How Insignificant Beliefs Create Very Significant Habits

Many years ago, about this same time of year, I spent a weekend at a women’s workshop at the Garden of the Goddess, a retreat ranch outside of Santa Fe. What I learned about myself came as a bit of a surprise because it seemed like an “insignificant belief” but it actually had very far-reaching effects. I believed that if anyone ever gave me support or helped me in any way, I felt beholding to them disproportionately. This is a simple belief and one easily rationalized away by my intellect. But wait ‘til you see what it had been doing to my decision-making.

First, to explain the belief. I will use a real-life example that incidentally happened the week before the workshop. At work, I asked the technical director to cut some thin lumber to cover the shelves of an organizing unit since the slotted construction of the shelves made them fairly useless. She did so. And afterwards, taking the sheets of wood under my arm, I asked, “What can I bake you?” For some reason, I felt like I owed her a personal favor in return for the favor she did me in cutting the wood. The ironic thing is that she didn’t really do me a favor at all. She did a favor for the office…and then, is that even a favor? She is employed same as I to keep the company functional. But the problem for me does not really lie in the “was it a favor or not” question. I was grateful to her regardless. The problem lies in the fact that my feeling gratitude wasn’t enough. I had to do more, even taking personal time and going to expense to prove it.

It ultimately comes down to self worth. Had I had a sense of worth that said, “yes, I accept this person’s effort” or “I deserve this help that I am receiving”… Instead, my hidden belief was that I did not deserve what others were willing to do for me, and if I wasn’t careful in covering that up with lots of gifts and overzealous thanks, they would see that I was not worth it. Or even worse, everyone else would realize I’m worthless and therefore expect me to pay back big time if they did me a favor.

A joke was made at the workshop to help me bring this shadow into the light of absurdity: “Thanks for the foot massage; what kind of car can I buy you? Thanks for the Kleenex; would you like a new wardrobe?” My perceptions were not only that screwy but were accompanied by a bizarre sense of guilt that I could not respond.

Once I started to spend more thought on this one issue in my life, I became aware of so much more. For one thing, this belief ties in to both my parents. My father was always showing love by buying, feeding, forcing. Yet, he never really gave himself, his presence. I had inherited that trait. I didn’t see my presence, my love, as enough. I don’t blame my father in any way because after all, it has to be an ancient belief. We each simply inherited it like a gene. Had he known differently, he might have done differently. He might have realized his true worth, his self, was enough. On the flip side was my father’s belief that he was not appreciated, a belief frequently made apparent, hence, my warped perception of gratitude not being enough.

My mother on the other hand contributed to my perceptions because she was so sacrificial. She would give us kids anything…and not always with a smile but often with a martyred sigh. While other children may have interpreted this experience differently, I interpreted it as meaning that mothers have to give ‘til they are dry and always put others first’. I also perceived a huge void in my mother that I felt responsible to fill as her beloved daughter…an impossible task since no one outside of the self can ever fill a hole for us, hence the guilt for not being able to fulfill another’s needs.

Complicating my beliefs about payback and gratitude was another belief I discovered about asking for what I need. It was revealed to me in a dream I had a few nights before the weekend. It didn’t make sense until I had the rest of the pieces of the puzzle. I dreamed that my father had cut off his thumb. My sister was on the phone to my mother telling her, “You have to take him to the doctor now!” and my mother saying, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” I realize now that the dream was about my own inability to take my needs seriously. I have held a belief that I have to be more than uncomfortable, more than in pain, more than sick to seek assistance. It has often resulted in exercises of endurance.

Can you see how my fear of payback also influenced my ability (or inability) to ask for what I really need? And if I just waited until it was an emergency, then I wouldn’t have to worry about not being deserving enough.

With this awareness, I could then continue to see how these ingrained beliefs played out in my life behind my field of vision. I had more opportunities to take a different point of view about my worth and my responses to others, and started taking responsibility to meet my own needs whether that meant asking for help when I was afraid to do so or helping myself when I’d rather look outside of myself. A single thread unraveled a whole blanket of misperception.

The act of discovery, while often painful to approach, has the awesome ability to greatly lessen the power our beliefs have had over decisions and choices and greatly empowers us with a new awareness to make new choices. It’s magic…when we’re willing to do the work.