By Janet Woodlock
A six-year-old boy called Nathan asks his father why his mum is crying.
“Because you boys have been naughty” the father responds, referring to the boy and his younger brother.
Nathan immediately feels terrible that his behaviour has caused his mother such distress. Somehow the message goes deep into his soul that he is responsible for the feelings of others. He must NEVER behave in a way that will upset others like that!
Decades later, Nathan is a pastor. He feels significant anxiety when others disapprove of his words or actions, especially if they are older, respected figures. Nathan still carries an inner six-year-old who feels distressed if parental archetypes are displeased with him.
Pastor Nathan is self-aware enough to realise his anxiety about pleasing others is holding him back as a leader.
How might you address these kinds of deep-seated emotional responses?
As Nathan’s coach I asked: “when did you first feel like you were responsible for other’s feelings?” I heard the story of six-year-old Nathan, and of other narratives that reinforced his excessive sense of responsibility.
“What are you telling yourself in these kinds of situations?” I asked.
“That it’s my fault” he replied.
“And what would be a more helpful thing to tell yourself?”
Nathan replied: “That I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings.”
“Really?” I asked.
It was difficult for Nathan to truly embrace that others are responsible for their own feelings. That disappointing others isn’t always a disaster.
Nathan decided that “I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings” would be his new mantra. It would be on the screensaver of his phone. It would be on a card at his desk. It would be on a card in his car. He would say it over and over to himself. He would prepare for potentially difficult meetings by rehearsing his mantra, as a way of managing his anxiety around disagreement and disapproval.
Old habits die hard. Beliefs planted in childhood are especially hard to change. But Pastor Nathan was up for inner work. He found the more he practiced his mantra, consciously calming himself before an anticipated conflict, the more he could manage his uncomfortable feelings.
While the details are different, Nathan’s story is repeated over and over with my coachees. Tom feels like he’s weird, because of a name Grade Six boys called him when he was in Prep. Susan hates charging for her consulting, because she received the message she wasn’t worth much when she was growing up. Jane feels like reflective practices are a waste of time, because her family of origin valued productive work and looked down on contemplative pursuits. At the root of these issues is a limiting belief.
Sometimes I think we need to wrap children between the ages of 5 and 8 in bubble wrap, and never let anyone speak a negative word over them! In reality, we all carry around an inner child within . To a greater or lesser extent have all acquired some unhelpful beliefs.
Jesus said: “Who the Son sets free is free indeed”. I aspire that all my coachees experience greater freedom in their interpersonal, emotional, spiritual and working lives.
So how might a mentor or coach help those we work with find greater emotional freedom?
There are many possible strategies. But I’m finding the following two questions particularly helpful:
“What are you telling yourself?”
“What would be a more helpful thing to tell yourself?”
When a coachee identifies negative self-talk, I also find it helpful to ask: “When did you first start telling yourself that?”
Often our negative beliefs emerge from early Primary School age. Retelling the story of how a limiting belief formed can help reveal how ridiculous it was in the first place.
I asked Nathan: “Did you REALLY make your mother cry?”
Nathan: “Now I think about it, it might have been my brother…”
I also asked Nathan whether he knows any six-year-olds. This question provides another perspective on a belief-forming incident. We are unlikely to judge another six-year-old as harshly as we judge our younger self.
Each person and each situation is unique. The questions I ask are contextual. But becoming curious about what people are telling themselves, and why, can bring about significant breakthroughs.
I hope this brief case study provides food for thought around limiting beliefs. I find the best way to manage difficult emotions is to work on the internal scripts that underlie them.
You might find challenging your own limiting beliefs is a good place to start!
Janet is a coach and trainer with the Christian Coaching Institute.