How unhelpful self-beliefs become your reality
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
Are you aware of holding unhelpful self-beliefs? For example, that you’re weak or incompetent. Sometimes you’re don’t even know you hold these beliefs. You don’t realise that your internal chatter – the way you talk to yourself – is deeply critical or negative. And yet these unhelpful core beliefs can become your reality. And they’re highly resistant to change.
You may hold these self-beliefs so strongly, that they affect the way you act.
For example, if you believe you’re weak, you’re less likely to take on a challenge, no matter how small. Or you may not try as hard, because you don’t think you’re going to succeed anyway.
Then you never learn to deal with difficulties, or how to problem-solve in tough situations. So your belief that you’re not able to face up to life tends to be reinforced.
You bring about what you expect
This then tends to bring about the result you were already expecting.
You could say that you’re constructing your own reality – your own view of yourself as being deficient.
How you see yourself will then colour how you act towards others, and how you expect them to act towards you.
Unhelpful self-beliefs are hard to change
If your self-beliefs are negative, they can have a long-lasting negative impact on your self-esteem and mood. Unfortunately, we’re highly resistant to changing these unhelpful beliefs about ourselves.
But if these beliefs are so damaging, why don’t we want to change them?
Often this is because we’re not even aware of the way we talk to ourselves. If you’re not aware of something, you can’t change it.
So we don’t realise how negatively we see ourselves. And even if we do, we don’t really believe that the way we talk to ourselves matters.
Let’s see how this plays out in real life.
We’ve seen that in a difficult situation, the same person could react in several different ways. Before you read on, have a look at that article first.
Your reactions depend on your self-talk
So just to remind you of the situation – you’re late for an important meeting at work and can’t find your car keys. You’re worried the boss has been watching your performance. And today, you’re scheduled to give a presentation to head office.
Normally we just accept what our minds tell us. But now, we’re going to challenge your thinking, to see if it’s realistic or not.
We need to find out if your unhelpful self-beliefs are helping or hindering you.
1. The anger response
Perhaps you are right in thinking that everyone tries to sabotage you; the kids, your partner, the boss. And your boss is out to get you – after all, you have been late a few times recently.
Or maybe he is on your side, but you just haven’t noticed. For example, yesterday he told everyone how helpful you’d been. You’d forgotten that – if you even registered it in the first place.
Unfortunately your boss looks and sounds exactly like your older brother. And when you were kids, your brother used to bait you mercilessly. Even thinking about him makes you see red. So half the time when the boss is talking to you, you don’t even hear what he says. You’re too busy thinking of your brother.
And another thing.
Why would your kids or partner deliberately hide your keys? Is this really likely? Or do you unconsciously assume that everyone is as nasty as your brother? That may make you see malice where’s none intended.
Now you’re in no mood to give that presentation. As if those morons are interested in what anyone else says!
Your unhelpful self-beliefs just kicked in and fuelled your anger even more.
2. The anxious response
OK, maybe your colleagues and boss are annoyed with your performance. Maybe they do think you’re incompetent. You just know the boss has been watching you all week. What if he wants to get rid of you?
But wait a minute! Seriously, has anyone criticised your work?
No? In fact, yesterday the boss praised you in front of everyone. Does that sound as if he thinks you’re incompetent? Of course, you can choose to believe he’s only saying that to make you feel better. However, is that helpful for you?
Now you’re really late for work, after having called that ambulance.
What if you really had been having a heart attack? Although they said it was just a panic attack. They must think you’re an idiot! But what if they missed something that was really wrong with you? Your chest still feels very tight.
Anyway, you don’t have time to do all that relaxation stuff. You’ve got too many other things to worry about.
Perhaps you’d better not go to work after all. You won’t be able to cope after all that stress, and then you’ll really look incompetent.
And so that’s how unhelpful self-beliefs can encourage avoidance in people who tend to be worriers.
3. The depressive response
So you think you’re not coping at work, and everyone knows it. Well, it’s not like anyone ever tells you you’re doing a good job, is it?
Although yesterday, the boss did say you were doing well. But you could tell he didn’t really mean it.
