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Myths of Your Own Making

Are personal myths holding you back?

Key points

  • Personal myths are beliefs we assume are true without the need for proof.
  • These beliefs can hold us back.
  • Questioning your beliefs is a first step in making changes.
KELLEPICS/Pixaby Commons
Source: KELLEPICS/Pixaby Commons

We are the products of our beliefs and sometimes the prisoners of our beliefs. One of the bedrock principles in psychology is how our beliefs about ourselves and the world itself shape how we feel and what we do. Among the beliefs we hold are personal myths—but unlike the mythic characters in ancient tales, personal myths can affect our emotional well-being.

A personal myth, like a cultural myth, is a belief we assume to be true without the need for proof. These beliefs or personal fictions can become guiding frameworks in our lives. They may include such ideas as “good things come to those who wait” and “I will be rewarded in the end.” Beliefs of this kind may hold us back from taking the steps we need to improve our lives.

Among the most common personal myths holding us back is the belief that things are the way they are because that's the way things are and always will be. People may tell themselves they want to change, but when push comes to shove, shove pushes back and they stay put.

Several of the most common personal myths of patients I see in my therapy practice are the following:

Personal Myth 1: “Other People Control My Emotions”

You may believe that other people make you feel angry or glad, joyful or sad, depending on how they treat you and what they say to you. People can say hurtful things, act selfishly and disrespectfully, but they may also respond in loving and kind ways. For many patients, the balance of their interactions with others typically falls on the negative side of the ledger.

The belief runs deep that other people pull our emotional strings. It follows that to feel good about ourselves, we first need others to treat us differently, to love and respect us.

Our emotions are not controlled by others. They are internal mental experiences that reflect how we react to events, not to the events themselves, such as what others say or do to us. Believing that others control our emotions presents an inherent paradox. Because we can’t control what others do or say, we leave our emotional well-being to their tender mercies.

Sure, it stings when others reject us, criticize us, or perhaps even worse, ignore us. But the words that issue from their mouths, like the sticks and stones we heard about as children, cannot truly hurt us unless we let them inside ourselves. A helpful metaphor I use in therapy is to imagine there is a mental filter standing between yourself and others. When the filter is working, the negativity of others is kept at bay. Our feelings don’t hinge on what they say or do, but on whether we allow it to affect us.

Personal Myth 2: “Other People Have My Best Interests in Mind”

Some people do hold other people's interests in mind, but others are unable to see things from the perspective of another person. After doing something hurtful, they might offer a backhanded apology by saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” rather than owning up to what they have done. This is a form of gaslighting, as they are saying in effect, “Well, if you didn’t react this way, you wouldn’t feel the way you do.” Or they may focus on their intentions rather than the outcomes their actions cause, such as by saying, “I certainly didn’t mean to hurt you.”

It’s not that people are inherently selfish, although many are. Rather, it’s a matter of different perspectives. We shouldn’t expect other people to step outside their own perspective by intuiting how others will feel by their actions. By rejecting the belief that others can be trusted to be the caretakers of our needs and feelings, we don’t personalize it when they act in ways that upset us.

Personal Myth 3: “The World is a Fair and Just Place”

The just-world hypothesis refers to the belief that the world is fair and that people get what they deserve. But we come to learn that bad things happen to good people and bad actions sometimes reap rewards rather than punishment. How unfair it seems when your efforts and hard work are not rewarded, especially when far less deserving people seem to prosper. I hear patients say, “It’s not fair. It’s not supposed to be this way. Why don’t I get what I deserve?” Though they played by the rules and tried to do everything right, life served up lemons. But expecting the world to live up to one’s standard of fairness inevitably leads to frustration and anger. The world will continue spinning on its axis, taking little if any note of our presence for the short time we tread upon its surface. When we stop expecting the world to adhere to our sense of fairness, we can try to make the best of the world as it is.

Becoming a Personal Scientist

Myths have power over us when we take them to be necessary truths rather than convenient fictions. When you test your beliefs, you replace myths with testable hypotheses. It’s not simply a matter of “thinking positively,” which itself is a kind of personal myth. Rather, by weighing alternative beliefs and evaluating them in the light of the evidence, you act as scientists do when they conduct experiments to test out their assumptions and hypotheses. It turns out that the scientific method is just as good a rubric for daily life as it is in the laboratory.

(c) 2021 Jeffrey S. Nevid