Building emotional resilience: Finding and calming negative self-beliefs to decrease personal distress and become stronger
Working on your own to convert your negative self-beliefs into growth and peace of mind
Emotional resilience - the ability to retain the capacity for good function and good feeling in spite of distressing challenges - is one of life's great prizes. Our Inner disturbances can gravely erode emotional resilience, but the magnitude of such disturbances often can be reduced. One of the fastest ways to quiet inner disturbance, strangely enough, is to thoughtfully seek it out. Not only is it difficult to be sabotaged by what we see clearly, but a brief focus on negative beliefs, done correctly, can actually reduce or eliminate their power over us. It is likely that you can learn how to do this.
Overview: What you will find here
First, the concept of emotional resilience is considered. I then look at the the problem of self-sabotage and how it relates to negative self-beliefs. Finally, we consider two ways to make use of negative self-beliefs, once they are identified.
Some good advice - please read: You'll benefit most if you avoid looking at the list of negative beliefs, below, until after you've read and followed the directions for its use. Why? Because the items in the list are written to get a reaction - when the belief is relevant to you. Triggering this reaction prematurely is pointless, a waste of energy, and will not help you. What helps is to have the reaction once you're fully prepared to make use of it. So, do yourself a favor and wait. Read down to the list, so you can get prepared, than go ahead, if this approach makes sense to you.
Emotional resilience - what it means and why it matters
The basic idea
Resilience is a kind of strength, of perseverance - stability in the face of external stress or challenge. That which is resilient may yield to stresses, but only temporarily, and adaptively.
Emotional resilience is the ability to maintain, or recover, good feeling about oneself independent of one's environment.
- A storm rages against the coast of Japan. The coastal rocks remain unchanged. They show their physical resilience by maintaining their position and structure in spite of a strong challenge. This is a model for basic kind of resilience. A ways inland, a grove of bamboo sways and bends in the storm gale, but repeatedly returns to its usual erect position. This is a model for resilience also, but of a different, more human-like kind.
- A little girl walks up to a man she's never seen before (she's three, he's 40). "I don't like your face!", she declares with characteristic three year old confidence. "Well, I do like yours!", he replies, with a grin, amused and delighted by her assertiveness. He shows his emotional resilience by not being fazed by her overt criticism of his appearance.
- You're looking at a family photo album. You see a photo of a sibling, who died in a car crash you were in when you were 11. You miss having known your sibling as you both grew up, so looking at the photograph is painful. You pause to appreciate how meaningful it is to you to have the memories you do have. You close the book and walk into the kitchen to help your kids with the dinner dishes. They're telling a joke, and you smile. You show emotional resilience both by being able to feel what you really do feel about your lost sibling, and by being able easily and quickly to turn to the real life right in front of you and react honestly to that as well.
There are degrees of emotional resilience (ER), and one's ER can and does tend to vary from situation to situation. But, there is a core strength many people show who have good ER - they may be stronger in some situations than in others, but also tend to be strong in general, relative to those who are more emotionally vulnerable.
Environment can be a critical matter - for about half of us
For roughly half the population, two factors interact to produce emotional resilience: a rugged brain (i.e., good genetics), and a supportive, nourishing developmental environment for that brain. When both factors are moving things along in the right direction, the result is an emotionally robust adult.
For those not much influenced by environment - the other half of the population - about half have real trouble with emotional resilience and the other half tend to be emotionally robust. For these two groups, the degree of environmental support they experience growing up and in adult life is of much less impact.
Over time, our ongoing relationship to our social environment does tend to matter. We are not solitary in nature. Sustained ER usually requires some degree of continuing environmental support, the most powerful of which is usually positive feeling offered by other people.
Increasing your Emotional Resilience
If you find you don't have sufficient ER, you can develop more. There is a fairly universal sequence by which this occurs:
- Major vulnerabilities which are beyond your ability to address on your own must be significantly reduced or eliminated. You cannot learn to ride a bicycle with a broken leg. For this change you will almost always need professional help.
