As a cognitive-behavioral therapist, I help people uncover the unhealthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that interfere with their goals. I focus mostly on the here-and-now and don't necessarily go digging to uncover unresolved childhood hurts.
But whether someone comes into my therapy office to discuss their marital discord, or they want to uncover why they keep sabotaging their chances of success, the conversation inevitably turns to their childhood. Even the people who walk in saying, "I don't want to discuss my past," eventually bring up stories from their youth.
There's a reason that conversations about adult problems often involve discussions about childhood: You developed three core beliefs during childhood that affect you today.
1. Your Core Beliefs About Yourself
Your childhood gave you a sense of who you are as a person. The messages you received from your parents, siblings, teachers, and peers taught you something about yourself.
Your experiences helped you determine if you were kind, smart, socially awkward, shy, or likable. And once you gained a sense of who you are — and how others perceive you — it shaped your interactions and choices.
2. Your Core Beliefs About Others
Childhood taught you a lot about other people, too. Are people inherently good? Do they actively help others? Or do they hurt one another on purpose?
If you experienced a loving, nurturing childhood, you might have learned that it's safe to trust people, and it's good to help others. If, however, people weren't so kind, you might have learned that other people will hurt you or abuse you.
3. Your Core Beliefs About the World
Kids who grow up in caring environments with few adverse events might believe the world is a relatively safe place. They may look forward to a bright future in a peaceful world.
Kids who experience harsh and unpredictable events and those who endure chronic stress may believe that the world is a scary place, and that, no matter what you do, you'll struggle to succeed.
Beliefs That Turn Into Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
When you believe something to be true, you look for evidence that supports your idea. With each piece of evidence, the belief gets reinforced. If you grew up believing, "I'm not smart enough to go to college," you'll view each mistake, bad grade, or tough problem as proof that you're not smart.
And if you do get a good grade once in a while, you might chalk it up to good luck, or conclude that the teacher gave you an easy test. You won't even want to imagine that your belief could be untrue, because it's unsettling when our view of who we think we are doesn't line up with the evidence.
These beliefs affect your behavior: If you believe you aren't smart, you likely won't put much effort into your studies, and you won't perform well in school. Or if you believe you aren't a likable person, you'll have more trouble making friends. If you don't make eye contact, or you don't greet people in a friendly manner, you'll struggle to develop close relationships. And those relationship struggles will reinforce your belief that you aren't likable.
How to Change Your Core Beliefs
Plenty of well-adjusted adults overcome difficult — even horrific — childhoods. In fact, some credit their hardships for giving them the mental strength they needed to succeed. But others are haunted by the tapes that keep replying in their mind, reminding them of why they'll never amount to anything. Consequently, they struggle to break free of self-limiting beliefs.
The good news: Everyone can essentially "unlearn" the self-limiting beliefs they developed during childhood. It takes time and practice to train your brain to see things differently.
And sometimes it takes professional help — especially if traumatic circumstances were involved. But letting go of unproductive core beliefs you developed during childhood can be the key to moving forward and reaching your greatest potential.
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