Saturday, May 18, 2013

Limiting the power of self-limiting beliefs over us

Is being happy an emotional option, something we can choose to be in our daily lives? If so, why don’t we choose to be happy more often? The answer may be a bit more surprising than you might think. How we choose to respond to a specific situation that happens to us or around us has to do with our belief system--about ourselves and the world around us. We may not even be fully aware of these beliefs (conscious of their presence) or of the impact they have on our lives. That is the premise of a short and unassuming book I read last week that led me to start thinking about the beliefs that I grew up with and that may still affect my present life and the choices I make. It is not the events of ordinary life per se that make us unhappy or that cause our unhappiness, rather it is how we choose to respond to them based on the beliefs that we have about ourselves that lead to un-happiness, as the author of Emotional Options, Mandy Evans, puts it. Un-happiness is the opposite of happiness--the state of not being happy. This definition suggests the idea of choice or the idea of a switch; that one could perhaps choose to switch on happiness and switch off un-happiness. It suggests that happiness is an option, a choice that we exercise to use or not to use. So that much of what happens in our ordinary lives—love, friendships, workplace interactions, and so forth—do not in and of themselves make us happy or unhappy. Yes, love can disappear or end; yes, friendships can disintegrate or we can be betrayed or deeply disappointed; yes, workplace interactions can be difficult or downright impossible leading us to feel like failures. The author’s point is that bad things happen to good people; you cannot escape or prevent that fact. Sickness and death happen, for example, betrayal and divorce likewise. The list goes on. How we respond to the bad things that happen to us is a choice that we make, even if we are not really aware of the fact that we are choosing. Our choices will make us happy or un-happy. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? When I first read this, I thought, I’ve heard this before in various guises. It’s not uncommon to hear from the self-help world that you can choose to be happy. But after thinking about it, I realized that it’s not very common to hear that un-happiness, or the state of being un-happy, is the result of some rather limiting beliefs we have about ourselves and the world around us. And it is those beliefs that are difficult to confront and subsequently change or root out. Some of those beliefs have seeped into our subconscious minds after years of hearing them repeated—by parents, teachers, authority figures, sometimes even partners/friends, and finally by ourselves to ourselves.

Mandy Evans points out that we all have a belief system—some of those beliefs we are aware of, others we are unaware of. Some of those beliefs are self-defeating beliefs (Mandy’s words), and take the following forms: waiting for happiness beliefs (many people experience this, I call it the IF ONLY way of living—I’ll be happy if only I become successful, rich, if I get even, get promoted, etc. Many people live for the future and if you asked them whether they are happy in the here and now, they wouldn’t know how to answer, because they are so focused on future happiness); events control your feelings beliefs; beliefs about anger; beliefs about changing circumstances; life-extinguishing beliefs; beliefs about punishment. And if a society believes in the value of punishment, we can find ourselves burdened with dealing with the following: the chiding inner monologue (you’re no good, you’re a fake, you don’t deserve success or happiness. How many of us can honestly say we don’t feel that way sometimes? Most women I know do, including myself, and believe me, it’s not easy to deliver a lecture about your work and feel that way when you step up to the podium); verbal abuse directed at someone else; physical abuse; torture and death. She defines happiness as emotional freedom. How do we get there? That’s what this book should help you with—getting there. And when you arrive there, it should be able to help you stay there, because there’s always the possibility of slipping backwards. We don’t live in a perfect world, so we will never achieve perfection of the self. But if we confront ourselves when we think in black and white rigid ways, or when we are afraid, anxious, depressed or defeatist, picking up this book, reading it through and asking ourselves the questions it poses can help. I bought a Kindle version of the book, and have already highlighted many passages. It will help me find those sections that I might want to re-read at a future point when I need a pep talk. Because I admit it, I need pep talks. My inner voices are not always kind to me. I wish I knew where they came from. I feel sure that some of them are a direct result of our upbringing in the 1970s: it was not a good thing to be proud, assertive, boastful, too smart, too good-looking, too free, too anything. Like the ‘jantelov’ in Norway (you should never think that you are ‘someone’ or that you are better than anyone else), some of the ways we woman were encouraged to behave when we were growing up were downright detrimental to our self-esteem and held many of us down, or kept us in our ‘places’. But isn’t it the case that we chose to stay in our places, or that it is easier to blame men or bad bosses or ungrateful friends for what has become of us in life? The fact remains that there are unenlightened men who want to hold women down or keep them out of the upper echelons of power, and there are bad bosses. What we do with these situations, how we respond to them, is what ultimately leads us to happiness or un-happiness. I don't have to be unkind or get angry in order to deal with them; it's a choice. I have to admit that I have reacted angrily to situations that may have worked out better had I not done so. Emotional freedom; for me--not wasting energy on people and issues that drain me and suck the life out of me (emotional vampirism). Not being angry at myself and others for things I haven't been clear about up until now. Who knew emotional freedom (how you yourself define it) could be so important for our well-being? The author states clearly that she doubts that beliefs govern all of our feelings. But she knows for certain that what you believe plays a strong and overlooked role in everything you feel. So if you ‘believe’ that you should listen yet once more to an emotional vampire, or accept psychological abuse at the hands of a bad boss—in other words, if you believe that you should be a victim—you will choose to be one. It makes sense to me.

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