- What vulnerabilities remain at this point should still be addressed, as they show themselves in your life, with a goal of reducing or eliminating them. Some or all of this work you can do on your own. Professional help can speed up the process.
- Continued work can build a sense of competence, inner knowledge, and inner strength. You will learn how to get up when you fall down (which will continue to happen - to all of us!). You will slowly notice that you are becoming more resilient.
In the words of one person who is on this journey...
For me, it seems to have to come in steps. Quieting down the parts of me that have kept me distressed has been the only way I could even start to entertain the idea of going and looking at the negative belief. NOW, I feel like I am finally at a place where I can become emotionally resilient. It's going to take practice. Hit and miss. Then and only then will it be natural.
In general, exposing oneself to challenge which does not overwhelm or cause serious breakdown will tend to produce a strengthening response ("recovery') in both body and mind. This principle of at the root of athletic training, and of "mental toughness" training .
However, use of this principle on one's own, without professional guidance, is not always a good idea. Anyone attempting to recover from physical injury by using weight training, for example, should probably get qualified help before beginning. The same sort of caution is advisable for anyone attempting to recover from childhood neglect, trauma, attachment disorder, abandonment, etc., or who knows that they are particularly stress-sensitive (which may indicate the presence of serious psychological injury) or prone to emotional overload.
If you are not sure about the advisability of entering into a psychological self-help process, consult with a mental health professional first. This is just common sense. Take care of yourself, as a first step, so that you set yourself up for success.
Negative self beliefs - moving from avoidance to constructive engagement
Many of us invest real energy in trying to stay out of trouble by avoiding the parts of our mind that can get us into trouble. As children, this is often one of the very few things we can do to achieve a degree of self-control. Adults, however, have additional options, and one of the more surprising is to disempower negative beliefs by activating them. That this works as well as it does - and it can work exceptionally well - surprises many people. Instinctively, they avoid doing something which, once learned, can be quite beneficial. This well-practiced avoidance, usually learned in childhood, can be taken a very different direction, if one knows how. A critical first step in this process is accurately locating the belief which has you in its grip.
"Looking for trouble" to reduce or eliminate emotional distress
Why would you want to go looking for some part of you that always feels bad?
This may seem like a "fool's errand", but it's not, because one of the great secrets that emerges from the hard work of psychotherapy is that the fearful dragons of the mind can become mere lizards when we take the time simply to focus on them in the right way .
The first step in achieving this outcome is to locate these inner dragons. In the brain, they often take the form of false negative beliefs - and the most potent ones are those about ourselves.
A belief is a thought which we accept as true, regardless of how true it may be in reality. If we act (or feel) as if it's true, then for us it is. The reality we live in is our inner, mental reality, and it is there that mere beliefs can become truths of sometimes devastating power.
Not all thoughts are conscious verbalizations. Unconscious verbalizations also occur. Some of the most critical of our thoughts occur below the level of consciousness - where our brain does much of its work. When these thoughts result in problems in our life, we can benefit from uncovering them, so that they may be examined, evaluated, and worked into a more benign form. One might say that we need to forage for our dragons in order that we might forge something them into something useful.
Once that work is done - and the doing of it can be rather effortless - you will experience that the negative self-beliefs simply don't activate in the situations where they used to have considerable power over you. More useful, positive beliefs will automatically take their place. This is a very agreeable outcome. Even if your distress doesn't completely disappear, merely reducing it can be quite a blessing.
An example may make this more clear. Suppose you have been asked to speak briefly on some topic before a group of which you are a member. Your present belief about this upcoming event could be this: "I could make a fool of myself doing this, and if I do that it'll be so damaging that I can never go to another meeting of this group." Obviously, the second part of this belief is almost certainly not true. Get rid of that false second belief and you can probably live with the true first part.
