We can relate to the experience of setting a goal only to find ourselves not taking the steps needed to achieve that goal. Even when we make the goal SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable, and time-based), we often fail to reach the desired outcome. Most of us have an area we would like to improve, and often find our progress lacking. We may want to be more assertive, but we continue to slink away from any confrontation and then stew in anger and resentment. We may want to be less aggressive in our communication, but once again find our temper infiltrating our words.
Why do we seem to be caught in repeated patterns of behavior and thinking that seem impervious to change, when we desperately WANT THAT CHANGE to happen? Change can feel elusive, out of reach, mired in discouragement. One can even be unaware of the need to change. If we keep even the desire to change unconscious, then we don’t ever have to bother putting energy into that change and risk failing.
Sabotaging behaviors are the result of deeply held beliefs that often exist outside of our consciousness. In my experience, the most prevalent beliefs resolve around safety, deserving, or worthiness. While we think our conscious and explicit thoughts drive our behavior, we are often directed by our unconscious and implicit beliefs. We think we are piloting our ship, when often an automatic control system is in charge. Famous psychiatrist Carl Jung stated, “Until the unconscious becomes conscious, it (the unconscious) will direct our lives and we will call it fate.”
Implicit beliefs begin forming in infancy as an innate desire to make sense of the world and to develop mental constructs or models that help us anticipate how to respond to future events. It is a built in system or template meant to streamline our thinking so we don’t have to figure out situations anew each time they arise. These beliefs are adaptive, enduring, and coded implicitly (rather than explicitly or consciously known) in non-verbal form and stored sub-cortically in the brain’s limbic system (where our fight-flight-freeze system also resides).
This information is not accessible to our frontal lobe which is located in the front part of the brain and compromises one third of the cerebrum. The frontal lobe is home to the executive functions of planning, organizing, initiation, expressive language, and many other higher functioning skills; consequently, our deeply held beliefs stored in the limbic system do not connect to the logical, word-based frontal lobe consciousness. What we know and want logically may or may not be congruent with the emotional learning of the limbic system. Our experiences are even more deeply encoded in our neurons (cells located in the brain) if learned during heightened emotions. Emotional learning can occur at any time, but most sabotaging beliefs seem to originate in childhood.
Emotional learning develops from experiences that teach us what to expect and how to react in the most adaptive manner possible. Let’s imagine you are a six-year old child, and you have a mother who is generally responsive to your needs, except there are times when she reacts differently than she normally would. She might yell at you for a perceived wrong, and you do not know what you did to incur her anger. She seems easily irritated, withdrawn, and her breath smells different, and you notice a familiar looking bottle she keeps near her. As a child, you do not know your mother is intoxicated. What you know is that there are certain cues that tell you she might explode, yell, and send you to your room. The situation is confusing and you try to make sense of it. Since children are egocentric, meaning they are only able to see situations from their own point of view, you assume you must be doing something wrong to make your mom behave the way she does. If you could figure it out, she wouldn’t act the way she does.
As the child, you learn to watch the cues that tell you that mom will act differently. You learn to be extra cautious, quiet and unobtrusive when the bottle is sitting next to her. The arising emotions from the situation are pushed deep inside of you. It isn’t adaptive to feel your anxiety, although you don’t have the words for the funny way you feel inside. Unconscious beliefs arise from the experience as you attempt to make sense of it:
“If I behave just right I will be loved at all times, not just some of the time.”
“If I am perfect then I will be deserving of love.”
“There are times that I am just not worthy of being respected or treated well, regardless of what I do.”
“People who love you explode on you when you least expect it, and I deserve it.”
“I must not feel too deeply when I am upset, or show my emotions – they just get in the way.”
The behavior of the child is completely adaptive to the situation. They help the child develop some sense of meaning with the elements of the experience. However, as an adult, the beliefs become maladaptive when they emerge in situations that trigger the beliefs, even though the beliefs do not match the situation. It is clear that the above beliefs, when called into play (and they are almost always in play) can cause one to have a low sense of worth, lack confidence, or choose relationships that are not fulfilling.
The child turned adult, in current relationships, wonders why she/he chooses partners who don’t commit fully to the relationship or who tend to erupt in anger unpredictably. She/he may decide they will never live with someone with an explosive temper, but then their docile, passive partner never really seems to be present for them. The beliefs may prevent them from being assertive, may sabotage goals, or much to their chagrin, they may find themselves becoming angry, defensive, and loud when feeling insecure or hurt, repeating the pattern they never wanted to experience again.
The first step in resolving the current symptoms produced by the unconscious, emotional learning, is to exhume the unconscious beliefs and lay them bare before your rational, conscious self. The discovery doesn’t automatically change the thoughts, but it provides space for information gleaned from those discoveries to counter the sabotaging beliefs.
Lucy (not her real name) is a client of mine who grew up with a mother that withdrew her attention or yelled at Lucy when she did something that did not conform to what her mother expected or wanted. At times Lucy wouldn’t know what brought on the iciness, short replies, or being ignored by her mother, which could last for days. Love was conditional and it had to be earned. But earning it was impossible because Lucy was never sure when she would “mess up.”
We were working on Lucy’s recent bout with depression, and she expressed that some part of her believed that she must be faking her depression for attention. This comment brought to her mind an incident with her mother when Lucy was depressed and had a hard time getting out of bed. Her mother berated her, told her she had a good life, and accused her of using depression as an excuse to be special. She said that Lucy had a good life and childhood and that she didn’t have any reason to be depressed. Her mother said that she was leaving her, and literally got in her car and drove away, abandoning her. Lucy ran outside trying to stop her mother to no avail. Eventually, her mother returned home.
Part of Lucy believed her current depression was a sham, a manipulation to incur attention and be “special.” This belief was a result of a deep childhood wound. At the same time, Lucy hated being depressed. Depression was a dark blanket she couldn’t crawl out from under, and she felt guilty for any disturbance or worry it caused her boyfriend.
In order to make her emerging implicit belief clearer, the following statement was created:
“I don’t deserve to feel sad and terrible, because my life hasn’t been completely horrendous, so I must be purposely feeling miserable to be unique and different, so I shouldn’t cut myself any slack, and I should be stronger.”
After briefly discussing that I didn’t know anyone clinically depressed who willed themselves into that state, Lucy read the statement a few times and said, “This is a ridiculous thought.” When her implicit belief that she was “wrong” for feeling depressed and not even worthy of feeling worthless was put into a more explicit form, Lucy realized the maladaptive quality of the belief. How did this happen? How do you move the implicit thoughts to awareness and allow the thoughts which are no longer adaptive to shift into adaptive, powerful constructs that propel you to where you want to go? Continue reading Dissolving Blocking Beliefs with Memory Reconsolidation.