Photo credit: “Belief” by Steve Rhodes via Flicker
The phrase “I am” is one of, if not the most powerful declarations a person can make about themselves. Our use of “I am” literally shapes the way we perceive and relate to the world around us. We can use the “I am” in a positive and affirming way through use of positive affirmations like “I am smart”, “I am funny”, “I am attractive”, “I am worthy of love”. But we can also use the “I am” in a negative and destructive way through negative affirmations like “I am stupid”, “I am worthless”, “I am ugly”, “I am undeserving of love”. For most of us, the “I am” statements we make either consciously or unconsciously, through both our words and our actions, stem from beliefs that we hold about ourselves and have held for since childhood and adolescence.
The “personal belief systems” I am referring to here are specifically those that relate to our relationships with ourselves and others. Some of these things come to us from culture. Hollywood and Madison Avenue have told us we can never be rich enough or beautiful enough. Many of us have believed this on one level or another, as what we take into ourselves through the media will inevitably be incorporated into our subconscious belief systems if we don’t recognize it.
However, a great deal of our beliefs about ourselves could have their origins in personal interactions. They can stem from something as seemingly simple as an unkind word or gesture from a family member or a teacher, or as extreme as severe physical and emotional bullying and abuse and the resulting trauma. If one does not have the tools or understanding to constructively move through and release trauma, it can literally play itself out over and over again in our lives in destructive acting out ways like addiction and abusive behavior towards others.
Personal belief systems are ultimately a creation of the ego and the verbal, chattering mind. They stem from ego identification and attachment, and are linked up to the institutional belief systems of the Mass Mind. They exist because we have chosen to believe what someone else said to us. In turn, these people who said what they said did so because they believed what someone told them about themselves and others. The negative personal beliefs we hold onto are based primarily on fear. We are afraid of experiencing emotional pain due to the words and actions of others, and because of this fear, we create emotional pain for ourselves.
We may believe that we are a failure because of something a teacher said when we were a child. We internalized this and it became a belief because it came from an “authority” whose word we took as truth. Or perhaps it was from a teammate whose acceptance we desired. Hearing this harsh criticism may have created emotional trauma. Instead of working through this and using at motivation for success, perhaps we held onto this, and spent our entire lives walking around with the belief that we are going to fail. Perhaps we used this as justification to not try at all because we “knew” it would just result and failure. We would continually perpetuate this belief that we would fail if we “put ourselves out there” through our thinking: “You’re just going to screw this up”; “See I told you that you couldn’t do it”. The constant chatter in our heads will be our most harsh critic and deflate us before we can even get going, providing all the reasons why we shouldn’t do something. In the end, it became the fear of failure that ruled our lives and the belief that was just how it would be.
These belief systems give rise to multiple unbalanced emotional “personalities” within us such as the judge and the victim. The judge is the hyper-critical mind that says we are never good enough and then attacks us every time we fail. The victim is the mind who blames every shortcoming on something beyond itself. The judge is the persecutor and the victim is the persecuted. The judge is the berating and abusive master and the victim is the resentful and bitter slave, who eventually rebels in a passive-aggressive manner.
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It is our personal belief systems surrounding our interactions with others, and ourselves, and the thinking that creates them, that gives rise to a whole host of what are known as “cognitive distortions”. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that are believed to perpetuate the effects of psychologically imbalanced states, especially depression and anxiety (which are present in most who live in industrialized societies). Below is a list of primary cognitive distortions:
Entitlement: The state of mind where one believes they are owed or deserve something.
Always Being Right: Consistently prioritizing self-interest over the feelings of others.
Jumping to Conclusions: Making a quick decision or assumption about a person or situation without any information. This includes “mind-reading”, which is making a conclusion based on someone’s behavior and non-verbal communication, as well as “fortune-telling”, which is “predicting” negative outcomes of events.
Justification: Creating reasons to defend behaviors.
Magnifying/Minimizing: Making a big deal out of small issues and trivializing important issues. An example of magnifying is what is known as “catastrophizing”, where one gives greater weight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiences a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.
Over-generalization: Falsely judging the future based on a single past experience.
Rationalization: Making excuses for your actions.
Personalization: Taking personal responsibility, and the resulting praise or blame, for events and situations over which you have no control.
Disqualifying the Positive: Belief that positive events and comments are undeserved or unwarranted, particularly when directed towards you.
Should-statements: Deciding in advance what should happen in a situation and not accepting it or lashing out when what happens doesn’t match what you feel should have happened.
Victim Stance: Blaming everyone else for your problems. You are perpetually persecuted and therefore, completely blameless.
Black and White Thinking: Viewing situations as being of one extreme or another, leaving no room for anything in between. This is also known as “all-or-nothing thinking”.
Mislabeling: Giving a name or assessment to something, and then acting as if this label is true, even if it isn’t in reality.
Emotional Reasoning: Justifying actions strictly based on emotion; i.e. “I feel strongly about this, so I am right”. This is the belief that feeling deeply about something makes it just and true. “I feel this to be so, so it must be so”.
Mental Filter: The tendency to pay attention to one specific part of a situation, while ignoring all other information that contradicts that small piece of information.
Fallacy of Change: This is the belief that others must change for you to be happy. This is seen as relying on social control to obtain cooperative actions from another person. This is manipulation of social situations and structures to make someone “behave”. This is a crucial component for maintaining institutionalized belief systems.
All of these cognitive distortions can be observed on both the “micro-level” of the individual as well as the “macro-level” of society as a whole; however, all things begin with the individual. It is up to each of us to observe and recognize our faulty belief systems and identify the patterns of thinking that perpetuate them. If you go to the Universal 12 Steps portion of the site and look at the article entitled “Preparation for Step 1”, you will find methods for beginning this process.
Our personal belief systems can impact not only our mental and emotional health, but also our physical health and well-being as well, as all of these things are interconnected. The condition of our mind affects our body and the condition of our body affects our mind. A major component of this is food, drink and other substances. Our relationship to what we do or do not take into our bodies, as well as what we choose to believe or not believe about these things can make all the difference and cause a host of issues including addiction and premature death. We may consciously make the decision to take in things that harm our bodies, either through ignorance, disregard, or simply believing disinformation. This will cause us to create a state of inflammation in our bodies, which in turn can lead to a whole host of psychiatric and neurological conditions including depression, anxiety, ADHD, and even Alzheimer’s.
Changing the way you think is one of the hardest things you will ever do, and for most it will be a lifelong process. I am still working on it and am a long way from being done. It requires both vigilance and relaxation; discipline and a playful attitude. If we are too strict, the childish ego will rebel. If we are not strict enough, the childish ego will take it as opportunity to continue negative behavior. We must treat our ego mind and its belief systems as we would a child, because for most of us, that’s exactly what it is.