In many situations, negative self-beliefs often have two parts - a rational (correct) part, and an irrational (incorrect) part. We're concerned about eliminating the second part. The first part should remain active, to keep us in touch with reality. Be assured that the focusing talked about here will affect only the untrue parts of such self-beliefs, which is exactly what we want. The true parts will remain unaffected. In some cases, you may experience only the second part of such a belief - something like "I'm about to be destroyed" - and after dealing constructively with this negative believe it will convert into something like "I could make a fool of myself, but it wouldn't much matter, so I'm free to go ahead an attempt this activity". What was formerly paralyzing is now only realistically cautionary. Your now-accurate self-belief is no longer a show-stopper.
Focusing on the target: false negative beliefs
The problem isn't negative beliefs, but rather false negative beliefs. Negative thoughts or beliefs which are correct are actually useful to us, since they accurately portray our reality. It is useful to me, for example, to believe that I cannot fly off buildings on my own (because I really can't), although I may not be particularly pleased with this fact. The displeasure is incidental but the usefulness is undeniable.
Negative thoughts or beliefs which are NOT correct will usually limit us in some undesirable way, causing us to suffer, and possibly making us feel crazy at times! We do well to want such false negativity out of our brains. Working to achieve this is good work, and the Re-Grounding Procedure I have written about ( http://tomcloyd.com/lib_iudb05373-regrounding.html) is one way you can do this work. Another is the Sustained Focusing procedure I outline below. Both of these procedures are desensitization procedures which many people have successfully used on their own. It may well be possible for you to do this as well..
Using the list of Negative Self-belief Statements
First of all: Know what you're doing
Please read ALL of this section before using any of it. Consider it an act of self-respect: You're not going to do anything until you actually know what you're doing, right? Right.
Also, consider this:
- As I noted above (see Important caution), using the list of Negative Self-belief Statements is not something everyone should attempt. For a few people, it may not be a good idea, because it might be emotionally de-stabilizing. If you have a dissociative disorder, or have a tendency to become particularly dissociative (this is commonly referred to as getting "spacey"), don't use this list without the approval of your psychotherapist. Remember - our purpose in taking these matters up at all is to produce a better state of mind. If that is not the likely outcome, then don't make use of the list! Use you time in better ways.
- Regardless of your mental state, as with any other self-help procedure, if you decide to employ the ideas here you are responsible for any consequences which result. For most people, these consequences will be quite beneficial, but as with almost all things in life, there can be no guarantee of this outcome. If you don't particularly have poor results, but don't get particularly good results either, then you're likely dealing with a problem that is too complex to be self-managed. You know what the means, right? Get help!
Finding negative self-beliefs: the two paths
Below is a structured list of negative self-belief statements which may be productively used to improve your focus on parts of your mind which cause you trouble, as part of the preparation for a number of different self-help or therapist-assisted procedures (I discuss two good procedures, below).
Before you start trying to find the negative self-beliefs impacting you in some situation, it is necessary to notice that you're having a problem. I mention this because for too many people this does not happen, and this means that they're in trouble without know it or without knowing what the trouble is. You've probably had this experience, and it isn't a good one at all. So, the quicker you notice that you're in distress in your daily life the better it is - you can start responding as soon as you notice the problem.
When you do notice that you're having a problem in your life, you'll probably find yourself in one of two situations - and thus will take one of two paths to discovery of your negative self-beliefs:
- Your negative belief(s) will come easily to mind. You will look for the negative belief and rather quickly get a sense that you know what it is. You can then take what comes to mind OR use the list below to simplify the statement of the belief, and possibly to sharpen its focus (this is a very good ways to use the list).
- Your negative belief(s) do not come easily to mind, and must be
sought out. You look inside yourself and find nothing much
except a sense of high anxiety or of compulsion, a sense that you must do
something - and this will crowd out any awareness you might have of the
thinking behind your distress. You may well be experiencing a "SHOULD"
(for example - "I should not make this person unhappy, whatever I decide
to do...") or a "HAVE TO" (for example - "I have to keep my true feelings
out of sight at all costs...") You can often find the negative belief(s)
driving these sorts of feeling by simply reversing your thinking. Below
are some examples of such reversals:
- "I should not make this person unhappy, whatever I decide to do..." => Reversed, this becomes something like "If I make this person unhappy, then I _______". Into the blank spot in the sentence you can put various negative self-beliefs, to try them out. Notice how the focus shifts from outside of you to what's happening inside.