Unfortunately you’re still listening to that teacher back in 5th grade. She said you were stupid, and would never get anywhere. Even though you’ve been quite successful, her criticisms still sting.
It’s like you’re always waiting to be exposed as a fraud. And you’re always on the lookout for any criticism or disapproval. If you’re not sure whether people are having a go at you, you assume they are.
On the other hand, why would your boss praise you if he didn’t mean it? And where’s the evidence that others don’t think you’re managing?
In fact, some of them ask you for help quite often.
But you think they only do that to make you feel part of the team. You don’t let yourself believe that they think you’re competent. Why would they go out of their way to help you? You’re a nobody.
Your unhelpful self-beliefs have just hijacked your thinking again.
4. The well-adjusted response
You take responsibility for your own actions. So you know you probably misplaced your car keys yourself. If someone else moved them, there was no malicious intent.
By accepting that things go wrong sometimes, you’re not shocked or alarmed when they do. You just remind yourself to breathe slowly, and focus on what you need to do.
You make sensible decisions, like warning the office you’ll be late. That way you don’t have to rush madly.
You’re pretty confident that most people will treat you well, and you can be assertive if anyone doesn’t. Over time, you’ve gained the respect of colleagues. Even so, at times you make mistakes or don’t know what to do at work. But once you ask for guidance, you’re soon back on track.
Because you don’t worry much about what others think of you, you’ve got more mental energy to observe others at work.
You notice some people seem stressed and anxious, some seem bored and cynical, and others seem sad or angry.
When anyone irritates you or acts out of character, you know this probably reflects their feelings or what’s going on in their lives. So you don’t assume it’s about you. However, you’re careful to check it out with them, just in case.
For example, you’ve noticed how edgy the boss is at the moment. You know he’s been on everyone’s back lately, and hope he’ll be calmer after this meeting.
Luckily, your unhelpful self-beliefs are only momentary, and you can usually reason your way out of them.
What determines how you react?
So these scenarios describe four possible reactions to the same stressful situation.
Of course, how you react on any particular day depends on many factors. For example:
how well you’ve slept
whether you’re ill or healthy
if you’re worried by ongoing life stresses
if a crisis has occurred.
We all feel anger, worry, sadness or other strong emotions at times. However, often these are reactions to what’s happening right in the moment. Our emotions usually settle down fairly quickly if we’re well adjusted.
We all have distorted thinking at times
And we all have distorted thinking at times, especially if we’re stressed or a bit down.
We may be a bit more short-tempered or anxious than usual, or feel out of sorts and moody. We may blame others a bit more, or feel angry that life is so unfair and everything goes wrong for us.
But we usually realise fairly quickly that our thinking is somewhat distorted. We recognise we’ve misjudged situations or other people’s motives.
And we probably notice the warning signs that we need to reduce stress and look after ourselves. We eat and sleep better, and tackle issues that are worrying us.
Usually we regain our normal, reasonable state within a few days or weeks.
What if thoughts are distorted long-term?
However, if our perceptions have been distorted for a long time, it’s not so easy.
Unfortunately, we start to believe that our interpretations of what’s happening are completely true. And we don’t always realise that our perceptions and interpretations reflect our own biases.
We can’t see that we’re focussing on the worst aspects of a situation, or only on the negative qualities of ourselves or others.
And it seems particularly hard to detect our own negative self-talk. We get so used to it, that we don’t even take any notice of it after a while.
Once we’ve developed these unhelpful self-beliefs, they affect how we behave. We start to expect that things will turn out badly, or that others will be critical of us.
What we do starts to reflect what we think and believe about ourselves and our place in the world.
It’s like vicious circle
So it becomes a vicious circle. Our beliefs affect our behaviour, and in turn, our behaviour perpetuates our beliefs.
And we don’t even realise it’s happening.
Pretty soon, we’ve developed some entrenched ways of responding to difficult situations. And so we respond in a knee-jerk way, with anger, sadness, worry, or some other strong emotion.
These automatic responses often aren’t suited to the situation. We over- or under-react, or seem to be completely off-track.
And that’s because these unhelpful responses are based on faulty perceptions and beliefs.
But we’ve brainwashed ourselves so well, that we don’t realise we’re caught up in our own faulty version of reality.