Kenpo Women is pleased to present this very thoughtful analytical approach to believing in yourself. Please forgive any misspellings or grammatical errors as the version we received was a physical hard copy and had to be retyped for your viewing. I believe that all of us have a little Ms. A in us, I know I do, thank you DeeDee for sharing your knowledge with Kenpo Women.
Laura is a BWKS Black belt and is currently the Stress Engineering Manager of the Western Hemisphere at National Oilwell Varco, in charge of the analysis of oil drilling equipment. She lives in Costa Mesa. Though she’s no longer training in Karate, she does keep active with salsa dancing and says “you may call that a second black belt if they gave out belts for such a thing”.
An Analytical Approach to Believing in Yourself
Black Belt Thesis
Bob White’s Karate Studio
Laura C. Acocella
Black Belt Test Date:
October 24, 1998
An Analytical Approach to Believing in Yourself
I am grateful to Mr. White and all of his black belts and students for their help in changing my belief in myself. Their instruction, patience and encouragement on the many long evenings and
weekends during the six years of training in the pursuit of my black belt is much appreciated.
1.1. Song of the Bird
A man found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eagle hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life, the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did,
thinking he was a barnyard chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. And he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet in the air.
Years passed and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky. It glided in graceful majesty among powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat of
its strong golden wings. The old eagle looked up in awe. “Who’s that?” he asked. “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” said his neighbor. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth –
we’re chickens.” So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was. Anthony DeMello;
1.2. Case Study: Mr. A
Not all beliefs learned in childhood are destined to become fixed for life, as in the eagle’s case. Take the case of Mr. A., for instance: Mr. A was very bright as a child, so much so that he skipped the first grade and went right to second grade from kindergarten. Unfortunately, surrounded by children more advanced emotionally and physically, his higher intelligence didn’t shine through. Bored with school, he would be disruptive in class and not complete his work. Another strike against him was that he was also born “on the wrong side of the tracks”. He was
from the Italian neighborhood, so his peers considered him a “dumb Guinea”. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy when the boy grew to a young adult and barely graduated high school with
a report card filled with D’s. Between the poor grades and society’s attitudes towards Italians, Mr. A. believed that he was stupid, and that he wouldn’t amount to much where a strong intellect was
needed. It wasn’t until Mr. A. joined the police force at age 29 and was forced to take an IQ test as part of the application process. When the scores were returned, the test agency representative declared on seeing Mr. A’s score, “That’s the highest IQ I’ve ever seen!” “I ‘m smart?” was Mr. A’s reply to himself. In later years, Mr. A decided to test this new belief by attending college during the evenings while he worked full time and raised six children. His attitude the first semester was to just get through. When he saw that he was making C’s without much effort at a prestigious Teacher’s college, he decided to really try. From the second semester onwards, Mr. A. received straight A’s in all of his coursework and graduated Cum Laud. In this case, the eagle realized that he was an eagle and not a chicken, and he was able to soar.
2. Change of Beliefs
Mr. A’s story had a happy ending, but what of those people who aren’t so fortunate to have something such as Mr. A’s IQ test slap them in the face with the truth and change their belief in
themselves? Are they destined to live and die as a chicken, because that’s what they believe they are? Is there a way that we can make a conscious choice to change our own beliefs? I think
there is, but haven’t always felt this way. I recall discussing a sparring problem that I was having with Mrs. Lupe White. During the discussion, she told me “You have to believe in yourself.” I said, “How do you do that? Belief is like trust – you can’t just turn it on or off on your own. It’s something that develops.” Lupe replied “You just do it over and over and over again, until you prove it to yourself.” That statement carried a lot of wisdom in its simplicity. Why didn’t I think of it myself? – because I lacked the tenacity to “do it over and over and over again” when the first few trials proved a failure. If you try something new, such as a spinning hooking heel kick, enough times, you’re bound to do it correctly once, even if it is by accident. That one occurrence is enough to prove yourself wrong when you say, “I can’t do it”. Continuing to repeat the technique will eventually change your belief in yourself. Mr. A’s IQ test was his first indication that his belief in himself “I
am stupid” was false. His continuing to study and score A’s in all of his college coursework reinforced his new belief “I am very intelligent”. I feel that there can be a step-by-step systematic way that we can control this change of belief and make it happen consciously. My theory is based on the basic mechanisms of how we learn, and proven techniques of cognitive therapy that is used to help people overcome depression. I will describe each of these in brief, then suggest alterations to the technique to apply to changing belief in general.
