Preview the first two chapters of Brain Washed
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
Dictionary.com defines brainwashing as:
- A method for systematically changing attitudes or altering beliefs, originated in totalitarian countries, especially through the use of torture, drugs, or psychological-stress techniques.
- Any method of controlled systematic indoctrination, especially one based on repetition or confusion.
It is terrible to be brainwashed. To think that an enemy could forcibly cause me to believe something different from what I now believe. To imagine that same enemy being able to get me to behave in a way contrary to my normal behavior. But even more shocking, if that enemy is successful, I end up not only doing what they want me to do, but also doing it with all my heart believing it is the right thing to do. That is the result of a thorough brainwashing. Why can a person be brainwashed in this way? It doesn’t make logical sense. But understanding the answer to that question can actually help us discover the secret to being able to change our own lives in a positive, healthy way.
Truth be told, this book is not a spy novel nor a book about brainwashing techniques. It is actually a book about building a healthy self-image. But now that I have your attention, let me explain the reason for the title. Note, the title is Brain Washed, not Brainwashed. Yes, a play on words, but a very important play on words. When we make it two words, we totally change the connotation.
The idea that our brain could be washed (cleansed or renewed) is a very intriguing concept. We have all been hurt, lied to, betrayed, misused, and abused, which has left deep scars that fill us with frustration, bitterness, and emotional pain. Not only that, we have all hurt others, which plagues us with guilt and regret. These experiences produce negative inner beliefs which damage our self-image and rob us of peace, joy, and fullness of life. They negatively affect our health and wellbeing more than anything else. They can fill us with insecurity, fear, frustration, and shame, causing us to feel unloved, worthless, and unacceptable.
What if the brain could be washed in a way that changed these negative beliefs into positive beliefs? You don’t think that is possible. Well, if an enemy can change our beliefs in a negative way against our will, why can’t we discover how to change our own beliefs in a positive way in order to transform our self-image?
I firmly believe we can, and I am first and foremost speaking from personal experience. My self-image went through a radical transformation in my young adult years, and I came through that period seeing my life changed in wonderful and amazing ways. I went on to earn a Master’s Degree in counseling and have been a professional counselor for the past 35 years.
But the most fascinating aspect of the transformation of my self-image is that the change happened through my relationship with God. Coming to deeply know and understand the amazing love of God is the single greatest factor that can transform self-image.
If you are one of the millions of people who suffer from a low self-image, I believe that your self-image can be transformed in a way that radically changes your life for the better!
Introduction to part I
I will never forget the first day of a two-year graduate program in Pastoral Psychology and Counseling. One of the classes that day was “Self-Esteem 101” (I can no longer remember the actual name of the course, but this is close enough). The class was being taught by the head of the counseling program, Dr. Richard Dobbins, PhD; Founder of Emerge Ministries in Akron, Ohio.
As he began writing on the large blackboard at the front of the class, he started listing on the left-hand side, five symptoms of a low self-image. As he listed each belief and the symptoms associated with those beliefs, I thought to myself, “Those all look very familiar.“ I wondered, “Do I have a low self-image?” To be honest, I had no idea at that point what self-image or self-esteem even meant.
Then, on the right-hand side of the blackboard, he began to list the components of a healthy self-image. At this point, a new thought came: “Those are the changes God has been making in my life over the past five years.“ Radical, wonderful, life-transforming changes. I was very grateful for the changes even though I hadn’t fully understood what God had been changing.
On that day and the rest of the semester, I
started realizing that God had been changing my self-image. What fascinated me most was that the changes
were happening naturally through my growing relationship with Him. Plus, those changes were helping me become
more like Jesus Christ. My changing
self-image was enabling me to be “conformed to the image of His Son”
as described in Romans 8:29. This revelation gave me a keen interest in
understanding self-image, and over the past 35 years as a counselor, I have
enjoyed helping others develop a healthier self-image through an ever-deepening intimacy with God. I trust you will enjoy going on this journey
with me; perhaps your self-image will be radically changed in a positive way as
To help you understand what had been happening in my life during the five years prior to beginning my counseling training, I have to go back much further and tell you a little of my story.
I grew up several miles outside of a small town in Northwest Ohio with three siblings: a sister eleven years older, a brother seven years older, and a brother three and a half years younger. My mother worked full time and was the financial support for the family because my father had bipolar disorder, a mental illness that can cause extreme mood swings from mania to depression. This made it difficult for him to hold down consistent employment and created some interesting family dynamics as I was growing up. My father’s mental illness gave me an interest in mental health and was probably an integral part of my deciding to enter the field of psychology and counseling.
The most significant aspects of my story involve my spiritual development. My family attended church regularly. When I was eight years old, a special guest speaker gave an invitation to receive Christ at the end of his message. During the invitation, my father leaned down and asked, “Would you like to go forward and receive Christ?” I felt a strong connection with my father as well as a strange stirring inside, so I nodded my head in affirmation, and we went forward together. I remember kneeling at the front of the church with our pastor and asking Christ to forgive my sins and come into my life as my Lord and Savior, often referred to as a prayer of salvation. Being only a few short years out of the Santa Claus stage, it was easy to believe that God was real, I could ask Him into my life, and He would forgive me and accept me as one of His children. I believed that I was now part of the Family of God and headed to Heaven at the end of my time here on earth.
