Have you ever stopped to wonder whether the statements you make about yourself are true?
“I’m no good at art.”
“I’m not smart enough to do that.”
“I’m too fat to date.”
“They would never hire me.”
So much of what we think we know is really just something we believe. So, how did we come to trust that our thoughts reflect reality?
Our ideas about ourselves have roots in our history. An old friend who loves music once mentioned matter-of-factly that he can’t sing. He explained to me that he had known this since kindergarten. Apparently, when his class was singing as a group, his teacher had taken him aside and told him to just mouth the words rather than sing aloud. My friend, shamed out of singing, never tried again. This sad story could have turned out differently if someone had told him that the problem was with the teacher, not with him, and then helped him to learn how to sing. At that age, he was too little to understand that the teacher could be wrong, or that singing is something you can be taught.
Another friend was afraid of dogs. It turned out that, although she herself had never had a bad experience with a dog, her mother had been bitten as a child. As a result, my friend’s mother had grabbed her away whenever they came across a dog throughout her childhood. As an adult, my friend had never overcome her learned fear of dogs.
Sometimes our roles in our families give us ideas about our identities that go unchallenged. If your brother was the artist, then you, by default, became “not creative.” If your sister was “the smart one,” then you assumed that you must not be very bright. These ideas, taken in as truths, were unlikely to have been expressed to anyone who might have thought to challenge them. After all, how does a child say to the parent who has just pointed with pride to her brother’s sculpture and described him as “the artist in the family” that she, too, might be an artist?
One of the great privileges of being a therapist is having the opportunity to stop people as, in the course of talking about something, they mention one of these “facts.”
“Wait,” I’ll say, “Hang on a moment. What do you mean when you say, ‘I have trouble with authority?’”
Of course some people do have trouble with authority. In this case, though, careful examination revealed that what this person struggled with was not “authority” but injustice. She found work situations in which the employees were treated unfairly to be untenable for her. In one circumstance she described, she hadn’t even struggled with how she had been treated, but rather with the employer’s treatment of other people with whom she worked. When she left these jobs, however, she felt ashamed of herself for what felt to her to be a personal failing: her inability to tolerate a work situation, or feel good about her boss. She determined that she had “trouble with authority.” In fact, leaving those jobs was an action she took based on an appropriate emotional reaction. It was a bad work situation; leaving it did not make her a bad person.
Now, about that distinction between self and situation: it’s an important one. Clinically, the difference between shame and guilt is that guilt is about what we do and shame is about who we are.
Many of the not-so-great things we think about ourselves stir feelings of shame in us. You might feel guilty if you don’t get out of bed in time to exercise in the morning, but if you think of yourself as “a lazy person,” you most likely feel ashamed. In turn, these shame-tinged self-concepts can rigidify internally into something we think of as “facts,” and these “facts” can have life-altering consequences. Someone who feels a little guilty about skipping a run may well go running another time. Someone who believes he is lazy may decide never to run at all – or conversely, may punish himself for this “character flaw” by forcing himself to run too much, too hard, or through injuries, thus injuring himself more. And then there are the implications of being “lazy” that move far beyond matters of physical exercise, going on to impact self-esteem in other areas: work, creativity and more.
Often, we deliver these indictments of ourselves in strident tones that we would never direct at a friend. If you find yourself talking to or about yourself in a way you would never speak to a loved one, chances are you have stumbled onto one of these facts that aren’t factual at all.
While we understand that as adults we probably know ourselves pretty well, we nevertheless need to be aware that it’s important to challenge beliefs about ourselves that might be stopping us, holding us back or otherwise deflecting us from the lives we’d like to live.
If you believe you’re too fat to date, you can look around and see other overweight people on dates, holding hands, raising families… If you think you’re no good at art, you can take a class… If you don’t know how to do something, instead of thinking you’re not smart enough, perhaps you can learn something new or even be taught how to learn… and rather than assume you would never be hired, maybe you can let yourself try for that job you want.
The next time you catch yourself making a declaration about who you are and what you can or cannot do, stop for a moment. Take your time and ask yourself to reconsider. Give yourself permission to “unlearn” what you think you know and get to know the person you really are. It will be good to make your acquaintance.