2.1. Basic Neurobiology
To understand how the most basic human attributes of thought and learning develop, we’ll begin with a brief foray into the exciting world of neurobiology where nature and nurture meet.
- Neurons: Neurons are the special nerve cells that make up the central nervous system and the brain. A neuron may both receive and send out electrical signals to neighboring neurons. A single axon conveys electrical signals to other neurons, and numerous hair-like structures called dendrites receive incoming signals.
- Synapse: The function of an axon of one neuron and a dendrite from another is called a synapse. The passing of a signal across this gap is mediated by neurotransmitter chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. Synapses develop in response to stimulus of learning and experience.
- Neural Migration: As neurons multiply, they travel outward to form the layers of the cortex, sliding up the elongated glial cells. But these young neurons are not fully functional when they start this journey. Only through contact with various other cells along the way, the stimulation of the senses and through action of various genes triggered by these encounters do brain cells take on their ultimate form, location, and function.
- Glial Cells: Outnumber neurons 10-1, constitute much of the brain mass and perform a myriad of functions
ranging from immune surveillance to cushioning the neurons like plastic foam pellets in a packaging box. Glial cells also do a remarkable dance, wrapping their cell membranes around and around axons in concentric circles to create a myelin sheath, and insulating layer that improves electrical conductivity and makes circuits run faster and more reliably. The process of myelination is akin to transforming a twisted, rutted dirt road into a sex-lane superhighway.
From a single cell, the human brain grows into the most complex object in the cosmos. As it grows, the brain is sculpted from the raw material of its cells, call neurons and a kind of
connective tissue called glial cells, and human experience. It used to be believed that a baby is born with all the brain cells he or she will ever have, but new research at UCI and USC suggests
that the number of neural cells almost doubles during the first six years of life.
The neurons get lined up in their respective places, but only the basic survival circuits left over from our evolutionary days get wired up according to an invariable plan. Much (but no one is sure
how much) of the remainder of the wiring determines things like whether we get excited about Mozart or baseball; prefer to hike, write sonnets, get in fights, or plant a garden; whether we are
rigid, demanding, and stress-prone, or calm, adaptable, and easygoing; whether we tend toward co-dependency or healthy interdependence. Some of the circuits laid down in the first few years
of life are metaphorically cast in stone. They don’t change. Most of the wiring, however, remains plastic and re-programmable, which is why human beings can change, grow, and learn from our
The connections (synapses) between the neurons are forged by the growing child’s experience with the surrounding world. If neurons are used, they are integrated into the brain’s living
circuitry. Un-stimulated, the neurons die. In the first years of life, a child generates up to 15,000 connections to each one of his 1000 billion brain cells. By age 2, the number of synapses
reaches adult levels and surpasses them between ages 4 and 1 O. A child’s brain has twice as many neurons and twice as many connections between them and is twice as energetic as the
The more a pathway is used in early childhood, the more it becomes myelinated, and the harder it is to change, which explains why our basic patterns of perceiving and responding to the world are in place by the time we are seven. Change is very possible in later years by myelinating new pathways, but that change may require tremendous effort and sustained attention over many years since the initial circuitry will remain until it withers from lack of use.
By about age 16-18, the brain assumes its adult form. The number of synapses falls dramatically as experience prunes unused neural connections. Synapses that are not used are ruthlessly pruned – thousands per second. Only those that are reinforced by experience survive. Still, the adult brain retains a surprising degree of flexibility, and experience continues to mold the physical structure of the brain well into old age. Complex networks of neurons are linked by pathways forged, then continually revised, in response to experience.