The next significant event affecting my spiritual walk with God came when I was thirteen. I was now well out of the Santa Claus years and remember wondering one day at school, “Is God really real, or is He just someone adults tell us about to keep us in line?” (I sometimes find my memories fascinating.) Needless to say, that was a critical time for me spiritually. Fortunately, God allowed me to experience something that ended those doubts forever. Once again, it involved my father.
Besides being bipolar, my father developed Multiple Sclerosis when I was ten. It took almost three years for the medical community to make a diagnosis, and during those three years, he was in and out of numerous hospitals and involved in all kinds of testing. It seemed to me that each time he came home from the hospital his symptoms were worse.
Finally, after three years, they made the diagnosis, and this time he came home from the hospital unable to walk. We obtained a hospital bed with a pull-up bar to help him exercise. Since my mother was working full time, and I was the oldest child at home, I was given the job of being his caregiver. I slept on a sofa in his bedroom as I had to be on call during the night in case the bedpan was needed. Other responsibilities included emptying his bladder bag, giving him sponge baths, and physical therapy three times per day to keep his muscles from deteriorating much further. When my mother was working, I also prepared meals (with some preparatory help of course). You might think that was a lot of responsibility for a thirteen-year-old boy, but I believe it helped me mature and become a fairly responsible person, for which I am grateful.
One of the symptoms he experienced was muscle spasms in his legs. It seemed to happen only once a day, when he and I were going to sleep. It would last for about five minutes, cause his whole bed to shake, and occur every night. He was not experiencing pain, just uncontrollable spasms, but it was emotionally painful for me as I lay there each night trying to go to sleep and listening to his bed shake. I will add at this point that these spasms started several months after I had my “thoughts” about the reality of God.
One night, as his bed was shaking and I was lying there, I clearly remember silently crying out to God and saying, “Please God, take that away and never let it come back.” The next night, it didn’t happen. In fact, it never occurred again. After that, I had no more doubts. God was definitely real as there was no other rational way to explain what had happened. No one knew of my nighttime plea, only God, and He had answered the simple prayer of a young teenager.
The next significant period came the summer after my junior year of high school. Let me tell you a bit about myself at this age. I disliked myself in a variety of ways: My physical appearance; the fact that I was shy, a loner, and very quiet; and the belief that others would not want to be my friend. All common symptoms of a low self-image.
In contrast, I did love sports, especially basketball and baseball, which were the two main sports in my little town. There were 37 students in my class, so you can see it was quite small. Basketball was my favorite sport, and I spent many hours practicing as we had to log one hundred hours over the summer in order to qualify for the varsity team. Needless to say, we often had some good teams.
To say I was a quiet teenager is an understatement. To be honest, I barely talked at all. As a freshman, I had a speech class in which I had to give one five-minute speech. I dreaded every minute and thought I was going to die of embarrassment! One thing I definitely knew: public speaking was not in my future.
I enjoyed singing but was much too shy to sing in public. Halfway through my junior year, the choir director informed me that I had a nice bass tone and talked me into singing a solo at a community concert. Now it was known I could sing.
At the end of my junior year, one of my classmates informed me that a youth choir was starting that summer in her church. They would be singing in different churches, and she asked if I would like to join. I agreed to join the choir, which had about thirty members, and had a wonderful experience. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I was doing something useful for the kingdom of God. Before that time, I knew that I loved God and was grateful for his salvation, but felt somewhat useless as a Christian (another common symptom of a low self-image). This increased sense of usefulness was giving me a joy I had previously not known.
Then I started having thoughts that God was calling me into the ministry. In my mind, that meant being a preacher which also meant being a public speaker! I knew those thoughts could not be from God because He knew me better than that. I simply tried to put that out of my mind, but the thoughts persisted. Were they actually coming from God? I then began explaining to God why I could not be a preacher. Of course, the number one reason was that I could not speak in public, although I had some other good excuses as well – I was too shy, didn’t relate to people well, etc. I felt like Moses trying to explain to God why he could not go confront Pharaoh. His number one excuse was that he stuttered. Well, my excuses didn’t work either. The thoughts still persisted, so I started running from God. Let me explain.
Toward the end of that summer, as I was experiencing this wonderful joy and thinking that God might be calling me into the ministry, I thought about going to a Christian college. That way, just in case it was God, I would be heading in the right direction. It felt like a wise thing to do at the time since the thoughts were not going away.
As my senior year began, reality started hitting me in the face. I always knew I would be funding my own college education, so during most of my teenage years, I was planning on following in my older brother’s footsteps. He had gone to General Motors Institute (GMI), a program in which you went to school for six weeks and worked in a GM plant for six weeks. The six weeks of work paid for the school tuition and living expenses. After graduating with a General Motors Engineering Degree, most students were able to eventually obtain a job as a GM executive, a nice career choice. I had been taking all the math and science I could in high school, and those subjects came easy for me.
As I looked at the prices of private Christian colleges, they seemed totally unaffordable, so I started considering GMI once again. I even went to the nearest GM plant to obtain an application to GMI. As you can see, I was running in the opposite direction. All the joy I had experienced that summer was gone, and I was becoming anxious and depressed.
Early in November, I reached a low point. I remarked to a classmate after basketball practice, “I’m really depressed and don’t know what’s wrong.” (You know it had to be bad if I opened up to someone, I was much too shy to do that.) He simply replied, “Oh, you just need a girlfriend.” We both laughed, but I was not laughing on the inside. To make things worse, that night I began filling out the application to GMI. Halfway through, I was feeling very anxious. I stood up and my hand was shaking, which really scared me.