- "I have to keep my true feelings out of sight at all costs..." = > Reversed, this becomes something like "If I show my true feelings, then I _______". As before, replace the blank with whatever negative self-beliefs seem right to you.
I will discuss in more detail, below, how to do use the list of negative beliefs to find the ones which have you in their grip, but for now, just know that finding the negative self-beliefs driving your feeling, thinking, and action gives you choices. It's like discovering where a bad smell in a room is coming from. You can now start cleaning house - which means reducing or eliminating the power these negative beliefs have over you..
You can do this by desensitizing yourself to the beliefs. I want to suggest two desensitization procedures which you can use to do this.
Sustained Focusing and Negative Self-belief Statements
If you can tolerate simply paying attention to your negative belief, once you've located it, you may find this desensitization procedure simple, easy and effective :
Begin by fully noticing that you've become caught up in a serious bad feeling, a definite condition of being stuck. This works to bring defensive denial to an end - if you've been using this internal defense (as most of us do at times).
- Find a quiet place, where you can stay for a few minutes and be assured of not being interrupted.
- Allow the negative belief statement to come to mind.
- If you're aware of a particular situation where this belief can particularly cause you trouble, bring to mind an image of this situation.
- Now, simply maintain your focus. Repeat the belief statement a few times. Pay particular attention to any body sensations which come up. (This is important!)
- Stay with this process for a while. In some cases you'll notice that things calm down internally rather quickly. At the extreme opposite end of the range of experiences people have with this sort of procedure, you may find that nothing much changes at all - but when you return to your normal activities, you likely discover that your mind is quieter and calmer.
Do not rush this process. Be thorough. Seek out aspects of the belief, in a particular situation, which trouble you, and fix your attention on them. You will likely notice that your mere focused attention is like some kind of laser "zapper". If you can target something, you can reduce or eliminate its effect on you. But...what you let escape your attention will return to haunt you again in the future. I can tell you this as a result of extensive personal experience with Sustained focusing - both with clients and with myself.
Re-Grounding Procedure and Negative Self-belief Statements
The Re-Grounding Procedure is especially effective for desensitizing yourself relative to your most disturbing negative self-beliefs - the ones you may have trouble staying focused on for very long. It is also the more involved and demanding of the two procedures. If you're using this approach, take the most powerful of the group of beliefs you've identified as the core belief which you'll repeat to yourself when you move your attention to your non-dominant hand. Since if cover this procedure in detail elsewhere (follow the link at the beginning of this paragraph), I won't say more about it here, other than that it differs from Sustained Focusing because it uses intermittent focusing on negatives coupled with focusing on distinct positives. It's really a wonderful process. You should try it at least once just to be familiar with it.
Expected general outcomes
With either procedure, one of two things will likely happen: Your problems with the negative self-beliefs will simply go away, or they'll go away for a while and then come back to some degree. Generally, the younger you were when you learned your negative self-belief, the more likely it is that you'll have the second outcome. If this is what happens, simply repeat the procedure as needed. You'll almost certainly experience considerable benefit from doing this, as have many other people.
Why do the beliefs learned at a younger age often seem harder quiet down? We don't know for sure, but there are likely several reasons. These beliefs are likely to be stored in a less tidy, more diffuse way, and thus can be hard to fully locate. Also, very young brains are more fundamentally affected by strong negativity, and may well become in some way permanently altered by the experience, like a child who grows up always wearing too-small shoes. After a while, the problem cannot not be completely corrected.
If you have problems...
If you find you cannot obtain the results you want doing this sort of work on your own, it is wise to get consultation from a therapist or personal coach. Especially in the beginning, doing self-directed work can be challenging. But first, consider trying this work yourself. You may well find it to be straightforward and simple.