So powerful is the enriching effect of learning on the physical structure of the brain’s cells that the brain of an active collage graduate may have up to 40% more neural connections than that of a high school drop out. “Learning is anything that stimulates the brain over and over again. It can be playing a musical Instrument. It can be seizures,” said biologist Michael E. Phelps, who directs the Crump Institute of Biological Imaging at UCLA Medical School.
Although neurons do continue to die as we age, most pruning of extraneous cells actually occur in utero, before we are even born. By birth, we have already lost about 50% of our neurons, but
no one mourns the fading capacities of the infant brain. In fact, when pruning fails to occur in the young brain, there is an increased instance of mental retardation because there are too many
extraneous circuits, too much noise, just as when competing television channels come in at the same time and neither are adequately clear.
Denied proper stimulation, the brain atrophies, its neural connections withering like dying leaves. After age 50, some neurons start to die and neural synapses can atrophy. But exercise, diet, and
mental stimulation help keep mental functioning at its peak. The solitary lifestyles common among the elderly Americans may worsen the mental effects of aging, researchers suspect,
because if the brain is not stimulated, it may not retain a sufficient reserve of brain cells to withstand neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Why should a neurological process that leads to clarity in younger years become suspect as we get older? Lay people and researchers alike have been conditioned by the “aging mystique” to fear a progressive loss of cognitive, or thinking, function later in life. Yet, as Berkeley neuroscientist Marian Diamond has demonstrated, aging rats that continue to be stimulated by their environments actually develop new cortical pathways that enlarge their brain mass. As pruning progresses during the aging process, in concert with the development of new functional pathways, there is every reason to conclude that the mind of a healthy person will continue to come into sharper focus.
Naturally, what comes into focus depends on the well-worn pathways that we’ve used throughout life. If we have habitually turned to helplessness or revenge, we will progressively become more embittered. If our focus has been on love, learning and service we will progressively develop our oracular wisdom and the compassion that is a natural outgrowth of empathy and inter-relational thinking.
Part of the aging mystique revolves around the erroneous assumption that old people are unable to do things for themselves, that they are incompetent. This of course is a self fulfilling prophesy because when other people do things for us that we could do ourselves we lose the stimulation required to continue developing mentally.
When we lack stimulation at any age, mental processes and the ability to create begin to deteriorate. And when we stop creating, life-force energy diminishes and depression sets in. The prevalent myth of aging states that we gradually lose function and finally die. But what if the loss of function, and the associated decline in vigor, turn out to be societal mind-set that we could avoid? Very small changes in the way that we relate to the aging process can increase longevity and facilitate the ongoing development of wisdom.
2.1.4. The Mind
So, does the brain have a mind that is greater than the sum of its synapses? We might use the analogy of the brain as a television who’s wiring allows it selectively to pick up multiple signals
that are traveling through the air, but can only be decoded and perceived when they are received by the set. Although the machine’s wiring is critical to the production of the picture and sound, no matter how carefully the television is dissected into its component parts, we will never find the little man inside (the mind) who is reading the news. Not only can outside experiences create neural connections that are myelinated when the experiences are repeated, but our own thoughts can strengthen these connections as well. This concept lead to a field of study called Cognitive Therapy.
2.2. Cognitive Therapy
The ability to form new neural connections through learning is most intense in childhood, but contrary to previous beliefs, the brain throughout life retains a remarkable ability to remodel itself
physically in response to new experiences. Even though it may loose up to half its synapses by the time it reaches adulthood; it is still flexible enough to forge new connections between the cells
that remain. The brain can change its physical structure in response to training, whether that training be in response to the world, or in response to your own thoughts.