I decided to take a bath, hoping to relax. Lying in the tub, I felt God say once again, “Will you follow my call?” I was now through running. I simply responded, “If that is what you want me to do, I will follow, but you are going to have to make a lot of changes in my life!” In an instant, the anxiety was gone, and peace flowed through my body. All the joy I had known that summer came flooding back.
That was the beginning of an amazing journey that has not ended. I could write a book about all the changes that happened during the rest of my senior year, my four years in a wonderful Christian college, and then three years of seminary. I actually did become quite an accomplished public speaker as I was preparing to be a pastor, but the call had actually been for pastoral counseling. It was in the process of following God step-by-step that the call was clarified, and I have deeply enjoyed being a counselor and could not imagine doing anything else with my life.
The Development of this Book
There I was, on my first day of graduate training to become a counselor. As the instructor was writing on the blackboard, God slowly revealed something amazing. All the wonderful changes He had made in my life after I yielded to His call mainly involved transforming my self-image.
I learned a great deal during that initial class, but I would like to share two lessons in particular. The first is very crucial: My self-image is NOT WHO I AM, BUT RATHER SUBCONSCIOUS BELIEFS ABOUT WHO I AM. Most of us have nebulous opinions about ourselves and assume, “It is just who I am,” convincing ourselves by early adulthood that we cannot change. The understanding that my self-image is beliefs rather than fact is vital to discovering that we can change and grow as adults.
The second lesson came from Psychological studies. Some studies were reporting that 95 percent of the self-image is formed by the age of 5. The beliefs we form in those early years tend to stick, and we grow up holding on to those beliefs making them come true. If the beliefs are good and positive, we may be quite productive in life; however, if they are negative or dysfunctional, they can greatly inhibit our growth and wellbeing. Think about that for a minute. How many of you were mature and objective enough at the age of five to form healthy beliefs about yourself? I know I wasn’t!
After graduating from seminary, my wife and I left for England. We had accepted a call to serve as assistant pastor at a church pastored by some long-time friends. We served in that role for almost six years, during which time both of our daughters were born.
My main responsibilities were pastoral counseling and specialized teaching programs. As you might guess, one of those programs was on self-esteem. I primarily utilized the materials from that graduate class on self-esteem. The structure of the class was similar to Part II of this book. I would start by discussing the five beliefs and corresponding symptoms of a low self-image (the same five areas that were on the left-hand side of the blackboard that first day of class). We would then examine the beliefs and components of a healthy self-image. The final step involved learning how to change an unhealthy belief into a healthier belief by seeing ourselves as God sees us. We will be discussing this in great detail in Part II.
The classes were going well, but then one family, leaders in the church, began to criticize the teaching on ‘self-esteem.’ They spoke with the senior pastor, and then made an appointment to talk with me. I was informed that teaching on self-esteem was not biblical, was a source of arrogance and pride, and I should cease teaching on that subject immediately. Now I must add that the family had never attended any of my classes.
Rather than react, I began to gently probe so I could understand why they felt this way. (I must confess, I had to utilize all my counseling skills to manage that one.) They stated that self-esteem teaching was meant to build up the self, and the Bible says that we are to die to self and walk in humility and love for others, not love for self. They went on to mention that they knew some people who had attended self-esteem workshops and had noticeably become prouder and more arrogant.
That helped me understand why they felt it was unbiblical, and I agreed with them in some respects. During the late 1970s and into the decade of the ’80s, self-esteem workshops had become quite popular in the United States, and from what they were saying, the same was true in England as well. Most of these workshops focused on feeling better about yourself. You were taught to like how you look, feel positive about your skills, talents, and intellect, see yourself as important and valuable, etc.
Such workshops were so common that the popular television comedy show Saturday Night Live was doing frequent satirical skits in the early 1980’s which usually involved one of the cast members who was purposely given thick glasses and straggly hair looking in the mirror and arrogantly saying to himself variations of the following statements: “I am handsome and strong, I like myself, I am talented and important, and by golly, I’m just a really nice guy!” The skits were hilarious, but unfortunately, they were similar to what was being taught in the actual workshops. The best satirical humor is just a slight exaggeration of the truth. If the self is built up apart from God, it can lead to arrogance and unhealthy pride.
But I was very aware that the changes God had made in my life had not caused me to become more arrogant. On the contrary, it had actually built a deeper humility. Rather than feeling better about how I looked or how talented or good I was, something was being transformed on the inside. I was feeling deeply loved by God, liking myself better, and caring more deeply for others as well. Then as I looked at the five key components of a healthy self-image which I was teaching, I noticed that none of them involved the outward man, but rather the inward.
With that understanding, I began developing a way to communicate the difference. I separated what I called “ego needs” from “esteem needs” and began adding that to my teaching on self-esteem which I now referred to as, “Building a Christ-Centered Self-Image” (no longer using the phrase self-esteem). I doubt I ever convinced that particular family that what I was teaching was biblical since they never attended any of the classes (fortunately, the senior pastor allowed me to continue to teach on self-image), but I was grateful for the challenge they gave me, as I think it has enhanced and clarified what I teach. This will be explained more fully in Chapter 3, Ego vs. Esteem Needs.
After returning from England at the close of 1988, I was able to obtain a professional pastoral counseling position with Hope Alive Counseling Services, an agency which started in 1984. As I began counseling full-time, I realized that many people suffer from a low self-image. Therefore, it was natural for me to continue teaching on self-image.
