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Don’t believe everything you hear yourself say


My job involves listening to people, I mean really listening. Sometimes it’s a bit like collecting pieces of a jigsaw which helps me create a big picture in my head of who they are and what their situation is. Then out of the blue they say something with utter conviction, and I just can’t make that piece fit.


To give you an example, I was working with a bereaved client. She told me about her experience since she lost her husband. She shared how she had joined new groups and made new friends. How she had taken trips away, some with new friends or family, some alone. How she had supported her own children through their loss. How she also supported people going through the same thing.


Then she quietly said that the problem was that she just couldn’t do things on her own since she lost her partner. Now that is one of those sentences that I just couldn’t place in the bigger picture. Even though the evidence to the contrary was overwhelming, that was the one thing she believed completely.


Why would we believe something we tell ourselves over our actual physical experience? I say ‘we’ because this isn’t unusual behaviour. All of us hold beliefs about ourselves that we just don’t think to question. Sometimes those beliefs are helpful. “I can learn” has been an incredibly useful belief for me. “Better to try and fail than never try at all” is one that motivates a lot of people.


Absolute beliefs in our ability, as in “I am always brilliant” or “I always mess things up.” Are generally unhelpful. You might be able to think of some examples in your life or in the news where people have been over promoted. When they are drowning in evidence of their unsuitability in a specific situation, they can either dig in and assume everyone else is wrong, or they take on board the real-life evidence. To be faced with a reality check for the first time as an adult that you might not be universally brilliant, when this is a deeply held belief from childhood, can take some recovering from.


On the other hand, thinking you always mess up makes you reluctant to even try, and then any success is often seen through a filter of, well I got lucky that time. We generally work hard to prove to ourselves that these deeply held, long term beliefs are true.


With my client, I laid out all the evidence using her own words and examples. She was genuinely astonished at how far apart her experiences and belief were. As we continued to work together, every time this belief tried to creep back, I just ran through the evidence again until we managed to shift this belief. Now she smiles whenever this thought occurs to her.


What statements run through your head regularly – and how true are they?

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