From the time we take our first breath, we are exposed directly or vicariously to opinions, beliefs, and ideas that form the way we see the world. They attach to our knowledge base like malware or viruses to our mental hard drive. Some are benign and cause no harm, some are loaded with hate and bigotry, some are lenses of beauty and love through which we see the world, but all involve some measure of molding our view of life and the people who populate it.
The Strength of Expectations
“American Sniper,” a movie about a war hero who was raised in an American family and infused with the belief from his father that taking care of others was a far superior life choice than being an aggressor or a victim, shows the importance of the influence of beliefs in forming character and life choices. Although Chris Kyle made a record number of enemy kills as a sniper, he came to terms with what he did (including killing children) because of his belief that he was doing something righteous, protecting his fellow soldiers. As a result, he also was able to successfully battle the symptoms of PTSD upon his return to civilian life.
Expectations are the direct result of beliefs – learned, acquired, witnessed, or surreptitiously implanted in our minds like a computer virus – that subtly and not so subtly guide choices we make.
Fantasy as Reality
Disney would not appreciate its cartoons being called propaganda, but princesses and princes populate the make-believe world of countless children and manifest later in choices of boy/girlfriends, partners, and discontent with the ordinary life that most of us live. Every day the media expose young people to fantasy lives that, when internalized as “normal,” can undermine successful emotional maturity.
Are all pit bulls dangerous? Is a crying man weak? Is a child struggling with school a failure? Observe for yourself your discontent and sometimes anger bubbling up with a partner, friend, co-worker, or child. All are rooted in mental malware – beliefs that life “should be” different, that people should think or feel or behave some other way. Where did you acquire that belief, that expectation? Who taught you it should be that way?
Debugging Your Hard Drive (Taking Back Control)
Once you know the belief behind your expectation and judgment, you have the ability to choose to keep it or delete it.
As with all expectations, some are desirable and form that part of ourselves that drives us to do well, to get up and shower, dress, and take positive action in the world. The expectation that friendliness begets friendliness gives us a reason to smile at strangers or co-workers. The expectation that exercise creates health leads to workout routines.
To achieve contentment, I invite you to spend some time looking at what is upsetting in your life. Examine the expectations/beliefs behind these upsets and liberally exercise your delete button. It is a very freeing exercise and a genuine step toward health and happiness.
Lesley S. Cunningham is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute
specializing in relationships and attachment issues. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-509-9832.