I forgot I was a therapist for a few minutes. I got caught in the oldest trap in the book: trying to talk someone out of their belief system.Angie, a 32-year-old woman who had overcome sexual trauma, emotional abandonment and loss, still saw herself as a “failure” and a “loser.” She had recovered from a severe eating disorder and years of wishing she was dead. Now a sober, healthy adult, she’d maintained her sanity and, most importantly, her integrity. She was in a loving relationship and on her way to a successful career doing what she loved. Yet, despite all that she’d accomplished, she held fast to the belief that she was weak and fragile. And she sure as heck wasn’t about to let me talk her out of it.
One of the most memorable books I read as a college psych major was “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.” It was about a fascinating experiment performed in the 1950’s at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan. Dr. Milton Rokeach decided to take three schizophrenics who each believed they were Jesus Christ and have them live, eat and room together for two years. (Today such an experiment would never pass the Ethics Board!) Rokeach was curious about whether men confronted with two others claiming to be the same person would alter their belief system about their identities. These guys struggled mightily with each other over the course of the experiment, yet in the end, each held steadfastly to their belief in his own divinity, declaring the other two to be crazy.
Each day I am confronted with the distorted beliefs of clients who are severely underweight yet state with great conviction and emotion that they are “fat and disgustingly obese.” I can argue until I’m blue in the face, presenting them with rational, objective data (weight charts, the size of their clothes, the worries of their loved ones), but they still declare, “I’m sorry, this is what I SEE when I look in the mirror.”
One need not be struggling with schizophrenia or anorexia to hold tightly to inaccurate self-assessments. Many of us view ourselves through a distorted lens.
In my role as a psychologist, I get to ask some pointed questions. In the beginning of therapy a standard query goes: “What experiences do you think helped shape your beliefs about yourself?” This leads to an exploration of their early life experience and the key messages they internalized from their parents, sibs, peers, boyfriends, teachers and preachers. We also explore their personality and the unique filter they brought into the world. Sometimes understanding (and challenging) the source of the negative self-perception can actually help a person start to question whether it still applies (or ever applied)!
However, here’s where things gets interesting: a person may have the insight and self-awareness to realize they are holding onto an outdated version of themselves, yet they are deathly afraid to give it up. They may have shifted seamlessly from typewriter to keyboard to touchpad, but when it comes to updating their Selfware, they are still writing with a stick in the dirt.
Instead of attempting to use logic to argue them out of it, a better step is to ask: “What if you could suddenly see yourself more accurately? What if you left here today with a clear, realistic sense of yourself? How might you carry yourself differently through your day and your life?”
The beautiful woman who views herself as fat and ugly says: “I would be more affectionate with my husband. I push him away because I don’t feel deserving of his love and affection.”
The intellectually gifted woman who fears others will judge me says: “I would start writing the novel that’s in my head because I wouldn’t be so paralyzed by others’ reactions.”
The creative woman who believes she can’t complete anything says, “I would start taking better care of my body and saving my money instead of always living in the moment. I’d start trying to build a better future for myself.”
The handsome singer who sees himself as hideous says, “If I felt good about the way I looked I would write more songs, perform at more venues, and push myself further in my music career.”
The courageous woman (whom I mentioned at the beginning) who thinks she isfragile and a failure says, “If I viewed myself as stronger and more resilient, I’d allow myself to be more fully present, to experience my feelings and to connect to people. I wouldn’t be so afraid of getting hurt.”
Even knowing the upside of adopting a more forgiving and balanced self-perception, we view our old story as a “crutch” (even though it causes us to fall down) or a “security blanket” (even though it leaves us out in the cold). Given the choice, we pick familiar pain over the unknown.
Here’s my version of a helpful metaphor from Anita Johnston, the author of Eating in the Light of the Moon:
You are holding onto a log while you float down a rushing river. The log (your old familiar self-defeating beliefs or behaviors) may have saved your life at some point, but there is a waterfall up ahead. You can hear the water crashing on the rocks below. You may let go for a moment to swim around the log, but you don’t trust yet in your ability to swim. You build up your strength until there comes a moment when you have to take a leap of faith in your ability to survive. In a burst of courage, you push off from the log and discover…
….you can swim after all~
Solid ground and a richer life welcome you on the shore…