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Are your thoughts really your own?

Have you ever thought you believed in something, only to discover later that you really don't know how you feel about it, or possibly feel the exact opposite? Have you questioned why you see the world the way it is? Have you looked beyond the simple answer as to how and why you make quick decisions about people you see or meet?

Two life changing classes for me in graduate school were Multicultural Studies and Gestalt Therapy. Up until that semester, I was very confident I really knew what I believed and how I thought about the world. After all, I'm in my mid 40's with quite a bit of life experience, sprinkled with self awareness, whisked with compassion and a desire to share with others. In many ways, most things made sense to me. All that said, my beliefs were deeply called into question. I like getting to the root of things, so it's no wonder I'm a therapist!

I've noticed in therapy that my client will be talking about something personal, then quickly disqualify or justify those feelings with a specific belief, many times not recognizing what just happened. It's usually accompanied by some sort of facial expression, maybe a shoulder shrug or resigned look, then they move on. I don't know if they noticed what happened, but more importantly, I wonder if they actually BELIEVE what they just said. Have they accepted the outside belief as is, without question, but squirm a bit because it doesn't sit comfortably within their being? One thing I hear often is, "This is just how relationships are." Somehow there is a universal truth they have to squash their needs, their hopes, their opinions because relationships don't have room for that, after all it's all about personal sacrifice. That's my cue to slow it down and explore. STOP right here!

I often inquire more deeply about where that belief came from. In doing so we start to peel the onion. For myself and others, our thoughts may not actually be our own. They are layers and layers of familial, societal, institution, corporate and/or religious doctrines that we have come to accept, whole and true. I will pause and say that yes, these can be helpful in creating stability in the environment and bring comfort. Many times they can serve a purpose. However, these thoughts can also rob you of having your own experience.

Gestalt therapy refers to these as introjections. There needs to be a psychological process of assimilating concepts, facts, standards of behavior, morality, political views and values that come from the outside world. When these things are taken in as whole, without being digested and mastered, it's like they can take over your personality. Often we have automatic responses to things that are completely out of awareness. "If swallowed merely whole, it contributes not at all to the development of our personalities. On the contrary, it makes us something like a house so jam-packed with other people's possessions that there is no room for the owner's property" (Fritz Perls, p.34). This gets crowded and makes it more difficult to discover what is true for ones self. Eventually we are doing what we think we "should do", and acting and thinking in a way which is not truly ours. "Usually, by the way, it is out introjects that lead us to the feelings of self-contempt and self-alienation that produce projections." It becomes a cycle of grin and bear it, do what it takes, no pain - no gain, take one for the team with total disregard for learning or acknowledging your personal needs. Taking this a bit further, if you are not taking care of your personal needs, there is a good chance you will be at odds with yourself. "Like the introjector, he is incapable of distinguishing between those facets of his total personality which are really his and those which are imposed on him from the outside" (Fritz Perls, pg.37).

I think one area this is relevant to is the belief systems and social norms placed on particular groups of people. How often do you see someone different than you and make quick assumptions? It could be about any group including a stereotype of African Americans who wear braids, Asian born tech workers, Hispanic baseball players, privileged white students at an elite school, Muslim women who wear head scarves, a group of gay or lesbian people dressed in bright colors, a young popular boy or girl in high school and many more. How deeply have you questioned why you think that way, how you drew that conclusion and if you want to continue accepting that idea as your own? There is the ability to actually integrate more of yourself into the introjects so it's not all taken at face value.

A few years ago I discovered I had several core beliefs about others that were affecting my perception of cultures and particular types of people. It wasn't discrimination as much as it was a stereotypical judgments that was attached to them. I never thought to question where it came from. After some deep inquiry and journaling, I was able to sift through what is real for me and what I took on. In particular I had a big shift in awareness and affection for transgender people. I had never taken the time to understand what their process was like, their pain, struggles, identity issues or frustrations were about. I had attached my belief to a broader stroke of ideas. Today I have opened my heart to those who are more gender fluid or feel it's necessary to transition from one sex to another. This happened on a deeply felt, heart level. I feel more confident in myself as a person and therapist because of this.

Our parents teach us a lot of lessons growing up. I think some of them helpful, and others not so much. Many of the sayings are never questioned, passed down from generations to generation until someone finally asks why. Marriage is another area where many introjects are very common because nobody wants to rock the system. I've heard this more times that I can count, "It's better to stay together for the kids." This introject, a widely held societal belief that perpetuates families to stay together, sacrificing one's self and needs for this idea that they are doing the right thing. After all the family is a system, and breaking the system can be an extremely difficult and painful situation. I personally know this because I am divorced. (I want to note that I am not advocating divorce and every family must do what is best for them.) Instead of accepting this implied idea ask yourself how you believe in your system, why are you still an active participant, are you doing what is best for you and others, is there a productive and healthy way to navigate it. Thinking and probing is a simple way to find meaning for yourself, to bring awareness through development. It also will open doors to explore what family actually means to you, what you want from family and what you are able to give.

How can we challenge introjects? How can we take these and slowly chew them up, digest them and take them piece by piece so it's not one big weight bearing down on us? The first step is to ask yourself what part of the belief system do you resonate with, and what part doesn't feel right for you? Take each part and look to see where the belief originated from. Did it come from school, parents, television, team sports or somewhere else? Is that a reliable source? How does it apply to your life now? The part that doesn't feel right about it, how do you see it differently? How would you look at things differently if you hadn't blindly, or subconsciously just said okay to it?

This path is about self discovery. It's about empowering your sense of self and moving forward with genuine, true self expression. It is also a way to relieve anxiety. Anxiety and stress are products of doing things you assume you "should do" when in fact, you want to do something else. Somehow by accepting introjects, they become rules for how you live your life. The "they/them" rules become "I" thoughts, therefore it feels like it is coming from within. Again, most of this is out of awareness and shows up as typical, everyday, automatic responses. Questioning introjects, assimilating and integrating is about becoming more whole and less fragmented. All of our information comes from the outside world, and to swallow things whole can cause us to choke. I encourage you to be inquisitive with yourself, your reactions to others, the reasons behind your choices and see how much of your true feelings are aligned with the bigger picture beliefs.

(Fritz Perle, The Gestalt Approach & Eyewitness to Therapy)

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