At a meditation group I attended recently a therapist talked about the idea that each of us keeps a "locked room" within ourselves in which we store our deepest beliefs, the ones that seem to be a part of us, and which define our lives. These are often beliefs about ourselves which we learned in childhood and which we just can't let go of, even if we really want to. In many cases the beliefs are at the root of behaviours that hold us back throughout our lives. Although we try to keep the door to the room locked, and to move on, these beliefs are so entrenched that they carry a painful emotional charge. This charge hits us whenever we are in certain situations. Health professionals often call these unpleasant experiences, "triggers."
When the therapist in our group asked us to think about our own locked rooms, people looked around warily at each other, and there was a long silence. Eventually one person came up with something. He said, "I believe that if I stand up to people, they will be angry with me." This was a good example. We can imagine how he might suffer if he really believes that being assertive will result in angry conflicts for him. He would try to avoid being assertive with anyone! It's pretty obvious that this is not a good strategy for dealing with everyday life. The therapist told us how people are often crippled by these deep beliefs, especially if they are wide ranging, such as the belief, "I am fundamentally unacceptable". Holding this as a core belief would cripple any and all relationships we have, including our relationship with ourselves. How can we be accepted by others if we don't accept ourselves?
As a lay person, I am not qualified to comment on the effectiveness of particular types of analysis and therapy (mainstream or alternative), but it seems beyond question that we will be much happier if we can get rid of negative beliefs about ourselves. Some therapists claim that methods of analysis and self understanding can best help us to replace negative beliefs with positive ones, others claim that we can remove the emotional charge that the beliefs carry and this will be enough to start healing. What is clear is that we will live happier lives if we can remove or reduce these deep negative beliefs.
The first job is to discover what's in our own locked room. The simplest strategy here is to observe our feelings. When we get a trigger, rather than jumping straight into an avoidance strategy, we might try to experience the feeling directly, to let it happen. Instead of getting angry or defensive, we could let the hurt feelings come. "Ouch", I hear you saying, and it certainly is an edgy experience, but I think it's better than hiding behind strategies that don't work, and that keep us in a state of fear and illness.
For example, if rejection is a trigger for us, then we will get extra bad feelings in any rejection situation and these feelings will be much worse than a healthy person would experience. This is because the feelings are tapping into a deep belief that we will always be rejected sooner or later. So, if someone rejects us, we don't just think "This person is rejecting me", we go straight to the belief "Every person will eventually reject me". It's easy to see how very different these thoughts will feel to us. Maybe our deep belief comes from having been repeatedly pushed away by an angry mother or father. Whatever the grounding for the belief, it is hurting us now, and needs to be dealt with if we want to recover a happy life. So, we need to let ourselves feel the strength of the emotions around our rejection situations, and it is this experience that we can take into our chosen therapy.
Whatever method of therapy we turn to, a successful outcome will be the same. We will aim to remove the crippling beliefs that we have hidden in our locked room, and take on a more realistic and empowered view of ourselves . The belief, "I will always be rejected because I am fundamentally acceptable" can be gradually replaced with something like "I may sometimes be rejected, but I can deal with that, as I am fundamentally good and acceptable person."
In my own experience these changes don't happen overnight, it takes time and work to make the moves within us. When we are suffering, affirmations seem very weak against the solid reality of the beliefs we hold in our locked rooms; it is as if we were whistling in the dark. This is how all difficult journeys feel at the start, but it is no reason to stay in a bad place. The work needs to be done and the benefits are huge.
What could be more personally empowering than being able to look into the difficult parts of ourselves and make changes? For those of us who are blocked by these negativities, there can be no better task ahead of us, and no better future to look forward to.
Alex Williams (aka Myzen) has a BA Hons in Philosophy and an Mphil in Moral Philosophy. He is an early retired teacher living in the UK, and writes regularly for an online philosophy journal.Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Dec 2005
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Is life not a hundred times too short for us to stifle ourselves?
~ Friedrich Nietzsche