PART 3 | Beggars DO ride: the power to transform childhood beliefs

Fifty-some years ago, I interpreted my childhood circumstances and the responses of my caregivers, teachers and peers to mean that it is dangerous to be vulnerable; my needs are a burden to others; I am not worthy of love and generosity; self-reliance is the safest course; and asking (or even wishing) is to be avoided if at all possible.

As I shared in Part 1, beliefs come into being as we assign meaning to events and actions. A belief is a generalization about reality that feels true to you. A different child in similar circumstances may not have made the same assumptions as I. For better or worse, these childhood beliefs unconsciously dictated many of my choices for decades without my notice (the art of belief-spotting is covered in Part 2). This final post in the series offers a glimpse into how I uncovered and began changing this particular set of distorted and dysfunctional beliefs.

I thought “you never need anybody for anything” was a compliment.

When a significant other told me 25 years ago, “You never need anybody for anything,” I at first took that as a compliment, and then was puzzled to discover it was actually intended as a lament. I thought I was keeping myself safe and being useful to others at the same time. Instead, I had unwittingly created one of the most abysmal and extreme examples of codependency I have ever witnessed, with toxic tendencies fueled by my low self-esteem and fear: people-pleasing, resentful care-taking, an extreme need for control and the anxiety that goes with it, defensive reactivity, poor boundaries, painful feelings like shame and despair, and great difficulties with trust and emotional intimacy.

Sadness surges from my heart to my throat—and my eyes flood with compassionate tears—as I think of how I flogged myself onward with my impossibly high expectations and rigid to-do lists, never quite measuring up to my own performance standards and rarely accepting help, all for the sake of an illusion of control and a belief that I was keeping myself safe.

Inch by inch, insight by insight, and belief by belief, I have gradually come to understand that the “safe zone” in which I believed I was holding myself and my unspoken needs was actually a high-walled emotional prison that kept others locked out and me locked away from the interdependence that leads to thriving. In other words, the strategy was utterly self-defeating.

This recognition is what first helped me uncover these hidden beliefs. They exhibited two of the belief-spotting clues mentioned in Part 2: (1) they created intense feelings of discomfort, despair and unhappiness, and (2) they produced repeating patterns of failure and dissatisfaction in relationships.

Over recent weeks I have been on an interesting journey to change this particular cluster of longstanding, self-defeating beliefs. Here’s a recap of milestones in the process.

My Steps for Changing Beliefs

  1. I put the obsolete beliefs into words in my journal and began gently and compassionately exploring their origins.
  2. I processed aloud with a trusted friend, telling the stories upon which the beliefs were founded.
  3. As I processed verbally, I felt strong emotions that I honored by allowing them to move through me. This included using lots of Kleenex!
  4. I flipped the old beliefs and restated them as new affirmations: my willingness to be vulnerable is a great gift to the world; others appreciate my willingness to acknowledge my needs; I am worthy of love and generosity; it is healthy and rewarding to be interdependent; asking is the most effective method of getting needs met; and finally, wishing is a wonderful way to imagine what might happen.
  5. I took action based on the new beliefs, and not just some tiny little candyass step. I wrote a letter to 25 friends to make the most taboo of all requests in my old belief system: I asked for money to help get Insight peer support off the ground.
  6. My ego kicked up a hell of a fuss for several days, trying all kinds of old antics and flooding me with negative messages and feelings of unworthiness, insecurity, self-doubt, etc. Thanks to other belief-changing experiments in recent years, I knew to simply outwait the ego storm. New beliefs take time to integrate!
  7. When the first check showed up in the mail in response to my request, shame reared its ugly head again and dumped a familiar flood of stress chemicals into my entire body. I sat down in tears and asked to speak to the little girl who concluded so long ago that it is weak, shameful and even dangerous to ask for what she needs. I told her that the person who sent us the big check was loving and generous. I kissed the check and held it to my heart in a gesture of receptivity. I waved and twirled it in the air to demonstrate there were no strings attached. Together my inner child and I sat down and wrote a deeply-felt thank you note. I kept saying, as often as necessary, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s gonna be okay. People believe in us and what we’re doing.

As it turns out, wishes ARE horses—in their way—and beggars DO ride and CAN be choosers. I wished that I could break out of the paralysis of my fear and reluctance to depend on others. I wished that I could build a safe place where people could come to heal their hearts alongside me. I wished I had the courage to ask for the help I needed to make that happen. All of those wishes became the horses I am riding into a happier, more interdependent and satisfying future. I’ll even ask you if you’d like to help!

Would you like to give the Gift of Insight?

