Honoring every experience as an opportunity for learning and growth.
From the time we are born, the human mind is a sponge. A process referred to as ‘socialization’ describes the means by which humans, as children, acquire the foundations of understanding that allow us to function properly in our social environment. This happens via explicit instruction, such as parents or other adults telling us what we should and shouldn’t do, as well as watching the behaviors of those around us. Children are surprisingly adept at reading body language, facial expression, and other unconscious signals of belief and attitude. By synthesizing these two sources of information, a child begins to form the beliefs they will build upon for the remainder of their lives.
The real challenge is identifying these deeply held, unconscious beliefs. They can be so integrated into our sense of ‘self’ that it is virtually impossible for us to discover them on our own. They are also powerful, and can even contradict our explicitly held beliefs in very subtle ways.
Isms of all sorts are excellent examples. Very few people would proudly declare that they are bigots. When asked directly if people of diverse characteristics (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc) deserve equal rights and treatment, most people would give a confidant yes. However, if their socialization indicated that some people don’t deserve to be treated equally, a person’s unconscious behavior may indicate a bias they not only aren’t aware of, but actively disagree with!
For example: Race bias is still very pervasive in our culture, despite years of struggle and dialogue. Traditional ‘black’ names have been shown to receive fewer callbacks for interviews than their identically qualified ‘white’ counterparts. Racial profiling is still alive and well in even the most diverse and accepting communities. People may discount their lack of attraction to people of certain races as a simple ‘preference’ without exploring the deeper implications. The fact of the matter is, we all have implicit beliefs that are powerful influences on how we live our everyday lives.
The good news is even the most deeply held belief can be changed, once we’re conscious of it. If we remain open to some of the more unfortunate aspects of our belief systems, we can begin to make constructive changes. Like any good program, the first step is to admit you have a problem. Belief takes belief to fix. First you must believe those who are telling you that you display a particular belief (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc). Second, you must believe that you can change it. Third, you must actively go about changing your behavior in such a way to bring about that change. Through this whole process, you must actively let go of self-judgment. It has no place in your healing process.
Psychologists have found that in various kinds of behavior modification therapy, it is best and most effective to take small steps. Changing too much at once causes resistance, which impedes growth. If you hold a belief that you aren’t a good public speaker, it’s not effective to terrorize yourself by giving hour-long presentations to hundreds of people right off the bat. Start off by simply standing in front of one person, or even a pet. Read your grocery list, or a few sentences describing what you did that day. Then, slowly (over days, weeks, months, or even years) you slowly increase the dosage as you get comfortable with each new level. One sheet of paper doesn’t seem like much, but a thousand sheets of paper adds up to a lot. One minute extensions every week for a year means by the end you’re giving a 52 minute presentation without stress or anxiety!
So be gentle, but be resolute. Have the courage to face yourself as you are, without judgment. Acknowledge your situation so that you can empower yourself to change it, and then begin the behavior to do it. Whether you believe that you can, or that you can’t, either way you’re right!