Self-Sabotage and Negative Core Beliefs: How Our Thinking Saves Us From Experiencing Pain

“When it comes to love… there is nothing to “force my assent.” I have to give my assent before sufficient logical justification is supplied, and when I do, the evidence, it is hoped, begins to trickle in.” -John Kaag

In his book, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds, John Kaag argued that love “requires a bit of faith, or at minimum an act of optimism.” Since we can’t be certain of our prospective lover’s feelings, we have to have hope in the relationship’s future. But, what supplies us with that sense of optimism? Often, I write about and focus on core beliefs, an individual’s global beliefs about herself, others, and the world on the whole, because they underlie our relationships with our environments and ourselves, informing how we treat ourselves, think about our interpersonal and professional prospects, and how we treat others.

The answer to the above-stated question is less about the other’s perspective and more about yours: You believe in the likelihood of reciprocated attraction because of who you believe yourself to be, and are relatively certain of your ability to cope in the event that they feel differently or break-up with you. The faith in love, at bottom, is a faith in oneself. And, the incoming evidence, if mostly positive, reinforces that initial set of core self-conceptions.

If negative evidence (such as rejection) is placed on a solid psychological foundation, the individual is able to conceive of the prospective relationship as a poor match, taking into account the prior evidence that indicates her value. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t question her worth; it just implies that she eventually, and rather quickly, rebounds from heartbreak. But, on the other hand, if one of her core beliefs informs her of her worthlessness, she interprets the rejection as confirmation. Unfortunately (and fortunately), our minds have a way of cherry-picking data to confirm what we already strongly believe, a process dubbed ‘confirmation bias’. So, one rejection may be enough to send one into a prolonged emotional tailspin, further solidifying her malign perspective.

For example, someone who wishes to become a novelist may, through encouragement, propose a manuscript to an editor only to be rejected; this rejection, then, strengthens her core belief of being unimportant. Further, it also strengthens her assumption (a more specific belief about herself, another, or some aspect of the world) about her capability as a writer. So, the core belief of “I’m unimportant” is followed by the assumption of “My writing is trivial.” (Being unimportant is extended to multiple areas, since it’s a global self-assessment.) And, if she’s presented with the chance to showcase her work again, she’ll likely expect another rejection. Finally, her expectation will cause her to retreat or avoid, as many of us fear having our negative core beliefs confirmed even further.

For better or worse, our brains were built more for protection than to foster happiness. Thus, when an emotional risk is combined with a negative self-image, the brain engenders a negative assumption and expectation (i.e. “My writing is pointless and no one will care.”) in order to protect itself from future pain. And, it may even rationalize, creating a cherry-picked argument for both its assumption and expectation. So, even though risk entails the potential for happiness, our minds are more concerned with precluding emotional suffering.

While these processes are normal, and automatic, it’s on us to explore them and their outcomes. When individuals avoid love, they truly believe in their limited value, and, subsequently, their minds protect them by predicting rejection. More often than not, our minds and their beliefs comprise our fundamental barriers. The example mentioned above was taken from a conversation with a real person, who possesses more talent than she believes. But, while it’s easy for me to see it, it isn’t for her. If she ever believed in herself, or at least in her worth as a writer, she’d be a lot happier than she is now, even with all of the likely rejection letters.

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