When was the last time you noticed one of your insecurities and felt frustrated, annoyed, and hopelessly defeated by the belief that your insecurity can’t be changed? My hope is that by the end of reading this post you will be able to transform that belief, look your insecurities in the face and say, “I am finished letting your negativity define me, I choose to love myself.”
Until a year or two ago, I lived under the assumption that people cannot change, and if they do, it would only be for the worse. Specifically when I entered the dating world, I was taught to choose a partner based on who they are, not on who they will become. Don’t get me wrong, this is extremely wise advice, but it’s so much more complicated than that.
My parents divorced during my sophomore year of high school, which is the first time I heard the statement, “People can’t change.” At that point in my life, I’d started to recognize a lot of the same unhealthy tendencies from my parents’ relationship leaking into my own habits. Basically I thought I was screwed. I felt so stuck. I hated (yes, hate is a strong word so I don’t use it lightly) that in relationships I would become clingy, passive aggressive, co-dependent, and fearful of abandonment. (Wow – super attractive, right?)
I took these negative words deep into my identity, which caused me to lower my standards and carry myself with very little self-worth. This spiraled into a season of deep depression. I couldn’t get out of bed, go to class, hang out with friends, or eat, and I believed I had no purpose. I was convinced that others’ opinions and the negative words in my head would define me for the rest of my life, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It all comes down to a small but mighty concept called “neuroplasticity.” Yes I’m sure that word just triggered a flood of memories from your high school or undergraduate biology/psychology classes. You probably learned about how the brain of a developing child goes wild in creating new connections and pathways in the brain as they experience new things. That’s why it’s so much easier for children to learn a second language or how to ride a bike. By the way – Easier for children, but not impossible for adults 😉
In my second year of college I took a Lifespan Development Psychology class and learned all about neuroplasticity during a lifetime. Truth be told, the only part of that particular topic that stuck with me was how this amazing ability for your brain to be shaped and changed decreases tremendously with age. For some reason my brain didn’t realize that as I was sitting in that classroom learning new things, neuroplasticity was happening in my own head!!! I mean, duhhh! I’d already been convinced that change, or in this context, growth, wasn’t possible for people my age or older. This belief was buried soo deep in my sub-conscious, I didn’t even begin to think otherwise!!
In this class we also learned about a developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, who came up with 8 stages of lifespan development. In each stage there are pivotal points where, based on our experiences, we learn to either trust or mistrust, take initiative or shy away, and be in relationships or isolate ourselves.
Our assignment was to interview our parents about our childhood, write a paper discussing how we personally experienced each stage, then analyze how our early learning could influence our behavior today. In short, this paper changed my life (thank you Dr. Gurney).
I was struck with three main realizations:
1) Based on the implicit and explicit messages I took in from my surroundings as a child about conflict, love, and worthiness it was no wonder I believed the things I did in present day.
2) Because of the awareness I had gained, the next time I found myself engaging in one of those behaviors that I hated, I was able to stop myself – even if it was just for a moment.
3) Growing up, my parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, etc. truly wanted the best for me and loved me in the best way they knew how – which is all I could ever ask for.
#2 surprised the hell out of me – for the first time ever I felt in control of my actions: a powerful feeling for someone who didn’t believe people could change.
The next time a guy I was interested in and a friend I needed advice from took a little too long (like an hour or two? haha) to text me back, (silly example I know, but stick with me) I felt panic. My mind began to spiral through thoughts like, “okay they don’t care about me anymore, I am going to be abandoned, and I feel so out of control, how can I stop this from happening?”
Have you ever experienced an anxious thought-spiral like this?
My first reaction in this state of panic would always be to double (or triple) text, call the person immediately, or figure out when I could confront them about being so horrible at texting…
It’s funny how quickly our brain latches itself into habitual, natural behaviors like this in an effort to take control and fix our anxiety.
Instead of allowing myself to engage in this clingy behavior that I knew I would cause me shame and insecurity later, I paused.
I remembered that this panic was an incredibly natural reaction to a childhood wound that had not yet been healed.
I remembered that every single piece of evidence from previous conversations with this guy and my friend revealed that they do in fact care –
but even if they didn’t, that wouldn’t change the fact that I am worth so so SO much more than the negative thoughts in my head that fight to destroy my self-esteem.
I put my phone down, redirected my attention to the Netflix show I was bingeing at the time (probably Gossip Girl :)), and they both texted me back before the end of the night.
Our brains function out of habits. The more we engage in a behavior, the more powerful the brain wiring of that particular activity becomes; much like a muscle you continue exercise in order for it to become stronger. In order for change to occur, we have to literally rewire our brain and change our habits.
I wish I could tell you that my fear of abandonment is completely gone and that I never worry when someone takes a while to text back, but I can tell you that the process of pausing and redirecting my attention to more positive things now takes less than a minute. Slowly but surely I am deconstructing those negative brain connections I gained and reinforced as a child who didn’t know any better.
People CAN change, but not everyone is willing or mentally strong enough (yet ;)) to go through the work of rewiring one’s brain.
The first step? Self-awareness.
I promise I’m not telling you to call up your parents for an interview then write a 40 page psychoanalysis of yourself and your childhood. Hahah – but I wonder what would happen if you picked just one of the habits/tendencies you’re insecure about and started to ask, “what has made me this way?” or “what are the negative messages I believe about myself on a daily basis that reinforce this frustrating behavior?”
Second step? GRACE GRACE GRACE GRACEEEEE
It can be extremely frustrating to name and confront your insecurities, so please be kind to yourself. While it’s so important to acknowledge your past, the only thing that really matters is how that past is influencing the present moment. They may be a little part of you, but you are not defined by the mistakes, traumas, or wounds from your past. Read that again.
Guilt is the opposite of self-awareness. Learn about your past but only to the extent that it can help you create your own powerful, authentic self.
I understand why you would want to act this way because of the challenging lessons you learned as a child, but I am finished letting your negativity define me, I choose to love myself.