May 2023: Core Beliefs
This month’s blog is very late. And not for lack of thinking about it. I continue to ponder attachment needs and witness it’s importance in my personal as well as professional life. It is the key, for me, to make sense of the hand I’ve been dealt. Trauma recovery, also, is simplified through this lens. In a way, it forms a worldview for me.
Unmet childhood attachment needs influence the core beliefs we develop to help navigate life. A common one is that if my primal needs go unmet by the (un)responsible adults in my world, there must be something wrong with me. As children, our brains haven’t developed the ability to think rationally or abstractly. The world still revolves around us. So when things go awry, we assume it’s our fault.
We cannot yet use the minimizing statement: my parents did the best they could with what they had. Or lay blame at the feet of the truly responsible parties (and sometimes this is generational abuse/trauma–not only learned behaviours passed down, but also on the cellular level).
The only way our little child minds can understand our basic needs for affection and attention going unmet is to presume that something is wrong with us. Ergo, we try to determine what we can do better to rectify that by such efforts as perfect tests scores or flawless playing of a musical instrument or monitoring and managing the emotional equilibrium in the house. The list is endless. None of this is conscious. It is part of the way our brains develop. Neurons firing and wiring together. Making connections and neuronal pathways that govern how we function in the world as we understand it. Another ‘side effect’ of this process is that our core beliefs become self-limiting and self-fulfilling prophecies. Every failure or bad experience is understood through these filters that we are bad or somehow deserve bad things happening to us. So to our developing brains, these beliefs are reinforced rather than corrected or counter-balanced–hence becoming part of our structural being.
One of the challenges of recovering from unmet attachment needs is to unpack these core beliefs that formulated in less-than-ideal circumstances. As we unpack them, we can determine if they are worth keeping, tossing, or adapting. My work ethic is one I wish to keep but must be adapted to my current reality. Work must be its own reward, not the definition of my essence. As such, I am a recovering work-aholic. It was my crutch against the barrage of internalized shame messages insisting I was worthless unless I could be productive and perfectly at that. I had to ‘prove’ my worth. It wasn’t innate.
When we choose to toss a core belief—such as I am worthless unless I ‘perform perfectly’—we need to create a new neuronal pathway. We have to break the old connections, the old pathway, and get new neurons firing and wiring together. Find a new way to define our sense of worthiness.
One method is Daily Affirmations. These are statements we create that help counter the old messaging by establishing a new way of thinking. Similar to a mantra, these statements are left in a prominent place we see daily, such as by the bathroom mirror or coffee maker. Repetition helps create a new neuronal pathway. These statements are simply read, not argued with. That is a bad habit that is not helping retrain your brain. When the arguing starts, it must be stopped and redirected to the affirmation, the new core belief that is being built and reinforced.
One of the first affirmations I used was: I am worth the effort. Initially meaning my own effort to make positive change in my life (namely trauma recovery which requires a great deal of effort). As I gained confidence, I was able to tackle other beliefs and corresponding affirmations. One that came a few years later (and helped prepare me to eventually leave an unhealthy marriage) was: I count and I matter. This one was primarily geared toward unmet needs in my marriage.
Earlier this month, to my surprise, that affirmation resurfaced. This time in reference to myself. I need to learn how to plan my days with the thought that I count and matter—not just my clients and other people in my life. I tend to put others first, a coping strategy learned in childhood to keep the peace and to convince myself, and others, that I was likeable.
If I truly believe I count and matter, then the time I reserve for activities other than counselling needs to be honoured—not tossed aside simply because someone needs my help. If I have a window in which I see clients, I need to respect that boundary and not give away that time because I ‘could’ help someone. Otherwise, ‘helping people’ risks becoming like my old work ethic. There is more to me than counselling. If I forget that, then counselling also risks becoming how I define my essence, my ‘raison d’être’ (catchy French phrase for ‘reason for being’).
While counselling is certainly one aspect that contributes to how I find meaning in my life, it is not the only way. Like everyone else, I am a composite of interests and abilities. And I must remember that I count and I matter just as much as my clients, friends, and family. Something I did not learn as a child.
As I write this, I recognize by body awareness (paying attention to what I sense and feel in my body) that I have more grief and inner child work in this area. Also like everyone else, I want to gloss over the painful feelings and jump to restoration. Which reminds me of my house. If I don’t first pay attention to what’s wrong, I cannot properly fix it. I cannot simply paint over structural issues in my walls and expect my house to stand another hundred years.
As in renovation as well as recovery, we want to ‘make it pretty’ for a quick sale or get on with life. However, buried problems always rise to the surface. We all know how avoidance tends to exacerbate issues rather than resolve them. Sometimes we have to remove what isn’t working before we can make it better. In recovery work, this means holding the pain long enough to recognize it, understand where it comes from, then let it go to make room for improvements.
Recovery also requires taking a hard look at our coping mechanisms (which tend to be automatic) and determine if they are helping or hindering us. Once we establish what isn’t working, we can then choose to learn healthy coping strategies to strengthen us structurally—and improve quality of life. For that’s what the hokey pokey is really all about it, isn’t it?
What core beliefs improve your quality of life and which ones need refurbishment or outright discarding?