Easily one of the greatest impediments to recovery is nagging, negative beliefs. Even the most optimistic struggle on occasion. However, I’ve discovered three ways to break the grip of negative beliefs that practically anyone willing can use to create a more meaningful and fulfilling life. They are simple. All get easier with practice. All are worth incorporating into your recovery and personal development journey.
One is an approach many people have never considered. And it’s likely the most powerful of all!
Like many of us, I grew up hearing, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” Those words weren’t always directed at me. However, when they were, I only heard the first part, “You can do anything.” Sounds good on paper – even seems encouraging. Of course, given my adverse environment, I wanted to try. After all, it was my mission in life to prove myself worthy of love. Often, as soon as I tried anything, those same people also said, “You can’t do that!” with a demeaning sneer or worse. Which mandate did I follow? The one with the most emotional impact. In my case, that was usually the negative one. “I can’t” eventually became my silent, background mantra.
I didn’t understand what “you can do anything you put your mind to” really meant. However, the key to the whole thing is the second part, the part I never considered. It became the fine print criteria I consistently failed to meet. Those resulting failures led to a particularly deep and abiding negative belief, “No matter what, I will fail.” Of course, due to the trauma I routinely endured, I couldn’t focus on anything worthwhile for long!
Chronic childhood adversity is a fertile breeding ground for negative beliefs. They can start early and become so ingrained we don’t realize they’re even there! Not only do they control our thinking and perspectives, but can actually change the structure of the brain itself! So how do we combat such profound, adverse influences? How can we break the cycle of negative beliefs once and for all?
Fortunately, thanks to neuroplasticity, even hard-wired conditioning can be altered even well into adulthood. There are a number of ways to help things along. Here are three that have helped me.
1. Admitting the problem is the first step. However, noticing a negative belief that has become the norm can be difficult, especially at first. It’s as much a part of our operating system as breathing or digestion. But usually, something happens that provokes a negative emotion to which a negative belief is attached. When those emotions are up, the beliefs are much easier to see. It pays to be mindful. However, it’s a common tendency to judge negative beliefs and feelings … and to avoid what we judge. If we have defined a negative belief or the emotions associated as “bad,” the psyche’s own defenses can sabotage our efforts to see the very things we need to resolve in order to be free.
So, first things first. Notice negative beliefs objectively – accepting them as is without judgment, rationalizing, or justifying. In fact, you don’t even have to call it “negative.” It’s just a belief. One of many. It exists. It may be inconvenient. It may be unpleasant. But it’s a belief like a shoe is just a shoe, even if it’s a bit too snug to wear to a dance.
I once attended an art show. Some of the work looked truly strange to me, even ugly. I was invited to see it as it is, not as I wished it to be. Look at beliefs in the same way. It’s only a belief after all. A belief, even a very negative one, is not an accurate value judgment. It may not even have any basis in fact. Very often, the adverse impact is not the belief, but our attachment (commitment) to it. After all, as they say, what we resist persists. In this case, resistance definitely perpetuates what we’d prefer to release.
So what if you didn’t take your own negative beliefs – even about yourself – personally? Or seriously? You’d release your attachment to that particular perspective, making preferable perspectives easier to identify and embrace. The moment you stop judging the belief or yourself for having that belief, you begin to heal.
2. Accept responsibility for your negative beliefs. An absolutely vital point here is that “accepting responsibility” is not the same as “taking the blame.” In fact, it’s highly unlikely that any negative belief you have is your original belief. It was most likely imposed by others, perhaps before an age before you had any filters and could discern fact from fiction. Even if you forgot where it came from, that negative belief likely didn’t start with you.
Accepting responsibility for a negative belief doesn’t imply fault. It provides accessibility and power to change it. It’s like any other issue. Let’s say your heater goes out on a cold winter day. If you refuse to accept responsibility for its condition, it can’t be fixed or replaced. And you keep shivering. Even if you don’t have the money to repair or replace it, accepting responsibility for the situation means you can still take action to adapt or improve matters. Snuggling under a cozy blanket perhaps. Cuddling with a partner. Designing and building a passive solar heater from a storm door, scrap wood, and soda cans! Accepting responsibility for a condition, even when no obvious solution is apparent, activates creativity that opens doors and produces new discoveries. There is a way!
3. Now for a radical approach to eradicating negative beliefs. The benefits are profound. Some years ago I discovered Aikido. It’s an appealing philosophy based on being friends with your opponent. Rather than fighting an “enemy,” it’s more like dancing (harmonizing) with a friend. It’s also about using the opponent’s energy to let them defeat themselves. In this context, it starts much as I did at the beginning of this article.
This world is filled with opposites. Balance, a vital factor in everything, is achieved by harmonizing opposites. As a kid, I often had to carry a heavy pail of water or food for livestock. I’d extend my empty hand straight out beside me to balance myself as I walked. If I hadn’t done this, I could have easily fallen sideways. In much the same way, if we stray too far either positive or negative, we get out of balance. The “law of opposites” (or balance) implies that if a negative belief is true, its opposite positive belief is also true. In fact, it’s essentially guaranteed true. If you believe you’re a failure, for example, even if you actually are a failure, you have succeeded at failing and thus are also a success!
Let’s start with my negative belief, “No matter what, I will fail.” That’s a pretty harsh, absolute statement. But it’s only half of the equation. By the “law of opposites,” if that’s true, the opposite is also true. “No matter what, I will succeed.” The question then becomes, how can I succeed or how have I succeeded? Like in the original example, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” At this point, it’s not a matter of cataloging all the things you didn’t do. It’s about noticing what you have, in fact, put your mind to, and noting your degree of success.
Try it now. Pick any negative belief you have. Identify it’s opposite. Look for clear examples of how that opposite is also true. This may seem strange at first but the effort is worth it. By noticing and validating the opposite, positive belief with real-life examples (not just mentally affirming the opposite), you’ve taken at least half the power away from that negative belief. It’s no longer exclusively true. Thus, it’s no longer exclusively in control and can no longer exclusively dominate your perspective or your mood. And very often, once it’s lost that much steam, and since you likely don’t want that negative belief anyway, it’s demise is ultimately assured.
J Bradley O 2020
J. Bradley O is a writer, peer mentor, and author of the forthcoming memoir, Shimmering Shattered Self – Reclaiming Treasure from the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse. He has devoted over 30 years to investigating the devastating personal impact of childhood abuse trauma. Using the uncanny perception of an empathic introvert, he identifies and reveals obscure factors critical to personal recovery. As a salvaged wood crafter, he revels in demonstrating the inherent value, purpose, and splendor of materials invalidated by status quo standards. For more insights and updates on his forthcoming book, subscribe to his blog at dancinginthemaze.wordpress.com.