"How-To" Series: Letting Go Of Harmful Beliefs
Have you seen the movie WONDER? I hear the book is better (I mean, when is it not), but I recently watched the movie after it was recommended to me by a couple of my students at work. It was an amazing story - a little boy with facial abnormalities goes through the ups and downs of moving from homeschooling to private school. He faces adversity and has to endure bullying from his peers and we, as the audience, get to watch his heart-wrenching yet inspiring journey.
WONDER really made me think. I felt incredibly disturbed by the thought that my students could possibly have to deal with bullying. I recently celebrated my one year anniversary at the learning centre, and I realize now just how attached I have become to my students. Although they can be moody, and difficult, and at times misbehave, I would NEVER want to hear that they are in a situation where they are being taunted or threatened or harassed.
This brings me to one of my beliefs: BULLYING SHOULD NOT BE TOLERATED.
My arguments? I truly do feel that all children (I am excluding adults from the dialogue for now because the population I work with is under 18 years of age) are inherently good. And for this reason, nobody deserves to be hurt. Physical, emotional, and psychological violence/harassment have absolutely ZERO place in the school setting. School is hard enough as it is - trying to navigate the landscape of new subjects and new languages is not easy for anyone.
No one should have to endure the torment that comes along with bullying and harassment. I stand firm in my belief for the simple reason that the world would be a better place if we were all a little kinder to ourselves and to others. Everyone is allowed to have their off days, but overall, I am someone who advocates for optimism and positivity.
What does all of this have to do with eating disorder recovery?
I was talking to my therapist the other day about how weight gain feels "bad" and "wrong". When she asked me why, I struggled to respond. "Why? Um... because?". The truth is, I have no arguments to back up my belief. I have no evidence to prove that weight gain IS bad and/or wrong. I was stuck fishing for answers.
The problem is, my eating disorder has told me over and over for ten years straight that gaining weight is the wrong thing to do. So, I have come to believe it. The eating disorder yells and screams this belief so loud on a daily basis that it can truly feel overwhelming.
(Is gaining weight really "wrong"? Linguistically-speaking, wrong is not a great word to use. It can signify concepts like immorality, which shouldn't be tied to weight gain and mental health).
Gaining weight, for me, right now as I write this, is advisable. It is not right vs. wrong. When my eating disorder says it is wrong it gets my values involved, and I don't like that. The ED tells me it is bad and wrong to gain weight but, like I mentioned above, this is done without justification. Will my life be better if I gain some weight back? Yes. Will my mood improve? Yes. Will my energy levels return to where they once were? Yes. Will I crave socializing again? Yes. Will my anxiety decrease? Yes.
But still, my ED yells that WEIGHT GAIN IS WRONG.
So, how do we let go of these harmful beliefs? How do we retrain our brains into thinking thoughts a little more in line with the way we want to live our lives?
We let go by EXPOSURE AND PRACTICE.
For me, I need to expose myself to weight gain. I need to, essentially, gain weight. I can't just keep telling myself that weight gain is "okay"; I need to actually do it. I need to step on the scale and watch the number go up and feel all the emotions, but then see that life goes on. It may feel incredibly tough at first, but ultimately, I'll survive. I always do. Exposure therapy comes into play here - we need to face our fears head on and see firsthand that the world doesn't become worse because we are doing something we are scared of.
And then, practice. We need to repeatedly go against our (harmful) beliefs in order to, once again, retrain our minds. It's like if one of my students believes that 3 X 2 = 5. He (or she) might hold on very strongly to that belief. The only way to "undo" or get away from that thought is to repeatedly practice our basic facts and show our minds that 3 X 2 is, instead, 6. But one repetition isn't enough. We need to practice 3 X 2 over and over until we finally see and believe that the answer is 6.
When I think about it, I know that I can't just gain weight once and then automatically believe that gaining weight is fine. I've held onto this "weight gain is wrong" belief for far too long. I need to expose myself to weight gain, and I need repeated practice. This translates to me gaining weight a couple of times, over and over, until I will (hopefully) come to the realization that what I once thought was so bad and unjust is, actually, relatively neutral - and perhaps what I even need at this point.
In sum, we need to put into practice two things in order to help transform our harmful beliefs.
I encourage you to think about what beliefs are harming you, especially when it comes to how you are evaluating yourself as a person. Some examples may tie to weight, body image, self-worth, career, family, expectations for yourself, etc. If your belief has no merit, or no justifiable evidence backing it up, then see what it is like to challenge the belief a little. Put yourself in a situation where you can expose yourself to fighting/breaking down the belief and practice exposure, tolerating, and repeatedly reminding yourself of your rational thoughts.
Harmful beliefs keep us trapped. Trapped in negative patterns of behaviour that really undervalue who we are. Don't let these unjustifiable beliefs stick around for too long. (The longer they do, the longer it takes to rid them from our thoughts). And always ask yourself this question: would my so-called "evidence" for this belief hold up in a court of law? If the answer is "no", you have some exposure and practicing to do.