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
- I put the obsolete beliefs into words in my journal and began gently and compassionately exploring their origins.
- I processed aloud with a trusted friend, telling the stories upon which the beliefs were founded.
- As I processed verbally, I felt strong emotions that I honored by allowing them to move through me. This included using lots of Kleenex!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!