Then in 1992, I was given a model for the mind which expanded perfectly on the idea that the self-image is subconscious beliefs, many of which are formed in early childhood. This model gave me added clarity on how to empower the conscious mind to change unhealthy subconscious beliefs. I began to utilize it as the psychological foundation as I taught on self-image. We will be fully developing this model in the next chapter.
The feedback I received from clients as I taught on self-image helped me develop a 5 hour workshop in the mid-90s entitled, The Image of Christ: Building a Christ-Centered Self-Image. After continuing to teach these principles for over three decades, I have decided to put them into written form to share with a larger audience.
After reading a draft copy of this book, my younger daughter gave me some very helpful feedback. She suggested the thirty day devotional that is at the back of the book. It was an excellent idea to help the reader get into the habit of a consistent devotional time while focusing on key biblical truths which can help meet the needs of the esteem. She also gave me some suggestions for catchy titles. When I saw Brain Washed, Transforming Your Self-Image through the Amazing Love of God, I fell in love with the idea immediately.
prayer is that the truths in this book will help transform your life as it has
A Model for the Mind
THE CONSCIOUS AND THE SUBCONSCIOUS MIND
I first heard this model in its basic form in 1992. I was involved with another agency that had come across a program which provided small group interaction and training for those who had been involved in domestic violence incidences. The program was called “Learning to Live, Learning to Love” by Paul Hegstrom. The model was presented in one of his video messages called, “The Power of the Subconscious.” I found the model very helpful and saw how it applied to the changes God had been making in my life. Therefore, I began to develop it further and integrate it into what I had already been teaching about the self-image. Of course, the mind is much more complex than any model, but a model can help us gain understanding and insight which in turn can help improve our behavior. It is a way to simplify the complex. This model involves developing an understanding of the subconscious mind, but it is very different from Freud’s model. In this model, repressed memories are not nearly as important as the beliefs that have developed because of one’s experiences.
The subconscious receives experiences and perceptions and generalizes them into beliefs. Many core beliefs stem from childhood. These beliefs tend to control my behavior, reactions, thoughts, and feelings because whatever my subconscious believes is true for me and comprises my comfort zone. If I have behaviors, thoughts, or experiences which differ from what I believe, I will tend to feel uncomfortable, tense, or even anxious.
UNDERSTANDING THE SUBCONSCIOUS MIND
Now a crucial aspect of this model is the understanding that the subconscious functions at about the level of a five-year-old child. Think of it as a more primitive part of the brain. Like an animal, it reacts to its surroundings based on experiences, i.e., a dog who is mistreated will become very mistrusting while a dog treated well will become very loving. The dog’s experiences create beliefs about its world.
So let’s examine the thinking of a five-year-old. A young child does not think rationally or logically. He has no problem believing that Santa can come down the chimney, even though that is impossible. Likewise, the subconscious is capable of believing anything at any age. The belief does not have to be based on rational thinking, logic, or reality. For example, I can be an adult and believe I am overweight even though I am not. I will think I am fat and that other people see me as fat, even though most everyone would say I am quite slim. Or, I could believe that only bad things happen to me, even though I experience both good and bad. My subconscious will accept the bad and dismiss the good. Does that make sense? I have often seen both of these examples in my counseling practice.
The subconscious does not think abstractly; like a child, it thinks very concretely. Everything is black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. There are no gray areas with the subconscious. Plus, whatever the subconscious believes is true or right for me. For example, early in my counseling career, I was surprised by how many couples would fight over how to fold towels, which seemed somewhat amusing to me but didn’t make much sense.
Do you think there is a right way to fold towels? Do you feel uncomfortable if a towel is folded differently? If you are honest, you will probably say, “Yes.” Sorry to inform you, there is no right or wrong way to fold a towel; there are simply different ways of folding towels. But this is an abstract concept that the subconscious cannot understand. For the subconscious, the way you fold towels is right (which was probably the way your mother folded towels). If someone folds a towel differently, you feel uncomfortable and tense and want it to be folded right. If a married couple folds towels differently, each thinks the other is folding it wrong and argue about who is right.
As I explain this concept to clients, their initial reaction is: “That’s why they always have to be right!” We are not as aware that I always have to be right as well. I simply think, “I am right. Right?” But others have to be right even though Ithink they are wrong (I trust you are getting my point).
My subconscious beliefs affect every area of my life: I have beliefs about myself, relationships, religion, politics, people, and the world to name only a few. All my habits are driven by subconscious beliefs. These beliefs are on a continuum of strength. A belief can be mild, moderate, strong, or anywhere in between. For example, I could have a very mild belief about the right way to fold a towel, and it may not affect me much if my spouse folds it differently. But if I have a strong belief about the right way to fold a towel, I will feel tense, even angry, if my spouse folds it differently.
During the first five years of my life, I am functioning at a subconscious level only. Whatever I am experiencing is being generalized into beliefs. Thus, beliefs can form fairly quickly. During our counseling training, one of my classmates shared the following example after we had learned about the importance of the father in the development of a child’s self-image. The example involved an event that had recently occurred with his five-year-old daughter.
