“I am such a loser!” “Everyone hates me!” “I will never succeed at this!” Have you ever found yourself thinking these thoughts or something like them? Ever wonder why you have them or what you can do about it?
We learn to believe bad things about ourselves and the world when bad things happen to us. That time you got side-swiped driving on the highway became: “I am unsafe.” When your busy single Mom kept leaving you with a babysitter you learned: “I am unlovable.” That time you were sexually assaulted created the belief: “I am shameful.” These experiences, and ones like them, can leave a lasting mark on one’s psyche.
We take the qualities of the bad situation into ourselves rather attributing them to something external. It’s a matter of survival: if we are personally responsible for the situation, then we feel we have control. This is evolutionarily adaptive, because when you believe you control what happens to you, you are more likely to try to avoid danger (Cozolino, 2002).
Unfortunately, over time, these negative beliefs tend to hurt us more than they help: The negative beliefs often lead to behaviors that further reinforce the negative beliefs (Holowchack & Lavin, 2015), creating a positive feedback loop. “I am not good enough” leads her to avoid going for that job she wants; then she doesn’t get the job, which confirms that she’s not good enough. “I can’t trust” makes them quick to react to a perceived slight; then the other person reacts in turn, which confirms that they were not to be trusted. “I’m not important” leads him to tolerate mistreatment in relationships, which confirms his lack of importance.
So what can you do about this bad belief baggage that’s holding you back? Can it be as simple as stating positive beliefs to yourself like “I am lovable” and “I’m a good person?” Nope. Too bad! Research has found that when people with negative self-esteem repeat positive affirmations, it actually makes them feel worse (Wood, 2009).
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on unlearning irrational automatic thoughts. Say you learned when you were bit by a dog, “I am scared of dogs.” With CBT you gradually learn not all dogs are scary, just the big aggressive ones. You learn to tolerate the fear when you think of a tiny cute dog, then when you think of a slightly bigger dog, and so on, eventually working your way up to thinking of the memory of the big dog that bit you (Zayfert & Becker, 2006.) This can help you to diminish and tolerate your fear, but it takes a while and can be uncomfortable to go through. And after all that it can still leave an unhealed psychological wound, or “sore spot,” entailing reactivity to related stressors (Greenwald, 2005).
Positive experiences can prove our “goodness” to us as convincingly as the negative ones proved our “badness.” Noticing a simple deep breath in and out during your lunch break becomes, “I am okay” (Weintraub, 2012). A supportive conversation with a friend, family member, or therapist can mean, “I matter.” Studying for your exam, doing well, and eventually earning your degree teaches you to believe “I am capable.”
But there’s more to it. First of all, to internalize lessons from positive experiences, we need a stable environment that doesn’t keep reinforcing the bad beliefs. Also, we need to heal the wound from the bad things that happened. An unprocessed traumatic memory’s sore spot drives negative beliefs and emotional reactivity that keep us feeling revved up, hyper-vigilant, and anxious. When your nervous system is busy fending off threats to your survival, you can’t also be in a healing and recovering state (Sullivan et al, 2018).
This is why it’s so important to shift negative beliefs at their root: by healing the stored memory of the bad experience. This can be done by facilitating memory reconsolidation via trauma healing methods such as eye movement desensitization & reprocessing (EMDR) or progressive counting (PC). As we process and heal from past experiences we shed the irrational negative beliefs and adopt more adaptive perspectives (Ecker et al, 2012). This makes us less reactive, more able to behave in ways that create positive experiences, and more able to take to heart the positive beliefs.
Cozolino, L. (2002). The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Building and Rebuilding the Human Brain (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W W Norton & Co Ltd.
Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley, L. (2012). Unlocking the emotional brain: Eliminating symptoms at their roots using memory reconsolidation. NY: Routledge.
Greenwald, R. (2005). Child Trauma Handbook. NY: Routledge.
Holowchak, M. A., & Lavin, M. (2015). Beyond the death drive: The future of “repetition” and “compulsion to repeat” in psychopathology. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32(4), 645–668.
Sullivan, M. B., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonaz, S., Taylor, J. N., & Porges, S. W. (2018). Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12.
Weintraub, A. (2012). Yoga skills for therapists: effective practices for mood management. New York: W.W. Norton.
Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others.. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860–866.
Zayfert, C., & Becker, C. B. (2006). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD: A case formulation approach. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Note: This post was written by Hannah Tosi, MSW, RYT, who is on the Trauma Institute staff.