What is one thought pattern or core belief that operates in the background of your life that if you changed it, would transform you?
We all live with fundamental operating assumptions that come from our family, our education, our experiences, the larger culture, the religious system in which we were raised and so on. What if the assumptions with which you live no longer help move you toward your goals and prod you to fulfill God’s purpose for you? What thought pattern exists under the surface that if it were changed would shift how and where you put your energies?
Amy Ahlers, The-Wake-Up Call Coach, asked it this way, “Underneath the surface of your filled to the brim life there is one thing that can change everything. That one shift that will cause ripple effects in every single area of your life when you change it. What is this one thing? 'It’s your one big core belief that is no longer serving you.'”
There’s a whole host of tribal beliefs that can operate under the surface; however, there can be one dominant thought that feeds into all areas of our life. Beliefs such as, “I am not enough,” “I’m damaged goods,” “People won’t love me unless I do things for them,” or “I’m the only one who can do it right.”
This is not a new thought of course. In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul writes, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." When I ran a Mary Kay business while the kids were small, a favorite phrase in sales training was, “you bring about what you think about.” Thoughts have a powerful influence on our behavior, and sub-conscious beliefs can cause us to sabatoge the very things we desire and for which we work.
Amy’s question gave the opportunity to reconsider the power of my dominant thoughts so I spent some time pondering what core belief dominates my behavior and my health right now. It didn’t take long for this thought to bubble up, “Everyone else is more important than me.” I had never said it so plainly, so clearly.
This one thought explains why I’ve been working on some important goals and still haven’t met them. Service to others is as ingrained in me as breathing – as a female, as a Christian, as a daughter, and as a Pastor. I’ve absorbed down to my cells the idea that everyone else comes first—my children, my husband, my extended family, my church, my work, my friends. My job is to take care of others’ needs and to spend time on myself meeting my needs and working on my goals is “selfish.” I would rather be called a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel, even a bitch, than to be called selfish. When I was growing up, I thought that being selfish was the sin of all sins (perhaps becoming a pastor is a good cover for such a sin—maybe no one will notice!).
I played around in my mind what would be different if I let go of this unhelpful, even destructive core belief. What if I was as important as everyone else? What if I thought taking care of myself and my needs was even more important than anyone else; after all, I am the only one who can take care of me. My body might have fewer chronic issues if I believed taking care of me was the most important use of my time and energy. I would spend more time meeting my own goals and listening to God at work in my own spirit, rather than doing this for others.
Over the last month I began to practice shifting my behavior. Self care first, service to others later. I cut back on two areas where I was volunteering. While a change in thoughts does shift our behavior, I believe it also works the other way around. Sometimes we have to “act as if” we believe we are important (or whatever new thought we're embracing), and as we change our behavior, our thoughts shift as well. It can be a self-reinforcing system in both directions (we have an amazing Creator!). I’ve learned it’s important to shift thoughts and behaviors at the same time in a complimentary direction!
As I shift my thoughts and daily priorities, I do notice one amazing truth: the more I care for myself, the more energy I have to serve others in a healthy way (not in a needy-please-don’t-think-I’m-selfish way). I believe this is why Jesus, in three of the four Gospels answered the question about which is the first commandment like this: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31, emphasis is mine).
We (and most of Christian history for that matter) seem to forget the second part of the second greatest commandment – love yourself. Early 20th century mystic Evelyn Underbill said it this way, “don’t be ferocious with yourself because that is treating badly a precious (if imperfect) thing that God has made.” I’ve got the imperfect thing figured out; I’m working on the precious part.
Photo Credit: Stock Images, dreamstime.com
If you are a woman like me, you probably heard subtle and not-so-subtle messages growing up that your desires and interests were unimportant at best, and bad and wrong at worst. On the contrary, helping and serving others while you denied yourself, was not only expected as a female in this culture, it was faithful. We learned that God wants us to sacrifice ourself, our needs, and our desires in order to follow Jesus. If we ever did let our desires and wants slip out, we might have been told that we are selfish, pushy, bossy, or God-forbid, a “bitch.” At the Enneagram conference I attended two weeks ago, we learned that girls today as young as second grade are being labeled a “bitch” when they express their desires and demonstrate leadership skills so often admired in boys the same age (they are probably just an 8 on the Enneagram with a particular set of strengths, skills and weaknesses, like the rest of us).
I had been a pastor for over twenty years when a therapist said to me, “God works through your desires.” I was both surprised and comforted since for so much of my adult life, I have had an on-going internal battle with feeling selfish for having desires and aspirations. I don’t believe anyone intended to give me this message, but I received it, loud and clear. In the book, Holy Listening; The Art of Spiritual Direction, the late Episcopal priest, Margaret Guenther wrote, “women’s distinctive sin is self-contempt, a self-hatred often centered on the body. A lack of healthy self-love means that women can neglect their own inner growth because they are so busy serving others—as culture, society, and religion demand” (128-129). Does that strike a chord in your soul? It sure did in mine. Author Susan Rakoczy, writing in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, adds, “Self-sacrifice freely chosen leads to self-transcendence; serving others because of cultural and religious norms leads to self-naughting” (Vol. 20.2, June 2014, 50).
How much time and energy have we, as women put into “self-naughting”—shutting down our inner aspirations and hopes because others’ needs (whoever that ‘other’ might include) are more important than ours? I would agree that mature spirituality leads us to self-denial and transcendence of the ego-self as we deepen our life and identity in God. But many of our spiritual and religious traditions have encouraged our self-denial before we have achieved “self-possession” (Rokoczy, 50) or ego-strength and identity. Fr. Richard Rohr identifies building this ego-self as the task of the first half of life (see his book, Falling Upward).
Despite it feeling selfish or myopic, our first spiritual task is to achieve self-possession. We might ask, “How is God working through our desires, our passions, our aspirations, and our hopes? What kind of contribution to the world do our skills and strengths lead us to offer? How is God calling us through our desires and skills?” We need to walk through this conscious self-development before we have anything to sacrifice or transcend in service of the reign of God.
I have felt this tension in the process of writing and publishing, Motherhood Calling: Experiencing God in Everyday Family Life. I felt a deep desire to write and communicate about God’s daily presence; yet it felt selfish to seek a publisher, and it still feels self-serving and “braggy” to tell others about it. But, if I don’t share it, how can it be used to help others see God in their daily lives--the whole purpose of the book? Even using this as an example feels uncomfortable! Aaaargh!
I don’t think this internal battle is what God hopes for in any of us! Today, I live in the tension while praying for how God desires me to resolve it, and trying to practice healthy self-love in the mean time.