On addressing our negative beliefs

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘be your own biggest fan’. It’s good advice. If we don’t believe in ourselves, why should anyone else? But a lot of the time, we end up giving ourselves a hard time; telling ourselves that we’re wasting our time, that we’ll never be able to do what we want to do. We compare ourselves to others (often unfavourably) and put ourselves down.

We set ourselves up to fail. We are our own worst enemy.

Why do we do it? I’ve been reading around this idea lately, and I’m beginning to understand the reasons behind it.

Essentially, it boils down to self-esteem. But our self-esteem is shaped by our environment, and the people in it, from an early age. Children absorb so much of what is going on around us, a lot more than we (or they) might realise. The phrases we use, the actions we take, and the opinions we hold – they pick up on it all. So it’s essential that we’re aware of how we act around them.

Right now, my three-year-old thinks he is invincible – he has no fear and doesn’t doubt that he can do anything he sets his mind to – and I hope that he can hold on to that attitude throughout his life. Knowing what I do now, I try to be mindful about the words I use; not only when I speak directly to him, but whenever he’s in close proximity. It isn’t always easy, and sometimes I make a complete hash of it, but I’m getting better.

A few weeks ago I caught him drawing on the wall, and I admit that my first instinct was to tell him off. But I didn’t. I wasn’t having the best day, and it took every ounce of self-restraint that I had, but instead of shouting at him I took a more positive approach.

I stopped and (after a few seconds of deep breathing to calm down) asked him to explain his latest creation, and he happily stood and pointed out what he’d drawn. I listened intently as we talked about his work, each of us picking our favourite part, and I told him what a talented young artist he is becoming. Only then did I explain to him that it’s better to draw on paper than on the walls, and gave him an old notebook that he could use for his artwork. He hasn’t redecorated since. Instead, he pulls out his drawing pad whenever he feels creative and proudly presents his work to us so we can admire it.

Why did I make a point of telling him how creative he was? To build him up. People need to hear that they’re talented, that they’re doing a great job, that they can do it. Yet sadly, many of us are told the opposite all too often.

Think back to a time in the last few years when you were told you were bad at something, or that you were useless and would never be able to do it. How did hearing that make you feel about yourself? As adults, we might be able to brush the criticism off and carry on, but the chances are it still stung a little at the time.

Now go further back, and think of a time when you were told something similar as a child. Do you still remember the words that were used against you or the person who said them? Maybe it was a teacher, calling you out on your mistake in front of the entire class, telling you that you were stupid and would never amount to anything. Or perhaps it was a parent yelling at you, announcing to anyone within earshot what a naughty little girl you were.

Ah, such fond memories…

Now, the problem is this; as much as these criticisms were probably meant to encourage good behaviour, or to make us work harder, the result was that we grew to believe that we were crap at math, the worst player on the team, or were just plain naughty.

The more we hear these negative statements, especially at a young age, the more we grow to believe them. The more we believe them, the more we say those same things to ourselves. They become self-fulfilling prophecies. We become our own worst enemy.

We’re bad at writing, so we don’t bother trying. We know we’re always naughty, so why bother even trying to behave? We’ve never been good with money, so what’s the point in starting to save? You get the picture.

So the question is, how we change the way we think about ourselves?

The first step is to pinpoint the source of the negative belief. What were you told about yourself that made you think that way? Who said it to you? How did it make you feel?

Next, think about all the times in your life when you’ve proved that person wrong. What have you achieved in spite of what they said about you? This is an integral part of the healing process, so take your time and write yourself a list that you can look back on when you feel the negativity creeping back in.

Now reframe the belief. If you were always told that you were rubbish at writing (yup, I got that one frequently from my English teacher – yet somehow impressed my creative writing professor at Uni and now run my own blog – suck on that, Mr B!), flip the belief on its head. This one can take a bit of practice, but it gets easier as you get used to doing it.

Rather than saying “I’m bad at English”, start telling yourself “My English has improved with every piece I have written, and my skills will continue to grow with each new page”.

The final step is to repeat your new positive belief to yourself regularly. Just like with the negative statements from your past, the more you hear these reframed beliefs, the more you will come to hold them as true.

And it’s not just you that can benefit from this newfound positivity. You can use the skills you’ve learned to build up the people around you too. Your family, friends, colleagues and even strangers you meet will all appreciate being complemented rather than criticised.

Remember, it’s always better to build someone up than it is to knock them down.

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