Everyone has internal beliefs about what they are, or aren’t, good at. For many these have become an implicit reality – facts about life that are rarely examined and never questioned. The “gravity” of our lives.
When I review these internal beliefs with clients, especially those in early recovery but also others who don’t have trouble with addiction per se, we often find that they are packed full of negative self-beliefs and self-talk. Phrases like “I’m impatient/rude/stupid,” “I’m not good at doing _____,” or “I can’t handle _____” are so commonplace in psychotherapy circles that restructuring them can often become the focus of many sessions. And negative self-beliefs are a huge source of shame, and you know how I feel about that.
Inevitably these negative self-beliefs and the associated shame are often the remnants of past experience, whether personal or “other” inflicted. Poor performance in some childhood activity, ridicule by peers, or harsh words from misguided parents can lead to seemingly permanent imprints on the world-view of the young, and then the older. Ironically, even seemingly self-assured views like “I am in control of my life” can become defeating when they turn into “I am a failure because I can’t handle this on my own.” We get that one a lot in addiction treatment from clients who think that they are weak because they’ve found themselves needing help. Again, this thought pattern leads to shame and often resistance to receiving the necessary addiction help.
As usual, a big part of dealing with these issues, from both a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) point of view and a humanistic one, is to examine their sources and test their appropriateness. It’s rare that these statements prove universally true and it’s even more infrequent that they turn out to have no connection to a small set of past hurts that happened long ago. In recovery from addiction, I often have clients look at how many other things in life they’ve needed help with – learning how to read, how to play sports, or how to do well at their job. We’re constantly relying on others for help, but when it comes to our psychological functioning we believe that we should be masters regardless of our level of training – a belief that I see as having no basis. But then again, I am a psychologist…
How to break negative self-talk and self-belief cycles
For readers who want to test their own beliefs and the existence of their own negative self-talks it helps to keep a written journal. Make a list of such negative self-beliefs that you are already aware of and try to be as aware as possible of negative self-talk as it happens over the course of one whole day. Write those down too. Now, using a whole line on a piece of paper (or a spread-sheet if you want to be super organized about this) create little spaces (columns) to write down a single situation in which those thoughts and beliefs come up for you in everyday life. In the nest column put down an objective assessment of what actually happened. In the last column write a short assessment of how close your initial internal dialog was to the “truth.”
Let’s use an example – Imagine getting an upset email from your boss that brings up your good old “I’m never going to succeed” negative self-belief. When you go to your journal and find the line for that specific negative belief you write “got upset email from boss” in column one and “boss was upset that I forgot to send out update email yesterday as expected” in column two. Now examine your current level of functioning at work in light of this specific mistake, past work occurrences, and the very near future.
If you’ve been held back from advancement repeatedly and been scolded, fired, or nearly fired for forgetting these sorts of things in the past, the belief might be a sign that you need to become active about finding ways to improve on this sort of forgetfulness in the future. But if such occurrences are relatively rare and haven’t caused negative consequences at work or other environments, then it sounds like the belief is an exaggeration of a much less frightening reality along the lines of “I don’t always perform perfectly at work.” I don’t know about you, but that sort of internal belief I can live with.
Now go on and do your homework – or are you a slacker?!