In the last few months of blogging, people have sometimes complimented my willingness to be vulnerable. Good for you, they say. That takes courage. In the beginning, I couldn't agree more. Each time I hit “publish,” I was positively scraping the bottom of the barrel for courage. I often had just barely enough.
These days, I'm less afraid to spill my guts. While the content of what I disclose rarely ruffles any feathers, including my own, the process of disclosure is still tough. In sharing publicly some of my most intimate thoughts, I come face-to-face on a daily basis with one of my deep-seated fears: irrelevance. Blogging seems to test the idea of inadequacy, of worthlessness - the idea that perhaps I don’t matter at all.
In Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond (2011), Judith Beck defines “core beliefs” as inflexible, deep-seated beliefs that people have about themselves, about others, and about the world more generally. Negative core beliefs are those which are harsh, inaccurate, and inhibit growth. Although core beliefs can vary, and the words that "stick" for each person are different, these beliefs tend to fall into one of three categories: lovability (I'm a bad person or I'm boring); adequacy (I am worthless; I don't measure up); and powerlessness (I am helpless; I'm stuck).
Some people walk away with a degree in psychology thinking that people are horribly predictable, all of us essentially the same. In my own forays into psychology, however, I've found just the opposite to be true. It's seldom safe to assume that others' brains work like ours. Case in point: A few weeks ago, I was talking to one of my closest friends - a seven on the Enneagram - and he was flabbergasted to learn that a characteristic he thought was universal is mostly just a seven thing. He sat there dumfounded as I explained my own perspective: I don’t have fear of missing out. Ever. If I wasn’t there, I don't care what happened. Sevens, meanwhile, make it a point to see and experience the best of the best. They feel genuine pain at the thought of missing something great. People are different.
In the same strange way, I'm not equally haunted by all three core beliefs. Two out of three are non-issues. I do not worry that I am unlovable, and I do not feel powerless. It isn’t that I find myself supremely lovable or all-powerful; rather, I have an appropriately nuanced relationship to these ideas. I think it's fair to say I am moderately lovable and have no more or less capacity to affect change than most other people. For me, these are open-and-shut cases.
Worthlessness, however. That one catches in my throat. When I find myself having an overblown reaction in an interpersonal situation, it often means the core belief of worthlessness has been triggered. Perhaps I’ve made a mistake at work, tarnishing my track record as the the employee who never screws up. Perhaps it’s the occasional weekend night I spend alone, because people are busy or I am tired; even when it’s exactly what I wanted, it often triggers a cascade of worries that I am simply broken, that I can’t “do” the friendship thing. That I am incompetent.
For someone with a core belief of worthlessness, blogging is tricky and fraught. What if I put myself out there, only to find that what I’m offering isn’t valuable or interesting to others? Each post, each email to a subscriber, seems to present an opportunity to confirm or deny this core belief: Am I special? Do I matter? Am I worth a click? Have I earned a “like?” The content of the post is almost incidental to the process of posting, to giving others the choice to listen - or not.
On Sunday morning, as I settled down to write, I felt dreary about my prospects. Perhaps blogging requires more skill, drive, and ambition than I really have. Maybe I’m too lazy to take the right steps. Maybe this is just a phase, like everything else. As I delved into the second paragraph, I received an email alert. A research paper I had submitted six months ago was accepted for publication. Immediately, I felt high. Affirmed. Special. (I was home in Oregon when I got the news, and my mom later admonished my walking around the house shouting expletives. What can I say? I was excited.)
In the hour since I’d woken up, had I really learned anything? A little "evidence" for my being adequate, worthy, and a little evidence to the contrary. The very fact that I am still collecting evidence, that my feeling of adequacy varies with experience, reveals that it is irrational. All core beliefs - I am unlovable; I am powerless - are too absolute, too tyrannical to be true. Why should "I am worthless" be any different? For me, it is.
What are your own negative core beliefs? Of the words I've mentioned - unlovable, worthless, boring, inadequate, helpless, burdensome, powerless - does one of them seem to stick? Even if you haven't solicited the help of a CBT therapist, you can often uncover negative core beliefs in the context of relationships. Perhaps your fear of powerlessness is manifest in your relationship with your kids. Perhaps lovability comes up again and again in your relationship with your parents. For me, many of my interpersonal conflicts center around the fear that I don’t matter - that I am irrelevant, not worth knowing. These conflicts, like most, are based in an unwillingness to see contradictory evidence.
Negative core beliefs and their associated feelings are among the most painful things we as humans experience. And yet, in a strange way these same beliefs give way to community, to interpersonal connectedness. The pain of believing I am not enough, or I am unlovable, or I am powerless, actually fortifies us to better meet each other's needs.
Due to my core belief of worthlessness, I feel uniquely capable and motivated to talk others off that same ledge. I feel passionate about communicating to others that they are understood, special - that they matter, are worth knowing. That they are already enough. Similarly, those who feel unlovable strive all the more to show others that they are loved, and those who fear powerlessness seek to empower others. This communal process is so beautifully symmetrical, cyclical, and self-propelling as to keep the earth on its very axis, and to keep it spinning 'round.