Cognitive therapy, developed at the University of Pennsylvania by Aaron T. Beck, M.D., and his colleagues, is based on the cognitive model of emotional disorders. The basic principle of the
cognitive model is this: How you evaluate or think about your experiences determines how you react emotionally. If you think you’ve lost something, you’ll feel sad; if you think you’re in danger,
you’ll feel anxious; if you think others have treated you wrongly, you ‘ll feel angry. Recent research has found that people with emotional disorders systematically distort their experiences.
The direction and type of cognitive distortion determines the nature of the emotional disorder. If you distort your experiences in such a way that you see conspiracies everywhere, you become
paranoid; if you misinterpret your neutral experiences as signs of danger, you become anxious; if you distort your experiences in a manner that leads you to conclude that you’re a loser, you
In a sense, cognitive therapy is a hybrid of two other approaches of psychological treatments. Like behavior therapy, it is interested in action and solving present concerns. And like traditional
therapies, it tries to unearth dysfunctional beliefs. However, cognitive therapy places much more emphasis on actively correcting faulty beliefs than traditional therapy does.
Cognitive Therapy teaches us that by changing the way we think we can alter our moods, deal with emotional problems, and get rid of depression without the use of drugs. Dr. Beck outlines a
systematic program for controlling thought distortions that lead to pessimism, lethargy, procrastination, low self-esteem, and other “black holes” of depression. This integrated approach to depression leads to achieving a rich life in strength, self-assurance, and accomplishment.
The word “cognitive” simply refers to how you are thinking and feeling about things in a particular moment. Dr. Beck’s thesis was simple:
- When you are depressed or anxious, you are thinking in an illogical, negative manner and you are inadvertently acting in a self-defeating way.
- With a little effort you can train yourself to straighten your twisted thought patterns.
- As painful symptoms are eliminated, you will become productive and happy again, and you will respect yourself.
- These aims can usually be accomplished in a relatively brief period of time, using straightforward methods.
2.2.1. Not a Rehash of the Power of Positive Thinking
Cognitive therapy is not a rehash of the power of positive thinking. Granted there are some surface similarities. Both therapies stress the importance of thoughts and ideas and both warn
against the power of negative thinking. But the similarities between the power of positive thinking and cognitive therapy stop there. What’s wrong with the power of positive thinking? Nothing, except that positive thoughts aren’t always true! You can trick yourself for a while with false positive thoughts. But in the end you’ll feel worse. Positive thoughts lead to positive consequences only when you believe that the thoughts are true, and only when they turn out to be true.
Some people suggest repeating over and over, “Every day in every way, things are getting better and better.” Why should you believe that everything is going to get better and better? There’s no proof things will. And it’s highly unlikely everything is going to get better. Don’t be an optimist – be a realist. Optimists are continually getting themselves into trouble by assuming the best. They think that they can make the trip on a half a tank of gas and that their bald tires will get them through. They break down and get themselves into jams over and over again by overlooking the real problems. Or as the social philosopher Max Lerner put it, “To believe either that everything is bound to work out or that nothing will work out is equally and exercise in mindlessness.” In positive thinking, you’re replacing one global judgement for another. The power is in realistic thinking – not positive thinking. A glass of water isn’t optimistically half full or pessimistically half empty. Rather, it is four ounces of water in and eight-ounce glass. When you have accurate information (the good and the bad), you can make the right decisions. And leading a happy, productive life means making good choices.
2.2.2. How Cognitive Therapy Works
Though cognitive therapy was developed specifically to treat depression, it clearly has application to other emotional problems. It teaches the person how to identify, correct, and “reality-test”
cognitive distortions. For example, the depressed person learns to master problems and situations she previously believed were impossible by learning to reevaluate and change her
mistaken thinking. To get the most out of cognitive therapy, you need to grasp at a deep level two basic principles. The first is that you create your psychological reality by your thinking. The
second is that your state of mind is directly related to your mood. When you are in a low state of mind and not thinking clearly, you need to raise your mood so that you can more accurately see
what is going on.