The Magic Horse, Houseman

The Magic Horse by Laurence Houseman

PART 2 | Beggars DO ride: the power to transform childhood beliefs

Imagine growing up with the underlying assumption that you are a worthy and deserving person. Imagine that your existence is permeated with an unshakeable sense of purpose and rightness—that you know without question that you have a right to BE simply because you ARE. Picture your parents naturally nurturing this feeling of inner worthiness in you because they feel that way about themselves.

Chances are, if you are drawn to read this post you did not grow up feeling this way about yourself. I assume some of you are thinking to yourself right now, but I am not worthy and deserving.

MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE? I am using my megaphone because I think this is so IMPORTANT! I would like you to consider that the only reason you might think you are not a worthy and deserving person with an innate right to be exactly as you are is because you have a belief that says otherwise. And that can be changed. I will repeat myself. Beliefs can be changed. And I have news for you: you are a worthy and deserving person.

Megaphone

As I shared in Part 1, a belief is a generalization about reality that feels true to you. We build our beliefs from our interpretations of events and encounters and this is a very subjective process (rather than objective learning), meaning it is influenced by your feelings, thoughts, expectations, and memories (rather than hard facts).

The first task of transforming obsolete, distorted and limiting beliefs is to find them! Beliefs are often well-hidden in that 90% of the mind that runs the show without our conscious awareness. The nature of beliefs reminds me of the story of the woman who sat in her house and remarked on her new neighbor’s failure to get the laundry truly clean before hanging it out on the line…and then one day she remarked on how suddenly the neighbor’s laundry seemed less dingy and stained, not realizing her husband had washed their windows that morning. Beliefs are like the windows through which we view the world. To notice them, we have to step back with an intention to see differently.

Window of belief

Belief-spotting has become one of my favorite forms of entertainment because the object of the game is to make my life better by exercising my power to change. Here are some of the clues I use for tracking down beliefs:

  1. Look for intense emotions…anxiety, anger, hopelessness. Lurking behind these common feelings are often the distorted self-esteem beliefs like I am never good enough, I am unlovable, it doesn’t do any good to ask for what I need, I don’t deserve good things, I can never win.
  2. Notice repeating patterns of failure and limitation in career, relationships and finances. For me, career and finance patterns are incredible places to look for self-defeating beliefs like the world doesn’t value the kinds of things I’m good at, money and other resources are scarce, money doesn’t really mean that much to me, I’ll never be rich.
  3. Pay attention to statements that shift the responsibility or blame elsewhere. “He/she makes me feel…I can’t change because they won’t let me…as long as I’m stuck with this car, house, job, relationship.” Any excuse or justification that relieves me of responsibility for my own life is hiding a limiting belief of some kind.
  4. Watch for sweeping generalizations like “I always…I never” and pessimistic predictions like “I’ll probably fail…I’ve never been able to…I don’t know how.” These are so common that once I started looking for them, I was shocked to see how daily conversations are permeated by negative expectations built upon faulty beliefs.

An important component of successfully uncovering and challenging these unhelpful beliefs is to become gradually more aware and begin noticing where these old ideas are embedded. It is essential to do this in a kind and gentle manner, not like a hardass security guard keeping vigilant watch and pointing a mean finger at infractions, but like a benevolent grandmother who says, “Ah, there, my darling. There’s one to notice.”

Noticing

Along the same lines, remember that you are working with beliefs formed when you were a small child, so treat yourself as you would a beloved child or grandchild. Be patient, sweet, forgiving and encouraging.

Using this approach has allowed me to radically shift my self-esteem beliefs, resulting in enormous improvements in my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. In Part 3 I’ll share about my eye-opening journey to change a cluster of self-defeating beliefs that I’ve held for 50 years.

PART 1 | Beggars DO ride: the power to transform childhood beliefs

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.

By 1966, most of my self-esteem beliefs were already formed

By 1966, most of my self-esteem beliefs were already formed

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.

If Wishes Were Horses by Casey Craig

“If Wishes Were Horses,” mixed media painting by Casey Craig

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!

  1. I do not blame my parents for my distorted beliefs, although it was indeed my experiences with them that helped build my beliefs.
  2. I take responsibility for drawing my own conclusions about what their words and actions meant.
  3. Beliefs are not necessarily logical, sensible or true, and we can easily hold contradictory beliefs.
  4. Beliefs can be changed at any time! I am not crippled by my childhood!
Me and my folks in 1963

Me and my folks in 1963

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!

Still in my robe and pajamas

At nearly noon on a bright, sunny weekday morning I am still in my robe and pajamas, just now getting around to eating breakfast while most people are pondering lunch. Friends and family who know me well might be tempted to worry. Am I sick? Am I feeling discouraged?

No, the truth is far more startling. At 56, I am pregnant. With triplets.

