The way we develop our core beliefs underpins a basic assumption of person-centred theory. To a greater or lesser extent we all form our core beliefs in response to the influence of significant and powerful others during our early lives. Typically this happens in childhood and therefore during critical stages of our development. The ‘significant others’ are usually our principal caregivers, typically our parents.
So what does it mean to internalise a belief? To borrow a convenient Wikipedia definition, ‘internalisation involves the integration of attitudes, values, standards and the opinions of others into one’s own identity or sense of self’.
We learn at a fundamental level how to be acceptable to those on whom we depend in early life. This means that we learn to think and behave in a certain way. But sometimes the thinking patterns and behaviour that we adopt in the process are not constructive or helpful to us. In time we get to feel this, because ‘how we are’ seems in some way to be in conflict with our experience of every day life. In counselling terminology this sense of discomfort or anxiety is termed ‘incongruence’.
In order to minimise this discomfort and anxiety we unconsciously develop strategies that deny or distort the reality of our lived experience. This helps us to feel protected and acceptable, but of course it does not resolve our underlying incongruence. We fall back on these strategies because in some way they are felt to work for us. They are familiar to us and it feels like they keep us safe.
Such strategies can also be also self-reinforcing, even in the face of clear evidence that they are illogical or not really helping us. We accept unquestioningly our own negative messages. Simple examples might be ‘I’m not interesting’, ‘I’m not attractive’, ‘I don’t need other people’, or ‘other men/women are more masculine/feminine than I am’. Such beliefs can cause us to behave in ways that make others respond to us as if these messages were true, thus confirming to us the ‘validity’ of our belief system and our defensive strategies.
Usually we remain unconscious of the true nature of this inner conflict. For us it just doesn’t feel right. Confronting our belief system and our defensive strategies – i.e. working through our incongruence – is likely to involve further anxiety or trauma. This in itself can trigger more defensiveness and denial.
So we need to feel ready before take ourselves on in this way. And we need to be prepared to be vulnerable. We might then be able to tap into the inner resources that can support us through what is likely to be a difficult but – ultimately – fulfilling experience of self-discovery.