It’s taken me a few days to adequately internalize a more profound understanding of core beliefs. The idea of challenging them doesn’t seem like enough to me. I want to uproot them. I want them outta here!
How do I get that done? When I asked my therapist, he didn’t have a great answer, and I suspect that deficiency is because there isn’t one. He said, “We’ve found it. Now that you know it’s there, you can identify it. Call it out when you begin to go there.”
Well, that is not helpful to me. That’s like a squatter living in your house without your knowledge. Suddenly, you discover him and feel shocked and violated. Now what? Every time you come upon the trespasser you’re supposed to shout, “Hey! I see you! I challenge you, o squatter, to squat elsewhere!” And, this describes about just how effective that feels to me…
I decided to come at this from a different direction. Instead of looking at these unwanted core beliefs as stumbling blocks that prevent me from healing from trauma, I wondered if my core beliefs would actually be appropriate and helpful to me were I still living in my former circumstances.
How does a person survive being raised by a psychopath, a personality disordered mother with narcissistic and sadistic tendencies, and human trafficking? You survive by becoming a non-person. You manufacture emotional and psychological camouflage so that you move around as unseen as possible. When threatened, harmed, or facing perceived harm, you become even more invisible in order to deescalate the situation quickly. As far as I can tell, my primary, or foundational, belief is “I am void. I am wrong. I am a non-person.” This belief originated in the tacit rules of engagement that were learned from repeated interactions and might look a little like set theory as we put it all together.
Given a set of behaviors A, if u is an element of set A, then…
For me, I figured out the rules with my parents very quickly. Two examples…
- If my father looks at me sideways with that expression, then walk behind him and say nothing.
- If my stepmother speaks to me in that tone, then quickly apologize and sit where I cannot be seen.
- If my mother says anything, then always agree with her lest I experience punishment.
These “rules” for engaging in abusive households lead to a plethora of feelings. I would feel small, frightened, and a strong desire to disappear. Eventually, those feelings changed into beliefs: “I feel like I’m not even a person.”…”I’m not even a person.” But, that belief works in this context because following the rules that eventually spawned this core belief kept me as intact as possible. Imagine what would have happened had I not done so? I would have been killed at some point.
This isn’t always easy to parse, but it’s worth the effort. It takes insight and a willingness to tolerate the pain that might come forward.
Now that the rules are known, what does one do with it? Here is the tricky part. There are triggers that exist within us and without us, and we ourselves can trigger an unwanted belief to activate and overtake us. How? Here is an example.
Remember that before a core belief became a belief it was first a thought (e.g. “I feel worthless.” vs. “I am worthless.”) . For many of us, our physical behaviors reflect our beliefs. Our posture, how we walk, where we sit in relation to others, and even how we stand can reflect how we feel and think. During the last year of my marriage, I began to walk behind my husband in public like a servant. This was exactly how I was instructed to walk in my father’s household. I had to call him ‘sir’ and walk behind him. Well, I never called him ‘sir’ because I thought it was ridiculous, but I did walk behind him. The more unperson-like I felt, the farther behind I would fall. As that old belief resurfaced and increased in me in my marriage, the more I walked behind my ex-husband. And the more I walked behind my husband, the more triggered I became in feeling like a non-entity because I was re-creating an abusive scenario from my childhood that was highly traumatic. My physical behaviors supported the old belief and created a feedback loop. This is the machination behind “old cycles”.
What if I had determined not to walk behind him? That would have been one way to challenge that belief. Making a direct change to the physical expression of that core belief is a very real way to displace it. It is also surprisingly difficult. Self-talk must go along with it: “No, I will not walk behind him no matter how I feel about myself. Head up, shoulders back. Walk next to him.” This creates dissonance between a very real part of yourself that is determined to preserve you and a higher cognitive self that also wants to preserve you. That dissonance is the source of a great deal of panic and pain and the reason so many people drop out of therapy. When you go head to head with yourself, gridlock can ensue, and this dissonance often produces gridlock.
I have seen many people who sit in corners, sit by themselves, stand hunched over, head down, arms wrapped around themselves. Changing your physical expression will actually begin to change your beliefs. This is a very effective way to create new neural pathways and dislodge core beliefs around identity. If you aren’t sure what your core beliefs are, then this is one way to uncover them, gain insight, and experiment.
But, hey, what about that gridlock? What about that pain?
That’s the next post.