April Fools! But only sort of. The truth is slightly less sensational, but the metaphor of pregnancy is perfect. I have entered into intimate and passionate relations with my inner desires and am determined to carry these three babies to term: writing, music, peer support.

I’ve miscarried many bright ideas over the years. I feel this deep in the pit of my belly as these words resound in me.

This morning I awakened and realized there was good reason to be just as doting and compassionate with myself as if I truly were pregnant. Get plenty of rest, exercise and healthy food. Daydream about baby names and nursery decorations. Make a shopping list for little outfits and supplies to tuck away in preparation. Call my friends for advice on labor, delivery, mothering. Don’t overdo. Put my feet up and congratulate myself. Pay attention for those reassuring kicks.

Throw myself a doozy of a shower. And then get dressed for the day.

This is part of the storyboard I created in January to inspire myself

Always return to your center

When I was a teen, my father taught me racquetball basics. In case you don’t know, the game is played with a bouncy rubber ball, short-handled rackets and no net in a small, enclosed court. Every surface is fair game – walls, floor and even the ceiling. The play is fast-paced, aggressive, and often, in my opinion, overwhelming. Kind of like life sometimes. And you can get hurt.

Racquetball

Of the many skills and lessons my dad tried to teach me over the years, I can’t think of a single one that stuck any more permanently or served as so meaningful a metaphor as his racquetball wisdom. The most responsive spot on the court is at the center, he instructed me. Always come back to the center position. The strategy is to stay poised in order to move easily in any direction to return a shot. It feels tremendously risky at first because your back is to your opponent, but it doesn’t take long to understand the value of the strategy.

As a poet and an idealist, I pondered that metaphor until it came to represent the ideal of living a centered life. But what exactly is that?

Sorts, whacks and kilters. Most of us are familiar with expressions like out of sorts, out of whack, off-kilter, off the beam, off-center, off-balance, at sixes and sevens, bent out of shape. We don’t have to know the meaning and origin of sorts, whacks and kilters to get the sense that these are all ways of describing that unmistakable feeling of discomfort (and perhaps even panic) that signals an abandoned center.

For me, abandoning the center can happen in any of these ways:

  • Skimping on the supportive routines that make me feel solid and grounded (rest, regular meals, solitude, journaling, meditation, movement, contact with nature, unplugging from electronic stimulation, taking care of business, free and unstructured time for play and daydreaming)
  • Putting external concerns (work, social activities, volunteer commitments) above internal priorities (personal goals, primary relationships, creativity, spirituality)
  • Getting over-involved and over-empathetic with other people’s problems (including not only immediate issues in the lives of friends, family and neighbors, but also the local, regional, national and world “news”)
  • All of the above

Did you notice I didn’t include having my own challenges as part of the list? That’s because having my own problems does not necessarily throw me off-kilter (which, by the way, roughly means out of alignment or balance, not in good health). In fact, if I’ve stayed close to center with these core supports, I’m in the perfect position to cope with what arises in my life. I’m in the middle of the court and poised to respond. I am attentive and strong, ready and resilient.

In case of emergency. Right now in my life, things are unbelievably uncertain. I have no income and am living by faith. People who are close and dear to me are facing major hurdles: one got fired unexpectedly, two have long-term marriages in crisis, several are ill, one is in the hospital, two recently lost dear pets, and another is attending to her husband in the last stages of a terminal illness.

Tenderhearted and service-oriented as I am, it is clearly time to make sure I am in the center of my emotional-physical-spiritual racquetball court. And here is perhaps the most convincing reason why: in case of emergency, I am no good to anyone (including myself), if I have gotten off-center.

Where is the center? The center of which I speak is a metaphorical space, a symbolic place, and yet, many of us could agree, I imagine, that it exists. We can feel when we are there and we can sense when we have strayed. That is the first step, simply noticing.

IMG_4753

I colored this design with markers when I needed to center myself (from a book by Susanne F. Fincher, “Color Mandalas for Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression”). Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, a shape that can symbolize wholeness, infinity, the self in relation to the cosmos, and much more. I find it incredibly soothing and focusing to color, play my ukulele, chop vegetables for a meal, or go for walk. Other friends accomplish the same thing by knitting, drumming, yoga, gardening and the like. These are but a few of many ways to reclaim your center court position. 

What I notice these tools have in common is that they invite full presence and attention. To attend is originally from the French, meaning to “direct one’s mind or energies” and the Latin for “to stretch toward.” I feel this as a deep yearning when I get distracted, frazzled and frantic. I feel the call to attend to my own needs, to return to my center. Sometimes all it takes is to rest my hand on my chest and get still – and there it is, here I am, back in touch with myself.

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