Many of us have a special memory of a time in our lives that we remember with fondness. Sometimes we even wish we could go back and relive those moments of our lives again. I was reminded quite poignantly a few years ago that no matter how good a memory may be, it’s only a memory, and other than in our dreams, we can’t go back and relive it.
When I was about 13 or so, after I was abandoned by my mother, my dad and I lived for a year with my Great Aunt Rose. Because of my dad’s work schedule, most of the time it was just Aunt Rose and me. Aunt Rose had a small farmhouse with about 5 acres in a rural area outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. While I lived with her, she raised chickens and ducks, had a few horses, and cared for a huge garden. I remember many an evening when we would sit outside on the back porch looking at the stars while snapping green beans from the garden. We had a lot of great conversations during that year. And although she owned a television, it was very rarely ever on—although she liked watching the Waltons occasionally. Aunt Rose had been very close to my grandmother, her sister, who passed away when I was about 10, and she basically took over being my grandmother after that. Coming from a broken home, the memory of my time with Aunt Rose is very special to me and sometimes I wish I could go back and relive those memories.
By the time I was 18, Aunt Rose was too old to care for the farm any longer, so she sold it to her grandson, Donny. Donny remodeled the home and built a machine shop on the property that he operated for many years.
Right after my father died (I was about 21) I stayed briefly with my cousin Donny in the remodeled home and sadly that was the last time I ever saw Donny or my great Aunt’s farmhouse again.
About 2 years ago my wife and I took my mother’s ashes to my father’s gravesite in Sinnett, Oklahoma and while there, we visited the site of my childhood memories of Aunt Rose—her old farm house. To my surprise, shock actually, the house and the machine shop, everything that was on the property, was completely, mysteriously gone—the only thing there was bare acreage. Not even a mailbox remained. It was as if a massive tornado dropped down and carried everything away. Perhaps it did. We haven’t been able to find a trace of any of the family or what happened to the old family farm. This was a sobering reminder that our memories of past events are all that we have of those events and we can never go back.
Of course, there are some memories where the inability to ‘go back’ is a good thing, especially our bad memories. But here’s the thing: when negative memories are made during our formative years, those first impressions made early in life lay the foundation for our belief system later in life. And when the impressions of difficult childhood events are not challenged or redirected early on, they can wreak havoc on us throughout our lifetime. As the saying goes, “We always revert to our earliest hurt.”
Although these negative memories can involve any aspect of our lives, for this blog I’m specifically thinking about how I struggled terribly with dyslexia in school and the negative self-belief system about myself that I formed at a very young age—i.e. I’m stupid, broken, don’t fit in, etc. A negative self-belief system like this can stifle growth and even make later successes in life feel like they’re undeserved. Negative beliefs zap us of our happiness. But there’s good news! We can change our belief system, even one that’s been with us for most of our life.
I remember something I heard a long time ago that’s very apropos to this situation and that is that the wake of the boat (the things behind) is not what drives the boat. It’s just what’s left behind. When we operate from the events of our past (our negative self-belief system), then we’re allowing our wake to drive us. And limit us! The sad truth is that the wake of a negative self-belief system developed in childhood will not lead us anywhere good. We will always remain in the bad place we lived as a child until we challenge those negative beliefs about ourselves and change them.
So if like me you’ve struggled over the years with a negative self-belief system, what can you do now to reprogram your negative thoughts and begin moving forward instead of just looking back?
Here are some facts that have helped me see my negative self-beliefs from a new perspective:
- Most negative beliefs about ourselves come from childhood, based on ideas we received from parents, teachers, or other authority figures. When a two-year-old says, “What’s that?” and an adult says, “That’s a dog,” we believe them. But what about when an adult says, “You’re just being lazy,” or “You’re stupid,” or “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” we also believe them. We grow up feeling inferior, believing that all the negative talk was gospel truth.
- Negative beliefs about ourselves force us to filter the information in our lives to conform to the subconscious beliefs we have about self and the world. We can actually end up looking for evidence to prove how bad we are! How many times have we declared after some failure or disappointment, “I can’t do anything right,” or “I’ll never be good enough to ______.”
- Negative beliefs about ourselves force us to live below our potential. After being told dozens (maybe hundreds) of times, “You’ll never be a good reader,” or “You’ll never have good comprehension,” or writing skills, or whatever…we stop trying. We stop showing up for our own life since it seems like an exercise in futility, according to those authority figures in our youth who prophesied that we’d never amount to anything.
What to do about all this?
- Question the limiting belief. Get curious about it: is it really true that I’m lazy or stupid? What does the evidence show? Is it based on solid fact, or is it based on feelings and early programming, or lack of understanding?
- Remind yourself that negative self-belief is a habit. Each time we notice old ‘tapes’ playing in our head, we must constantly challenge them. Keep questioning yourself by asking things like: Is this really true? Or am I just tuning in to the clues my subconscious mind wants to recognize to reinforce my old beliefs about myself?
- Do something differently. If we normally react to a stressor, memory, or challenge a certain way, and we don’t like the usual outcome, we can choose to respond differently. This tip is especially important to those of us with learning issues like dyslexia. We simply cannot learn efficiently the way most people teach. We have to discover our own learning style, processing style, writing style, and reading style. This takes great tenacity.
- Tenacity is built on a foundation of self-worth. We build self-worth through seeing our weaknesses and struggles with compassion, not self-loathing. We may have had a vivid and active inner dialog of self-loathing our whole life, but with time and patience, we can change how we relate to ourselves. When we feel a self-limiting belief crop up, instead of getting instantly frustrated, we can learn to soothe ourselves through compassionate self-talk. Try something like this: “There goes my mind down that rabbit hole again. I understand why this happens sometimes. I was repeatedly told negative messages about myself by people who didn’t understand me or who got frustrated because they didn’t know how to help me. But I am learning to help myself. I am actually working very hard, and deserve to feel good about my whole-hearted efforts. I may have hit a roadblock here, but by persisting I can get this figured out and do well with this challenge.”
Remember, dear readers, your past does not equal your future. Good or bad, we can’t go back. But we can, and shall, keep moving forward!