“I know it’s irrational, but I can’t stop feeling this way.”

Do you ever feel nagging self-doubt or insecurity that you know is irrational, yet can’t seem to turn off? Often it is because we are still carrying around what I call a negative embodied belief that has inadvertently merged into our sense of self.

For example, John was a 48 year-old man who was frustrated by an unexplainable apprehension he felt when disagreeing with his father. As I guided John to trace these feelings back to an earlier memory, he recalled a time that his father, a handball champion, hurled a squeaking mouse against the kitchen wall with one fell swoop of his hand. Later, John recalled another memory of his dad lobbing a similar strike to his face when John smarted off to him as a teenager. John’s father later apologized for hitting him so hard and never hit him again, but John still felt uneasy around him after all these years.

As we explored the beliefs John might have attached to these childhood experiences, he said, “I got the impression that if you cross dad, he’ll wallop you. Even though I know rationally that my dad won’t hit me now, I guess I still feel that way on some level.”

Maladaptive reactions like John’s are typically formed in response to prior emotionally charged events. When an event happens that involves intense emotional arousal, emotion acts like glue that sears the experience into a learned pathway instantly, so it doesn’t require a lot of repetition. Your mind probably did the same thing when you first touched a hot stove. This indelible learning is meant to protect you and prevent you from putting yourself into harm’s way.

Often, the process of taking events from our past and putting them into proper context happens over time without therapy. For instance, you learned not to touch a stove when it was hot, but realized you didn’t have to avoid stoves altogether. When we put an event into this conscious context, it is called an explicit memory. An explicit memory is a memory we can retrieve consciously and describe without a lot of emotional arousal because we’ve stored it within an adaptive framework. On the other hand, implicit memory is memory that is stored as more of a felt experience that hasn’t been fully integrated consciously into current context, time, or space. Implicit memories involve behavioral learning, emotional reactions, and bodily sensations that lack the feeling of coming from the past. As far as the emotional brain is concerned, the behavior you used to survive an unresolved event is still relevant and necessary for your survival.

Ironically, I find the “small-T” traumas frequently have more of a haunting, insidious effect than the “Big-T traumas”. With a Big-T trauma like disaster, war, or rape, clients often have greater ability to recognize that they did not cause the event and did what they did in order to survive. With a small-T trauma like experiences of disapproval, betrayal, or neglect, people often feel that they were the cause of someone else’s behavior. Clients impacted by small-t traumas often present with recurring feelings of shame, guilt, self-loathing, anxiety or depression without a clear cause. Likewise, they often believe they are inherently unworthy, unlovable, defective, or just plain “bad” without understanding why. I call these embodied beliefs because they show up as more of a felt sense, rather than as rational thoughts. An embodied belief feels like an essential truth about one’s identity that cannot be reasoned away.

I created a worksheet to assist you in locating the root of these implicit beliefs. You can download a copy of the Embodied Beliefs Worksheet by clicking here.

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