Drop the Bad Beliefs – You Don’t Have to Agree With Them Anymore

Does This Idea Work for My Life?

People walk around with a meaning-making system in their head and they’re seldom aware of how much it impacts everything about them.  Much of what I do in therapy is help people become aware of their meaning-making system and how it’s causing them pain.  A component of everyone’s meaning-making system is something philosophers call a worldview.  A worldview is a set of beliefs about things like:

  • What does it mean to be a human being?
  • What is the nature of the world?
  • What’s wrong with the world and why do things go wrong?
  • How can what’s wrong with the world be fixed?

The beliefs you build around these questions guide you and your interactions with the world (and people) in an almost invisible way.  You’re probably not even aware of how you feel about these things until your life gets turned upside down.  For example, You may think human beings are nothing more than evolved animals with complex ways of thinking and behaving that allows them to get what they want in a complex social world.  People can’t just take what they want (Although they would if they could) they need to develop the social skills to get what they want from people in a nuanced way.  At some point in life, you find you need help with something and someone comes along and does just that.  Unconsciously you believe this individual is helping you because they want something.  You engage the world around you with suspicion because you know how people are and you need to protect yourself from their inherently selfish drives.

This belief may allow you to function in the world, but it may also keep you from being happy and enjoying healthy fulfilling relationships.  The beliefs you have about the above subject areas will impact how you engage the world around you.  Because of that, I want to encourage you to spend a little time exploring your meaning-making machine that guides your interactions with the world.  What is a human being?  Are they merely physical creatures, do they have souls, can they be good creatures or are they only evil creatures cloaked in kindness to get what they want?  Is the world created with a design and purpose or is it a randomly evolved biosphere merely meant to nourish life?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  How can people live in the world in a way that limits the bad things that happen?  All of these are good questions to explore.

It is my hope that by spending some time digging into the meaning-making system you have in your head you can see where some of these beliefs have handicapped your ability to thrive, live a fulfilling life, and enjoy other people.  Much of what you carry around in your head are merely beliefs you’ve held on to in order to make sense of the world at a time when you were struggling.  They may not be necessary beliefs but merely constructed lies that helped you when you needed them.  Sometimes the world changes and therefore some of your fundamental belief propositions might need to change as well.  I am not a relativist; I believe there are fundamental truths that human beings need to embrace and in doing so they can thrive.  However, I do know people often carry around useless ideas they used to cope with in a bad situation from the past that no longer serves them well.  Let’s see if you can get rid of some of those.

Receiving Love – The Second Side of Love Languages

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Couples are often told a successful relationship is built upon knowing how to love the person you’re with in the way they need to be loved. While this isn’t bad advice I think it may be just one side of a very complicated coin! Numerous copies of the book “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman have been sold and used to help people get along better. Honestly, it’s a great book and I often mention it when talking with people about improving their relationship. Chapman sums up the core idea of his book when he says:

“We tend to speak our own love language, to express love to others in a language that would make us feel loved. But if it is not his/her primary love language, it will not mean to them what it would mean to us.”

I agree. If you continue to show love to someone in a way they don’t understand or appreciate, they struggle to feel loved. But what if the love language of your partner is one you just can’t learn? What if you’re with someone with a history of sexual abuse or has some physical limitations that keep them from showing love physically? What if sexual love is a real struggle for your partner yet you thrive on it and need sexual love to feel special in your partner’s life? Is the relationship doomed? Should your partner force themselves to learn your love language even though it’s painful, difficult, and something that becomes a real burden for them? Should we demand they speak our love language?

Love can never be simplified to be some general rule of engagement. Love is dynamic, involves an exchange of people, and is best experienced when communication and intimacy is part of the dynamic. Perhaps along with asking your partner to learn your love language you can learn to feel loved based on how they can show you they love you? Love is a mutual exchange and if that exchange occurs in a healthy way, even if its one not important to you, it becomes special because it’s important to your partner. Sometimes the best way to show love is to allow someone to love you the way they know how. Sometimes the best way to know you’re loved is to allow your partner to love you the way they know how and simply receive that as the gift it is.

Sure, learning one another’s love language and showing each other love in the way each of you needs to feel love is great. However, so is learning to be loved in the way your partner shows you they love you as a selfless act of care for your partner. When we sacrifice what we want to allow the other to be themselves we communicate to our loved one what’s most important is not what I get from this relationship but rather that the relationship we share thrives, flourishes, and transcends each of us to create a life of care and grace. Love is complicated but its complications create a mystery in which two people continue to find ways to transcend themselves to become a part of someone else.

The Things You Regret – The Inactive Form of Love

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I teach a course in multicultural psychology. It’s one of my favorite courses to teach. I marvel at the diversity of the human person but also that within that diversity there’s so much we share in common. I know it’s an overused analogy, but what a beautiful bouquet of flowers the human race is. I can only imagine God created it that way so he may “Delight in us” as the scriptures say. In the midst of this diversity I’ve come to marvel at one way we’re all the same and that’s how we view regrets. Studies in multicultural psychology demonstrate regardless of culture people regret the things they’ve never done more than what they have done, even if what they’ve done resulted in mistakes.