Cognitive therapy is brief, directive, and highly structured. First a patient learns how to obtain relief from symptoms; later, after their state of mind has risen, they learn how to identify and
change the dysfunctional beliefs that led them to distort their experiences in the first place. Teaching people how to change their thinking:
- Be willing to entertain the possibility – however slight – that your conclusions about yourself are wrong.
- Begin to search for alternative explanations.
- Decide to test out the negative ideas.
- Give the procedure a chance to succeed
2.2.3 Distorted Thinking
What leads to typical depression? First a person runs into some type of stress (a loss, anxiety on the job, ending of a relationship) or a build up of small stresses. Most people don’t like setback but can handle them; others react by switching into negative thinking. It’s as ifa mask slips over them – an internal force that magnifies the negative and filters out the postitive.
This internal force warps your perceptions and causes you to react in an excessive and inappropriate way. Perception warping is made up of a series of negative beliefs that revolve
around sensitive areas: success/failure, rejection/acceptance, health/sickness, gain/loss. This negative force begins to color all of your experiences. Experiences that would normally
undermine negative ideas are twisted to support them. The depressed person begins to prejudge their experiences and because of this prejudice is in their private thoughts, there’s no one to
argue for the other side. When a person is depressed, they see the world in a way that supports their own negative conclusions. Events are misheard, misperceived, and misconstrued to fit the prevailing negative line. The distorted thinking that keeps them locked into depression acts as a kind of Procrustean mold – an arbitrary standard to which you force exact conformity. (Procrustes was the mythical Greek villain who either stretched his guests or chopped off their feet to fit his bed.) Some types of distorted thinking are as follows:
1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
2. OVER GENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
3. MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the beaker of water.
4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting that they ‘don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your every day experiences.
5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion. (A) MIND READING: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reactive negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out. (B) THE FORTUNETELLER ERROR: You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
6. MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZING: You exaggerate the importance of things such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately
shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular” trick.
7. EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” 8. SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
9. LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of over generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a louse.”
Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
10. PERSONALIZATION: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.
2.2.4 How to Identify Negative Beliefs
A negative view of self is at the heart of depression. If someone is depressed, they believe everything about themselves is worthless – past, present, and future. Their depresson symptoms can be traced back to this underlying notion – “I’m a loser”.
Why do some people respond in such a self defeating way to stress when others don’t? The answer can be found in people’s assumptions about herself and some can lead to depression. Self-defeating beliefs usually stay in the back of your ind (“I’m unlovable”..”I should be the best”.. “Everyone should always life me”) But if the right buttons are pushed, they jump forward. When they encounter setbacks that touch on these negative beliefs (“John didn’t ask me out again”), the beliefs come alive (“I ‘m unlovable”). If they’re prone to depression, they probably
have many more of these self-defeating beliefs. Assumptions, for the most part, are silent. You’re unaware of them unless you’re specifically asked – and even then you may not realize you hold them. Many are based on family rules. A parent may tell a child “Be nice, or others won’t like you.” The child may repeat to herself – out lout at first (“Be nice”) and later silently to herself. After a while she develops the unspoken rule or assumption “My worth depends on what others think of me.” Some patients develop negative beliefs after a painful experience. (Example: Parents divorce
when you’re ·young and you feel it’s your fault. The negative belief reappears years later as “When bad things happen, it’s my fault. “) Here are some common negative beliefs that underlie negative thinking. iv:
