I’ve been trying to find time to put this in words for awhile, and time just keeps escaping me. Busy season is coming up for me at work, so hopefully I can get this put out there before everything crashes in on me.
Okay, so one thing that a lot of people may not understand is that the biggest (if not the only) thing that keeps a lot of survivors in emotional pain – and anyone, really, survivor or not – is specific negative beliefs within their belief system. We all have a belief system of some kind. We all think something about just about everything, including ourselves, the world, other people (specifically and in general), our past, our future. Even if we’re not aware of it, we often have subconscious beliefs floating around just beyond the reach of our rational thoughts, and they influence our emotional lives. Some of those beliefs are probably good, and positive, and uplifting. But some of them – particularly if someone has experienced a lot of trauma – may be negative, and serve as obstacles to freedom.
It may be a paradigm shift for some, but what happened to you is not actually what hurts you emotionally – it’s what you believe as a result of what happened.
The beliefs you have about yourself, and the beliefs you have about others and the world at large are the primary thing that drives your actions and emotions, and in consequence, the course of your life and recovery. This could go either direction, but if you’re a survivor trying to recover, it usually takes a lot of time, self-reflection, and self-awareness to dig down underneath the layers of consciousness and take a look at your clockwork.
What happened is over. But when your beliefs are still aligned with the messages of the trauma (or even just unhealthy messages without trauma), it keeps a cycle of emotional pain going. Unfortunately, sometimes this cycle becomes self-perpetuating even when we’re not aware of it, because we act out of what we believe and reap the harvest of the seeds we’re sowing without even realizing that’s what we’re doing. Am I making sense?
Some examples of negative beliefs about ourselves that may be (and usually are) picked up by trauma survivors are:
- I deserve to be hurt
- I am never safe
- I will never be important
- I can’t trust anyone
- I always ruin things
- I am a bad/weak/unworthy/unacceptable person
- I have to perform in order for other people to like me; I can’t just be myself
- I am only valued for what I do, not who I am
- I cannot express all of my emotions (anger, fear, sadness) without being rejected
- Everything is my fault
- I can’t tell the truth about what happened or how I feel about it
- I am an obligation
- I always get hurt/pushed around/taken advantage of because I’m a woman (man, girl, boy, person of color, etc)
- I can’t have needs (or my needs don’t matter)
- I am a waste of time
- I will never be happy
- I will never amount to anything
- I will never have a “normal” life
- I am damaged beyond repair
- I don’t deserve to be healthy or happy
- I will never have enough (money, resources, therapy sessions, etc); I will always lack something I need to live well
- I am crazy
- I don’t have what it takes to recover
Everyone has a staggeringly large list of these beliefs, customized to their life and experiences. If everyone sat down and really tried, we could probably come up with books full of them. They are formulated during every experience we have; when we’re young, we form the beliefs. When we’re older, our brains unconsciously search for what we already believe as a framework through which to interpret our present situation.
Some examples of negative beliefs about others that may be internalized:
- People will always abandon me
- No one will believe me
- No one likes me
- People are unpredictable
- Authority figures will always abuse their power
- People are only nice when they want something
- Nobody else cares about me
- Nobody else needs me
- It’s other people’s job to make sure I am okay
- And if they don’t try to fix things when I’m not okay, that means they don’t love me
- No one understands what I went though/am going through
- No one can help me
- Men/women will always use/abuse me
- No one will be there for me when I need them
- Authority figures are impossible to please
- No one ever listens to me
(Obviously there will be overlap since a lot of our beliefs about ourselves are formed in relation to others and the world.)
These beliefs are actually the driving force behind the event we call “being triggered.” Being triggered means a situation activated one or more negative belief(s) that you have, and started the cycle of internal messages related to that belief, and voila, emotional pain begins to churn.
Being triggered is actually a really useful experience, if you know what to do with it. It’s your signpost to show you exactly what poison you’re still drinking. Once you know what it is, you can see about finding the antidote.
