weren’t going to walk into a feal fox as I imagined we would. I obviously don’t believe either of those things now.
- Surround yourself with yaysayers as opposed to naysayers. The more forward thinking people in your life, the easier it will be to shake off that dirt with which you have been smudging yourself.
- Call into your mind images of the kind of life you desire. Stretch your limiting beliefs around what it ‘should’ look like to what it could look like.
- You might be saying, “But what if it doesn’t turn out and I’m disappointed?” Counter it with, “But what if it does?”
- Be gentle with yourself. You didn’t reach this point over night and adapting to a new way of thinking may take time. You’re worth it.
As you retrain your brain, you will find a world of possibility that you might not even have known existed.