Today I’m bringing you part three of the getting to know yourself series. (If you’re just joining in, part one is here and part two is here.) In this post, we’re talking about belief systems, how they were formed, and how they impact us in our daily lives.
Our beliefs provide the lens through which we view the world, how we perceive every encounter or exchange. Our beliefs thus have a profound impact on our experiences.
Do you believe that people are inherently good or bad? Do you believe that people of certain ethnicities, genders, socioeconomic statuses, or religions have certain traits or are “better” or “worse” than another group? Do you think that what happens to you is within your control or not? Do you believe the world is a safe or dangerous place? And most fundamentally, do you believe that you are capable of living a happy life or not?
As you go about your business today, start to pay attention to any beliefs that enter your mind. Here are some places to look:
Beliefs About Yourself
When you first see yourself in the mirror each morning, do you have positive or negative messages for yourself? When you goof up at work, do you tell yourself you’re an idiot or do you say, “Dude, everyone effs up sometimes; you’ll get it next time.”
We all have beliefs about ourselves, thoughts about who we are and our value in the world. Take a moment to write down or think through some beliefs you have about yourself now:
- I believe that I am…
- I believe that my body…
- Regarding my relationships, I believe…
Now that you’ve thought about some essential, personal beliefs, you’re beginning to see whether you approach yourself from a negative or positive viewpoint, and you are able to determine whether your current beliefs serve you—that is, help you to be the best person you can—or don’t.
Beliefs About Others
Continuing the exercise above, think through or write down whatever first comes to mind as you read the following personal descriptors. You could either add “are” and describe that group of people or write a sentence of your own choosing. For example, “[Group of your choice] run the world.”
- White people
- Black people
- Wealthy people
- Poor people
- People with disabilities
As you can see, the human population can be segmented rapidly and easily. My list barely scratches the surface of the possible designations we could make between each other in terms of gender, class, country of origin, socioeconomic status, and more. Write down whatever you first think about each group, regardless of whether you think it’s fair, kind, or helpful. What you’re doing is exploring your current beliefs.
You may not have immediate responses for some populations. You may self-include within that group and see its nuances to an extent that you cannot make a snap judgment, or you may be the type of person who tries not to make such judgments. That’s okay, skip it.
This exercise is simply about delving a bit further into who we are by examining our belief systems about other people.
Beliefs About How the World Works
When I was a child, I heard messages from my family like, “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer” and “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.” Whether accurate or not, those messages shaped my belief system.
You undoubtedly heard your own set of messages, which you began to uncover if you worked through last week’s post on unpacking your past and understanding its influence on your present. Today I’d like you to think a little bit more about how your past shaped your views about how the world works. Here are some examples, to get you started:
- You have to work hard to get ahead.
- With hard work, anyone can get ahead.
- People like us never get ahead.
- You have to be smart to get ahead.
- Only rich people get ahead.
You can see where I’m going. What other beliefs do you have about the world and how it works? Think through or write down some of those now, beginning with “I believe…” and writing stream-of-conscious style until you fill a page or 10 minutes pass, whichever takes longer.
Over the next few days, continue to pay attention to the beliefs that filter through your mind as you interact in the world. If you can, add those to your list.
Affirming or Changing Our Beliefs
Once you have a better understanding of what your beliefs are, you can decide whether they are worthy of you. Some beliefs will continue to serve us or the person we want to be while others may keep us trapped in the past or in attitudes that harm our interpersonal interactions or our individual success.
Beliefs generally arise from prior life experiences or lessons taught by our family of origin. At one point, we accepted a message passed on by a family member or concluded that a belief served us, even self-limiting beliefs like “you aren’t good enough.”
If that belief is one of yours—heck, it’s been one of mine—you probably adopted it as protection. It may have kept you safe instead of encouraging you to reach out and try for something bigger, where the stakes were higher, and the potential damage to your self-image may have been greater. That’s okay. It is what it is. But, as adults, we get to choose our beliefs and change them if we want to.
Like I shared last time, acknowledging our truth—who we are and what we believe—is the first step to changing anything that no longer serves us. Stay tuned for more.
For part four of the getting to know yourself series, click here.
Last week, I wrote about the importance of getting to know yourself and provided three basic tools to aid the process. As I thought further about this concept, I realized that I have a lot more to say about it so, over the next few weeks, I’m going to delve into some components that make each of us unique.
The first topic I’d like to address is understanding your past and how it affects your present. I’ve written before about how our upbringing impacts who we become.