Directions for using the list
Here is the method I recommend. Notice that priority is given to your thoughts before you interact with the list, which is then used to enrichen your awareness. You may already have an awareness of your negative self-beliefs which will be more useful than anything you find in the list. However, even then, finding a simple, clear statement of your negative self-belief will usually help you to focus better on the heart of the problem. I have found that often people don't have clear or well-honed words for their negative self-beliefs, and do indeed benefit from use of this list. In addition, the list may prompt you to become aware of additional negative self-beliefs which you are not at this moment too aware. This is always useful. 
Notice also that space is provided for you to add any self-beliefs not on the list which come to mind as a result of reading the list. You may wish to print this
So, do this:
- Think of the situation in which you get in trouble or come to feel bad. Write down all negative self-beliefs which come to mind. Continue writing until nothing more comes to mind.
- Look at each category on the list below. Mark each item which makes you winch, cringe, feel avoidant, or disturbed in any other way..
- Next to the beliefs you wrote down before you interacted with the list, copy the beliefs you found on the list which seem to apply to you. See if you can combine any which seem to be merely different ways of saying the same thing. If you are left with more than one belief, see if any natural groups can be formed of the beliefs you now have.
- For the purposes of using these beliefs with either of the desensitization procedures mentioned above, it is best to begin with the individual belief or group of beliefs which most disturb you. After that one is calmed down, go to the next most disturbing, and so on. This is definitely the approach to use if you find that you have written down a lot of beliefs. Always go after the most powerful negative beliefs first.
- After desensitizing yourself, you may wish to check the power of your negative self-beliefs in about one week, just to see if the change you've achieved is permanent. Save your list of beliefs in a safe place, to use with the checking, which is done by simply focusing on each belief and noticing how it affects you. Ideally, there will be no effect at all.
Immediately below is the list. If you think using this list is appropriate for you, get started. It's a clear step you can take in the direction of self-determination and greater self-control.
Negative self-belief statements list
- I don't exist.
- I cannot exist
- I shouldn't exist
- My existence has no meaning.
- Other beliefs about personal place in the world, not on this list:
Beliefs about personal safety
- I'm in danger.
- I cannot protect myself.
- I must be on guard at all times.
- There is no safe place for me.
- It's not safe for me to exist.
- I don't deserve to be safe.
- I must hide to be safe.
- I cannot be trusted.
- I cannot trust my judgment.
- I cannot trust myself.
- I cannot trust anyone.
- Other beliefs about personal safety, not on this list:
Beliefs about personal power and control
- I cannot stand up for myself.
- It's not OK to show my feelings.
- It's not OK to feel my feelings.
- I cannot let out what's inside me.
- I am inadequate.
- I am weak
- I am not in control.
- I am powerless.
- I am helpless.
- I cannot get what I want.
- I have to be perfect to get what I want..
- I cannot be good enough.
- I will fail.
- I cannot succeed.
- I am not smart enough.
- Other beliefs about personal power and control, not on this list:
Beliefs about self-worth
- I'm different.
- I don't belong.
- I'm inadequate.
- I'm a failure.
- I'm not lovable.
- I don't deserve love.
- I'm not good enough.
- My thoughts have no value.
- I am stupid.
- I'm insignificant.
- My feelings have no value.
- I'm unimportant.
- I will always be alone.
- I deserve to be alone.
- I'm a disappointment.
- I'm shameful.
- I'm a bad person.
- I'm terrible.
- I'm worthless.
- I'm disgusting.
- I am ugly.
- My body is awful, disgusting, repulsive.
- I deserve only bad things.
- I deserve to be miserable.
- I deserve to die.
- Other beliefs about self-worth, not on this list:
Beliefs about accountability, self-blame
- I should have done better.
- I should have done something.
- I did something wrong.
- I should have known better.
- I'm shameful.
- I am a bad person.