First, he let us know that his daughter was as skinny as a rail. One night she had an exceptionally good appetite and had eaten a big meal. As she was working on her piece of pie, he said, “You’re eating a lot, you’d better watch it, or you’re going to get fat.” Then he smiled and chuckled because he was just teasing and making fun of how thin she was. Later that night, they were playing on the floor. He was on his back, and at one point, she was on her back, lying crossways over his stomach causing her stomach to be rounded and her shirt hiked up. He couldn’t resist! After poking her on her bare tummy he said, “Look at that round tummy, you’re getting fat.” Again, he laughed as he was just teasing. The next day, he noticed that she was picking at her food and not really eating, so he asked, “What’s the matter, why aren’t you eating? Don’t you feel well?” She lowered her fork and her head and sadly replied, “I’m getting too fat.” The power of his words on her hit him like a rock. She did not understand teasing; she just knew that her father said that she was getting fat and she believed him. Now, he could correct that very quickly, but when a child is consistently hearing negative things about himself from his parents, he will believe them, even if it is far from true. It will shape what he believes about himself.
Another good example that shows how subconscious childhood memories can negatively affect our self-image as adults comes from my time in England. Jane (not her real name) was thirty when she first came to my office. We walked through her history in the first session. She had four older siblings. The first four were fairly close in age, and she came along ten years later. We had been meeting for about one month when, all of a sudden as we were discussing some of her issues, she burst out in tears and said, “I’m a mistake! It’s true, everything I do is a mistake. I shouldn’t even be here. My life is awful.” The tears were flowing freely, and I could tell she had never shared these feelings with anyone else up to this point.
It did not take a trained psychoanalyst to figure out what she was communicating. Her social history had given me everything I needed to know to make an educated assumption as to what she was saying. What do adults often call an unplanned pregnancy? Yes, I can hear you saying it, “a mistake.” That is simply an adult way of communicating. I could just picture little Jane, maybe around four or five years old, sitting on the floor playing with her dolls while mom and a friend, perhaps a neighbor lady, were sitting on the couch chatting away. During the conversation, the subject of Jane’s birth is raised and mother politely smiles and says, “Oh yes, Jane was a mistake.” Her neighbor knowingly smiles back and understands that Jane wasn’t planned but is a precious addition to the family none-the-less, and nothing more is said.
They were not thinking about little Jane being aware of the conversation as she quietly played with her dolls. On that day, Jane learned that she was a mistake. She didn’t know exactly what that meant, but her little mind had already learned that a mistake is something that is bad. It started to shape how she saw herself. She started to believe that she was a mistake, and whenever she made a mistake (which is quite often for all of us), it simply confirmed what she believed to be true about herself. When she did something good, her subconscious ignored it or considered it a fluke, but when she made a mistake or did something wrong, her subconscious readily received it because she was a mistake. As she grew older, she learned that a mistake was an unplanned pregnancy. Her low self-image interpreted that as an unwanted pregnancy. She was unwanted and not even supposed to be alive because she was a mistake!
Fortunately, this story had a good ending. One of the techniques I used early on in counseling was a method Dr. Richard Dobbins, head of the graduate counseling program I attended, described as “Praying through Painful Memories.” First, you communicate the painful memory that has been locked in your subconscious, perhaps for many years. Then you allow the painful emotions to begin to flow as you grieve to God and pour out your heart and feelings to Him. When the tears finally subside, open your heart to God and allow Him to minister to you. It might be a still, small voice whispering words of encouragement or healing. It may be a scene or picture that comes to mind that gives you a healing perspective. It may simply be a sense of His presence and love which covers that painful memory and brings peace.
Jane cried for quite a long time as the depth of that emotional pain was finally released. As the tears began to subside, I encouraged her to take that feeling of being a mistake and see what God had to say about it. As we waited before the Lord in prayer, all of a sudden, she began to laugh. I looked up and asked her what happened. She smiled, “God said, ‘I don’t make mistakes. Before you were in the womb, I knew you and had a plan for your life.’ I think that is in the Bible isn’t it?” Of course, she was right, and I quickly got out my Bible Concordance and found the verse in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
She had a whole new perspective and could begin to tell herself that she was not a mistake because God loved her and had a wonderful plan for her life long before she was ever conceived. Now, she simply needed to allow God to continue to show her who she was in His eyes. God’s amazing love can definitely help transform our self-image.
UNDERSTANDING THE CONSCIOUS MIND
From the ages of five to thirteen, the conscious mind begins to develop. This is the part of the brain that thinks rationally and logically and can understand abstract concepts and gray areas. This part of the brain helps us grow out of the Santa Claus years. We might think of the subconscious as a more primitive part of the brain and the conscious as a more advanced part of the brain. This part of the brain gives us advanced reasoning and makes us different from animals. During this same time, the defenses begin to develop. In this model, the defenses have one main purpose, to protect the vulnerable subconscious. As teenagers, we tend to protect childhood beliefs and reject concepts that differ from these beliefs. If those beliefs are healthy, they help us to stay healthy, but if they are dysfunctional, they can cause us to stay dysfunctional. Early beliefs can stick with us right through adulthood.
For example, two thirteen-year-old boys, Joe and John, are in the same junior high class at school. Joe came from a fairly healthy family. In his early years, he experienced love, affection, affirmation, and consistent, fair discipline. His life was safe and good. By the age of five, he has formed some positive beliefs about himself and relationships. Over the next six years, his conscious mind and defenses are developing. His experiences are no longer going directly into the subconscious. Instead, his defenses block them, and his subconscious reacts to the experiences according to its beliefs. Some of his classmates are treating him well. They are friendly, respectful, and affirming. Joe responds well to this behavior; it feels normal, and he plays frequently with these friends. But some of the boys are not as friendly. They tease, bully, disrespect and laugh at him. Joe becomes defensive and thinks to himself, “What is wrong with those boys? Why do they behave that way? It’s not normal.” He stays away from them and sticks with his friends. The defenses are doing their job in protecting him from that negative behavior.