In more specific terms, psychologists study something called “Counterfactual thinking.” Counterfactual thinking is a hypothetical belief about your past that could have occurred in order to avoid or change a negative outcome. Basically, you use counterfactual thinking when you look back in your life and say to yourself, “If I had only done (or not done) ______ I might be better off.” Maybe it was a decision to enter a particular vocation, leave a particular city, or something as simple as having bought a particular type of car. In the end, counterfactual thinking often leads to feelings of regret. There are two categories of counterfactual thinking. The first group consists of those associated with actions. So, you might say to yourself, “If I wouldn’t have eaten that last piece of cake I might not be so sick today”, or “If I wouldn’t have majored in psychology I might be more likely to get that job as a business consultant.” The regrets you have are over something you’ve done. The second category of counterfactual thinking has to do with inaction items, those things you wish you would have done. Examples of this category might include thoughts like, “If I would have studied harder at school I might have made something of myself,” or “If I had been a better husband my marriage may not have ended in divorce.” Both of these categories are the types of thoughts that lead us to have regrets and people all over the world have them.

In multicultural psychology we look at these types of thoughts and ask ourselves, “Which category of counterfactual thinking is most prevalent in different cultures and which category do each of these different cultures experience the most? What we’ve found is all people, regardless of culture regret the things they’ve not done more than what they have done. Additionally, in every culture people regret what they haven’t done to the same degree. That means everyone, regardless of where they live, regrets not doing something to the same degree all over the world. We’re most troubled by what we didn’t do. I have a theological speculation why that might be the case.

If you look at how God created the human person, we were created for action, and in particular two actions that strike at our core. We were created to love others and to be loved. Whenever we do not create or experience love we suffer. In fact, love is so important to the human condition those who don’t experience or share love suffer disease much more prominently, recover from illness more slowly, and relapse into disease more frequently. When we cannot do what we were created for we crumble. Like anything created for action, inaction becomes the source of our slow demise. God, who is constant action (Pouring himself out for creation and continually renewing all he created through love) created us to be icons of his active love. Everything the human person does is intended to be an extension of the love of God for the created order. Our jobs, our marriages, our relationships, our leisure, all we do is intended to somehow love God above all other things, one another as brothers and sisters of the same father, and care for the created order. We were created for action, not to be inactive bystanders who do nothing. Because of that, when fear paralyzes us from making ourselves vulnerable to give and receive love we have a strong sense of regret. Mistakes are not our enemy, they’re part of learning to love more perfectly. Inaction and fear are our enemy. We can’t be comfortable in our inactive state, we must be stretched to be a more active agent for the kingdom of God. Innately people are aware of this and that’s why we regret what we didn’t do more than what we have done.

In my role as a minister I’ve had the opportunity to sit with people as they prepared to die. While the evidence is anecdotal at best, in the context of my pastoral care for them the feelings they share with me generally fall under two categories. They want to know if they were loved, but even more concerning to them is whether or not they loved others enough. They regret the love they didn’t show more than their attempts to actualize love. I pray all of you ponder whether or not you’ve become too comfortable in your attempts to actualize love; keeping yourself from “acting” in a more loving way. Never tire from finding new ways to stretch yourself and become more vulnerable for love’s sake. If you do this, your regrets will be minimized. In the end, you will find when you lay your head on your pillow for the last time the comforting voice of God saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

If You Want a Better World, Learn to Love and Be Loved

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More and more I am convinced the heart of all human misery is the result of a fracture in a very important psychological mechanism built into the human heart. We are intended to be creatures that love others and receive love. When we cannot love others in a healthy way or have not been loved in a healthy way we create a world that is fractured, broken, and hurtful. Psychologists have numerous theories that talk about the minutiae of how this mechanism works, but in the end, we struggle to love others and are negatively impacted by those that love us in a broken way. Here are just a few ways that happens.

A very early and significant way we are negatively (or positively) impacted by how we are loved is related to something known in psychology as attachment theory. The manner in which your primary care giver shows you love, meets your needs, provides a sense of safety for you, etc. can impact how you engage the world later in life. The theory was formulated by John Bowlby but explored extensively by Mary Ainsworth. Without going through all the details of the theory and the subsequent research it developed, attachment theory finds that those children who were provided with a caring, loving, responsive environment were more able to adjust to the world around them than those who were not. When this care and love is not provided properly, insecure and anxious attachments develop in people and they exhibit such behaviors and emotions as anxiety, the inability to regulate emotions, difficulty with developing relationships with peers, etc. Later research even demonstrates insecure attachments impact romantic relationships and marriage satisfaction. Taking all this into consideration you can see that when someone is not loved properly they struggle to give and receive love in a healthy way. Then, that gets propagated to others and the world continues to spiral into a broken dysfunctional pit that seems impossible to overcome. When we cannot love or are loved in an unhealthy way we in turn love others in ways that are broken. The cycle is difficult to break.

