What to Do With a Negative Core Belief
I am standing in the small break room in one of the buildings of our local community college. I am grabbing a bottle of water and relieved because the presentation I had just done on helping individuals who self-harm was over. I was silently expressing gratitude that it was finished when the secretary brought in the participant reviews.
Have you ever had an experience when you spent the last thirty minutes doing a chore like the dishes? You looked around the kitchen to make you got everything before you drained the dish water and are ready to sit down to relax when your mom brings in dirty, dried food encrusted plate that had been under your sibling's bed for three weeks and says, “Here, I found this.” That's what it feels like when the secretary hands me the evaluations.
“Here are your reviews,” she says. I don’t want them, but I take them anyway.
Typically, when I read evaluations, I look for two things. I review the ratings at the top of the paper with a Likert scale between 1 – 5 with questions such as the extent to which the content was helpful, how much I demonstrated expertise on the subject, and whether the room temperature was comfortable. I also read the comments on the bottom.
Most of the time people don’t fill in the comment section. If they do, they usually write things like “Good job” or “Thank you.” The evaluations I’m reading now are following the tradition – “Good job”, “Good Information”, or “This was helpful”. But then I read one of the last evaluations in the stack.
The scores are one’s down the page, including the room temperature question.
Sometimes, when completing evaluations, people don’t read the instructions and mean to give all fives but end up scoring all ones. In these cases, the comments at the bottom of the paper usually don’t match the score. They usually say something like, “That was really helpful. I am so glad I came the class.” So either they are being sarcastic or they didn’t read the instructions. It’s impossible for me to know.
Because there are one’s all the way down this page, I immediately jump to the comments to see if the person might be confused. There aren’t just a few words. There is a paragraph. One sentence stands out, “I can’t believe that this college allowed Troy to present. He is a danger to the mental health profession and should never be allowed to teach ever again.”
It feels like someone just stabbed a red hot knife into my rejection wound and twisted it – hard.
My negative core beliefs light up like the bat signal. They read, “I am not good enough” and “I must have done something wrong.”
Immediately two emotions flare – fear and anger. Fear that I really did or said something inappropriate or dangerous. Anger because it feels like my reputation has been thrown in the garbage by an anonymous person who didn’t have the courage to discuss their concerns with me face to face. I feel powerless. I feel unsafe. I don’t know what to do. What can I do?
The words of my college professor come to mind.
I am instantly transported back to another college - my professor’s office. She has papers piled all over her desk and so many books on her bookshelves that the wood is starting to bow. We are sitting knee to knee because her office is the size of a postage stamp. She has just handed me a stack of evaluations written by fellow students who had just observed my final presentation. Each of the evaluations gave me positive marks. The comments were positive and encouraging. Except for one. One student made a comment about how I could have done one part of the presentation better.
My professor asks, “So, what do you think?”
I immediately start agreeing with the student’s comment. I could have done this better… I could have said that differently… maybe I should have left out a specific part.
My teacher stopped me and asked, “How many evals do you have there?”
“I don’t know, maybe twenty.”
“And how many of them were negative?”
“Isn’t it funny.” She says, “We have 19 positive, encouraging comments, and you focus on the one negative. I am always fascinated by how we do that as humans.”
I have since learned why we do that. In my book, Finding Peace, I point out how negative core beliefs are written. JK Rowling uses a powerful metaphor when her main character, Harry Potter is sent to detention by Professor Umbridge because she believes he is lying. Harry’s punishment is to write the sentence, “I must not tell lies” with a magical pen that scratches each letter of the sentence into his skin while he writes it on paper. Harry asks how many times he has to write the sentence.
“As many times as it takes to sink in.” Professor Umbridge says. What she means is that he has to keep writing the sentences until the words are clearly engraved into the skin of his arm.
It is the same with negative core beliefs – I am not good enough – I am powerless – I am unsafe. Experiencing attachment wounds without loving compassion to guide us through the pain can tattoo negative core beliefs over and over again on our hearts until they sink in.
That is what I am battling in the break room as I read the words that I am a danger to the mental health profession. I am battling with a negative core belief – one that I have battled since I was a little boy – that there is something wrong with me or that I have done something wrong and deserved to be punished.
My Shadows of Shame show up. My Judge screams at me telling me that I am awful. That I am a horrible person and should never present again.
My Impotent One tells me that I probably will never be asked to speak anywhere ever again.
My Rebel tells me that I should ignore this comment – that the person who wrote it is an idiot and doesn’t have the guts to say it to my face.
I want to reject the comment all together. I want to say, “I don’t care what this person thinks.” Brene Brown said, in her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead, “When we stop caring about what people think, we lose our capacity for connection. When we become defined by what people think, we lose our willingness to be vulnerable. If we dismiss all the criticism, we lose out on important feedback, but if we subject ourselves to the hatefulness, our spirits gets crushed. It's a tightrope, shame resilience is the balance bar, and the safety net below is the one or two people in our lives who can help us reality-check the criticism and cynicism.”
And I am walking on that tight rope. Because a part of me does care about what this person has said. And part of me wants to reject this person.
I am standing there, feeling like I want to throw up. I decide to reach out. A colleague is in the office next to the breakroom. I ask her to read the comment. She is surprised.
“Is it true?” I ask her. “Am I a danger to the mental health profession?”
She assures me that I am not. She reminds me that she has worked with me for several years and has never found me to teach anything harmful or destructive in anyway. It helps me pull the knife out of my wound. But it still hurts.
I realize that I have to answer the question for myself. Is it true? Am I a danger to others? No.
Have I made mistakes? Yes.
Have I said and done things that were hurtful? Yes
Was it my intention to cause harm? No.
Have I attempted to make amends when I discovered that what I had said or done did cause someone harm? Yes
And the words of my professor came to me again. “How many positive ones were there?”
How many positive evals did I have in my hand now? Thirty-Five
How many negative evals did I have? One
Isn’t it funny.” I hear my professor say, “We have 35 positive, encouraging comments, and you focus on the one negative. I am always fascinated by how we do that as humans.”
And I remember that I have a choice. On which do I wish to choose to direct my focus?
Is there something I can learn from the negative comment? In this case, there was only one constructive comment the anonymous person gave. The rest was opinion. The person pointed out that at the beginning of my presentation I had said, “We are going to talk about how to help cutters” rather than saying “We are going to discuss how to help people who engage in self-harming behaviors.”
I had put a label on a population instead of recognizing their humanity. I can see how that comment could be hurtful. I didn’t realize I had made that mistake until the evaluation pointed it out. I do not believe that I made that mistake again throughout the presentation and had I known who the person was who wrote the evaluation, I would have apologized. I would have also welcomed dialogue to discuss what it was about my presentation that the person felt was unsafe.
Unfortunately, that is not possible since I do not know who wrote it.
What is possible is that:
I can apologize for making that comment now. I am sorry. It was wrong for me to have said it like that and I have since worked hard not to put labels on people like that.
We can reach out to others in order to get our needs met and help soothe the pain from attachment wounds so that we more objectively challenge the negative core beliefs.
We can evaluate the evidence before us asking just how true the core belief is. If there isn't any truth, let it go.
We can own our behaviors.
We can rewrite negative core beliefs.
We can Find Peace.