4-27-12: Turning a pageIn conversation with new friends, at some point a version of “What’s your story?” will be asked. That question has a deeper meaning than the one given in casual encounters at parties. The deeper meaning of “your story” affects how you interact with the world and with other people.

Everyone has basic core beliefs about themselves, a “story” that reflects their how they see themselves. That story may be the way you or your family interpreted events as a child and may have little basis in reality, but you make decisions and live your life as if it were true.

Most people don’t even think to question whether the way they see themselves is accurate.

Personal construct theory, proposed by George Kelly in 1955, states that a construct has two extreme points. For example, consider the characteristics of being relaxed or tense in your general way of being. We place people and ourselves at either extreme or at some point in-between. When we do this for ourselves over a number of characteristics, the sum of them may be seen as your identity.  You may also see yourself in a more general way, such as a caretaker, victim, gifted, or someone who is ill.

Personal constructs are basic beliefs that are difficult to change. Those constructs may or may not be accurate and are usually based on feedback we received about ourselves as children. Self constructs tend to be fixed. People tend to ignore information that doesn’t fit with what they believe about themselves or their core constructs.

In fact, when people give you feedback that doesn’t fit your beliefs about yourself, you are likley to become emotionally upset.

It Doesn’t Matter That I Won the Marathon, I’m Still Not Athletic

For example, let’s say one of your constructs is that you aren’t athletic. You base this construct on being the last one chosen for team sports in elementary school and not being able to run as fast as your friends. Whenever possible you avoid sports or physical activities.

As an adult, you work out with a trainer. She gives you positive comments about your progress but you see that as invalidating. She doesn’t really understand or know you or she’s just trying to make you feel good. You worry about her learning the truth and fear you can only get to a certain point and not be able to progress any further. Then she’ll be disappointed. You ignore her feedback about how quickly your body builds muscle.

You ignore, explain away, or discount the fact that you can lift more weight than your friends and that you easily learn complicated moves in step aerobic classes. You win a fitness competition but discount it because it was only for people your age, or some other reason.

Perhaps you tell yourself that you can sense that your body can’t do much more, that you are losing the gains you have made, that your skill is only temporary. You don’t consider that working out means pushing yourself to failure. Only after years of these experiences do you finally adjust your construct; yaybe you are reasonably athletic.

The Importance of Self-Constructs

Your beliefs about yourself affect the way you approach the world and live your life. You are likely to discount any information that doesn’t fit with your beliefs. Maybe you see yourself as emotional, kind, high-strung, a good reader and unattractive. If someone tries to tell you that you are laid-back, you’ll laugh and shake your head. If someone tells you that you look nice, you don’t believe them and make a comment about yourself like, “yeah, right.”

As long as your beliefs are accurate, they help you make decisions about what situations will be helpful for you, what situations might be challenging, how people will react to you and what activities you might enjoy. Imagine how overwhelming it could be if you didn’t have characteristics that you could count on.

But sometimes core beliefs don’t fit the evidence. The emotionally sensitive may have been given feedback that reflected others not understanding them.

Maybe your family and/or friends told you that you were too dramatic or made a big deal out of everything. Maybe someone even said you a were a burden and you have that core belief. But in truth, the reason someone said you were a burden was because he or she was depressed and didn’t have the energy to cope with a young child. Young children believe what adults tell them and rarely have the ability to understand that adults are wrong sometimes or have their own issues.

Maybe the belief you have about yourself is not true but you approach every relationship believing, for example, that you are too dramatic.You take in information through that belief and only see what confirms it. When self constructs don’t fit the facts, it’s like living your life based on misconceptions, trying to swim against a strong current. Nothing will make sense. Talk about unnecessary suffering!

Sometimes self-constructs might have been true in the past but aren’t true in the now. People change and mature and learn.

So back to the beginning.  What’s your story?  Are you sure it’s based on what is true about you now?


Note to Readers:  Please consider answering the questions on our new survey about being emotionally sensitive. Results will be given in a future post.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Lost Albatross