Have you ever met an Ivy-league educated person with a PhD who thought they were stupid?
I worked with several people who had a PhD from Harvard, but still had the internal belief, “I’m stupid.”
It didn’t make sense!
When I challenged them on this, they said, “Yeah, well, I conned my way through Harvard” or “I worked my butt off to get through Harvard.”
They wouldn’t believe that they got a PhD from Harvard because they were smart. Instead, they dismissed their success by claiming they had bucked the system somehow, or passed it off as just a lot of effort.
There’s no way anyone could “con” or hustle their way to a Harvard PhD. You need a certain level of intelligence.
So what’s that about?
I work with a lot of people who, at their core, don’t believe they are smart, valuable, lovable human beings who have important things to say and contribute to the world— despite having outward success, a devoted life partner, and a loving family.
Instead, they perennially doubt themselves and their abilities, even if they admit they have demonstrated they have the capacity to do whatever they set their mind to.
Here are a couple of other examples of this paradox:
Someone who works long hours, can’t relax, is always tackling some task or project, but deep down feels worthless or lazy—no matter the evidence to the contrary in their life.
Or someone who is always procrastinating because they worry if they can’t do it perfectly, they’ll fail, so they don’t even try.
Why do some people believe such falsehoods about their abilities and worth? And why do these beliefs continue, despite evidence in their lives to the contrary?
To find the answer, we have to go back to the things we experienced in childhood.
Why would we feel stupid even if we received a PhD from Harvard University?
Why would we believe we’re lazy and unfocused when in reality, we’re doing too much and can’t relax?
Why would we worry so much about failing to do things perfectly that we would never do them at all?
These are scenarios that demonstrate something about our internal beliefs about ourselves.
These beliefs most likely started in childhood, when we saw our parents do something that led us to form certain meanings.
Here’s how that occurs:
Let’s assume you’re a little kid and your dad is yelling at you, “You don’t use your head! You’re not thinking! What’s wrong with you?”
You look at your dad’s behavior and you wonder, “WHY is he angry and yelling?”
Since you’re a young child who depends on your parents for survival, you can’t fathom that there’s something wrong with your dad. That would mean that your survival would be in jeopardy.
You therefore assume that your dad is right, and you are the one who is defective, or in the wrong.
You conclude, “My dad is yelling and angry, and he can’t be wrong, so that means I must be wrong. It must mean that he’s right and I’m stupid.”
That’s the MEANING you make when you SEE your dad yelling at you. Then, every time you see him yelling at you from that moment on, you form the belief, “I’m stupid.”
It feels like you are seeing “you are stupid” rather than seeing your dad yelling at you.
In this way…
So let me give you another example.
Let’s say you’re playing with your smartphone and your child is talking to you, and you say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m listening.”
What does your child see? They see you playing with your phone. What meaning do they give what they’re seeing?
They may wonder, “Why isn’t mommy listening to me? What I have to say must not be important enough to listen to me.”
Therefore, what your child is SEEING each time you look at your phone when they’re trying to get your attention is not that you’re playing with your phone—they see, “I’m not important.”
Now, here is the important thing to remember:
Let’s think of Santa Claus. Maybe when you were little you believed in Santa Claus and you thought that was the truth.
Then one day you realized you never SAW that there was a Santa Claus. You heard your parents telling you there was a Santa Claus. What happens to the belief in Santa Claus? It goes away because you realized you never saw a real life Santa Claus. (Mall Santas don’t count.)
If you grew up in a place where it never snows, but one day you went up to the mountains and saw and touched snow, you would never NOT believe there’s no such thing as snow. Not even if you go back to your hometown and never see snow again, except in photos or on television.
You believe snow exists, you saw it.
As long as you see something, you can’t not believe what you think you saw.
So, when you saw your dad frequently yelling at you over and over, you SAW the meaning you assigned to that, which was, “I’m stupid.”
When you saw your mom constantly paying attention to her phone instead of you, you saw the meaning you assigned to that, which was, “I’m not important.”
That’s why, as adults, we tend to still hold on to the beliefs we formed as small children, such as “I’m stupid” or “I’m not important” or “I’m lazy”, despite daily evidence to the contrary.
We continue to “see” these beliefs throughout our lives, and we are extremely limited by them.
Okay, so now let’s look at what impact these beliefs might have in our children’s lives.
Does it make a real difference what beliefs our children are forming?
Let’s imagine two adults, Jane and Sam, and they have very opposite beliefs.
Jane has the belief I am not good enough, I am not important, mistakes and failures are bad, I don’t deserve, I am not capable. What makes me good enough is having other people think well of me.
Sam has the complete opposite beliefs. He believes he is good enough, he is important, that mistakes and failures are learning opportunities and that his worth and value or his good enough-ness is not a function of what other people think.
Who is likely to be happier, Jane or Sam?
Who is likely to have more nurturing relationships?
Who would be more likely to have a successful career?
Who would be more likely to feel free to be him or herself in the world?
So, you can start to see that obviously Sam would be happier, more confident, and more successful.
This is how the beliefs we form as children impact us in life later on when we become adults. And that’s why it’s so important to be aware of the impact your own behavior has on your children right now.
I’ve been a parenting educator for 30 years, and I’ve seen how beliefs formed in childhood can have detrimental effects on adult lives.
I’ve worked with people who can’t help but well up in tears when they admit to me that they didn’t feel lovable.
I’ve worked with highly educated, highly accomplished people who still held on to the thought that they were stupid, and this thought kept them from experiencing inner peace and self-acceptance.
I’ve worked with people who couldn’t take action toward a goal, or couldn’t speak in public, because their belief that they had to do it perfectly or not at all was paralyzing.
I know how difficult it is to let go of these types of beliefs that formed when we saw our parents behaving a certain way, and that’s why I decided to dedicate my career to helping parents have greater awareness of how their behavior affects their children’s internal beliefs.
And it’s the reason I’ve joined the community of experts at Flourish, where you’ll find truly helpful insights, tips, and strategies that will take the struggle out of parenting and replace it with more harmony, joy, and fun!
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