My junior high science teacher had a large poster hanging in her classroom with vignettes of various scenes: a skyscraper, a child crying and other miscellany. Underneath there was a caption that read, “You are what you eat.” In other words, rather than literally eating food, the poster was simply saying that you become or learn what you think about.
Although the poster was referring to intellectual learning, psychologists have discovered this to be true when it comes to what we tell ourselves about ourselves, that self esteem (or the lack thereof) is a learned state of mind.
They also know that we can change that state of mind. Writer and psychologist Darlene Lancer recently posted an article on this very subject, that we can unlearn some of the negative beliefs we have about ourselves that might be unhealthy. For example, if we were brought up to believe that making a mistake was “shameful”, we will be afraid of risk and won’t take the necessary steps to better ourselves. Or if we grew up believing that we had to “earn” the love of others and that unconditional love wasn’t an option, as adults we may be inclined to enter into relationships that requires us to “earn” affection from another person.
From experience, I know this is true. When I was about to graduate from college in 1985, I took a senior management class that focused on the now iconic classic by Peter Drucker, “In Search of Excellence.” Although I was a perfectionist, I knew that Drucker was talking about something quite different than perfectionism, but I didn’t know how to change my thought patterns to realize the ideal that while excellence is a worthy goal, perfectionism is a demanding, unforgiving taskmaster.
That’s when a friend of mine introduced me to another now iconic classic on cognitive therapy, “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by David Burns. The book was truly life changing for me, and as my children got older I gave each of them a copy of the book.
There are different chapters in the book dealing with many untruths we tell ourselves; the one that spoke to me personally was one entitled “Dare to be Average,” which addressed the fear that drives perfectionists to strive for the unattainable.
In her article, Lancer reminds us that although difficult, it is possible to change those deep rooted belief systems that can lead to serious consequences throughout our lives.
She’s right; I still use some of the techniques I learned from Burns’ book to “rethink” something I know I’m being unrealistic about. Lancer gives additional strategies in her article that challenge us to let our minds work for us rather than against us.