1. I have to be loved to be happy.
2. It’s best to give up my interests to please other people.
3. I can’t be respected unless I’ve achieved something (have a good education or occupation)or am especially talented.
4. If other people dislike me, I can’t be happy.
5. If I’m alone, I’ll be lonely.
6. I have to do more than other people to be as good as them.
7. I can’t trust other people because they’ll hurt me.
8. If people know what I’m really like, they won’t like me.
9. My happiness depends more upon other people than on me.
10. If a person I want to love me doesn’t, then I’m unlovable.
11. To be nice, I have to help anyone in need.
12. I can’t cope on my own.
13. My group (women, Blacks, poor, old, Jews, uneducated, etc.) is inferior to other groups.
14. It’s my fault if those I love (spouse, child, friend) are in trouble.
15. I should think of other people first, even if I have difficulties.
16. I should always be modest about my abilities.
17. I have no right to ask other people to help me.
18. I should never hurt anyone’s feelings.
19. I’m basically bad (stupid, ugly, phony, immoral, lazy, a bitch, demanding).
20. I must have total control.
Even though your depressing thoughts may be distorted, they nevertheless create a powerful illusion of truth. Let me expose the basis for the deception in blunt terms – your feelings are not
facts! In fact, your feelings, per se, don’t even count – except as a mirror of the way you are thinking. If your perceptions make no sense, the feelings that they create will be as absurd as the
images reflected in the trick mirrors at an amusement park. But these abnormal emotions feel just as valid and realistic as the genuine feelings created by undistorted thoughts, so you automatically attribute truth to them. This is why depression is such a powerful form of mental black magic.
2.2.5. Changing Negative Beliefs
What causes you to change your negative beliefs? One or two new ways of looking at a situation can make the difference. Usually, you won’t question your beliefs merely because you come up with a batch of counter-arguments, but rather because you come up with one or two that make particular sense to you.
If this were all there was to it, overcoming depression would be a snap. Just lit the ways you aren’t a loser, and presto, you’re no longer depressed. However, this doesn’t work. And here’s
the rub: Depression muddles up not only how you feel and act (“I feel too bad to go to Mom’s birthday party”), but how you think as well (“A good daughter would go”). When someone
becomes depressed, they distort their experiences in such a way that their thinking reaffirms their negative opinion of themselves (“I’m no good”).
If you’re depressed, you believe these fictitious negative ideas and will go on believing them unless you actively and strongly challenge them. You need to learn how to confront these thoughts head on. You can teach yourself to do this with the following steps:
1. Become aware of your automatic thoughts. Your automatic thoughts rest on implicit beliefs. Although these beliefs may be silent, they can be inferred from the thoughts that lead to bad feelings. (Example: When someone ignores you, you may think, “He doesn’t like me.” This is based on the belief “Everyone has to like me all of the time.”)
2. Look tor themes. See how many of your automatic thoughts are of a particular type. You’ll see a pattern forming in your thinking.
3. Note key words. You may find that you use the same words over and over again in your automatic thoughts – words such as rotten, weird, or ugly. These are clues to your under lying beliefs. Since most of your beliefs were learned when you were a child, they contain words that children use. Once these words have been identified, uncover the meanings behind them. This is the time to sit back and reflect on your childhood. Certain family sayings and bedtime stories may contain further clues.
4. See how you view others. Another clue to your underlying beliefs is the way you see others. This requires tuning into your thinking even more.
5. Underline thinking errors. Look over your automatic thoughts and see what kind of errors you make the most. Over-generalizing? Jumping to conclusions? Ignoring the positive? Thinking in either/or terms (you’re wither great or you’re nothing)?
6. Examine your happiness. When you’re unusually happy about some event, ask yourself “Why am I so happy?” Many underlying beliefs have a payoff when they appear to be working.
3. Applying Cognitive Therapy to Further Achievement
If cognitive therapy can be used to change the negative beliefs of depressed people so that they can lead a normal life, why can’t it be used to change the negative beliefs of normal people so that they can reach a higher level of accomplishment? I argue that it can. Let’s review the principles of cognitive therapy proposed by Dr. Aaron T. Beck on teaching people how to change their thinking:
1. Be willing to entertain the possibility – however slight – that your conclusions about yourself are wrong.
2. Begin to search for alternative explanations. 3. Decide to test out the negative ideas.
4. Give the procedure a chance to succeed.
I see no reason why this methodology would not work in the case of bringing a person up from average to higher level. Let’s take the case of Ms. A:
When Ms. A was a child, she had a lot of positive feedback from her parents and performances at school to lead her to the belief that she was both intelligent and talented in the area of art. Although she was good at sports up until the 4th grade, she wasn’t encouraged to pursue athletics by her parents because that’s “what boys did, sports aren’t lady-like”.
