Back in the days when my father was still alive and plagued by his plethora of insecurities and fears, he visited us in Australia. Driving home from the airport, noting the flag that usually waves gaily from atop the coat hanger bridge was drooping at half mast, he asked an innocuous question. “Why is the flag at half-mast?” My husband answered, equally innocuously, “Someone must have died.”
A stony silence radiated from my father. A silence pulsing with anger and resentment. The sort of silence that slides into the spaces between people and sucks all the air out of the room, leaving in its place an anxiety that has a physical presence that can sweep you off your feet as surely as a rogue wave. If you’ve loved people wrapped in a prickly layer of defensiveness, you probably know what I’m talking about.
I didn’t understand what the problem was, why my father was so upset, but I could interpret that silence like an expert. My father felt, somehow, insulted. All through lunch he sat withdrawn and grumpy, and when we finally got home, I braved up enough to ask what the problem was.
I was nervous about doing this. I knew his tone would be sharp with an irrational anger that has scared me since I was a small child. Not because I feared physical violence from my father, but because he used love like a weapon, withdrawing it when displeased, deploying it when he wanted something. And sure enough the words that formed the basis of his explanation were spat out like missiles.
“Does he think I’m stupid?”
Obviously not, but I remember thinking to myself this was stupidity in action. To get so wound up over something so inconsequential. Something so easily addressed with humour or a follow up question – “I know that, dingbat, but do you know who died?”
I tell you this story not to showcase bad parenting, but because it illustrates something profoundly insightful about the human condition. Something most of us don’t know, and even for those who have a glimpse of it, something we can easily forget.
Reality is subjective.
Our perceptions of reality are not objectively experienced, but are viewed through, and crafted by, a series of deeply held beliefs, almost all of which are entirely invisible to us unless we actively seek them out. Psychologists call them core beliefs. Despite being largely hidden from our day-to-day conscious minds, they significantly influence our emotions, our behaviours, how we interpret what we see or hear, and how we respond. More than that, they filter what we pay attention to. We notice the things that reinforce those beliefs (even though we don’t notice the belief itself) and ignore the multitude of evidence against them. Our core beliefs are a lens through which we view the real world.
I think about these beliefs as the structures on which the fabric of our minds rest. They shape the landscape and hue of our conscious experience in the world. They create our reality.
We all hold core beliefs. Unexamined, unconscious assumptions we make about the world and ourselves. These self-beliefs can be positive or they can be negative. Do we believe, right down in the heart of things where our rational minds play no role, that we are worthy of love? Or do we believe that love must be earned? Do we see ourselves as resilient or doomed to failure. We also hold primal beliefs about the world. Do we believe the world is a safe place? Or do we believe people are inherently dangerous and to be distrusted? Research shows that our beliefs impact on who and how we are in the world.
With endless hours under my belt deconstructing my relationship with my dead father – I’ve come to understand that all his strange, emotionally abusive behaviours flowed from a core belief that he was not worthy of love. That he had to hold tightly onto those he loved, for without bondage they would surely abandon him. This belief, unexamined and unaddressed, had unintended side-effects. His behaviour reinforced his fears, and became self-fulfilling, at least in a depth of relationship sense, as we all grappled (and continue to do so) growing up loved by a father who didn’t understand boundaries.
We acquire our core beliefs through our experiences in the world – we absorb them over time from our culture and upbringing, from our social interactions and what we are explicitly taught. We don’t choose them, and it requires deliberate engagement of cognitive effort to see them lurking in the shadows.
When they are positive, there is no need to look too deeply. But when are you triggered into anger or insecurity, fear or sadness, or recklessness in certain situations, it is worth thinking more about what might be driving the thoughts that lead to those emotions, or the emotions that lead to those thoughts and actions.
I know with certainty that my father passed on (or created) that self-same belief in me. The sense, deep in the dark corners of my mind, that I have to earn love, and that there is something innately flawed within me that I have to work to change in order to be liked and loved. The fear that flows into my mind and seeps into my behaviours because of this is that people will surely realise that I’m not perfect and leave me for something better. I openly talk about my sense of inadequacy and perfectionism, my insecurity. I recognise them and see them. But what I’ve recently learned is that the engine room of these feelings lie in core beliefs I hold, even though I did not choose them. An irrational sense that I am not worthy of love. That I am not good enough.
