In the previous two columns on the psychological foundations of intimacy I talked about three core values which are indispensable – self awareness, self-acceptance and integrity. I also discussed the importance of facing and resolving the wounds from our past. As Jack Kornfield has written, in order to move forward with our lives “we have to give up all hope of ever having a happy childhood.” But there are some who question the relevance of focusing on the past. What is the point of digging up what can’t be changed, they say, especially when it’s painful? Doesn’t it make more sense just to forget about it?
One answer is that the past continues to live in the present in the form of grim beliefs we’ve learned from our painful experiences. There is, in a sense, a design flaw in the human mind, in that we form our deepest and most enduring convictions about who we are and what we can expect from life during childhood, the time when our minds aren’t mature enough to assess evidence rationally and make reasonable inferences. Our erroneous conclusions get hard-wired into the limbic system of the brain as core beliefs, and become unconscious in the way that breathing is unconscious. We tend to believe the stories we tell ourselves as if they are absolute and unquestionable truths. They become knee-jerk reactions and templates which we use to interpret and organize our experience. If we hold the belief, for instance, that “I am unworthy of being loved,” we both create and notice rejection; and we pay less attention to those experiences in which people do act in a loving way toward us. Once our core beliefs are formed, they become highly resistant to change, both because they become self-fulfilling and because we tend to overlook evidence which refutes them.
A number of grim beliefs are common among gay men. Typical beliefs that many develop in the process of growing up in a world that doesn’t honor their differences are “There’s something wrong with me,” “I am inadequate,” or “I am incomplete, something is missing.” Many gay men continue to hold such background convictions long after they have consciously come to terms with their sexuality. From the experience of parental disappointment about their sexual orientation, some conclude “I will always disappoint others,” or “I’ll never be able to make anyone happy.” Some men who hold these beliefs actually avoid getting into relationships in order to protect others from being hurt by them. Early experiences of being rejected by their fathers and other males in their lives lead some gay men to conclude “No man will ever love me,” or “No man can be trusted.” And, of course, internalized homophobia results in all kinds of negative beliefs about oneself, such as “I’m inferior to other men,” “I’m weak,” and so on. When we hold core convictions such as these, troubled relationships and difficulties with intimacy are inevitable.
So what can be done? The first step, and the most difficult, is to work to become conscious of our core beliefs. So much of what we believe is so automatic and mechanical that we’re hardly aware of what we’re thinking most of the time. A process of self-exploration, such as meditation practice or psychotherapy, can help us unearth our “top ten tunes.” It can be very helpful, as we begin to understand these tunes, to make a list of them and to memorize it. That makes it possible, throughout the day, to be more alert to the precise moments when our tunes start to play, and to be able to say to ourselves “Oh yeah, there’s number 4.” Becoming more aware of our beliefs makes it possible to begin to relate to our beliefs rather than from them.
An indispensable motto for this process of self-exploration is “Don’t believe everything you think.” The human mind tends to give more weight to evidence which supports what it already believes than to evidence which refutes it. Practicing being alert to our background assumptions helps us to step out of this automatic process and to enter into what is known in Zen as “beginner’s mind.”
It can be disconcerting, even frightening, to begin to realize that some of our most deeply held convictions are baseless. Even a negative mental map provides a sense of identity. That’s why the process of re-examination is best done from a spirit of deep compassion for ourselves. It’s important to remember that our grim beliefs were born in experiences of pain and fear, and were the best attempts of young minds to make sense of a bewildering world. This kind of open-hearted attitude toward oneself isn’t mere self-indulgence; it’s a precondition for the capacity to have an open heart for others. More on opening the heart next time.