Often, I work with clients who profess entrenched beliefs about subjects ranging from relationships to health, from career to religion. Some of those ideas serve them, others clearly don’t and in many cases have led to the need for therapy. They may take the form of cognitive distortions that can hamper every realm of our lives. What enables us to tackle them instead of allowing them to knock us over, is an awareness of what they truly are.
While they may be born out of actual events, the impact on our lives is a choice, rather than a necessity. Early messages from caregivers, teachers and society itself, either spoken or not verbalized can become convictions.
A reality check is called for by asking:
- Is it true?
- What evidence do I have for that belief?
- What if I didn’t need to believe it?
- What is the payoff for believing it?
- What am I willing to do to alter that belief?
- Who can I talk to in order to seek support for changing it?
I recall a session with a man who bemoaned the situation he was in as he sadly told me, “Everyone in my life is gone. They have all died.” I empathized with him and asked him if he believed that everyone he had known were all the people he would ever know. He nodded and said he did indeed hold that to be true. These were family members, as well as friends from his neighborhood or school. He was not socially adept and tended to isolate.
The next step was to challenge the idea and suggest ways that he might put himself out into the world gradually. Volunteering, getting involved in a faith community, joining Meetups that fed his interests, even something as simple as smiling at people in the grocery store or that he might pass on the street would have him interacting with fellow humans who just might become friends. At the very least, he would be far less lonely.
Many clients are determined to maintain their thoughts that they will never succeed because they have experienced pitfalls and what they perceive are failures since they are not situated where they thought they would be at a certain point on the age spectrum. The statement, “If I’m not wealthy and well known by the time I am (pick your number), then it won’t happen.” I remind them that our history need not be our destiny and that what we might call failures may simply be a detour.
Consider those who once upon a time were not household names, including Colonel Sanders, Julia Child and Joy Behar who found success later in life. They are joined by Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Estelle Getty, Rodney Dangerfield, Vera Wang and Ray Croc. What they all had in common was a sense of stick-to-it-iveness that kept from abandoning their dreams. They may have once believed they weren’t going to make it, but with a shift in gears, they did.
In his book called Safe to Love Again, therapist Dr. Gary Salyer tells a story about a client who was twice divorced. His persistent belief was that people you love turn on you without warning. He validated his belief with the story that when he was 4 or 5 years old at a campfire, his father started beating him on the legs. His father had not laid a hand on him in anger before, nor since. He could make no rational sense of it and the belief attached to it went under ground and infiltrated his romantic relationships, until he attended a workshop Gary gave.
Also in attendance was this man’s older brother, who had been 9 or so at the time of the incident. The client stood up and shared his story with the group. The brother, shook his head incredulously and said something to the effect of, “Don’t you remember what happened? We were at a family gathering around a fire and you got too close to the flames. Your pants caught on fire and dad had to hit your legs to put it out.” All along this man had held on to the conviction that emerged from those flames and allowed it to turn his relationships to cinders.
My own beliefs that were once laughable become fodder for therapeutic interventions with those who sit in my office. When I was a child, perhaps four or five years old, my parents took me to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. One of the displays was a huge heart through which we could walk. Holding hands with either my mom or dad, I don’t recall which, I felt a sense of panic, since I thought it was a real heart, rather than a model of the actual organ. It made lub-dub sounds like a cardiac muscle would. I braved the experience but never went through it again. All these years later, I know I could do it, since my belief had evolved.
Clearly, it was not a unique experience for me since several friends who had made the trek through the heart shared my trepidation:
- “You are not alone! I wouldn’t go in it while on a school field trip and was in tears.”
- “I just remember it smelled weird.”
- “The beating freaked me out. It looks so tiny now.”
- “I was fascinated and wondered how they got that big thing inside a human being.”
- “Other kid beliefs were that canines were males and felines were females. I couldn’t understand how puppies and kittens were born.”
- “There was a movie theater in my town of Willingboro, NJ called The Fox. I was majorly disappointed when I found out that it wasn’t a real fox we were walking into.”
- “In the 1960s when I was growing up, most car seats were bench style. The first bucket seat designed into American sports or luxury cars was in 1963. My pre-K mind was certain, without having seen them that they truly were buckets. Good thing I am a more abstract thinker than I was back then.”
What beliefs hold you back that you want to release and evolve beyond?