I am unlovable. There is something wrong with me. My needs are a burden to others. I am never good enough. My body is big and ungainly. I will never be pretty. I’m stupid at math. Thinking is better than feeling. The world is an unsafe and unpredictable place. It is dangerous to express anger. I can compensate for my flaws by making myself useful. Money and other resources are scarce. My wishes and dreams are unrealistic and annoying. It is not safe to ask for what I need or want.
Do any of these sound familiar? They are all beliefs I formed in childhood and relied upon regularly as part of my primary interpretive framework. For the first four decades of my life, I was scarcely aware that these were the distorted filters through which I screened life. Such is the nature of belief programs. They run unchallenged in the 90% of your mind that operates below the surface of conscious awareness
To be fair, there were also positive beliefs. I am smart. I am good with reading, writing and spelling. I can figure most anything out by following instructions. I am strong and able. I know how to take care of myself.
A belief is a generalization about reality that feels true to you. Beliefs come into being as you assign meaning to events and behaviors. Most self-esteem-related beliefs are formed during the first 6 or 7 years of life and are the result of interactions with your parents and—most significantly—how you interpret those interactions. There are always multiple ways to interpret any experience, and this is key to understanding how beliefs are formed and how they can be changed.
Beliefs usually take time to form and are reinforced through repetition of similar circumstances and conclusions. One cross word from a parent on a bad day when you make an ill-timed request will not create a belief. Repeated episodes, however, of eliciting a parent’s annoyance or anger when you express a need will do the trick. I think perhaps it’s also possible that a single event of sufficient trauma can sear a belief into the brain in a day.
Once integrated into your worldview, a belief becomes a bias for interpreting future events. In other words, beliefs are self-reinforcing. The brain selectively collects data that support beliefs and just as preferentially overlooks contradictions. Beliefs quite literally alter your experience of reality.
The subconscious is unable to differentiate between real and unreal, true and false; it takes its cues from what you believe to be true and creates your version of reality out of that. It even uses the filter of beliefs to screen out memories that don’t fit your beliefs, which explains how five family members will remember different versions of the same event.
I have no way of knowing how many times I had to hear if wishes were horses, beggars would ride before I learned to stop expressing my wishes. Although I didn’t understand exactly what the old saying meant, I eventually responded by ceasing to put my imaginative desires into words. Wishing is an innocent pastime and an important building block for a child’s future ability to dream, envision and set strategic goals, but to a parent trying to raise a family on a tight budget, a child’s wish may be a trigger for frustration. By adulthood, I had become a person easily irritated by anyone articulating a wish. Hidden beneath my intolerance was my own suppressed ability to dream, wish and express.
Since I know my parents are among my blog readers, I want to clarify these important points with love!
- I do not blame my parents for my distorted beliefs, although it was indeed my experiences with them that helped build my beliefs.
- I take responsibility for drawing my own conclusions about what their words and actions meant.
- Beliefs are not necessarily logical, sensible or true, and we can easily hold contradictory beliefs.
- Beliefs can be changed at any time! I am not crippled by my childhood!
What’s helpful to understand is that, in the period during which a child’s beliefs around self-esteem are being formed, there is a fundamental conundrum in the family: children are developmentally unable to consistently meet their parents’ needs and expectations for skills like self-control, quietness, neatness, and following rules. What this implies, then, is that unless parents are extraordinarily patient, self-aware, getting their own needs met, and in possession of a healthy self-image, they will unwittingly perpetuate what is often a multi-generational pattern.
The discomfort and depression that came of interpreting life through the filter of my negative self-beliefs for over three decades finally started me on a path to uncover and transform those self-defeating beliefs. In Part 2 I will share some tips, steps and outcomes from my adventures in belief-spotting, including the joyous realization that beggars can and DO ride!