One of the results of doing inner work in therapy is a newfound awareness of things you never thought of before. It seems that once you become an observer of self, it’s impossible not to confront parts of your identity that might have gone unnoticed for decades.
Not only are you noticing your thoughts, words, actions, and accompanying emotions, but you’re starting to question the motives behind each. You’re facing some of your longest-held assumptions and beliefs. This is an important part of cultivating a growth mindset.
For many people, the intensity of 2020 has amplified and accelerated this process. From the global pandemic to political chaos, from record-setting wildfires to the largest social justice movement in our nation’s history, this year has left our thought life under our own intense scrutiny. And our opinions and beliefs seem to be on full display before us.
Beneath every layer of awareness is another question of “why?”
Why do I get irritated with my partner when they’re talking about social justice issues, even when I agree with their viewpoint?
Why do I feel a little agitated every time I see that particular couple at PTA meetings?
Why don’t I donate to causes I care about even when I know that I can and should?
Why do I feel a little wary when a person of a certain race walks past me on the street, even though I know I’m not racist?
As these questions arise on our internal landscape, it’s easy to spiral down into self judgment and condemnation. In fact, this is one reason why some people decide to stop doing the inner work altogether — it’s just too uncomfortable.
But if you can examine these inquiries through a different lens, you can stay committed to your self discovery and evolution without the accompanying shame. Let’s look at a couple of principles from psychology that can help shift your perspective so you can remain in that growth mindset rather than shutting down.
The concept of incongruence explains why we feel discomfort when we recognize that we’re not being our authentic selves. We become aware of the distance between who we are and who we want to be. Here’s an example:
Kara is a white female who spends much of her time outside of work focused on racial equity. She marches in protests, uses social media to promote awareness, and donates to organizations fighting for systemic change.
At her job, Kara is sometimes responsible for helping sort through incoming resumes before they get passed to the hiring managers. Her job is to “weed out” any applicants that the managers shouldn’t consider for an interview. As she looks through resumes, she finds that she’s naturally drawn to job candidates that mirror her own lived experience. She tends to select resumes listing certain educational institutions and passes those on automatically. When she sees a historically black university listed, she more closely examines the applicant’s work experience and evaluates them more critically.
Because she is self aware, Kara notices this thought pattern and its resulting behaviors, and it frustrates her. She feels like a fraud in her extracurricular social justice activities. She wonders if she really is racist, and whether her devoted time and effort to racial equity is only rooted in performance and external perception.
No one else sees this process unfold — this is an internal issue for Kara and it’s very subtle. But it can cause great inner turmoil. Incongruence is the gap between her perceived self and idealized self. And incongruence can lead to a whole host of problems, like anxiety, depression, poor sleep, and social avoidance. Incongruence generally robs us of a high-quality life.
One remedy in the field of psychology is narrative therapy. This type of therapy helps separate thoughts, feelings, and beliefs from the individual. So instead of beating herself up for her biases, Kara could find ways to explore her underlying belief systems as if she were narrating someone else’s story, with detached interest. She might be able to determine where certain beliefs came from. Maybe she’d be able to connect particular experiences she’s had personally and professionally that have shaped her opinions and her biases.
Often, we don’t even know if our internalized beliefs are really ours, or how we acquired them. We might underestimate the lasting influence of our families of origin, especially if we’re independent, self-directed adults.
Other times, we might see an undesirable belief system and judge it, doing anything we can to stuff it down or shove it away. But most times, internalized beliefs have served some kind of purpose in our lives, even if they don’t really align with who we are today. Often, it’s in acknowledging and accepting these beliefs, without judgment, that allows us to release them and choose different beliefs that better serve us in the here and now.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is a system of psychotherapy focused on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, is another great tool that can be used independently or in conjunction with narrative therapy. In our example, CBT could potentially help Kara break down her thought process to identify each individual part. Then, through conscious effort, Kara might learn how to substitute more helpful patterns — and ones she desires — rather than staying stuck in her current undesirable patterns.
Our world puts heaps of undue pressure on us to know exactly what we believe about every issue at all times. We’re expected to know everything about who we are and what we stand for, and remain unwavering in our beliefs. But buying into this paradigm is what causes many people to greatly suffer feelings of inadequacy, guilt, or shame, or even worse… to stop developing themselves at all.
The truth is that people are always evolving. We’re constantly learning new things about ourselves and the world around us. With every experience we live through and every human being we form a relationship with, we learn more and more about what we like and don’t like, what we want and don’t want, what we value and don’t value
It’s not only okay to challenge your own thoughts and beliefs… we’re actually called to do so.
In this critical time of uncertainty and upheaval, we’re also being invited to look inward. Now more than ever, we have the opportunity to change, to truly evolve, from the inside out. Not through forcing or coercing ourselves, not by criticizing ourselves, but through a curious and compassionate examination of ourselves. What has shaped us? Who have our greatest influences been? Do our current thought patterns or behaviors align with who we are today, or who we want to be?
It sounds simple, but we have the ability to change our minds and thus change our stories. As you unwind these lifelong belief systems, a therapist can help with the challenging and uncomfortable emotions that might surface in the process. This is a brave inner work, and it helps to have a support system gently guiding you as you uncover parts of yourself that may have been stifled for years. Through therapy, you can learn to align your outward behaviors and inner beliefs, shaping a new narrative for yourself as you go.
Colleen Hilton, MA, LMFT
Keywords: incongruence, social justice, belief system, narrative, growth mindset