- Other beliefs about accountability and self-blame, not on this list:
Beliefs about self in relation to others
- With other people, I must be on guard at all times.
- With other people, I cannot protect myself.
- With other people, I am inadequate.
- With other people, I am weak
- With other people, I am not in control.
- With other people, I am powerless.
- With other people, I am helpless.
- With other people, I cannot get what I want.
- I cannot trust anyone.
- I have to please everyone.
- I cannot survive ignoring the needs of other people.
- I cannot survive being rejected by other people.
- With other people, I cannot trust my judgment.
- I deserve to be rejected by others.
- I'm always less important than other people.
- I must not show myself to other people.
- I cannot show myself to other people.
- Other beliefs about self in relation to others, not on this list:
 This is because of the natural process in the brain, well validated in decades of research in behavioral psychology, known as extinction (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction_(psychology) for more on this). However, response extinction as used in much of psychotherapy, is usually achieved by use of of habituation (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habituation for a rather good, if technical, article on this).
 No such list can be truly complete, which is why space is provided for you to add to the list if you want to. Group headings for the "Negative Self-belief statements" are working titles only. I like the way things are grouped, at present, but I'm likely to continue working on the problem of making intuitive groupings. Item order in the lists is also a work-in-progress. The content in this structured list is a reworking of material from Schmidt (2006) and Shapiro, F. (2001), supplemented by my own clinical observation of client's negative self-beliefs.
 Because some statements can be interpreted in more than one way (example "I am bad"), I have placed them in more than one category.
 While I really like the Grounding Procedure, because it is very effective and is theoretically quite sound, I find that I tend to use the Sustained Focusing procedure more, myself, simply because I can and because it's simpler. I can just jump right into it when I notice that I'm experiencing a negative self-belief which I find objectionable. However, if I was having trouble with Sustained Focusing I'd move to the other procedure quickly. It's also very nice, and is basically a more powerful approach for difficult negative self-beliefs..
 There is dispute about the value of suggesting thoughts or statements to people (Freeman, A., et al., 1990, p. 36). The concern is that conceptual distortions might be introduced into their awareness. Other mental health professionals (Kendall, P.C., 1981), however, have found, as I have, that their value in extending and enrichening awareness well outweighs any risk that may be involved. I have never felt that people were much persuaded to believe anything about themselves simply as a result of reading what's on this list. It's simple: you either react or you don't. This is automatic, and I think it can be trusted. The list I provide here is not formally validated. As Merluzzi and Boltwood (1989) point out (p. 251), self-statement recognition methods such as this require considerable work to validate. For a review of instruments for which validation studies have been made, see their 1989 article.
 For an excellent introduction to this sort of training, more broadly viewed, see the works of James E. Loehr - for example his 1993 Toughness training for life, New York: Dutton.
 My deep thanks to J. for permission to include this quote. The moment I read it I liked it. It well expresses the reality of working through the negative self-beliefs problem, and the fact that the problem isn't always accessible until some other basic work is accomplished. As J. found, that basic work is NOT something one can do on one's own.
Freeman, A., Pretzer, J., Fleming, B., and Simon, K. (1990). Clinical applications of cognitive therapy. New York: Plenum Press.
Freeman, A. (1981). Assessment and cognitive-behavioral interventions: Purposes, proposals, and problems. In P. C. Kendall & S. D. Hollon (Eds.) Assessment strategies for cognitive behavioral interventions. New York: Academic Press.
Merluzzi, T. V. & Boltwood, M. D. (1989). Cognitive assessment. In A. Freeman, K. M. Simon, L. E. Beutler, and H. Arkowitz (Eds.), Comprehensive handbook of cognitive therapy. New York: Plenum Press.
Schmidt, S. J. (2006). Processing attachment issues - the attachment needs ladder. In The Developmental needs meeting strategy: A model for healing adults with childhood attachment wounds. San Antonio, Texas: DNMS Institute.
Shapiro, F. (2001). List of generic negative and positive cognitions. In Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, 2nd ed., p. 430. New York: Guilford.
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