Understanding Your Past: The Facts
I’d like you to think for a minute about how your upbringing might have impacted you. If you’ve got the journal I suggested last week, open it up and write down some facts about your upbringing. For example, mine might say:
- Born to married, college-educated parents
- Grew up in the American south
- Parents later divorced
- Raised by a single mother from age 6
- Lower middle class
- Parents and extended family primarily Republican
These are a few things that are top of mind for me in this moment. Your list might be similar, different, or on another topic altogether. By writing these facts about my upbringing down, I am acknowledging from where I came.
Once you have made your list, would you say it matches that of others you grew up with, or did you feel different somehow? Two ways I felt different from my peers was the size of my family (2) and our household income (less).
Understanding Your Past: The Stories
Have you ever noticed that the events you remember most clearly are emotionally charged? In his books Self Matters and The Self Matters Companion, Dr. Phil calls these Defining Moments and suggests that you catalog and dive into the 10 most influential moments of your life and the stories you’ve told yourself about those times.
To do this, take a look back at various periods of your life—preschool, grade school, high school, college, young adulthood, adulthood, middle age… What memories stand out as particularly important?
When you have noted a few memories, think through the details of one: Note your age, location, who you were with at the time, what happened, and what emotions you experienced. Because these memories are emotionally charged, some might be painful.
If remembering an event is in any way traumatic, you have my full permission to distance yourself from it. Put it away for now or look at it instead from the perspective of your present self.
After you’ve walked through an event, consider: What did this experience teach you? Is what you learned fair, true, and beneficial? Does it serve you now and, if so, how? Repeat this process for your remaining Defining Moments.
Understanding Your Past: The Lessons
Recalling your stories and what they taught you brings me to the next facet of your upbringing: The lessons you learned. The following are some questions to ponder or journal about in order to identify and acknowledge your earliest life lessons:
- I was raised to believe…
- My mother/primary caregiver taught me that life…
- My father/primary caregiver said that I…
- It was commonly understood in my family that…
- My peers taught me that…
The lessons you learned while growing up, like the experiences you remember, may be either positive and negative. You may not have assigned value judgments to them at the time but now you can likely look back and see how some of the things you learned serve you and some do not.
For example, learning not to touch a hot stove or how to persevere serves you. “Learning” that you weren’t as good as your peers, because they told you so, does not serve you.
This exercise is simply about uncovering and acknowledging the lessons you’ve learned so you can better understand who you are and how your upbringing continues to impact you. We’re not here to cast blame on our parents or anyone else. But this is important work.
As Oprah writes in What I Know For Sure: “Like me, you may have experienced things that caused you to deem yourself unworthy. I know for sure that healing the wounds of the past is one of the biggest and most worthwhile challenges of life. It’s important to know when and how you were programmed so you can change the program.
“Doing so is your responsibility, no one else’s. There is one irrefutable law of the Universe: We are each responsible for our own life. If you’re holding anyone else accountable for your happiness, you are wasting your time. You must be fearless enough to give yourself the love you did not receive.”
For the record: I believe that every parent, even those with the best of intentions, screws up their kids in some way. It’s almost impossible not to. But, and this is a big but, most parents were simply doing the best they could at the time.
When you start to look into your own parents’ backgrounds, you’ll see how their experiences impacted the lessons they taught you, intentionally and inadvertently. As Oprah says, it’s our job to acknowledge and heal any programming that doesn’t serve us. So how do we do that?
Awareness is the first step to healing. You can’t heal anything you can’t acknowledge. When you start to acknowledge your past and the the lessons you learned there, all kinds of opportunities for healing unfurl.
“Begin noting how every day brings a new opportunity for growth,” Oprah explains, “how buried disagreements with your mother show up in arguments with your spouse, how unconscious feelings of unworthiness appear in everything you do and didn’t do.
“All of these experiences are your life’s way of urging you to leave the past behind and make yourself whole. Pay attention. Every choice gives you a chance to pave your own road.”
I agree. Accepting the past and moving forward is the only way to live your best life. If you need counseling, get some. If journaling and meditating are enough, make time for those. Your future will thank you.
For part three of the getting to know yourself series, click here.
“Every person born in the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique, and every man or woman’s foremost task is the actualization of his or her unique, unprecedented and never recurring possibilities.” – Philosopher Martin Buber
Your relationship to yourself will be the longest and most significant of your lifetime. Getting to know yourself seems like a no brainer—after all, you live with yourself every moment of every day—but the truth is, it can be difficult.
