Our belief systems, or personal stories, dictate our behavior. The stories we spin about ourselves can shape everything from the decisions we make to how we interact with others to the goals we accomplish.
“Our thoughts have tremendous power and largely create our realities,” said Joyce Marter, LCPC, a psychotherapist who writes the Psych Central blog The Psychology of Success.
Negative, self-critical beliefs can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, she said. For instance, if we don’t think we will get a promotion, we probably won’t, “because we will not feel deserving and will not present in the best possible way and will self-sabotage.”
Our belief systems can produce and spike stress and undermine our ability to cope with challenges and stressors in our lives.
One such damaging belief system involves comparison making. According to Marter, we often compare our insides to others’ outsides. We assume these individuals are living perfect, pain-free lives, and we, unfortunately, aren’t measuring up.
Subsequently, we create stories that we’re inadequate, because we’re supposedly “less successful, less together, and less happy than others. These self-sabotaging thoughts add fuel to the fire of self-doubt, insecurity and stress.”
We also hold beliefs around our ability to cope with a stressful situation. We may think “This is too much” or “I’m going to fail,” said Marter, founder of the private counseling practice Urban Balance.
We may think other damaging thoughts, such as: “I can’t handle this!”; “Nothing ever goes my way”; “I don’t deserve kindness”; or “I can’t do anything right.”
The first step in revising damaging stories lies in self-awareness. It’s important to become aware of your inner critic and negative belief systems, Marter said. She suggested raising “a mental ‘red flag’ when we have these harmful, self-destructive thoughts.”
Then it’s important to counter or neutralize these thoughts with more compassionate stories, she said. For instance, you might remind yourself: “I am only human and I am doing the very best that I can”; “I will focus on the present”; “I will focus on doing the next right thing”; “I am a work in progress”; “I can learn from my mistakes”; or “I can learn to cope effectively with stress; it’s simply a skill.”
Marter encouraged readers to practice self-compassion and self-love. “We must treat ourselves as we would if we were our own loving parent, best friend, or positive coach or mentor.”
Start by checking in with yourself and asking what you need, she said. This might be as simple as having a drink of water, taking a nap, walking around the block or calling your best friend, she said.
“Taking care of your basic needs is a small step toward self-care [and] self-love.”
Another harmful story is when we equate our self-worth with stress. In fact, one of the most common concerns psychologist Stephanie Smith sees in her work is that being stressed out becomes a status symbol — “as in, it’s so cool to say ‘I’m so stressed!’ ‘I’m crazy busy!’ or ‘I don’t know how much more I can do!’”
“It’s as if suffering through high levels of stress is a measure of our worth somehow. The more stressed you are, the more important you are.”
Today, we’re expected to take on many tasks and excel at our many roles: “check email, clean the house, be awesome parents, great lovers and big earners.” Slowing down and managing our stress in healthy ways, such as taking a quiet walk or reading a book, can feel like we’re going against the grain, said Smith, who has a practice in Erie, Colo., and pens the award-winning blog Dr. Stephanie.
Smith suggested taking a step back and evaluating your ideas around stress and what they mean to you. “Have you fallen into a trap where being stressed out is cool? Denied your own mental health in favor of something else?”
Consider the role that stress plays in your life, she said. “Is it too much? What are the biggest stressors?” Then consider the actions you can take to reduce your stress, she said. “[T]oo much stress a lot of the time isn’t healthy, admirable or desirable for anyone.”
The beliefs we hold can bring stress into our lives and affect how we deal with that stress. It helps to pay attention to the stories swirling in your mind, reflect on the stress and challenges in your life and focus on treating yourself with kindness.