From the time we are first born, or maybe even before that, we are being taught rules and beliefs about this life and the world around us. Some of those rules are stated to us directly while others we infer through observation. The rules are enforced and
strengthened through punishment, negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, and praise. Most of us want to please those around us, be accepted, and avoid punishment so we accept and adopt what we are taught as truths about the world.
There are many purposes for these rules, often they are to keep us safe, or to help society function in a civilized or calm manner. Without a guidebook being given to us about how to live life, we have created it on our own. There are beliefs at a species level, beliefs that most humans believe. Beliefs at a cultural level that differ from one group to another. Rules within family groups and then rules that we develop just for ourselves. Some of these beliefs are passed down through books, fables, and songs, while others are passed down through word of mouth and still others we create for ourselves.
Sometimes the rules have been passed down for so long or are so ingrained in the human psyche that we, as humans, keep accepting them blindly and following them without question even though they are made up. This isn’t a problem until the beliefs start to get in the way of living the life that you really want to live. Imagine there is a garden inside each of us. That garden can look however you want it to, but it is filled with the rules and beliefs that you have been taught or observed throughout your life. What would that garden look like? If all the truths, you have been taught were helpful and adaptive your garden is probably beautiful and thriving. However, if the beliefs have become a hindrance you may have a lot of weeds, overgrown or dying plants, or invasive plants that are choking out the flowers or bushes you want to see flourish.
When you are given or taught beliefs about yourself when you are young that are negative and untrue that can have a very negative effect on the garden. It can be like an infestation of parasitic insects that are destroying the beautiful flowers or a fungus in the soil rotting the roots. So often we hear things about ourselves as children that become anchored to our identity and continue to influence how we think or feel about ourselves and believe our capabilities to be as we become adults. Examples might be if we are told that we are lazy, overweight, annoying, or if it is implied that we are a burden or not good enough. These “untruths” as I will call them can become rooted into our inner self talk and become a refrain of our inner critic long after the person who originally created the belief is gone from our lives. They become those invasive plants choking out anything else in our garden.
These negative beliefs can be very harmful and, what makes it even more difficult, is that we may not even know they are present because we are so used to the negative belief that it has become an unquestionable fact in our minds. They can negatively impact our self-esteem, our sense of identity, and undermine work we are doing to heal and reach goals in our life. Sometimes they are so much a part of who we believe that we keep on believing them even when there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. Imagine trying to plant vegetables, wonderful herbs, or gorgeous flowers only to have them die or be choked out over and over again and not understanding why. After a while you may stop trying to plant anything new, and give up the garden as lost.
When we are put down, bullied, or made to feel like a chore as we grow up it has a profound effect on what we believe about ourselves. Especially when this is done by a parent, teacher, or someone in our life that holds a high value. As a child, even as an adult, we crave attention, praise, love, and, when this is not given freely, or worse when we receive the opposite, then most children believe that there is something wrong with them and believe the untruths they are being told. It is like blaming ourselves for there being weeds in the garden or believing that the vines choking everything else out are there to help the garden grow stronger.
The untruths can be planted in our mind even if we hear them one time, especially if it is an emotionally charged situation, but if it is something we hear over and over again it is very likely that it will take root. Think about things in your life that you believe to be true about yourself and about the world. Then ask yourself why you believe them. What is your evidence? Who told you that was true? Are they a trustworthy source? You will likely start to realize that many of the things that you believe to be true are really the opinions of someone else.
Many of us have a knack of stating opinion as fact, and this may be because we believe it to be true. Some of the clues to look for are statements that involve the word “should” or “supposed to” as those are indications of a rule, often a rule that was created and not a real rule. If you hear yourself making a “should” statement you could try asking yourself, why not and what would happen if you did? Also, you could try changing the “should” to a “could” and seeing how that alters the feeling of the statement. Or take some time to walk around in your mental garden and start getting to know what it looks like and what is planted there. Do you like the plants you see? Are there weeds that need to be pulled out? Is there a plant that is harming the flowers you want to grow? A lot of work can be done using imagery like this and it can have profound effects on your life.
Luckily, there are ways to uncover these untruths, to weed them out, and to plant new, more positive beliefs instead. The first step is really to begin to recognize and track down negative beliefs. Finding the “should” statements will help track down a lot of rules that are at a societal level as will finding the weeds in your garden. To track down beliefs about yourself start by thinking about who you think you are. What is your identity? If you wrote, I am, down on a piece of paper twenty times how would you complete that sentence? Once you have those sentences completed, take time to really think about each statement to see if it is true. If it is not 100% true, then it very well may be a false belief. Also, as you spend time in your garden make decisions about what plants you want to keep, prune, water, and what plants no longer fit or benefit your garden.
It may even help to bring in a trusted friend to help, someone who can be more objective. Once you have identified some of those identity statements that are not 100% true, ask yourself where they came from. Who told you that or why did you decide that about yourself? Then, ask yourself what a more true statement would be, or what would you like to be true about yourself and how can you help to make it true? One of the untruths many of us have in our society is that the identity is static, fixed, cannot be changed. That is NOT true! Change is a constant and it applies to everything, even to who we are.
Our personalities and beliefs, and therefore our lives can be changed at any time we choose. Uncovering the false beliefs is the first step, then challenging them, and finally creating or deciding on new beliefs about the world. This can be done in stages. It is sometimes difficult to create a new belief all at once because we may have to work up to actually believing the new belief. The imagery of the garden can help with this because you can plant seeds in your garden for the plants (beliefs) that you really want to have and take time to care for them and watch them grow.
Guided relaxation is a wonderful way to change out old beliefs for new ones. I have a relaxation available on my website called The Healing Garden that I created specifically for the purpose of getting rid of old beliefs and planting new ones using imagery of a garden. Listening to the recording will help you work with the imagery especially if you have a difficult time holding on to an image on your own or your mind tends to wander because you are guided through the exercise and can listen to it again and again. Good luck working on your garden and changing your beliefs.