A popular motivational quote says: “What you give power to, has power over you”. I like this quote because it speaks to the fact that we have a choice whether or not we are going to engage with our beliefs. This is important because in many ways we become our beliefs – for better or worse. Your beliefs are the stories that guide your behavior and influence your emotions. These stories will determine the quality of your life. You might not even be aware of your negative narratives because you believe them so firmly. Yes, by now, you actually consider them facts. But any story can be rewritten. You just need to reevaluate and pay special attention to the stories you tell yourself.
Now when you were born, you didn’t have any preconceived beliefs. Where did you pick up these negative stories along the way?
- Through experience, including direct experience and observation of others (e.g., getting bullied at school or seeing how other children were being bullied).
- Through instructions from family, peers, and significant others (e.g., your parents told you that not finishing your dinner plate is ungrateful).
- Through social norms and cultural expressions (e.g., only attractive people are happy).
Many people who suffer from anxiety and depression hold on to a negative story about themselves or the world around them. These limiting beliefs fuel anxiety and depression. In my private therapy practice, I help clients to identify their unconscious negative stories that hold them back, and replace them with healthy beliefs that reduce anxiety and depression. Some common examples of negative beliefs in depression and anxiety are:
‘I will never overcome this depression and anxiety.’
‘I am not capable, smart, and worthy of attention and love.’
‘I need to find the solutions all by myself.’
‘Nobody understands my struggle.’
‘Saying “no” means that I am not a good spouse / friend / son / daughter / employee.’
‘I’m to blame for other people’s suffering.’
‘Showing vulnerability is weak.’
Now imagine how any of these stories would impact your life. Would you go after that long-wanted promotion? Would you take a leap of faith starting your own business? Would you call that old friend to apologize, or ask the woman from the coffee shop out on a date? Would you sign up for psychotherapy or counseling to get the support you need? Negative stories are limiting because they are roadblocks to learning and self-development. These automatic beliefs keep you from living up to your full potential and can make symptom of depression even worse.y But it’s very difficult to disregard a story without also replacing it with a new story. This is your opportunity to get rid of the negative stories and choose a new narrative about yourself – a new reality. Now, this is not to devalue the hardship that comes with truly upsetting circumstances. The point is to acknowledge that any upsetting circumstances are separate from you instead of allowing them to define who you are. There are three steps in creating a healthy story for yourself:
(1.) Identify subconscious beliefs.
To become aware of negative stories, take a good look at your current life and ask yourself what areas of your life you struggle with. What triggers your anxiety? When do you feel low and depressed? What situations or experiences are you trying to avoid? Are you holding back in any areas of your personal or professional development? Exploring the answers to these questions helps you to understand your “stuck points” and reveals your unconscious limiting beliefs. If this is hard, try meditating for a few minutes and take note of the thoughts that go through your mind. Where does your mind wander to?
(2.) Replace negative beliefs with healthy stories.
Where do you want to get to? Let’s say you identified that one of your limiting beliefs is that you can’t have a happy life because you have been diagnosed with depression. Is this a fact or a negative story you have been told? Is there nobody in this world who is happy and also struggles with depression? There are many people with meaningful and happy lives, who go through intense periods of depression. Your new story might look something like this: “I am creating a meaningful life in spite of depression”.
But what about the evidence? This is where it becomes tricky. You might feel like there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports your negative story and that is why you mistake your beliefs as facts. This is what a cognitive scientist would call “confirmation bias” and what is commonly known as “cherry-picking”. The human brain operates in such a way that once you have formed a belief, you will do anything to find supporting evidence and disregard counterevidence whenever possible. In other words, we would rather be right than happy. Everytime you give attention to a story about yourself, the underlying belief becomes validated and reinforced. For this reason, the stories we learn in early childhood over time may become self-fulfilling prophecies, and we need to be very mindful to never use labels when interacting with children. An example here is being told that you are such a good girl when you did what your parents and teachers told you to do, and in your adult life you now struggle with people-pleasing and seeking approval. In order to overcome this cycle, you need to make a conscious effort to remind yourself of the evidence that contradicts your sad old story and supports your new healthy one.
(3.) Strengthen the new stories and monitor your progress.
Find a positive affirmation to strengthen your new story. Repeat this affirmation several times a day – by either setting reminders on your phone or anchoring your affirmation to another task (e.g., every time you go to the bathroom it’s time to repeat your affirmation). Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t 100% believe in the new story just yet. The more often you affirm your new story the more natural it will feel. Hold back from ANY negative self-talk and judgement. Instead, strengthen your new belief by saying it out loud and letting others know that this is who you are.
No matter where you are in the process it’s worth checking in with the stories you tell yourself. Changing your beliefs doesn’t happen overnight but as you step into your new story, the story itself will evolve. This is a natural consequence of developing a healthy sense of self. You may have started out with “depression is not holding me back from going after my dreams” but now your story expanded and has become: “I kicked depression and anxiety in the butt”.
Let us know whether these tips are working for you and in what area of your life you are feeling the benefits!
Livia Freier, Ph.D., licensed psychologist at MindWell Psychology in Providence, RI. – author.
Copywriting author Anne Freier, senior pharmaceutical scientist- Contributing editor.