Sorry about missing a blog last Monday. It's been a week of winter illness as well as winter storms! We've been without internet and phone since Thursday after a lightning strike up the road. It's a bit interesting realizing just how much business and communication these days depends on Wifi. 1st World problems eh?
This week we are looking at the subtle ways in which the negative beliefs we have been talking about in the past weeks affect us on a day to day basis. The CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) counselling modality calls these "Underlying Assumptions" or "Family Rules."
Let me tell you a story about a young man named Sam. Sam comes from a middle-class Kiwi family. He had a pretty 'normal' upbringing. No massive issues - just the usual set of struggles every kid experiences as they navigate family, school, friends, sports and life in general.
Sam has recently been married and is very happy. However, he's noticed that lately he's been struggling a lot with anxiety. He has felt anxious on and off throughout his life; but since he's been married, suddenly things have gotten a lot worse. He's not sleeping well and has nagging doubts and insecurities that he just can't stop thinking about. Sam is very confused! He is very happy with his lovely wife; and they've just put a deposit on a new house. Everything is fine - he shouldn't be experiencing this anxiety!
Luckily, Sam had the good sense to go and talk to a counsellor about all this. During therapy, he discovered that he had some beliefs and rules that are influencing the way he thinks and experiences his life. Sam learned that the environment he grew up in has heavily influenced the way he thinks about and interprets his daily life. His family, whilst loving, were very focussed on the way they looked to others. This included 'behaving well' in public, 'achieving well' in school and sports and generally 'keeping up appearances' with everybody. Conflict was avoided at all costs; and strong emotions were not really seen as acceptable. All of the above were 'unspoken rules.' This means Mum and Dad wouldn't have ever sat Sam down and said: "Look Son, this is how we do it in our family." It was just 'the way we do things' in this family - normal - the culture. When he examined it, Sam realized that these rules often followed an "If....then....." format. For example, "If I do well in school, then I'll make my parents proud." Of course, doing well in school isn't a bad thing! But the problem is that these rules are very black and white. No room for grey areas. Therefore, the negative side of it was: "If I don't get the scores I should then I'll disappoint my parents." This created in Sam a fear-based motivator to always do his best. The more this went on, the more perfectionistic and obsessive Sam became in his pursuit of the best marks - or the best performance on the sports field. The pay-offs of this behaviour was that Sam often did well and received praise from his parents and peers. But would he let himself celebrate his successes? No - because the driving force was always fear of being a disappointment. And no-one can ever be perfect so Sam always fell short of his target. As an adult, these fears still drove Sam. He was always pushing himself to be better; and his fear of conflict meant he wasn't good at setting boundaries - so he generally got lumped with more work than he could handle. At work he was frequently anxious and upset. But he hid it well.
Adding to this he suddenly had the stress of being newly married. While he dearly loved his wife, she came from a very different family background than him. Her family were loud and up front with their feelings. If something upset them, they would talk about openly right then and there. This goes against all of Sam's family rules of swallowing emotion and putting on a happy face. He simply didn't know how to cope with these interactions; and his 'shutting down' caused his wife to think that her needs weren't important and he didn't have time for her.
It wasn't until Sam was able to articulate these rules and see how they were affecting his life that he was able to consciously move away from them. He looked at the core belief driving these rules - which turned out to be "I'm a failure." He learned new skills to help him to communicate with his wife and become more balanced in his work environment. Basically he was a lot happier and a lot less anxious.
Did you notice anything familiar in this story? Obviously every family is vastly different, but everybody has core beliefs, and everybody has these same rules or norms by which they live. Think about the last time you were anxious, or angry, or offended or disappointed. What was going on? Could there be any rules affecting how you interpret, feel about and react to what happened? Often we can expose these rules by the 'shoulds' that we say to ourselves. "I 'should' do this or that." Or "I must do this..." These rules will help us expose the negative beliefs we hold. "If the feared outcome happens, what will this say about me as a person?" What does it say about my identity?
Here's a few of the common beliefs that operate in our lives:
- If I do well, look good, say the right thing, then I'll be accepted. If I don't I'll be a disappointment - not good enough
- If I please you then you'll like me and accept me. If I say no to you or don't do what you want, you won't respect me and I'll be rejected.
- If you put your own needs first, you're selfish. You should always prioritise other people before yourself. I shouldn't say no.
- If I'm not achieving anything I'll be lazy and useless. If I relax I'll feel guilty.
- If I use my voice I'll be embarrassed.
- I can't show any weakness because I'll be taken advantage of. If I accept help, people will think I'm weak or incapable.
The list goes on and on. My point is this: these rules are supremely unhelpful and they prevent us living to the fullness of our capacity in life. They also cause conflict and offence in our relationships. They leave us feeling wounded and helpless. They are not good in any way! Let's do something about it eh? If this blog has resounded with you, let me encourage you to seek some professional help. Talk to someone who can walk you through this. Don't let these lies steal any more of your happiness!
Go well this week. Remember, if something pushes your buttons: Pause, Breathe and wonder "what's going on for me right now?" Before reacting, make sure you're not acting out of fear or shame. Break the cycle.