It seems like there’s no idea people will defend more fiercely or passionately than the notion that they aren’t good enough human beings. Many people, when talking about how inferior or inadequate they supposedly are, undergo an amazing transformation. People who usually shy away from conflict or seem apathetic suddenly become champion debaters when arguing that they haven’t achieved enough with their lives. People with generally positive outlooks on life suddenly become incurable cynics and pessimists when they’re convincing you of how badly they screwed something up. And so on.
A recent conversation with a friend reminded me of this quirky aspect of the human personality. My friend is a highly-skilled and well-paid biotech researcher. “On paper,” as they say, he’s got everything going for him—he has a first-rate education, he’s in great shape and he’s got a nice house and car. Unfortunately, however, he and his girlfriend split up six months ago. Since then, he’s been insisting to me that he’s not a successful guy at all—in fact, he says, he’s a “loser.”
This hasn’t been for lack of trying on my part. Every time he’s called himself a loser, I’ve reminded him of all his great qualities and everything he’s accomplished in his life. But for every positive thing I say about him, he’s got a reason why it’s irrelevant, unimportant or exaggerated. If I remind him of how well-liked he is at work, for instance, he’ll tell me people are just pitying him. If I remind him of something he has fun doing, like playing tennis, he’ll insist it doesn’t matter. If I tell him he’s a kind and generous person, he’ll tell me those are weak qualities that he wishes he were rid of.
As flattery was getting me nowhere, I decided to take a different tack. I asked him how he would feel if he didn’t think he was a loser. (This was inspired by Byron Katie‘s process of undermining negative thoughts by asking yourself, among other things, who you’d be if you didn’t believe your thoughts.) Of course, like any good friend, I was hoping he’d experience a life-changing epiphany when he pondered this question, never feel down on himself again, and live the rest of his life in a state of undisturbed inner peace.
However, I didn’t quite get the reaction I’d hoped for. Instead, he became angry, telling me I was missing the point because he obviously did think he was a loser, and lecturing me on how I was being unrealistic and needed to “live in the real world.” But when he calmed down, he acknowledged how fiercely he’d been defending the idea that he was a loser, and how strange, and maybe even amusing, that seemed.
This conversation got me wondering: why do we hold on so tightly to negative thoughts about ourselves? Why do we defend ourselves against giving up those thoughts, despite how painful they are? I’ve come to believe it’s because, consciously or otherwise, we see these ideas about ourselves as part of who we are. We need these ideas, we think, to be complete human beings—losing them would be like losing some part of our bodies, or even being completely annihilated.
In discussing a client who, like my friend, harbored the belief “I’m a loser,” psychologist Betsie Carter-Haar aptly describes this sense of identification with our ideas about ourselves:
A positive experience is simply not acceptable to the ‘Loser’ because its quality is different from, and inconsistent with, that of his self-image. But it goes even further: a positive experience is actually threatening. What if he were not really a Loser? Who would he be then? . . . . [H]is fear of loss of identity, of a deep void of inner emptiness, if not correctly understood is often too overwhelming to be faced. In such a situation it frequently seems less painful to have a negative sense of self than no sense of self at all.
When we persistently have certain thoughts about ourselves, these thoughts eventually become so familiar and constant that we conclude they’re actually part of us. Our beliefs become as comfortable and familiar as our bodies, homes, jobs, and so on. For instance, if we believe—for whatever reason—that we’re bad and inadequate for long enough, we become identified with that belief, and protect the belief by arguing tenaciously with anyone who tries to convince us otherwise.
How do we detach ourselves from, or end our identification with, our ideas about who we are? How do we dispel the need to defend our “loserhood” to the death? One helpful technique, I’ve found, is to regularly experience being in a state in which you aren’t thinking anything about yourself. Try sitting alone, closing your eyes, and focusing your attention entirely on some sound or sensation—either within yourself or the outside world. You might, for instance, focus on the feeling and sound of your breathing, or on the sound of birds outside your window.
When your awareness is entirely fixed on a sensation, rather than your mind’s memories, interpretations and judgments, you are not thinking. Nonetheless, you are the same being you’ve always been. Even when you have no ideas or beliefs about yourself or anything else, you remain you—ceasing to think, or perform any other mental activity, doesn’t destroy you at all. This realization helps weaken your attachment to the ways you think about and perceive yourself.
Recognize, as well, that you existed—you were the person you are today—before you had a single thought. Up until some point in your early development, whether in the womb or after your birth, you hadn’t thought about anything. You didn’t see yourself as a “loser,” “winner,” “doctor,” “mother,” or any of the other labels you’ve since attached to yourself. In fact, you didn’t see yourself at all—you simply were yourself. Regularly reflecting on this is a great way to liberate yourself from negative thinking.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Positive Thinking, located at http://www.widowsquest.com/carnival-of-positive-thinking-57/.)