On the other hand, John has come from a more dysfunctional family. In his early years, he experienced very little love or affirmation. He often received messages such as, “You are a bad boy. You’re stupid and won’t amount to anything.” He was disciplined inconsistently. Life was not very safe, and beliefs were forming about himself and relationships. For him, abuse was normal. He is in the same class as Joe but is responding to his classmates quite differently. There are some children who are respectful, friendly, and kind. A part of John, at a conscious level, likes that. But deep down inside, he reacts negatively to that behavior. It does not seem normal, it feels fake. Other classmates are teasing, bullying, and being disrespectful. He is more comfortable with this behavior as it feels normal. Friendships are built with these boys, and he behaves in the same way. He gets labeled as a “bad boy” by teachers and other classmates, and the cycle of his childhood is repeated. This can continue right into adulthood and never change.
This also helps us understand why psychologists say that 95 percent of our self-image is formed by the age of 5. The beliefs formed in those early years start to be protected by our defenses, and we tend to keep those same beliefs right into adulthood.
Empowering the Conscious Mind
But this is where the most important part of this model comes into action. I must discover how to empower the conscious mind so that I can change unhealthy subconscious beliefs. This model declares that any belief can change at any age, but it is not easy to change a subconscious belief. What makes it hard? The defenses and the strength of the belief. The defenses are constantly blocking experiences that are different than the subconscious belief, and the stronger the belief, the more I will tend to resist change.
Two key ingredients are needed to change a subconscious belief: insight and consistent proactive changes. In other words, I have to gain insight into the unhealthy belief (a conscious process) and form behavior and thinking goals which are healthier. Then I have to practice behaving and thinking consistently according to those new goals. After a period of time, the subconscious belief begins to adapt and move until it matches my consistent proactive behavior and thinking. This is similar to how we train animals. We positively reinforce behaviors that we have them repeat over and over with verbal cues until they perform immediately upon command. A belief has formed that is now habitually driven by the verbal cue. As we gain insight and strengthen our conscious mind, we can train ourselves.
I previously mentioned that every habit is directed by a subconscious belief. If you have ever changed a habit, you have a little insight into how to change a subconscious belief. First, you set a goal to behave differently because you didn’t like the old habit. If you succeeded in consistently practicing the new behavior long enough, you discovered that, eventually, the behavior became a new habit.
Anything that is a habit or subconscious belief, I will do without thinking (it bypasses conscious thought). Anything that is not a habit or subconscious belief, I will not do without consciously thinking. To change a habit, I have to consciously choose to do the new behavior. Therefore, I need something to regularly remind myself to do the new behavior over and over again.
The subconscious desires to drive my behavior, thoughts, reactions, and feelings. When it succeeds, I am in my comfort zone. If I choose to behave differently, I feel some discomfort and tension. The subconscious keeps trying to pull me back to the old behavior. With no insight, I tend to concede and fall back into my comfort zone.
Key goals have to involve behavior and thoughts. I can consciously choose to behave any way I want, but if I behave in a way that is different from what my subconscious believes, I will feel tense, uncomfortable, anxious, and perhaps even angry. I can calm that reaction somewhat by speaking to myself, but I have to speak to myself the way I would speak to a five-year-old. For example, I can say to my subconscious in a very calm, safe way something like this: “I know you are uncomfortable, but it’s OK. This is a good thing and I am going to continue to behave in this way.” When I do this, I will often find myself relaxing a little. Because I speak in a safe way, the message is able to penetrate the defenses, and the subconscious hears it even though right now it does not fully believe it.
I can also choose my thoughts. This is more difficult than choosing my behavior, but is still possible, especially with practice. I set thought goals and remind myself to think those thoughts on a regular basis. For example, in marriage counseling, I will often teach my clients to regularly think this thought concerning their spouse: “This is the most important person in my life. Have I shown that consistently in my behavior today?” My subconscious experiences this thought every time I think it. The thought also reminds me how to behave, a double bonus. As I think this thought consistently and choose to behave accordingly, my subconscious will gradually build a belief that my spouse is highly valued, and my behavior will begin to naturally match that belief. You might think, “I already highly value my spouse, why do I need to think this thought?” If that is true, wonderful, but I will simply ask, “Does your behavior (not your intentions) consistently prove you highly value your spouse?” Make sure you get some feedback from your spouse as well. If not, your subconscious may not firmly believe that your spouse is the most important person in your life and may possibly be driving some unhealthy behavior.
I can choose my reactions, but that is even harder. Experiences happen, and the subconscious reacts, bypassing conscious thought. But with insight and practice, I can start to intercept those reactions and consciously choose to respond proactively. This takes time, and I have to be patient with myself.
Lastly, it is very difficult to choose my feelings because many of my feelings are rooted deep in the subconscious and will simply reflect what the subconscious is believing. What I discover through this model is that I can guide my feelings through proactive behaviors and thoughts. As the belief changes, the feelings begin to change. I can use my feelings to gauge how I am doing in changing the belief.
