I’m going to dive a little deeper today, in my efforts in this series of blog posts to discuss sorting out one of the primary sources of our anxious thinking, namely what I call the “Web of Beliefs” – that tangle of personal standards, goals, truths, shoulds and musts that we acquire as we grow up and move through our lives. It is the background, the invisible frame of our universe, and it wields enormous power in our thinking, largely unconsciously.

As I said in my last post most of us rarely (or ever) examine our bedrock or foundational beliefs. We take them for granted, treat them as the starting points for our lives, in the very same way we walk across our kitchen floor and given little or no thought to the house foundation beneath that floor.

And most of the time, if that foundation is sound, not thinking about it works just fine. But if that house foundation is flawed in some way we may have to pull up that kitchen floor and take a look at it. It may even mean bringing in a contractor or going to Home Depot and getting some advice on doing some repairs on that foundation.

This metaphor is a great one to talk about our foundation beliefs and how they can be very, very fertile sources of our anxious thinking. For one thing it can be challenging to get at the roots of our anxious thinking if we won’t look seriously at what we take for granted, what we assume is true about us, about the world, about how we should act or shouldn’t act, etc.

So, let’s do some more looking at the foundations of our thinking…

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When Beliefs become Weapons of Self-Abuse

There is a book that helped me start this work that I think you might find useful. It is Compassion and Self-Hate, and the author is T.I. Rubin. It is one of the foundational frameworks for my model of Fear Mastery. The basic premise is that we acquire a LOT of rules and assumptions about the world and how we should act in the world, and that some of those rules/assumptions are less than useful.

Let me make that stronger: Rubin’s contention is that we can really get messed up on those rules. I think he is spot on. We can take a rule that in theory should help us navigate our lives better, with ourselves and others, and turn it into a terrible taskmaster, a scourge that does little but generate anxiety and fear in our thinking and behavior.

Rubin calls that taskmaster Self-Hate. It is his argument that as we acquire the rules for living from the environments and people around us (family, friends, school, church, you name it) we can take those rules/guidelines and convert them into clubs to punish ourselves with whenever we fail to measure up to those rules.

(And, perhaps worse, too often those people hand those rules to us AS clubs, and use them as clubs whenever we fail in their eyes. Huge source of learned anxiety for too many of us.)

Here’s an example: I should put other people’s needs ahead of my own. Not necessarily a bad idea in some situations. It is certainly a great rule for getting us out of our own heads and thinking what other people might need. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem is that it moves from a general rule or guideline to a taskmaster when we learn to insert the word “always” in the sentence “I should put other people’s needs ahead of my own.” And now, without even noticing it, we’ve slipped over into trying for perfection – or, more accurately, perfect safety. And that’s a dangerous dance when it comes to anxiety…

Because of course we’re going to fail at “always.” We won’t always do ANYTHING. We’re human. We make mistakes. But holy crap, THAT can’t be a good idea – now we’re failing if we fail to always put other people’s needs ahead of our own, right?

And, somewhere along the way, we learned that failing THIS rule would be TERRIBLE, a disaster, unthinkable. Maybe we learned that because one or both parents hammered into us how selfish, how careless, how utterly wrong of us it was to NOT put other people before ourselves. Maybe we picked this up from someplace else. All that matters is now we have this constant refrain chanting in the back of our thinking “don’t be selfish. Don’t be careless. Always be nice. Always give up what you want for what other people want. Never, ever, NEVER act unhappy or pissed off or upset.”

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And now we’re approaching hyper-vigilance – we’re constantly worried about breaking this rule, and we don’t even know it! We’re burning tremendous energy and time, we’re becoming (or are already) resentful that we NEVER get to get considered first (or even at all) for what we want and need…

Anyone reading recognize this little rule?

Self-Hate is Trying to Protect Us

Maybe the most frustrating thing about all of this anxiety growing up from one little rule is how it is really just our brains trying to keep us safe. We did learn, after all, that we HAVE to put other people’s needs and wants ahead of our own, and that it wasn’t safe to NOT do that.

