In the years I have worked as a counsellor, I have heard many powerful beliefs, rules and assumptions expressed. Here is a list of some that you may hold or that may sound familiar:
- I must make the most of my talents.
- I must make the most of or fulfill my potential.
- I must not waste time.
- I should always seek to challenge myself to do better.
- If I fail at something, then it’s an opportunity to do better the next time.
- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.
- I should not give up.
- I should be determined and persistent.
- I should have grit.
- I should be resilient.
- If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
- I can always do better.
- There’s no such word as ‘can’t’.
- It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do.
- It is wrong to be ‘All words, no action’ or ‘All mouth’.
- It is wrong to ‘say one thing and do another’.
- I must not shirk.
- It is wrong to be lazy.
- Work is, in and of itself, good.
- If I’m not the best at something, I have failed.
- In theory, it’s OK if someone does better than me – but that’s not how it feels in practice.
- I have to keep proving my worth by achieving things.
- I both love and hate a ‘to do’ list.
- It is hard to rest. There is always more to do.
- I feel guilty when I take time out when my jobs aren’t finished.
- If I haven’t finished what I need to do, it’s OK to skimp on sleep.
- I often think that there aren’t enough hours in the day.
Let me invite you to get practical here. Tick any that apply to you and write down any others that you hold or experience that you think are ‘on theme’.
The fascinating thing about our beliefs, rules and assumptions is that we tend to think they are a given – surely everyone thinks this? I’ve had clients share beliefs with me that have almost knocked me flat. Here are a couple of examples:
‘If a girl dresses up to go out, she’s on the pull – why would she bother otherwise?’
‘I can’t change the way I think. Other people might be able to, but I can’t.’
I try to respond with, ‘That’s a very interesting belief you have,’ or words to that effect.
I’m usually met by a baffled look and some predictable comments. ‘But don’t you think that?’ ‘But it’s true – what do you mean, it’s a belief?’ ‘But I know it’s true!’
What I think or believe is, of course, irrelevant – the point is that the beliefs we hold dear are not universally held to be true and they are not immutable. If they are not beliefs that are helping us, we can choose to adapt or change them. This is not easy work. We will have been thinking and acting on these beliefs for so long that they are ingrained. They have become habitual and they will be our default position. Like any new habit, new thinking is hard to establish and will take time and effort. Sometimes clients complain that it feels ‘odd’ or ‘fake’. Yes, of course it does. Anything new feels unusual at first. If you get a pair of stiff, new shoes, it’s going to take time and in some cases some painful blisters, before you are used to them and they feel as comfortable as the ones you’ve had for years. Effecting a belief change is harder than wearing in new shoes – but is definitely worth the effort.
Shoulds and Musts
A good place to start is with any ‘shoulds’ or ‘musts’ in your list. Let’s take a common one.
‘I should/must make the most of my potential.’
I’m sure we can all see some sense in this. It’s a great motivator not to be a couch potato and is drilled into children and young people by well-meaning parents in order to help them pass their exams and get ‘good’ jobs. Be aware, however, that some of those parents will not be so well-meaning. Some will be wanting shiny, gold-star offspring that they can brag about to their friends and colleagues (think of some of the hellish Christmas Round Robins that many of us are doomed to receive!). Some will have issues of their own that they are trying to resolve through their children – because they never got to be an Olympic athlete/Leader of the Orchestra/Oscar Nominee/Prime Minister, they want to make jolly sure that one of their progeny makes it! Some will have religious and cultural axes to grind. It’s well worth having a think about what is or was motivating your own parents and how that is still affecting your own beliefs, even if they are long dead.
So…what do we do with these ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’? I’m not going to say anything new or revolutionary here – oodles of psychologists and therapists have made this point before but it’s worth stating nonetheless.
Start by changing your ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ to ‘coulds’ ‘cans’ ‘mights’ and ‘mays’ and add an element of choice.
- I could make the most of my potential (if I choose too).
- I may make the most of my potential (if I’d like too).
Observe how you feel reading those two possibilities. A bit uncomfortable? A bit, ‘Ooh, I’m not sure about that – sounds a bit lazy/sketchy/irresponsible’?
Does it sound a just a bit too free and easy?
If so, ask yourself exactly what is so terrible about feeling free to make your own decision about how much you choose to use your ‘potential’. What law are you breaking? Whose?
And let’s just unpick that word ‘potential’ whilst we’re here. Do you really believe that you have a given quantity of something stored up that ‘must’ be used or else? What are you? A long-life battery? Or else what, exactly?
Really interrogate what you believe here. Notice if you are coming up with labels for yourself. ‘Oh but then I’d be really lazy! I can’t do that – I’d maybe be a bit of a waste of space! I’d be like a drop-out or a loser!’ Then interrogate the labels. Where do those thoughts come from? Who is making those judgements? You? Your peers? Society? God? Who do you want to make the judgements about you?
We’ll come back to labelling and judgements later. For now, keep working on adapting some key rules and assumptions. Dig deep into your personal history and your family’s story. How far do the rules go back? What’s been handed down through the generations? Is yours a family of self-made people who are committed to pulling themselves up by their boot straps?
Are there historical disadvantages that your family has had to strive to overcome? Is there tragedy and trauma, leading to your family narrative being one of survival, whatever the cost? Is yours a family of emigres or refugees, flung onto their own resources time and again? My family history is relatively innocuous compared with many and, in some ways, has influenced me for the good. But it’s also had its dark side, as we have seen.
Let’s finish this chapter with a suggestion for an alternative to ‘I must fulfill my potential.’
I can choose to explore my gifts and talents and use them as it seems appropriate to me.
To me that feels remarkably refreshing compared with the previous straitjacket! But notice your own reaction. If you are questioning this as an appropriate belief to live by, what are you questioning? And what’s motivating the question? Keep digging!