I have discussed core beliefs on this blog (Core Beliefs and Double Distortions, Gridlock and Core Beliefs, Core Beliefs) . After my “career” in therapy, I thought I’d covered all the ground until I landed on core beliefs. I learned that after putting in the time and energy along with all the blood, sweat, and tears I could be cognitively intact, mindful, self-actualized, burgeoning with insight and self-regulation and still influenced by these almost subconsciously held “core beliefs”. EMDR, in part, addresses these core beliefs so that we can change them and adaptively process trauma in order to heal and ultimately move on free of negative, internal influences.
That’s a mouthful. What does this look like in terms of recovery because it sounds relatively easy on paper? I’ll use my journey and process as an example to further elucidate the premise.
My father was a member of a certain military branch’s elite special forces unit. It was just yesterday that one of my daughters commented on him and his participation in military operations as a member of this unique special forces squad. She had been reading a book in one of her university classes wherein this unit was described by another member of the military–a soldier who had direct contact with my father’s unit. In an interview, he described them as barely human. They kept to themselves and exhibited no emotion. They were so intimidating that other soldiers instinctively avoided them. They exuded danger. They were feared. They were the assassin’s assassins. They were the group that trained other soldiers on torture. They made sure that everyone knew just how expendable they were ensuring that the most questionable orders were followed. They were the men hired to be mercenaries after discharge from military service. No one fucked with these guys. Ever.
I told my daughter that this book’s description described my father perfectly. It was validating to hear it particularly in the context of a book about war from the perspective of other soldiers. It explained him somehow. His actions and treatment of me had little to do with me. Cognitively, I have finally learned and internalized that. He was acting in accordance with his nature, and yet I was still left with old programming. I had to get rid of it even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I had to get rid of. Something lurked in my subconscious. A dark and misty fear. Untenable.
Whether or not it was intentional on his part, my father did participate in programming and torture techniques that were used in the military when I spent time with him. Was he re-living his military days as a civilian? Was I viewed as the enemy? Is this why he did the things to me that he did? Perhaps he couldn’t help himself. Maybe he liked it. He was a sadist. It doesn’t matter. When you’re stuck with “programming”, which is what core beliefs are, it’s vital to search it out and delete it.
How do you do that? How do you even go about finding it?
All of my old and deleterious programming/core beliefs emerged while I was trying to fight against abuse in my marriage and during the first year after my ex moved out–during the initial trauma processing. I do not recommend engaging in this process alone. It is excruciating in every way, and my therapist warned me that it would come for me. My circumstances might be viewed as unusual. I am not the only person raised by a borderline mother. I have written extensively about her and what healing from that kind of childhood looks like. It’s painful and difficult, but it can be done. My father, on the other hand, was a highly training killing machine to put it bluntly. His humanity did not survive his time in the military nor did it survive his own childhood. His father, my grandfather, was also a member of a specialized military unit with ties to certain alphabet agencies in the government. He grew up under inordinate emotional and physical deprivation, and he continued that tradition with me. It is what he knew. It was our family’s tradition.
As is the case with family traditions, belief statements go along with them. For some families, those statements of belief might be, “We always vote Democrat,” or “We are a Christian family with traditional values.” Sometimes it’s whimsical–“We love Christmas!” or “We always eat Swedish meatballs on Easter!” Sometimes it’s dangerous–“We hate Jews,” or “We don’t go downtown at night because those people are everywhere and might hurt us.” Every family has their belief system much like a statement of faith in a church. Sometimes it is implicitly stated. Other times it’s not, but everyone understands what is believed based upon attitudes and actions. Family culture is often the first place to look when attempting to root out core beliefs and/or programming.
The foundational core belief that almost all of the other ones in my father’s home were founded upon was this: “You are expendable.” It is entirely appropriate considering who my father was. It would only emerge in me when I was attempting to assert myself under extreme pressure, and it was always followed by profound feelings of extraordinary despair as if life were meaningless. Death seemed like a welcome option. I found myself thinking, “Why bother?” Why bother trying to do anything? If I am expendable, then my hopes and efforts to affect change in my life were utterly futile. To quote the Borg from Star Trek, resistance is futile. Why not just fall into the warm ease of the collective and give up my distinctness? Why not just be assimilated into whatever I am attempting to fight and give up? And yet I never could.
This type of thinking goes against everything that I believe as a person which is often your first clue that you are dealing with a core belief or trauma-induced programming. When you find yourself behaving and making choices that go against your own set of consciously held beliefs, then you might be dealing with core beliefs/deep programming.
