Recently I heard someone talking about “imagine waking up in the morning full of enthusiasm!” and something about “letting go of those negative beliefs,” and I found myself angry. It’s just not as easy as that.
My own experience has been that there are levels of how deeply a belief is set in. More recent ones are easier to drop. Very early beliefs are harder. They depend on how strongly you’ve been conditioned, how many times you had the experience that gave rise to the belief, or whether the belief was set in by a traumatic experience.
More recent beliefs I’ve been able to change just by recognizing them. I had decided to go back to school and get a PhD in geology, but I was not able to go to the local college and register. At that time I was in a therapy group, and someone asked what was keeping me from going back to school. This sentence came out of my mouth: “If I get a PhD, I will be so threatening that no man will ever marry me, and my life will be wasted.” I listened to myself say this, looked at what it really said “If I get a PhD … my life will be wasted,” and saw how ridiculous that was. I went out the next morning to register for a class. So much for that belief.
Another belief that I changed, that I think went back to childhood, and wrote in a number of journals, is “Nobody ever loved me and nobody ever will.” I was thirty before I ever said that out loud in the hearing of a friend, a gay man. Ron said “What about me? I love you.” Shortly later I said it to my best woman friend, and she too said “What about me? I love you.” So the next time I said that sentence in my mind, a little voice popped up and said “That’s not true. Ron loves me, and Trudi loves me.” Gradually I added people to my list which grew to nearly twenty. I was at a workshop, and I told my roommate about my project, and she said “You can add me to that list.” I was astonished, she hardly knew me. I worked on that belief for a number of years, and the sentence “Nobody ever loved me and nobody ever will” dropped out of my repertoire. The belief that I was unloveable has been harder to erase, but at this point in my life I have a few people who I know love me, beyond a doubt.
One belief I changed, after a short struggle, was about the formation of the solar system. As a child I had read a book that said that the planets were formed when another star passed close to the sun, and pulled out a great swath of solar material, and that became the planets. Later, in college, in my first astronomy class, Miss Hill described the formation of the solar system out of a sphere of gas that condensed in the center to the sun, but because it was spinning, there was also a flat disk of material around the sun, something like Saturn’s rings. It was out of this disk that the planets formed. I had a hard time accepting this at first, but it obviously made more sense to accept this newer view. It was a useful experience, because it gave me a visceral understanding of how hard it can be to change a belief. I also learned something very valuable in Astronomy that has been helpful in the rest of my life. This is that if you have a hypothesis— all scientific theories are hypotheses, in fact all of our ideas are hypotheses — and if new facts are found that contradict your hypothesis, then you have to give up your hypothesis and come up with a new one that makes sense of the data. This is actually what I did with my hypothesis that nobody ever loved me; I contradicted it with data. (By the way, a hypothesis is a hypothetical thesis, an idea someone made up to make sense of something.)
Another belief emerged as I was talking to my ex-husband about the book I was trying to create from journal entries. This was a perennial project, the current working title was “Written in Blood.” Knowing that the perceived goal may not be the real goal, but a strategy to get to the real goal, my ex asked me “If you published that book, what would you have?” Again a sentence came out of my mouth: “If I published a book, it would prove that I deserve to live, even though my parents were disappointed in me.” I was horrified. This had been the motivation for writing and typing my journals. I felt as though a block of my life had fallen into the sea. I thought I might even stop writing my journal —I didn’t though, it was too much a part of my life. I did stop typing up what I had written. I think the quality of my writing changed, it became less “literary” and more relaxed, even sloppy. But the belief that I didn’t deserve to live didn’t change. It was just that I saw that publishing a book wouldn’t prove that I deserved to live.
The belief that I “don’t deserve to live” is probably the deepest, and I’m still struggling with changing it. It’s not a verbal belief that I can counteract with words. It comes from having been neglected far too much as a baby, which left me with the feeling that I didn’t deserve to be taken care of, to have any attention spent on me. It is also true that an infant can’t survive alone, so when left alone too long, the organism understands that it will cease to exist. An infant is pre-verbal, so any attempt to describe in words is an attempt to give a “felt sense” a verbal description. Another verbal expression of the felt sense of a baby left alone is “worthless-and-rotten-and-should-be-dead.” This has happened to me more than once. I remember one time when a relative had sent me a letter basically criticizing the way I lived my life. “You should stop being so self-involved. You should get a job,” etc. I took the letter with me to my studio which was separate from the house, and thought “I should kill myself.” I didn’t go through any thought process to get there, it just seemed obvious. That’s why the sentence is hyphenated. One can’t “let go” of this kind of belief, it’s lodged is the cells of the body and nervous system. The only antidote is NOT “I deserve to live” but something along the lines of Father Greg’s: “we seek to tell each person this truth: they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them.”