Have you ever noticed that angry people always seem to be angry about something, but that even when they’re not there’s a pervasive sense of anger? Even when they’re not actively angry about the latest outrage, they’re still angry. Maybe it comes out as a hair trigger on their temper. Maybe it’s their propensity to always respond in anger, no matter the provocation.
And it’s the same with other sorts of negative emotions, the sad, the depressed, the anxious, the fearful, the victim. I pick on the angry ones because anger has been my issue and it’s always best to pick on yourself in these sorts of blogposts.
It reminds me of the negativity bias. This is the idea that if we’re not careful (there are things we can do to counterbalance this bias, like we can with all biases) negative stuff we’re exposed to will have a greater impact on us than positive stuff. And if we’re not mindful about it, the negativity bias can just take over, in which case it’s not just that the negative stuff has a greater impact that positive stuff, but the impact it has becomes greater and greater until we can’t actually hear the positive things at all, and every point of negativity is overwhelming.
And a bias is one of those things that is unconscious – until it’s not. It’s just the way our brains function, and sure there are evolutionary reasons that make perfect sense for hunter-gatherers with the constant threat of death via not-enough-animal encounters and too-much-animal encounters. In such ancient times negative feedback needs an immediate response or death may follow. And in our modern lives, mostly negative feedback doesn’t require us to change immediately or die.
Unconscious biases like the negativity bias, and unconscious beliefs that we may have picked up in childhood absolutely do direct our lives. Let me give you two examples:
Unconscious Belief → Conscious Outcome
‘I don’t deserve nice things.’ → A tendency to settle for the broken, unflattering, ill-fitting; a tendency not to maintain, appreciate, and use gently those nice things, situations, and people that/who are briefly present; a discomfort with nice things, situations, and people.
‘I’m no good, I always mess up.’ → A tendency to underperform, to quit before a skill is fully learned, to avoid ideal situations that might lead to success; an inability to see and value competencies; a discomfort with success or accolades.
Yes, these are self-fulfilling prophecies, and it’s one of the reasons mantras are so popular. Mantras, in this situation, are statements that you want to live into. They might be already true, but you can’t really believe it, or they might be aspirational, describing a way of being you’d like to embody. But a mantra won’t go far if you haven’t dug up the old, unconscious belief and looked it in the eye, first. It’s almost impossible to replace a new thought pattern that is beautiful, useful, but so, so fragile, swapping out an old one with an entrenched root system that spans the entirety of your backyard garden until you start digging up all those roots. Then you can plant that beautiful new thought in every hole and rut you’ve just dug out the old thought from.
An example of that might be someone who just thinks their life sucks. (This is the unconscious belief of a fate-driven life.) And when you ask them why, they tell you that they don’t like their job, they never do anything fun, most of their friends are mean, they don’t have a partner, their home is cluttered and miserable and full of broken things, they don’t have good relationships with their siblings, they don’t like their body or the clothes they wear, and they don’t have any energy. (These are the conscious outcomes across their entire life of unconscious beliefs.) And in therapy or spiritual direction, they’ve been able to admit that from childhood on they received the message that they don’t get to have nice things, they don’t deserve them. (The unconscious belief.)
In this example, the replacement thought is easy: I deserve nice things. But rooting out the unconscious belief in their life is going to take time, effort, and emotional fortitude. Maybe they start with their clothes first, getting rid of everything they don’t like, except for one outfit for home and work. Then they go to a thrift shop with a friend to look for new clothes, and make the friend swear that they’re not allowed to buy anything that they don’t absolutely love. (Support is always helpful!) And they repeat over and over, ‘I deserve nice things.’
After a revolution in wardrobe, perhaps the next thing on the menu is their home: a system like KonMari is very helpful, but others work just fine, so long as it’s a way to help you sort all your stuff. Getting rid of things can be very daunting, and it also makes space for the newness you want in your life.
Building a head of steam, perhaps they tackle ‘doing fun things’ next, and start slowly there, but actually meet some new people who could become friends, with care and cultivation. And then they begin reaching out in new ways to family members, to the friends they have that are kind, and they’re finally ready to look for a new job that suits them better, and they have time and energy to make changes in their life that they now tentatively accept they deserve.
And in this example, the individual went all through their metaphorical backyard digging up the root system of this pernicious and damaging belief, not just as a thought, but as all the aspects of their life where the thought had blossomed into choices they made and situations they then had to live with.
And in this example, the person stopped attributing to fate (my life sucks), the consequences (unpleasant life situations) of unconscious beliefs (I don’t deserve nice things), and instead made conscious the unconscious (via therapy) and started counteracting it (approaching one small life situation at a time, with a new mantra and a willingness to change). And suddenly (three years later) their fate was changed (my life is getting better and better), and their conscious belief (I deserve nice things) had time to grow unimpeded in their life (constantly weeding out the old, negative belief whenever it shows itself).
Can you do the same? Of course you can.