First, there are so many factors that make you you: your life experiences, personality, beliefs, values, even motivations. Second, it can be easy to live unconsciously, to do whatever you feel in each moment instead of looking for the larger patterns of your life or living according to the values and creeds that matter to you.
Living unconsciously might lead you to assume your actions are what any reasonable person would choose in a given situation, but that’s not true. You’re a one-of-a-kind individual whose actions and reactions are based on who you are and how your prior experiences have taught you to act and react.
If you want to live more consciously, to become more aware of why you do what you do, then you have to get to know yourself. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to give you some ways to explore your many facets. We’ll start with three basic tools.
Getting to Know Yourself Through Journaling
One of the best ways I know for getting to know yourself is journaling. A journal gives you a safe place to record thoughts you might not want to share with others, to ask yourself questions like “Why did I say that or do that?” after an event, or to note your beliefs.
I’m old school and prefer journaling with pen and paper but, if you’re worried about someone seeing or reading your journal, you could use something like MacJournal and Evernote, which can be password-protected.
Here are five journaling prompts to get you started:
- I believe…
- I remember…
- I don’t want to write about…
- I wish everyone knew…
- The most significant thing ever to happen to me was…
Write for 10 minutes, being as honest as you can. You can always destroy or delete what you wrote later, if it’s too personal. The act of writing it down, however, can give you tremendous insight into who you are.
Getting to Know Yourself Through Meditation
In its simplest form, meditation is simply sitting with your thoughts. Take a few minutes to close your eyes, sit quietly, and observe your mind. Your mind may initially freak out and that’s okay.
If your mind is obsessing over your to-do list, remind yourself that you’ll tend to your list soon. If your gremlins are talking to you—you’ll know because they’ll say things like “you’re wasting your time,” or “you can’t do this,” very negative responses intended to derail you from the activity—acknowledge them and note what they have to say. It may show you where some of your insecurities lie.
Where your mind goes and the tone of your inner monologue tell you a lot about how you think and what matters to you. We all have an inner critic and an inner mentor. The critic speaks harshly and loudly; the mentor speaks quietly and decidedly when you can let the gremlins go.
If you find your mind has gone blank, you can ask yourself questions:
- What has shaped me?
- What do I know for sure?
- How do I define myself?
- What do I wish?
Your answers to each of the above questions helps you delve into your psyche and explore what matters to you. Your past experiences and takeaways impact your daily choices; the words you choose to accept or reject as you define yourself can tell you a lot about what matters to you; and your wishes begin to hint at your motivations.
Getting to Know Yourself Through Pausing
We humans like to act and react. A lot. Pausing to reflect on our actions and observing our reactions can thus be quite powerful.
Take a few moments to pause during your day. Set aside distractions like your earbuds and crackberry and gaze out the window or drink a cup of tea. Think back to a recent event, maybe a disagreement with someone or a time you felt strong emotion. Ask yourself:
- What was I feeling in that moment?
- What was my role in that situation?
- What led me to react as I did?
- How else could I have reacted?
Pausing and observing isn’t about judging your behavior or assigning blame. It’s about being curious, about uncovering what drives you, and exploring how you can become more conscious in your future actions.
I encourage you to keep using these basic tools of journaling, meditation, and pausing as we progress over the next few weeks. I’ll be introducing several new methods of getting to know yourself and it will be helpful to return to these basic tools as you go. You may even want to dedicate a notebook (hard cover or Evernote) for capturing your thoughts and realizations throughout this process.
What is driving you to get to know yourself? How do you think it will help you?
For part two of the getting to know yourself series, click here.
I had an interesting experience during our flight to Hawaii. Let’s call it an exercise in extreme gratitude.
Interesting isn’t my preferred descriptor for air travel—I prefer uneventful—but I’ve found that Trans-Pacific flights have a tendency toward the former. There we were, rocking and rolling like we were riding the Soviet-era rails in Eastern Europe, but at 32,000 feet. For two hours.
Truth be told, I wasn’t even counting. I’d estimated the turbulence to have lasted at least an hour when I turned to Mr. Watson and he replied, “More like two.” Since he’s the engineer, I defaulted to his calculations.
“Can’t the pilot find another altitude?,” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, “It’s different over the open ocean. I’m not sure who he’d call to request that.” Since my better half is also a private pilot, I had to defer to him there as well.
