Behaviors are quite far downstream. We don’t often just “behave’ without a long string of underlying beliefs about ourselves and the world, thoughts, and emotions driving those behaviors. The behaviors can seem to “just happen” because our core beliefs (i.e., basic assumptions about the world) and thoughts that determine our self-worth operate at the unconscious level; we can’t see them working as a program behind the scenes to inform our every behavior. So, when we make healthy changes that are inconsistent with unhealthy beliefs and thoughts, we can’t sustain them because our unhealthy beliefs and thoughts are still working against the healthy way of behaving. We haven’t updated the program to feed the healthy behaviors. This results in falling off the wagon. And surprise, surprise, this only reinforces the negative beliefs and thoughts (and negative self-worth) and makes us feel depressed, inept, and miserable. Think of beliefs as the roots that ground a flower. The stem of the flower represents the thoughts that develop from the roots (beliefs), and the flower is the behavior…the product of both the root (beliefs) and the stem (thoughts). Here’s a real life example.
Kay is a 34 year-old elementary teacher. She has been about 15 pounds overweight since the birth of her daughter 3 years ago. She reads about health and nutrition regularly, and she can recite the virtues of eating a whole-foods diet as easily as her students recite the alphabet. She enjoys cooking and knows how to prepare healthy foods. She’s awesome at starting a new “plan” or “challenge” and often sees success initially. However, just about the time when she’s really starting to feel awesome and her clothes are beginning to feel a bit loose, she falls off the wagon and dives into the pint of Ben and Jerry’s she hid behind the organic, riced cauliflower in the freezer. She follows this with skipping breakfast the next day and eating pizza in the faculty lunch room. She doesn’t even really like pizza. She feels disappointed and ashamed of herself.
So, what’s going on here? Kay’s healthy behaviors can’t be maintained because her self-worth is in the toilet. She doesn’t believe that she deserves to care for herself with a healthy diet that nourishes her mind and body. Her unconscious beliefs of, “Mothers shouldn’t take time for themselves” “Only selfish people put themselves first in their lives” coupled with the thoughts, “I’m such a failure” “I never stick to anything” create low self-worth, and so she behaves in a way consistent with her self-worth.
Now you understand it, but how do you fix it?
You reprogram those beliefs and thoughts. It doesn’t happen overnight, but by reading this, you are already bringing awareness to it, and that is definitely the first step. You dive deeper into awareness by bringing the unconscious thoughts to the conscious. Notice when you are engaging in cognitive distortions. Common types of distorted thoughts include:
-All or nothing thinking.
If you catch yourself behaving in a way that is not consistent with health and well-being, back it up and ask yourself, “What was the thought that I had just before I did this?” Like most new skills, it feels hard to do at first, but with practice it gets easier. Once you’ve identified the negative thoughts, you can work on changing them to something that is realistic and true.
Beliefs are often at the core of who we are, and as such, they require a bit more time and attention. Our core beliefs are programmed into us early and often, and we unconsciously seek out information in our world to support our beliefs which further solidifies their hold on our behaviors. Common negative core beliefs are:
-I am not good enough.
-The world is a scary place.
-I am not lovable.
-I am a failure.
You can work with a therapist or do exercises that help you to identify those core beliefs. Once identified, it is helpful to get to the source of them. They likely appeared in your life to protect or help you, but you are wiser and have skills to protect and care for yourself; these beliefs are no longer serving you. Once you can see how they are no longer serving you, you can begin to change them. Awareness and bringing compassion to yourself are critical first steps for updating your beliefs.
Improving your self-worth is a worthwhile endeavor (pun totally intended). It can help you be a healthier, happier individual who can not only stick to healthy ways of behaving but also is much more equipped to have more fulfilling relationships and work life!