Have you ever wondered why you so often knee-jerk react to life’s intense moments?
Your boss calls you in for an impromptu meeting and your mouth goes dry, your guts turn to water and legs shake. Nothing you do or say to yourself makes much difference as your worst case scenarios spin out of control in your mind and you enter the meeting on the back foot, rattled or already on the defensive.
Or your significant other texts you asking to ‘connect’ or have a heart-to-heart when you get home. You’re flooded with an ominous sinking feeling before you’ve even thought things through, and get home ready-armed with your excuses, self-justifications and your own complaints.
Or maybe you show up for a competition or sports match against some stiff competition. You’re fit, you’re prepared and you know your strengths, but still nervousness precedes a deep foreboding, and a fear of catastrophic loss grips you and won’t let go. It makes you rote, stiff and way off your top game.
We all experience such types of reactions; they are pre-verbal and seem instinctive. Sure, we concoct stories to tell ourselves, trying to lessen their impact, cheer ourselves up or chivvy ourselves along. But it’s like whistling in the dark: it may distract us for a short while, but our underlying fears still taunt us and our automatic reactions still disempower us and undermine our ability to make healthy, self-supportive choices.
But why? Why do our bodies react in such emotionally dramatic and often self-defeating ways during routine life circumstances? Why are we tweaked by such nagging, deep-seated fears when in there is no real threat, no life challenging danger?
The answer is beliefs. But not beliefs as you probably understand them.
From earliest childhood a host of beliefs get hardwired in us. Our parents, guardians and authority figures – sometimes with our best interests at heart, sometimes oblivious to the effects on us – imprint us with their own conditioning, their own beliefs. They are, of course, largely passing on the messages they received from their own authority figures because they have been affected in the same way they are affecting us.
Through their behaviours as well as their words, they fix in us their own perceptions of safety and danger, good and bad, expectations and prohibitions, possibility and impossibility. At the deepest level they impress on us a sense of who we are: our place in the world, or capabilities or ineptitudes, our value as a human being.
Our young selves are like sponges, soaking up the inputs, eager to learn, desperate to make sense of the world and how we relate to it. And so, our deepest feelings about our significance, importance, power, lovability, competence and intelligence (or lack thereof) are set up early on, often for life.
At emotionally heightened times, the messages are more potent, seem to imprint us most indelibly. Think of a stressed mother shouting, “At this rate, we’ll never make ends meet. How are we going to pay the mortgage at the end of the month? How are we going to survive?” Or a frustrated father resentfully complaining, “It’s okay for them; they had the breaks, the education, the privilege, but what about us? The system is rigged against the likes of us. We don’t stand a chance.” Or think of a schoolteacher writing in an end of term report, “Doesn’t seem to understand the basic principles or have the ability to work out simple problems. Must try harder.”
It’s not hard to imagine the effect those projections might have on our young impressionable beings. The messages sink in, and we generalise them, exploring in our thoughts how else these principles might apply to us or to life; what else might be their implications.
For sure, we might rebel against others’ beliefs and attempt to fight back or prove ourselves right and our doom mongering authority figures wrong. But the damage is already mostly done. The effects of the words have hit home, their meaning somehow becomes lodged in us, and we struggle to succeed and overcome our deficiencies or life’s unfairness in the face of what a deep part of us suspects to be true.
As we gain experience and mature, our life view changes, our self-awareness and self-image develop more fully. We may feel that in growing up, we left behind our ‘childish ways’ and immature beliefs. We may actively choose to believe something different than we were taught, we might choose positive affirmation about ourselves or decide to ‘fake it until we make it’ in an attempt to override our old realities and break free.
But just because we stop believing in our old limiting beliefs, doesn’t mean they lose their grip on us.
What we are normally doing when we decide to leave the past behind is papering over the cracks. We are merely adding layer upon layer of current thinking to the old wounds, the old insecurities. The original s**t may be camouflaged, but it’s still there.
And the evidence that it’s still present deep inside us is how easily we are tweaked in times of stress, how quickly our fearful emotions take over when the unexpected challenges us. Hence our instant reactions when the boss or partner calls. Hence our fear in the face of strong competition, as if losing is a matter of life and death. Hence our undermining reactions, instead of the healthy, confident responses our expertise, kindness or strength should predict.
So how do we let go of this old baggage? How do we free ourselves from the conditioning of ancient beliefs? I suggest seven steps to clearing them. It’s best to take some quiet time where you won’t be disturbed and can close your eyes, so don’t do this while driving or working.
1. Take a few deep breaths, relax and ask, what did your mother, father, teacher or other significant influence during childhood ‘always say’ about life, about restrictions or unfairness, about who you were and what you were capable of? What did they say or do when they got frustrated or angry? And what did you learn from this? What did you come to believe that was disempowering?
2. Repeat out loud any words or phrases associated with these beliefs and ask, how does it really make me feel emotionally to recognise this? Take a few moments to recognise and feel whatever emotions arise. Then ask yourself, in order to feel like this, what would I have to believe at a deeper level… and at an even deeper level? Speak out any words that arise. Suspend any commentary you might have about what you are feeling or learning. Just be present to what you are experiencing, it will soon pass if you avoid fighting with it.
3. Now taking the deeper beliefs one at a time, ask, whose belief is this? Where did it come from? From whom did I hear it or learn it? You might hear a name in your mind or see someone’s face. You might even remember an old memory associated with the beliefs.
4. In your mind’s eye, imagine each of the people from whom you inherited beliefs. Thank them one by one for any lessons you learned, then imagine wrapping up the disempowering beliefs that came from them in a gift box and hand them back. Make sure you hand them all back.
5. Imagine cutting any unhealthy energetic ties with these people. The ties may show up as cords, ropes, chains, cobwebs, hosepipes or something similar. As you cut the ties send positive energy, a sense of release to each person and imagine that energy and release coming your way, into your body too.
6. Ask yourself, if these beliefs are no longer yours what is it healthy to believe? What is supportive to believe? Speak out loud several new beliefs phrased in entirely positive language. Notice as you speak how each of these positive beliefs impacts you and makes you feel.
7. Imagine stepping into the future and freshly facing a situation that previously would have triggered you and made you react from fear. Notice the difference in how you are handling things now. Rehearse your new way of using gestures, tonality and words several times until it feels natural to you.
Your job for the next week is simply to notice how the changes in your approach to normal everyday situations play out. Just pay attention to what is naturally happening of its own accord. And remember to congratulate yourself when you respond productively and healthily from a place of ease and natural confidence.