Luckily, because I’ve been noticing and working on this pattern for some time, it was easier for me to catch that automatic thought and challenge it. Immediately, I thought, “wait a minute!” I reminded myself that this is exactly what I want to do more of and exactly what I have experience, skill, and passion doing – and I am confident in it!
And yet, even in that situation, one that was so perfectly aligned with who I am, my core values, and the goals I have set for myself – my lightning-quick automatic thought process went to “don’t agree; don’t risk it; stay small!” Protection mode – if we don’t dare to do things that may challenge us, we can’t get hurt, disappointed, embarrassed, or any other emotion or experience we may fear.
I know I’m not alone in this and I realized once again how deeply ingrained these types of reactions really are. If it happened in that ideal situation, how often does it happen in our daily lives that we don’t catch it? Especially when it comes to situations that are new or different? How often are we avoiding being challenged, avoiding trying new things, or avoiding putting ourselves in situations where we may experience vulnerability?
We have so many outdated “scripts”, old stories that are running in the background of our minds, based on our upbringing and earliest experiences.
If we haven't done the work necessary to recognize, challenge or change them, they are calling the shots, running the show, dictating our perception, and essentially, making choices for us. Over time, if we lack the self-awareness needed to fully see this, we tend to turn these tendencies into personality or character traits (“oh, that’s just how I am”), when that is not accurate at all. Rather, they are defense mechanisms, put into place at a time in our lives when we had limited life experience and limited coping strategies. They then became a “story” we told, and continue to tell, ourselves and others – we believed them so they were “true”.
When we learn to slow down and drop in on, and check out those automatic reactions, we can learn about the messages attached to them. Messages that likely have some aspect of vulnerability embedded within them depending on what our young brains accepted as fact, in childhood and adolescence – that then became our “story”. We constantly put labels and limitations on ourselves: “I’m capable of “this”, but not “that”, “I am “this”, but not “that”.”
Let’s use as an example, a belief someone has that they are not funny. It is a story they may have told themselves, based on messages or experiences they encountered when they were young that made it, for whatever reason, not feel “safe” to be funny. Perhaps as a child they told their father a joke and his response was, “that’s not funny”. If their father was an important person in their life, and they wanted his affection and approval, that very simple statement likely carried an emotional impact.
Then maybe their father, or perhaps even an older sibling, made a similar statement on another occasion. It touched on that same emotion from the first time it happened and their brain became trained to seek out supporting evidence to further prove, “I’m not funny”.
By “safe”, I don’t mean on a physical level (unless there was an abusive situation), but emotionally. As children, we try to avoid overwhelming emotions like sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, and shame. So, we change ourselves in certain ways to avoid experiencing these emotions (i.e. we stop telling jokes or trying to be funny so that we do not get criticized or negatively judged by the people we care about.)
Once we become aware of the stories that are running in our minds, dictating our here and now experiences, we become empowered! Because only then can change, that is based on conscious, present-moment, heart-guided information, happen.
This is one of the biggest reasons why people struggle with creating, sticking with, and achieving goals, or forming new habits. They often don’t have a solid basis of understanding their ingrained tendencies, their conditioned responses, and the underlying limiting beliefs that form the foundation from which they are living their lives.
One of the primary areas I focus on in life coaching sessions is self-awareness. It is such a broad term that I’m sure people interpret it in many different ways. And it actually does mean different things. It can relate to “mindful presence” – being able to tap into a deeper, more attuned quality of life. But in order to achieve this, there must be a level of understanding of our core.
It is from a place of deep self-awareness (understanding the process of how our conditioned thoughts and beliefs impact our emotions, which then impact everything else), that we can change and transform. We are not our thoughts, not our beliefs or stories.
It is liberating to know that once we have this realization, once we understand why we developed certain beliefs or traits, and how they may still be holding us back or limiting our potential, we can choose to take control.
Ask yourself if a certain belief or way of thinking feels authentically true or right to you as the person you are now. Basically, is it still working for you? If not, you have the ability to re-create yourself to be the person you want to be now. When you can change your perception, you truly can change your life experience!
For more on Thinking Traps and Limiting Beliefs
If this is a topic you would like to explore more fully, check out reasons why people participate in coaching to do just that!
Let’s say, for example, that you’re meeting a friend for brunch. You have agreed to meet at 11:30am and you arrive at 11:15 to get a good table. You’re excited to see your friend since it’s been far too long since you’ve had a chance to catch up. As you scan the room you notice some couples and a group of friends, all chatting away and enjoying themselves. Feeling a little uncomfortable that you’re the only person sitting alone, you check the time and notice that it is 11:35.
Your first thought might be something like, “wow, I even made an effort to be a bit early, I wonder what’s keeping him?” Thoughts along those lines might continue for a few minutes. The more time that passes, however, the more your thoughts may start to take on a different tone as the voice in your head starts making comments like, “people always do this to me, I’m fed up with being the only person who’s ever on time!” or “he obviously doesn’t have much respect for me if he doesn’t value my time enough to be here when she said he would”.
All the while, with each negative thought, your body and emotions are reacting in the same way as they would in a genuinely stress-producing situation, dealing with a hurt child or fender-bender, for example. Your brain is telling you a story and when you buy into it, your stress continues to rise.
Often a situation triggers a memory of another time in the past where we may have experienced something similar and did not have adequate coping skills or our feelings got hurt. We may not realize that is happening and think we’re in the here and now, but we’re really not.
We're filtering the present situation through the lens of our past experiences. If it is actually a new situation, our minds may start questioning, again on a subconscious level, whether we have the ability to handle it, or worry about the impact it will have on other areas of our lives, etc. In most cases, it is the messages our brains are telling us that trigger the stress response.
There are several ways to make some changes when it comes to this type of stress:
In the example above, you might remind yourself that your friend could be stuck in traffic or perhaps misplaced his car keys, or that he is dealing with a family emergency - all things that have absolutely no reflection on how much he values or respects you. Truly, at that point it has nothing to do with you except that you are sitting by yourself at a table in a restaurant. Then, take a deep breath and let those emotions pass by, without allowing the thoughts continue that are fueling your stress response.
Being aware of your thinking and its impact on the level of stress you experience is one of the most helpful things you can do to help minimize its effect on you. To learn more about Stress Management, you can also check out another write-up on stress here
Bobbi Beuree, Certified CAN Coach + Facilitator is located in Halifax, NS, and provides virtual, 1:1 coaching services grounded in Mindset Coaching.