Those “thoughts” are “programming” at its finest. How are these core beliefs/programming fortified and glued in place? Through trauma. And, sometimes the trauma is extreme, but it doesn’t have to be in order for it to be effective. For example, a child may witness a parent physically abuse the other parent. It is traumatic for children to witness abuse in their families, but imagine that there were words spoken as well. In addition to the physical abuse, perhaps one parent saw the child crying at seeing the abuse. Suddenly, the abusive parent shouts at the child while raising a fist, “You better stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
What belief might have been planted here in this moment? There may have been many fears and insecurities related to safety and an emerging belief that one parent is an all-power perpetrator. What about something else like, “If I show weakness or emotion, then I’ll be hurt,” or “If I attempt to stand up for myself, then I’ll be threatened and possibly hurt.” There are other possibilities in terms of parentification or even failed parentifcation. Helplessness. Powerlessness. Ontological fear. Fear of death.
The now fallen Bill Cosby once joked in a stand-up routine that his father told him when he was a child that he could take him out of this world just as easily as he brought him into the world. What’s more, he could make another one who looked just like him. So, as if his father were the great Santa Claus in the sky, he better watch out. He better not cry. He was watching lest he be “taken out”. His late 1970s delivery of this joke was humorous in its extremity, but it was funny because it was true in the sense that children actually believe their parents when they say things like this. Parents are as God to their children for a long time. What we see and hear from them as young children roots itself in our subconsciousness and influences us for years. It does not matter if it’s the embodiment of deception. It doesn’t matter if we cognitively and consciously disagree with it. If your emotions believe it to be true, then you will be a house divided prone to self-sabotage and fumbling your way through myriad missed opportunities. This is the power of deep programming aka core beliefs.
So, what did I do with that deep core belief that told me at key moments in my life that I was expendable? Eventually, I had to sit with it. It rose to the surface numerous times at the tail end of my marriage. After the last sexual assault, I truly felt expendable. Worth nothing. When my doctor told me that I needed pelvic floor corrective surgery due to years of sexual violence, I felt…broken in a distinct way. It was so profoundly personal. I sat with that belief. I sat with all the emotions that came with it, and, truthfully, I wanted to die. Throughout most of 2016 I wanted to die. I looked back over the landscape of my life, and I felt inordinate anguish. How did I get to this point? What the hell happened?
But then my therapist said something to me. He asked me why I fought so hard to get out of captivity after I was abducted. He asked me why I fought so hard to get out of my marriage once I realized it was not good for me. Why did I leave both my parents behind? Why did I make those decisions? I didn’t want to answer. I felt too vulnerable to speak about any of it. Frankly, I was tired of discussing my weird life. I have lived a weird life, and I grow tired of it sometimes.
After much prodding, I finally answered, “I fought and continue to fight because…I’m just not going out like that. I won’t let these bad people get the best of me. I just…won’t.”
“So then…you don’t honestly believe any of it then, do you? You wouldn’t fight so hard if you truly believed that you were expendable. You fight so hard to prove that you are, in fact, the very opposite. The anguish you feel then is because the people who were supposed to love and support you have never seen you for who you are. For the girl and woman you see yourself to be, and that is the heart of your pain. You know the truth, and they only know the lies. You feel such pain because you don’t know what it’s like to be truly seen, and the invisibility is too much sometimes.”
And there it was. My father’s core belief that I was expendable because he was expendable never truly settled into me. I fought so hard to prove him wrong because I wanted what everyone wants from a father. If I couldn’t get love from him, then I, at the very least, wanted acceptance. Please, just see me! I couldn’t even get that. I would always be disposable, and, in a way, that was true for my mother as well. If I did not meet her needs and make her happy, then I was worth little to nothing. This was reinforced in my marriage repeatedly. Being ignored for almost three years tapped into that latent belief that I was expendable and resurrected it. I felt like the walking dead. A ghost. Present but never seen.
This is why it is imperative that you stop running from what pains you and learn to tolerate your own personal distress. It is within your inner turmoil that your answers lie because that which you fight in terms of your own inner demons may be the very thing that is saving you. We may feel a certain thing to such a degree that it pushes us beyond our perceived limits, but our inner fight is there, too, attempting to prove to us that what we feel isn’t true at all. We are, in fact, worth something. We are, in fact, worth knowing, loving, accepting, and fighting for. The anger we feel that is often internalized and experienced as depression and desolation screams this out at us.
If this resonates with you at all, then I encourage you to do the hard thing and explore the darkness. Don’t do it alone. Have someone on stand-by at all times who will, at a minimum, check in with you. But, dare to go into your own dark corners and unopened boxes. Therein may lie your redemption.
Fight for the life you want and deserve. Never stop.