Our fellow passengers were surprisingly calm. We’ve been on prior Trans-Pacific flights where people pray, panic, and exclaim during the turbulence. This time, it was my turn.
I was already feeling nauseated—getting up at 4am after only a couple of hours of sleep tends to leave me that way—and the bouncing and pitching was threatening the sanctity of my breakfast. The sanctity of it remaining breakfast, anyway.
As I returned attention to my audio book, Oprah Winfrey’s What I Know For Sure, she began speaking about gratitude. The chapter starts with a quote from Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘Thank You,’ it will be enough.” It’s one I’ve long admired.
Oprah explains: “Being grateful all the time isn’t easy but it’s when you feel least thankful that you are most in need of what gratitude can give you.
“Perspective: Gratitude can transform any situation. It alters your vibration, moving you from negative energy to positive. It is the quickest, easiest, most powerful way to effect change in your life. This I know for sure.
“Here’s the gift of gratitude: In order to feel it, your ego has to take a backseat. What shows up in its place is greater compassion and understanding. Instead of being frustrated, you choose appreciation. And the more grateful you become, the more you have to be grateful for.
“Maya Angelou was so right [when she taught Oprah this]. Whatever you’re going through, you will do just that: Go through it. It will pass, so say ‘thank you’ now because you know the rainbow is coming.”
I did as she suggested. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and breathed deeply and deliberately, in and out, repeating “thank you” in my head, a silent mantra while I continued to listen to Oprah’s soothing alto move on to stories of dieting and self-acceptance. I don’t know how long I breathed, focusing on my gratitude, but eventually I fell asleep.
When I awakened, we were through the turbulence and my nausea had passed. The metaphorical rainbow had appeared.
Of course, Oprah’s next chapter detailed her own travails with Trans-Pacific travel, but I’ll let you read the book for that one. Suffice to say that her gratitude lesson was perfectly apropos.
When was the last time you practiced gratitude? Has it ever helped you through an urgent time?
The theme for June was supposed to be self-exploration, but what keeps popping up for me instead is expectations. I’ve written about letting go of others’ expectations and when you can’t meet your own big expectations, but what about the tiny, everyday expectations we bring to our experiences and interactions? Let me give you an example.
On our first morning in Hawaii, I awakened at the crack of dawn. We didn’t have much to eat on hand and I was ravenous for a hot breakfast. I researched the options and was anxiously waiting for Brian to awaken so we could head to a local place with cheap prices and huge servings. But Brian kept on sleeping past 7am, 8am, 9am, even 10am. My inner monologue was very opinionated on the subject:
We’re on vacation. We should be out having fun, trying new things, eating out. Is he going to sleep in like this every day? We have a lot to do in preparation for our anniversary on Thursday; when are we going to get it done?
Clearly I had a lot of expectations about vacation, our schedule, and what Brian should be doing. We all have these kinds of thoughts, don’t we? Expectations about our mate and his/her actions, our jobs, our interpersonal experiences, how our day will pan out.
The problem with all of these is in the judgment, which became clear when I wrote “we should…” and then “Brian should…” Should is a bad word in my world. I’ve written about how I address shoulding myself and how I try not to should upon others. But I’m not perfect. And because Brian is the closest person to me, I often formulate expectations about his behavior regardless of whether they’re necessary or helpful.
Eventually I remembered: It’s vacation! It doesn’t have to be anything. Our agreed-upon goals for vacation were to celebrate our 10th anniversary and to relax, not to race around the Big Island seeing and doing everything or eating at every new place imaginable. So we were already meeting our expectations.
And even if we weren’t, what was the point of stressing out about what I could be doing instead of appreciating the moment I was already experiencing? I let go of the idea of hitting Hawaii Style Cafe and grabbed a granola bar instead.
As my hunger demon satiated, I realized that before me was a beautiful, 180-degree view from the telescopes on Mauna Kea to the white caps of the Pacific. The morning was sunny and clear, transitioning from the cool of dawn to the warmth of midday, birds were singing, nature was humming, everything was perfect in that moment. I grew accepting that the day would unfold as it would. And this month of June will unfold as it will, too, regardless of what my editorial calendar may say.
For more about expectations, head over to Shirin Shoai’s story of an unexpected Sunday at Stern Grove or Danielle Laporte’s take on the value and panic-inducing difficulty of letting go. Or for a deeper dive, check out Phillip Moffitt’s post, The Tyranny of Expectations.
I hope you enjoyed this post. If you did, please like it, share it, or let me know.