At a time of racial tension in the East Coast school system, Ms. A was bused to a middle school (5th through 8th grad) that had an 80% black population. Most of the children at the school didn’t know her from previous years. Being painfully shy and socially awkward, she was target as one who appeared weak, and was therefore the object of much ridicule and racial hostility. Children assume that if you are socially clumsy and unpopular, that you must be physically clumsy as well. Ms. A (with a couple of other girls) was ritually picked last for all team events during gym classes.
Although Ms. A grew up with confidence about her intellectual and artistic abilities, she still carried with her negative beliefs, such as: “I’m no good at sports.” As she grew older, other myths became part of her negative belief system, such as: “You’re either born with athletic ability, or you’re not”, “Peak athletic years occur in the late teens and early twenties. If I wasn’t in shape then, then I missed my chance, I’m too old now”.
Many of these negative beliefs became, once again, a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Ms. A would attempt a sport and not be immediately successful, she would give up quickly to avoid derision. The few neural connections associated with athletics and body awareness that were made in early childhood were not reinforced, so they withered and died. Ridicule at what she perceived as her lack of ability followed her with every sport she tried, to the point where she stopped trying at all. Without physical activity as a part of her everyday life, Ms. A soon lost all the small amount of muscle and cardiovascular shape that she had as a young adult.
Her distorted thinking also reinforced Ms. A’s negative beliefs about herself. She had all-or nothing thinking. If someone would give her constructive criticism on her form, she would apply the mental filter and pick out only the negative “See I can’t do it”. If someone would compliment her on her athletic ability, she would apply mind reading, and say to herself “They’re only saying that to be nice – I must look so awful that they feel they need to say that to make me feel better.”
But once Ms. A started applying the principles of cognitive therapy, her performance started to change. First, she became aware of her automatic thoughts and realized that she was beating herself up and being her own worst critic. Next, she looked for themes in her automatic thoughts, and realized that she wasn’t performing well because she didn’t believe that she could. She noted key words that she used to describe herself, such as “awkward, clumsy, spastic, klutz” and realized that it didn’t match with the view that others had of her. She evaluated how she viewed others and realized that she most admired those people with grace and athletic prowess.
It wasn’t until she identified her thinking errors and challenged them every time they came to her mind. The constant arguing with the negative beliefs and proving the herself that they were wrong day by day over several years that she begin to achieve in her chosen sport – karate. Not only were new neural connections being made associated with muscle coordination as she trained in the studio, but other pathways were forged in her brain reflecting her new belief system. The mind was trained just as the body was trained. Ms. A reached a level of proficiency that she previously did not believe was attainable by her. Again, the eagle woke up and realized that she was an eagle, and not a chicken.
I feel that the techniques employed by cognitive therapy can be used on people (depressed or not) to actively change negative beliefs about themselves so that they are free to achieve their potential. A step by step approach do “doing it over and over again until you prove it to yourself” can get rid of the only thing standing in the way of your triumph – yourself. I know this first hand, because the case study of Mr. A is my father, and that of Ms. A is me.
i Jack Canefield, Mark Victor Hansen, Hanoch McCarty, and Meladee McCarty, A 4th
Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 More Stories to Open the Heart and
Rekindle The Spirit, Health Communications, Inc., 1997, pg. 250.
ii Los Angeles Times, The Brain: A Work in Progress (series), Oct. 14-0ct. 18, 1996.
iii David D. Burns, M.D., Feeling Good, the New Mood Therapy, Signet the Penguin
Group, New York, 1981.
iv Gary Emery, Ph.D., Getting Un-Depressed, Touchstone Edition Simon & Schuster,
New York, 1988.