By Vik Nithy
We know that our beliefs can influence our self-esteem, but how can we actually change them?
Much has been written in both academic and personal development literature about the importance of our beliefs in influencing our thought patterns, emotions and behaviour. Perhaps all human behaviours ultimately stem from conscious or subconscious beliefs. Why does a child sulk, cry or throw a tantrum in a crowded store when he doesn’t get what he wants? On one level, maybe he believes his tantrum will increase the probability that his parent will allow him what he wants. Perhaps he is right.
If we want to start a conversation about overcoming low self esteem, we need to talk about beliefs – and not the religious kind. Here is an opportunity to learn to address the kinds of core beliefs that influence our day-to-day behaviour outside of our awareness.
Beliefs in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Psychologists use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (“CBT”) more than any other evidence-based technique to help their clients, The foundation of CBT is the ABC model, which becomes relevant when managing a distress-inducing situation: [A] An Activating event or situation, [B] your underlying Belief, and [C] the Consequence of this belief.
[A]: Activating Event or Situation
Let’s take the childhood example. Sandra is in the supermarket with her 5-year old son, who throws a tantrum because he wants an unhealthy treat. This is the activating event or situation.
To best explain CBT, let’s now skip to Step [C]: the Consequence of this event.
Sandra feels guilty and ashamed of her son’s public outburst, and ends up purchasing TWO unhealthy sugar-coated treats – one to pacify her son and the other for herself.
What underlying beliefs and thought patterns led to this response?
Sandra’s thought pattern was as follows:
“Other people are watching”
“They can see that I can’t control my son”
“They probably think I’m a bad parent”
“I AM a bad parent”.
Thoughts and beliefs influence how we “see” / perceive a situation (or [A]ctivating event). When an [A]ctivating event happens, our beliefs and thoughts result in self-talk that ultimately influences our emotions and behaviour – the [C]onsequence. This can often be unhealthy or unrealistic, subject to what our beliefs are.
The core belief – “I am a bad parent” led Sandra to feel the uncomfortable sensations that accompany the emotion of shame. I.e. this is a physical feeling in her body, possibly going red in the face, discomfort in her gut and maybe even physical pain. This emotion results in her habitual response – comfort eating.
On some level, Sandra believes she is a bad parent, and behaves in a way that reflects this belief.
Examples of Negative Beliefs
“I should be better”
“I’m not good enough”
“I am ugly”
” I can’t trust anyone”
“I am incompetent”
“I don’t deserve love”
“I am alone”
“I might as well give up now”
“i’m a failure”
When we feel sad, angry, ashamed or afraid, we can just take a minute to pay attention to our mental world and hear the stories we are telling ourselves. Identifying our negative thoughts gives us an opportunity to begin the long journey to transform them.
How to Transform Negative Beliefs: The Work by Byron Katie
“The best form of Cognitive Therapy, in our opinion, is offered in The Work of Byron Katie, who provides an approach to disarming catastrophic thinking by means of a process that one can do oneself. This is the approach that we recommend” – Stanford Psychologist David Wise, Ph.D and urologist Rodney Anderson, M.D, 2008.
Belief expert Byron Katie asks four key questions to help us think critically about our beliefs and overcome low self esteem:
1) Is it true?
From Sandra’s perspective, in her moment of distress, it can feel absolutely true that she is a bad parent. To address this, Katie asks:
2) Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
Even in the depths of psychological distress, it is clear to Sandra that this belief is quite subjective. What objectively constitutes a “bad” parent? Compared to an alcoholic parent who abuses their child, Sandra would be considered a wonderful mother.
3) How do you react? What happens when you believe that thought?
This question invites Sandra to feel her feelings of discomfort, rather than avoiding them.
In order to answer this question, Sandra needs to reflect on the action she was about to take. She feels the emotion of shame in her body, and acts in a way that reflects this emotion – she buys sugar-coated sweets that she may have otherwise avoided – for herself and her child. Of course, we cannot judge Sandra as having made a good or bad choice – the purpose of this exercise is to acknowledge her own self-talk and self-judgement.
Sandra’s belief that she is a bad parent brings stress, not peace into her life, and actually fuels an unhealthy lifestyle for herself and her child.
4) Who would you be without that thought?
Sandra reflects that if she didn’t believe that she was a bad parent and feel ashamed, she would instead have the capacity to connect meaningfully with her child while still retaining firm boundaries, in whatever way feels right for her. In doing so, other storegoers might just admire her conviction, compassion, and patience.
Changing the way you think about thoughts and beliefs
CBT presents a new way for most of us to think about our beliefs – reminding us that:
- Our thoughts and beliefs are not necessarily true
- Our beliefs influence our lives in a meaningful way
- We are not our thoughts
Take a few seconds to pause and reflect silently on your thoughts. Notice your thoughts as being spoken by a voice in your head. It’s like your talking to yourself. We all engage in “Self Talk”. When you are reading something (like you are this article), you can hear the words you are reading in your own head. Since you can “hear” this voice, it is separate to your thoughts and feelings. You are not your thoughts!
Being able to observe this self-talk and recognise that “we” are separate to these thoughts allows us to be free from their controlling influence, as we can now challenge them and/or choose to behave in a way that reflects different, less self-critical beliefs. Sometimes, a belief like “I should be better”, can be transformed to “I can be better”, a belief like “I am alone” can be transformed to “I feel alone”, and a belief like “I am ugly” can be transformed to “I am beautiful”.
In science, there is fascinating research around an emerging method called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”, which proposes an “observer self” view of personal identity. The research has shown that people who foster this perspective about their beliefs developer better mental health outcomes than those who are “fused” with their thoughts and beliefs.
Our thoughts, emotions, and actions interact with each other in a dynamic and complex way, but it is never too late to start listening to your own self-talk. By identifying the core beliefs that lead to negative emotional and behaviour patterns, you are taking the most important step in overcoming low self-esteem
References and Further Reading:
Beliefs and Self Esteem – Academic Research:
Daly, M. J., & Burton, R. L. (1983). Self-esteem and irrational beliefs: An exploratory investigation with implications for counselling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 30(3), 361.
Gumley, A., Karatzias, A., Power, K., Reilly, J., McNay, L., & O’Grady, M. (2006). Early intervention for relapse in schizophrenia: Impact of cognitive behavioural therapy on negative beliefs about psychosis and self‐esteem. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45(2), 247-260
Pierce, J. W., & Wardle, J. (1997). Cause and effect beliefs and self‐esteem of overweight children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38(6), 645-650.
Byron Katie and The Work:
Byron Katie on The Work: http://www.prolificliving.com/without-your-story-byron-katie/
Katie, B. (2003). Loving what is: Four questions that can change your life. Harmony Books.
Wise, D., & Anderson, R. U. (2010). A headache in the pelvis: A new understanding and treatment for chronic pelvic pain syndromes. National Center for Pelvic Pain Research. – (Praise for Byron Katie)
The observer self
Explanation Video: https://vimeo.com/145946135
Self-As Context Exercise: http://www.jamesdrew.net/Forms/Ch7_Homework2.pdf
Fletcher, L., & Hayes, S. C. (2005). Relational frame theory, acceptance and commitment therapy, and a functional analytic definition of mindfulness. Journal of rational-emotive and cognitive-behaviour therapy, 23(4), 315-336.
Harris, S. (2015). Waking up: A guide to spirituality without religion. Random House. (Related Reading)