So we erected these strong and thick Comfort Zone walls to keep us from the awful danger of breaking this rule (at least in our anxiety-filled thinking it seems like an awful danger) and now we’re staying well away from those walls. We stay so far away that when chronic anxiety starts taking over our lives we’re at a loss to explain why “all of a sudden” our worlds are getting so small and scary…

And, if by some chance we stray too close to those protective walls, if we start thinking that maybe hey, I do matter, what I want should be considered, maybe it isn’t always about what other people want – well, Flight or Fight fires up, sending us physical and emotional signals to get the hell away from the walls! This is dangerous! You’re a selfish, self-centered, horrible person for even thinking that it was OK to not put other people first! What in the Sam Hill are you doing! STOP!

And it isn’t just one rule that is calling the shots in our thinking. Nope, it’s 30 or 40 or 100 rules that are pounding away back there behind the curtains, and we’re like puppets on strings, dancing to a dozen secret songs, and none of them music of our choosing.

It doesn’t have to be like that. ALL of those rules/beliefs/standards are thoughts. And thoughts can be changed and brought under our control. We can certainly examine, evaluate and then choose to keep or discard any thought we have.

That of course isn’t necessarily easy to do, especially when we’re just getting started. It is also challenging when a particular thought is one that we feel is part of our identity – fundamental to who we are.

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But it is work that is infinitely worth doing. In my coaching work I hear people tell me all the time “Erik, I wish I was like other people – people that don’t seem to stress, worry and live in constant anxiety. I really wish I could be like that.” Well, we can. We can change our thinking. It is under our power, with some practice and developed skill.

Let’s Review

1) We all have a LOT of thinking that goes on outside of our conscious awareness.
2) It is in thinking that anxiety starts, breeds and grows.
3) If we’re fighting chronic anxiety (or even just regular bouts of anxiety) then one really useful place to look for the thinking that is causing it is in our foundational beliefs/assumptions/personal standards.
4) We WILL get pushback from our Flight or Fight reflex as we start to examine that thinking and question its usefulness/relevance to our lives.
5) That pushback makes it hard to stay with this work. But it is work that ultimately will give us the power to break the power of anxiety in our thinking and in our lives.

I mentioned in my last blog post that this is work that really requires a way to keep a record of the things you’re learning and challenging and changing in your thinking. You’re really going to need a journal of some kind, paper or electronic. You’re going to want to start an on-going discussion with yourself. This work is slippery – as I’ve already said Flight or Fight will work to get us to stop. And it is often tiring/exhausting to keep “going into the basement” to identify and change this thinking.

Talking about this with other people that we trust and respect is another good tool in this direction. That might be a family member (someone you can relax and be honest around), a spouse, a good friend, someone in a support group, etc.

Another person it can be VERY useful to talk to is a… therapist. Too many of us learned someplace that seeing a therapist of one stripe or another was somehow an admission of failure and weakness on our part. Well, that’s crap. We go to the auto mechanic if our car isn’t working well – we (hopefully!) go see a doctor if our bodies are giving us trouble – why the hell is seeing a therapist any different?

Therapists can create safe places for us to talk about this scary stuff. Therapists are impartial, interested listeners who can help us sort out our thinking with us. They can also help us develop the tools we are creating to give us new rules/modified old rules that work better for us.

Finally, let me encourage you to pick up the book “Compassion & Self-hate” by T.I. Rubin. It is a GREAT resource for helping identify themes/directions in our foundational thinking that take us off-course from healthy thinking. It will also be a very useful guide to healthier, more self-compassionate thinking. Can’t recommend this book enough.

So – Ready to Wade In?

OK, I think I’ve (for the moment) beaten on this particular drum enough – and I hope that you see some useful ways to start tackling that background thinking that is probably driving a LOT of your fight with anxiety. Hit me here at the blog if you have questions or would like to start an email exchange about your work with me.

You don’t have to be the prisoner and helpless abuse victim of your thinking. Your thinking is something you can gain control of and change. You are stronger, smarter and more capable than you know. And it all starts in your brain…

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