I can trace the origins of my father’s core belief, and the story is heart-breaking. This is the story of a little boy hiding in the coal shed so he didn’t have to go to school, because he knew if he did, his mother (who returned from leaving her family to fetch his baby sister) might be gone when he got back. And even though she promised his tear-streaked face she would be there; she was, of course, not.
Understanding this helped me, as an adult, view my father with more compassion, and his actions with more forgiveness. Understanding my father helped me understand myself. Working with a therapist over many years helped quieten the thoughts of inadequacy that these core beliefs generate and made me more inherently confident in myself and my relationships. I was driven by a desire to be a better parent (ironically, driven by a need to be perfect parent, to make people happy), but ultimately, I wanted to be a happier human being.
I could only do it once my dad had passed away, but I often wish for a world in which he was alive and wise enough, insightful enough to know this about himself, and for us to have had a more mutually fulfilling relationship.
But it is a hypocritical thought, because of late I realise that I’ve been doing the same thing. I’ve been sucked down a river of negativity, plagued by a misplaced sense of self-doubt and fear of abandonment that I forgot to question. I’ve let those feelings, which feel as real as the chair beneath me, direct my actions and behaviours. I’ve focused on them, identified with them, and so doing, given them oxygen to take over my life.
I can postulate why this occurred and why I was triggered into these responses, but other than to recognise that it too has its origins in my childhood experiences of emotional withdrawal, that is not the point of this.
Most importantly, I can forgive myself by remembering that core beliefs are powerful buggers. They suck you in if you aren’t paying attention and spit you out in miseryville, a place where you are self-absorbed, depressed, and defensive. Where you accidentally hurt the people you love the most.
Just like my dad.
It is only when my husband points out to me that my assumptions about him are hurtful that I am even aware that I’m lost in the wilderness here. I’m struck dumb by my blindness to my own actions, despite efforts at mindfulness. Despite years of therapy. Even though I know that he loves me, and always has.
It is only when he has the courage to call me out that I wake up and suddenly realise, “Whoa! Wait a minute, what the hell am I thinking?”
I am not thinking at all. I’m being carried away by feelings and thoughts, and acting on them, as though they are reflective of truth. They are not.
Can we ever shift our core beliefs or are they ingrained? I’m not sure you can eradicate them entirely, in fact, my experience indicates perhaps not. I spent years working all this stuff out, but pop in some hormonal fluctuations, age related weight gain and a grumpy husband with his own core beliefs to deal with, and I’m a hot mess of craziness.
But here is what I do know – because I know perfectionism is a bullshit game despite what my inner voice sometimes shouts at me – we can start again, even when we fail.
I know we can work to recognise the role our core beliefs play in our thoughts, and mentally call them out for what they are – inherited nonsense about ourselves that our rational minds might well baulk at. We can use our conscious minds to question why we feel something, reframe our feelings and always choose our responses regardless of those feelings. And we can actively, rationally replace negative, automatic thoughts with more balanced ones. It is effortful, it requires choice and vigilance (and self-compassion) which doesn’t always seem possible. But it is possible to keep trying, even when you fall into the river and only emerge 600 miles downstream.
Mindfulness meditation teachers extol the need to observe the feeling, the thought, and watch them disappear. To not identify with it. That is what mindfulness teaches us – to stand in separation from the thoughts our brains conjure up. Remember to do so and you’ll soon come to see that they pass without causing too many waves.
Life is so short. The people we love can be taken from us in an instant. Sad times come (and go). As do happy ones. What a waste of life to spend it being overly concerned and identified with the chemical activity our brains spontaneous generate and that we call thought or emotion. What a waste of relationship possibilities it is to be attached to our personas of grumpy old curmudgeon or insecure old woman because your brain is stuck in some alternative reality where you have to prove your worth.
And what a waste of energy to think failure at achieving this is anything other than an opportunity to try again.
So, onwards we go.
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