NEW YORK CITY — Same story, different year?
The holiday season comes and goes. You make promises to yourself that this year is going to be the year that you quit smoking, go to the gym, lose weight, reconnect with old relationships, find a mate, get out of debt, find a new job....the list goes on and on.
And then, in a blink of an eye it’s March, and you visited the gym once. That box of nicotine patches is sitting on a shelf unopened. Your credit card bill just came in, and you've added $800 to your $5,000 debt you already had compiled over the years.
You’re starting to feel down on yourself, guilty, asking yourself, “Where’s my willpower, my motivation?”
For many people, the answer is not about willpower, personality type or character. Rather, for many, the causes lie in the negative beliefs we have about ourselves.
I work with many clients who have faced down a host of hurdles to making lifestyle changes. They tackle the trigger factors in their environment, such as long work hours, socializing with friends with bad habits, or easy access to junk food.
But some of them still have problems bringing about meaningful, satisfying changes in their lives. In that case, I find they are struggling with deep-seated negative beliefs about themselves.
Usually, these negative beliefs are formed early in our lives from negative childhood experiences or traumas. While those experiences may be in the past, the beliefs become ingrained, and stay with us long into the present.
These unconscious negative beliefs often sabotage our best attempts to change our behavior without us even realizing it.
For example, if you can't motivate yourself to get to the gym, you may be doing it because you unconsciously believe you are weak, so why bother going to the gym to get strong when it will never happen?
Overcoming negative beliefs can be tricky, as they are often unconscious, and it's difficult to become aware of their existence in order to battle them in the first place. However, here are a few suggestions:
1. Figure Out Your Core Negative Belief
Close your eyes and visualize the positive goal you have in mind. Connect to that picture in your mind’s eye. Then ask this question, “What do I believe about myself related to this goal?” If an answer emerges such as “I can’t do it,” or “I want to change but kind of don’t want to as well,” go deeper.
Gently try to get to the bottom of your fears to the most basic, simple negative belief possible. Ask yourself, "What does this say about me?"
Some possible negative beliefs sound like this:
I am a bad person
I’m a failure
I’m not lovable
I can’t succeed
I’m out of control
2. Challenge Your Negative Thoughts With "Self-Talk"
Once you recognize those core negative beliefs, then you can try challenging these beliefs with “self-talk.” Self-talk is the communication that we have with ourselves in our minds, and this can be very a powerful ally in our battle against negative beliefs. Let’s say your negative belief is “I’m a bad person,” and you are trying to balance your budget. You can challenge yourself with “I’m being responsible by looking at my finances. This means I’m a good person.”
Another good use of self-talk is to think back to all the experiences that disprove your negative beliefs. If your negative belief is “I’m worthless,” you think back to all the experiences and relationships that show your worth, i.e. your marriage, relationship with children, your job, etc.
3. Use Your Smartphone to Stay on Top of Negative Beliefs
Becoming conscious of these negative beliefs is the first step. Keeping tabs on how often they are affecting our behavior is an important step to defeating them.
There are now several iPhone and Android apps that help you to stay on top of your beliefs and thoughts. eCBT Mood allows you to choose from a list of common negative beliefs or enter your own. It also tracks your input, which you can print out later to help you track your mood. CBTReferee is another app that not only helps you monitor, but also challenges your negative beliefs.
4. Ask Family and Friends for Help
Often times, self-talk and monitoring on our own is not enough. We need perspective in addressing and challenging our negative beliefs. Asking those we trust the most to help us challenge these beliefs can be very helpful. Expressing to someone that you feel like a failure because you can't balance your finances allows them to help you challenge that belief. Also, letting them know what you need from them is vital in getting help. Saying something like, “I just need you to remind me that I’m not a failure,” allows you to get what you need from them.
If you feel that talking to your loved ones isn’t helping, or you cannot discuss these beliefs with those you trust the most, then it’s probably time to get professional help.
5. Seek out a Mental Health Professional
A wise therapist once said to me "psychotherapy is about making the unconscious, conscious."
When you seek help from a therapist, they are trained to help you address the obstacles that prevent us from living our lives to our fullest. There are many different forms of treatment that can be helpful in addressing and changing our negative beliefs. Traditional psychotherapy is well-documented to help address the underlying roots of our distress. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of treatment that focuses on examining the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors by exploring patterns of thinking that lead to self-destructive actions and the beliefs that direct these thoughts. A relatively new approach in therapy is Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, or EMDR. EMDR uses a protocol to target memories or experiences that helped form our negative beliefs in the first place.
Morris Cohen is a clinical social worker, licensed by the state of New York, and maintains a private psychotherapy and consultation practice in Midtown Manhattan. You can visit his website at morriscohenlcsw.com.