The fact that any belief can be changed is shown in a negative sense by the fact that I can be brainwashed. This model helps us understand brainwashing. An enemy will impact me with experiences, words, or concepts repeatedly in different ways. If their messages succeed in changing the beliefs they are targeting, I will not only do what they want me to do, but I will do it with all my heart, believing it is the right thing to do. That is the power of subconscious beliefs.
On the positive side, God desires to “wash”
my brain by renewing my beliefs through the Bible. The Apostle Paul describes this perfectly in
Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be
transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
He also spoke of cleansing our minds through the washing of the Word
(the Bible), “Cleansing her by the washing with water
through the word” (Ephesians 5:26).
GAINING INSIGHT INTO SUBCONSCIOUS BELIEFS
Since these beliefs are below the level of my conscious awareness, how do I gain insight into what my subconscious is believing? Reading good books on different growth topics can help with insight. Books can take me beyond my limited experience and help me to consciously understand what healthy thinking and behavior look like. Books can give me new behavior goals as well as new ways of thinking.
Over my many years of counseling, I have had a number of court-ordered domestic violence cases. One of the main goals for domestic incidences is anger management training. Since I had not specialized in anger management training, one of the counseling goals was that these clients had to read six books on anger management. Each week, clients had to come to the session and teach me what they were learning. What amazed me the most was the changes I saw happening in the clients’ thinking after about the third or fourth book. They were experiencing insight which was changing how they saw anger in themselves and in others and were starting to manage their own anger more productively. I realized that a key factor was that they were learning similar concepts from different perspectives with each book, and it was gradually making more sense to them. The insights started to change their thinking, which then began to change their behavior and reactions.
We can also gain insight through targeted self-examination. Some of my beliefs are healthy. With these healthy beliefs, I behave well, think well, react well, and have healthy feelings. I feel like a competent adult. I do not have to be that concerned with healthy beliefs unless I desire to strengthen a healthy belief. But we all have beliefs that may be unhealthy, dysfunctional, or even irrational. These beliefs drive unhealthy behavior, reactions, thinking, and feelings. When these beliefs are in action, I often feel like a child and try to hide the resulting behaviors from others (but I rarely succeed because they are subconsciously driven and I behave without thinking). My conscious mind does not like it, but with no insight, I simply shrug and think, “I guess this is just who I am.” If someone points out the unhealthy behavior, I am uncomfortable and can get very defensive, even angry.
Therefore, my goal is to examine the unhealthy behavior and seek to gain insight into the unhealthy belief instead of simply ignoring the unhealthy behavior. How do I accomplish this? Well, if I knew all of my subconscious beliefs, all my behaviors, reactions, thoughts, and feelings would make sense. Not necessarily rational sense because the beliefs may not be rational, but they will be congruent with the belief. With that knowledge, I can work backward. I can ask myself, “What might I be believing that would cause me to behave, react, think, or feel this way?” At first, I may simply be making an educated guess, but the goal is to define what the belief might be. As I keep working at it, I start to gain a better understanding and insight into the belief.
It is similar to putting together a jigsaw
puzzle. With no insight, it is like the
puzzle has been dumped on the table without a box to see what the picture might
be. How do I solve the puzzle? I pick up a piece, examine it, and make a
guess. It is blue, maybe it is part of
I set it aside and look for some more blue pieces. As I collect a handful of blue pieces, I look
at them more closely and see that some of them start to fit together. I then do that with the rest of the pieces
until I have a clear picture of the completed puzzle and everything makes
sense. In the same way, I allow myself
to look at my unhealthy behaviors, thoughts, reactions, and feelings, and then one-by-one begin to gain insight into the
beliefs that may be driving them.
CHANGING UNHEALTHY SUBCONSCIOUS BELIEFS
When I can define the unhealthy belief, I can then rationally and consciously define a healthier belief and set behavior and thinking goals that line up with that healthy belief. Then I have to remind myself consistently to do the healthy behavior and think the healthy thought. Eventually, the unhealthy belief will shift and become healthier. When the belief changes, I will behave better, react more appropriately, think healthier thoughts, and generally feel better.
Several years ago, I was reading in Proverbs and saw a verse that caught my eye. I began dwelling on it and realized that this verse confirms the model I am describing here in a wonderful way. The verse is Proverbs 3:3, “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.”
The verse points to two qualities that are very important, but if these qualities are not a regular part of our lives, there is a two-step process to incorporate them into our lives. First, I have to “bind them around my neck.” That means I have to do something to remind myself to be loving and faithful. If I take it literally, I would put on a necklace that says, “Be loving and faithful today.” It does not matter how I remind myself, but I must because if it isn’t a habit, I will not do it without thinking about it. But here is where it gets exciting. As I choose proactively to be loving and faithful on a regular basis, eventually, I can throw the ‘necklace’ away, because it will be “[written] on the tablet of my heart.” My subconscious will believe that I am a loving and faithful person, and I will behave that way without thinking and be uncomfortable and tense if I am unkind or deceitful.
This verse also brings up another important point. There are many important qualities that I need to have in my life, and many issues I need to work on. But unfortunately, I cannot work on them all at once. Working on one or two goals at a time is the best way to change. If I try to do too much, the tension will be so great that I am guaranteed to fail. The perfect example of this is our New Year’s resolutions. Most of us have tried annually to make resolutions, and after failing each year we often give up and think, “I guess I can’t change.”
