I worked as a software engineer at a startup in Ann Arbor over the summer, and for the first several weeks I was marred with a recognizable inner turmoil. I would get a task, try to do it, eventually stop making progress and then begin to think I was in over my head and bound to fail. This overwhelming sensation would spread, affecting the rest of my work tasks. It would follow me home, eventually leading me to question my decisions and self-confidence in situations beyond work. I might wake up the next day feeling dejected because I’m not good enough and start my day on the wrong foot.
After a month of this cycle, I realized I needed to make a change. I had started daily meditation a couple years back because of a class recommended by a friend — Jazz 450: Contemplative Practices. Additionally, I had been using a workbook called “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron, for the past month in order to improve my creativity and become a better writer. Both of these pushed me to reconsider my idea of self-conception, which ultimately pushed me to better my thinking habits. The changes I’ve experienced have had a huge impact on me, inspiring me to write and reflect on them.
Self-conception is a sense of self based in one’s beliefs and experiences. It affects things like how outgoing we are, how we tackle challenges, and how we treat ourselves and others. If a person believes they aren’t good looking or charismatic, then it’s likely they will lack the confidence to try things at which they might otherwise succeed. Given the impact of self-conception, it’s worthy of more attention. It’s something that crops up from our successes and failures, how others have treated us and life events over which we have minimal control.
By disassociating from my negative thoughts over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to actively engage with my self-conception. I’ve been searching my past for events that have significantly influenced me while also using affirmations to redirect my self-vision. Two insights have led me in this process.
The first insight stemmed from my daily mindfulness meditation practice. An important part of the practice is the ability to recognize thoughts without identifying with them, and choosing to refocus attention back on the breath. When meditators realize they are getting distracted by their thoughts, they label them “thinking,” “self-doubt,” “future to-dos,” “jealousy” and so on; then they refocus on the breath. By labeling them and choosing to focus on the breath, the meditator distances themselves from their thoughts.
This brings me to the first insight: I can detach my thoughts from my self-conception. For example, I realized just because I had a thought, such as “I’m not good enough,” it didn’t mean I had to identify with it. A pretty simple realization, right? But we’ll see its power in a moment.
The second insight comes from “The Artist’s Way”. It provides weekly exercises to help the reader nurture and heal their creativity. In the first week of using the book, I excavated my past to find the roots of the beliefs I held about myself, my abilities and my motivations. The workbook asked me to break my past into five-year increments and recall specific instances within each time frame that had been memorable and formative, whether positive or negative.
An important aspect of this self-excavation is the idea that forgotten past experiences are often the roots of one’s self image and actions. Unfortunately, a lot of these experiences can be negative because of humans’ uncanny ability to over-focus on negativity. Sometimes these negative experiences perpetuate unconscious doubts and beliefs regarding the self.
This exercise helped me uproot self-incriminating beliefs through affirmations and gradual lifestyle changes. This leads to the second insight: The underlying beliefs, values and assumptions I hold about myself and the world can be re-directed, changed or abolished. Through this practice, I began to interact with the scaffolding that defines who I am. This comes with the implication that not questioning these underlying beliefs leads to not having a say in who I am becoming.
Once I connected these ideas and realized I had the power to question my thoughts, I was able to both separate my thoughts from my self-conception, label from where the self-doubt came and redirect my beliefs. Here’s how it went.
When I was at work, got stuck and had a thought of self-doubt, I would take a deep breath and think about how 1) I hadn’t even failed yet and 2) Even if I did fail, any single failure didn’t constitute who I was. I didn’t have to identify with the failure. I would remind myself of positive qualities I did want to identify with, like having grit, being optimistic and being resourceful.
I then incorporated self-excavation. I searched my past to find the roots of the monsters whispering in my ear, “You’re not good enough. You’re going to fail,” and identified they were connected with forgotten memories of a soccer coach being too hard on me in high school and older teammates telling me I wasn’t good enough to be on the team.
Labeling the roots of the issue really lightened my mindset on the subject. While at work, I had been worried I was failing and everyone else thought so too, but realizing “everyone” was really just thoughts floating around in my head that stemmed from past experiences helped me loosen the hold of these beliefs.
“I have important things to say.”
“I will move forward; I will land on my feet.”
“Being myself will lead to creative success.”
“Be calm; take one step at a time.”
These are a few of the affirmations I read aloud to myself every morning and whenever I felt overwhelmed throughout the day. Affirmations are one of the biggest steps I’ve been taking toward actively engaging with my self-conception.
Now, when I am at work and get overwhelmed, I’m able to stay positive, keep moving forward as best I can and disassociate myself from negative thoughts. Sure, I’ll fail sometimes. But failures are slowly becoming less of a personal problem than a pragmatic issue. It’s much easier to pick myself back up when I don’t identity with them.
The cool thing about this process is that it requires me to think about who I currently am, why I am that way and who I want to be. Disassociation between thought and self helps me to recognize which voices in my head I do and don’t want to listen to. Self-excavation helps me address issues I might otherwise ignore or run away from. Affirmations help me engage with myself in ways that lead to positive self-growth in directions I’ve explicitly determined. I believe this process can be used more widely, and to help others get on track toward happier lives, too.