Taking things further, excessive abuse has been found to certainly have a negative impact on people raised in such a toxic environment. While certainly high levels of abuse create people who deal with physical injury and developmental issues, it also creates psychological damage. First, it can create an internal experience of self-hatred. Many people dealing with this self-hatred and abusive history consider suicide, become addicted to drugs, and deal with depression and anxiety. Post traumatic stress disorder and other trauma related mental health concerns are commonly found in children and later adults who experienced extreme abuse. However, even more disturbing, some research indicates excessive abuse of children during formative developmental ages causes the empathy pathways of the brain to be stunted and underdeveloped causing anti-social behaviors and at its worst, antisocial personality disorder. The most extreme lack or inability to love children being raised in our very homes creates people who’s neurological structures make it exceptionally difficult for them to empathize and love others.

Over the course of the next few posts I want to explore how we can change this trend and learn to love others and receive love in a healthy way. This innate characteristic of being human is essential for living life well and flourishing in the world. Imagine if we could transform the world to be a place where people can learn to love others and be loved in a healthy way. What might it be like if we could help people learn to mitigate against the broken and distorted love they received in order to break the cycle of distorted love? The world could at least be a little better because of the things I want to discuss. Augustine of Hippo, a Christian philosopher and minister in the 5th century often spoke of sin as nothing other than disordered love. Perhaps we need to reconsider that again in our day and age? How is our love disordered and how does it perpetuate a disordered world today? I look forward to sharing thoughts on this with you over the next few posts!

How One Human Life Matters

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Some days we wake up, we go through our routines, and are reminded that life is just one repeating event that happens day after day. We think there is little we’ve done that matters and realize we will never be on television or have articles written about us in some well known newspaper. We most likely will never write a great novel and no matter what we’re told by the well meaning people in our lives we cannot be whatever we want because we have to be what we need to be for the people depending on us. Most of us are mothers who care for our families and fathers who provide for those depending on us. We work jobs that make money so we can pay our bills and we have to maintain our homes through tedious tasks such as doing laundry, cutting grass, shoveling snow, and fixing those simple devices meant to make our lives easier. Life goes on like a ship headed out to sea and we simply stand on the shore and watch it move further and further away from us. Certainly there are moments of joy and happiness among these routines, but there are also days of mere repetitive necessary tasks. For many people it leaves them with the impression that their life, while important, really doesn’t matter to that many people. And it is that belief that is woefully wrong.

I’ve often quoted a friend of mine who was a Roman Catholic priest. He was an only child and while close to his cousins, he had little family that he associated with. As a Roman Catholic priest he couldn’t marry so he had no children and no wife to share his life with. He once told me that many men in his situation say “There is nothing more dead than a dead priest” to capture the life they live. He believed no one really remembers them because they have no one to carry on their memory. Yet this man has had a continual impact on my life as well as my whole family, He was so wrong about the impact he had on me and mine; he was a friend and I loved him very much.

My father was also taken from us unexpectedly when he died in his sleep. He had dinner with me and my family, went home with my mom, kissed her goodnight, went to bed, and then died of a major heart attack in his sleep. My dad never thought he was anything special. He was a retired police officer who died believing that he simply did his duty as a father and husband, nothing more. He never believed he did anything more than what a good dad and husband needed to do and took pride in the fact he was a simple officer of the law for a city he loved.

Both these men were very important to me but more than that, I don’t think they ever realized how much their lives mattered, even though they lived these lives in the simplest and most ordinary way. Every life matters because it impacts the lives of others in ways the one who lives it never imagines. The simplest courtesy can unburden a desperate soul looking for one act of kindness. The kindest smile can give someone that one glimpse of what is good in humanity they needed to experience that day. Your life matters and you should live that life as if it does. No matter what you do for a living or how you spend your time throughout the day when you live it being reminded how much it matters you impact people in ways you could never imagine or may never know.

My fear is that most of us living today are living as if what we say, do, or how we live doesn’t matter. Don’t do that. Choose your words wisely, be mindful of what you do and how you treat others, and take care that the work you complete is done in the most excellent way you can do it. By living that way you may inspire the next great leader of the nation, show a person love when they feel most unloved, and keep someone from taking their life because they despaired that no one cares for them. Those men I spoke of earlier died. Their death has left my life emptier than when they were in it. However, my life is also much better and fuller in many ways because they lived the most ordinary lives in the most inspiring ways and shared their lives with me. My friend the priest has helped me understand the importance of faith in human living and that service to my fellow human beings is a noble cause. My father inspired me to care for my family and sacrifice my wants, desires, and needs so that they may flourish. He taught me that happiness in a family isn’t getting everything I want from those in it, but rather seeing those in the family find success and reach their dreams and goals because you are willing to sacrifice some of your own. Neither of these men will ever have a movie made about them and like most, after about three or four generations their name may be nothing more than a carving on a gravestone. But that’s not what matters. They have touched and inspired me to be a better man than I would have ever been if I never knew them, and hopefully I have given that same experience to others, and so on, and so on. One life really does matter, choose to live yours in a way that impacts the world in a positive inspirational way through the most ordinary and mundane tasks. Be that pebble that strikes the still water of human existence and sends ripples through it that make the world a little better than if you were never in it. Your life matters, believe it.