But we often go about it all wrong. First of all, I make too many resolutions. Then I proceed into the new year as if it is a sprint rather than a marathon. For example, I am going to lose weight, so I cut out all fats, carbs, sugars, and almost starve myself. I am going to exercise, so I hit the gym, work up a sweat, and totally exhaust myself. I am going to stop smoking, so I do it cold turkey. Plus, I have a few more goals I am trying to work on. I do all these things at once starting New Year’s Day. Several days later, I am starving, sore, craving nicotine, etc. By January seventh, I feel like it has been four months rather than seven days, and each day something inside is begging me to go back to the way things were. It wasn’t so bad, right? After about two or three weeks, I finally give up in defeat and tell myself once again, “I guess I just can’t change.”
Now let’s try it in a healthier way. I set two goals: I am going to diet and exercise. I set realistic weight loss goals based on my metabolism (some people can lose weight faster than others with the same calorie intake) and find an eating plan that reduces calories while providing good nutrients and proteins to fuel my body. Then I plan my meals, reduce snacks, and seek to eat in a way that I can easily make into a lifelong pattern.
I set exercise goals, starting out slowly and gradually increasing until I reach a realistic program which I can maintain for a lifetime and enjoy. It will still be difficult, but as I encourage myself each day and stay consistent, it will gradually get easier and become a habit. Then I can simply enjoy the results.
Actually, these two goals are vital to a healthy life, although I would like to change the word diet to healthy eating. I say this because we often refer to the word diet as some type of weight loss scheme, and there are lots of those available. But the best way to stay healthy and increase your energy is simply to eat healthy foods and to exercise. Plus, meeting these goals is the best way to lose weight.
Allow me to share with you how I worked those two goals into my own life. It is a good example which shows that slow and steady will trump fast and erratic every time. As a senior in high school, I weighed about 185 pounds and was in fairly good shape, being actively involved in two sports all through high school. I also enjoyed eating and liked a variety of foods. I was not in any sports in college so I would increase about ten pounds during the school year, but then I would lose it all during the summers as I worked construction ten hours a day. After college, I got married. My wife was a wonderful cook, and I no longer worked construction. By the time I turned 30, I was about 25 pounds heavier. My weight was still not bad for six-foot-one, so I did not think much of it. However, I was also not exercising.
In the early 1990s, I began waking up with morning back pain. I remember thinking, “I’m too young for this.” I obtained a gym membership and began focusing on muscle conditioning, especially my abs and back muscles. After about four months, the morning back pain was gone, and by then I had established a fairly good routine of exercising three times per week. During this time, I had a physical, and my physician encouraged me to lose about fifteen pounds to lower my body mass index to around twenty-five. My physician was a firm believer in nutrition and healthy eating, and he made some recommendations on a change of diet. I tried it for a little bit, but change is hard, and I still felt that my weight was fine.
In the mid-1990s, I was going through a stressful period and, as a counselor, knew that aerobic exercise is good for stress. I decided to add jogging to my exercise program. I’ll never forget my first go at it. I took off from my home and jogged for about fifteen minutes. I made it back home, flopped on my La-Z-Boy chair and thought I was going to die! It took about ten minutes to slow my heart rate and be able to breathe normally again. Fortunately, I did not give up at that point; I simply changed tactics. The next time I went out, I alternated jogging and walking for twenty minutes. That went pretty well as I was not exhausted this time and felt energized by the workout. I did that for several months before deciding that I would try jogging for fifteen minutes again. Once again, I was not winded and felt energized. I did that for several months and then increased to twenty minutes. Same results. Several months later I moved to twenty-five minutes and finally to thirty minutes. I do a ten-minute mile, so I was now jogging three miles three to four times a week and feeling great!
By 2012 I was still engaged in the same exercise program, and it was now a well-ingrained habit. If I had to miss a workout, I really missed it and couldn’t wait until the next time. But even then, I had not lost any weight. I still thought I was at a pretty good weight and loved to eat. Exercising basically helped me to maintain rather than continuing to gain weight as I aged.
By this time, my older daughter had become a nurse practitioner and started working for a physician that was focused on wellness and nutrition. She began studying nutrition and functional medicine and was seeing some amazing results in her clients’ health and wellbeing. Of course, she enthusiastically shared these results with her parents and started working on changing our diet and adding nutritional supplements.
My wife started changing our menu, and guess what? I started losing weight. Slowly, over the next two years, I lost twenty-five pounds! It really was not that hard. Our daughter mainly encouraged us to eat natural foods: organic meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy nuts, herbs, spices, yogurts, etc. She gave us some good recipes, and the food was delicious. What we had to cut out, as much as possible, was carbs, sugars, and processed foods. As my wife and I worked together, the transition went quite well. Working as a team always helps.
I understand that you may not have a daughter who is an expert on nutrition, but there are many good books on nutrition and healthy eating that can give you all the insight you need to start eating healthy. Good nutrition is the fuel that drives our health.
Now, I am in my mid-sixties and am at about the same weight and level of conditioning as I was when I was a senior in high school. Most importantly, I feel great and have a lot of energy. Plus, the habit is still well ingrained; the subconscious belief is working well!
Remember the children’s story of the tortoise and the hare? Slow and steady trumps fast and erratic every time. It does not matter how long it may take to reach a goal, you just have to keep moving forward and never give up. Once you realize that you can change and have the rest of your life to change, you can continue setting more goals year after year. You will discover that you are a growing, changing person, which is very empowering!