The converse is also true. You don’t get triggered when you have no lies to activate.
And the good news is, these negative beliefs can be changed. Neuroscience has made so many advances in the last decade that they can now show clearly that the brain was designed to heal itself. It’s never too late. It is capable of growing new pathways, correcting faulty ones, and continuing to change and heal throughout a person’s lifetime.
The method by which one changes these negative beliefs is a little bit open to individual choice. This is the whole idea behind most cognitive-behavioral therapy; change your beliefs, change your behaviors, and this will change your emotional state.
I think CBT misses the mark a bit, unless it has changed drastically over the years and I’m just unaware of it. While there may be some inherent value in repeating statements to yourself that oppose your underlying beliefs – such as looking in the mirror every day and saying “I am beautiful” to counteract an underlying belief that you are ugly – I feel like this is more of a Band-Aid.
I think what matters is when and why you formed the belief. You can snip the top of the weed off all you want, but until you pull the thing out by the roots, it will keep growing back. Maybe CBT achieves this eventually; I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s a method of sort of decaying the root of the belief over time, rather than just yanking it out in one fell swoop. I can respect that…it just hasn’t been my experience.
People have also noted varying degrees of success with EMDR therapy – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing – particularly in cases where you may not be quite sure what the source of pain is, if it seems to be rooted too deeply to uncover. I’ve never personally experienced this, though I have often wanted to try it.
For me, it has been much more effective to try to trace the root of the belief all the way back to the beginning – if possible – and then seek the real truth. I am a Christian, and I do this uprooting of negative beliefs (which I tend to call lies as opposed to truth, but the terms don’t really matter) via Christian ministry and ministry tools, specifically a thing called HeartSync, but if you don’t want to go that route, you can seek a new revelation in the place where your belief was formed, by whatever means and from whatever source you prefer.
A lot of times people find that when they go back to the root of a negative belief, they realize that they never really let go of something – deep down – despite “knowing” the more generic and surface-y “truth” with their rational mind. Beliefs may be articulated and acknowledged by the left side of the brain (logic, data analysis) in a generic way but more specific and personal beliefs are rooted in the right side (experience, emotion). The two are not always in tandem.
Example: A person might “know” casually that no child deserves to be abused. But when they actually stop and consider something that may seem unrelated, such as their own belief that’s absolutely ingrained – the belief that they are a bad person at their core – they may find that it came from being mistreated as a small child and believing from that experience that they ARE a bad person, because no one would abuse a “good” child. Therefore, they must be bad.
Finding a way to ask for revelation in this deeper place can unveil the fact that perhaps this is the truth: perhaps the truth is that their abuser was sick, and wrong, and mean, and had no right to inflict pain on an innocent child who had done nothing to deserve it. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the child. Perhaps the child was perfect then, and is still perfect now. Perhaps the child has never been bad.
With trauma and DID, it can be a little more complex in that sometimes alters hold beliefs that other alters and/or the front person are unaware of. But the process is still largely the same. This type of revelation-seeking is how negative beliefs are uprooted.
There are also times when, unbeknownst to us (most of the time), holding onto a negative belief actually does something for us. It serves us in some way, even if that service is now unneeded or outgrown. I may hold the belief “Others will always let me down,” simply because it protects me from hoping for help, and then getting disappointed. So whenever roadblocks to revelation are experienced, it can be hugely helpful to just explore the roadblocks and see if there’s actually been some hidden benefit to the negative belief; then you can decide whether the benefit is now worth it, or if there’s another way you can attain that benefit instead.
It takes time and a lot of willingness to let your world be re-interpreted. It’s not easy. It’s not always immediately comfortable. But ultimately it brings release and breaks the patterns of emotional pain and real-world situations wherein these things tend to be reinforced. If you could live a life without the bonds of beliefs like the ones listed in this post, would you want that? I know I would. And I’m definitely working toward that.
(Maybe I can try to cover the self-perpetuating nature of these unbroken cycles in a future post, in case that didn’t make sense.)