I’ve worked as a counselor for almost 20 years now. Over the years, the most important thing I have learned is…you are what you think. We have all had life experiences that lead us to think certain things about ourselves, others, and the world around us. Unfortunately, when we have negative life experiences, we often think negative thoughts that lead to difficult emotions which then shape our behaviors. For example, if a child fails a test, even after studying hard, he might think “I’m stupid” or “I’m not good enough”. Of course these thoughts are not going to make him feel good. Then, his behaviors follow suit. He gives up studying because he doesn’t see the point. He keeps thinking poorly of himself and eventually he proves himself right. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He repeats this pattern over and over in his life and the negative thoughts get engrained in his brain and become his beliefs about himself. Eventually it is almost impossible for him to think differently. It becomes his default way of thinking and he isn’t even fully conscious of it. But, his whole life is being affected by the core beliefs he developed about himself.
After working with hundreds of clients, I have found that most people have several negative core beliefs that are at the root of any struggles they may be having. The most common ones are “ I’m not good enough”, “I can’t do anything right”, “I have to please others”, and “I am unlovable.” If a young girl was abused as a child, she may believe she is not worthy of love and nurturing. She may gravitate toward people who treat her poorly because she thinks no one could truly love her. If a man grew up thinking that he had to please everyone in order to be liked and valued, he will likely struggle with significant anxiety, since he will always be worried about what others think of him and trying to manage other people’s feelings.
We’ve all had negative and unhealthy thoughts about ourselves at some point in our lives. If we continue this pattern of thinking, these thoughts become our beliefs about ourselves. What we do with these beliefs is key. The first step is identifying what your personal core beliefs are. You will need to pay attention to how you feel about yourself when something bad happens that you usually emotionally react to, such as an argument with your spouse, being reprimanded at work, or someone cutting you off in traffic. It is easy to recognize how you might feel about the other person in the scenario, but it takes a little work to shift your thinking to figure out how you feel about yourself. The traffic situation might make you angry and think the other driver is a jerk, but how do you feel about yourself when that happens to you? Unsafe, vulnerable, out of control? If you find yourself feeling this way often in various situations, then you have identified your core beliefs.
The next step is to challenge these beliefs and redirect your thoughts. Your goal is to teach yourself to think differently about the situation and about yourself, rather than reverting back to engrained beliefs. It is not about lying to yourself. It is about finding a healthier, more rational way of thinking. If you are reprimanded at work, instead of thinking that you are a failure and you can’t do anything right, you could change your thoughts to something like “I made a mistake, and it didn’t feel good to get in trouble, but I can learn from it and do better now.” It also helps to find evidence that the negative belief is NOT true. You could remind yourself “There have been many things I have succeeded in, so I’m not a failure.” You can actually retrain your brain by practicing these skills.
Your thoughts are very powerful! If you can do the work to identify, challenge and re-direct your negative thoughts about yourself, you will begin to develop more positive and realistic self-beliefs. This will lead to more success, contentment, peace, and satisfaction in your life.