No one, no matter how independent he may consider himself to be, is free of the beliefs and prejudices he absorbed as a child. Unfortunately, many of these beliefs may now be holding you back. After all, just because you are physically free of a bad neighborhood or a dysfunctional family, that does not mean you are psychologically free. On the contrary, many people go through life blinkered and restrained by the beliefs they learnt when young.
Liberation From What?
In his novel A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, James Joyce writes “when the soul of a man is born… there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.” Joyce was, of course, writing about early 20th century Ireland, with its oppressive Church and Nationalist politics. But he really spoke for everyone. Children are like little sponges who soak up the fears and obsessions of the adults in their life, often unconsciously.
Take national identity, for example. Were your family crudely nationalistic? Maybe you were never comfortable with your national identity but continue to claim a pride and loyalty you do not feel. Or maybe you were raised to hate a rival nation and its inhabitants. Again, you may not actually feel this hatred. Remember, you are not honor-bound to hate the citizens of another culture merely because your parents or grandparents did.
The same is true of religion (which can be mixed up with nationalism of course, as in Joyce’s Ireland). Many people, especially when they leave the small community in which they were raised, find they leave their religious faith behind as well. Of course, this is not always so, and for many their faith remains a source of strength and comfort. The real problems arise when such beliefs restrict and suffocate people – like the Muslim woman who wishes to date outside her faith or the young man who loves science but cannot reconcile this with the Bible.
Class and politics can also form “nets” to hold you back. For example, the children of small town snobs tend to suffer a great deal in later life, alternating between a sense of social superiority and inferiority, which leaves them socially awkward and uncomfortable. Perhaps you often overheard your mother saying things like “oh, they wouldn’t mix with people like us,” or were told not to play with the children of poorer families. An obsession with class and social status can be terribly limiting, often trapping people in well-paid, respectable jobs that make them thoroughly miserable. Is it worth sticking out your hateful career in accounting, or your tedious law degree, when all you really want to do is make music and travel? And all to satisfy the petty snobbery you learnt from your family! If you spend your life trying to win acceptance from the social snobs your parents so admired, you will be a fake – and an unhappy one.
Politics can also limit and restrict. For example, the children of hardline socialists may become didactic and sanctimonious in later life, while the child of narrow-minded conservatives may grow intolerant, unimaginative, and dull.
Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. Analyze these assumptions. Do not underestimate the difficulty of this task, however. It can take courage to discard such things, especially if you loved and respected the people who instilled them in you. And it should be emphasized once again that you are not obliged to ditch these beliefs any more than you are obliged to hold on to them. Simply step back, subject everything to calm analysis, and discard anything you no longer believe in.
Uncovering Core Beliefs
Early experiences can leave people with deep-rooted, toxic beliefs about both themselves and other people. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists call these the “core” beliefs and devote a great deal of time to uncovering them. Such beliefs can influence every aspect of your life, from relationships to careers, and the worst of them need to be faced and discarded.
These core beliefs tend to be instilled by the two great institutions of childhood: family and school. For example, imagine a little boy whose mother considers the world a dark and unforgiving place filled with spite and cruelty. The child cannot help but absorb this world view, which then forms a core belief: that people are not to be trusted and that the world is best avoided. Later, he struggles with intimacy and finds it difficult to form lasting relationships – or even friendships. Or imagine a girl whose father is easily intimidated. To avoid confrontation her father became a “people pleaser,” doing all he could to soothe and placate others and thus avoid arguments. The girl begins to imitate this behavior, and for the rest of her life holds a deep-rooted belief that she must make people like her and avoid offending them.
School can also have a lasting impact. An unpleasant teacher who makes cutting and nasty remarks can leave a child convinced that she is stupid. This may not be true, but because she now expects to fail her exams or struggle in her career, she does. Bullying also leaves a terrible legacy. A child who is bullied may come to believe that everyone is basically nasty, cruel, and treacherous. Others will carry a deep-seated feeling that they are unloveable and doomed to constant rejection.
Setting Yourself Free
Before you can liberate yourself, you must first understand what is dragging you down and holding you back. You could even take a sheet of paper and put a series of headings: politics, religion, attractiveness, intelligence etc. and then list your beliefs about such things. You must also drive the message home that you do have the choice to let things go. Anyone can mumble that they are “over” something, but if they do not feel it deep inside, then such words are meaningless. Think of it as like holding a scaldingly hot mug of coffee. One day, a friend simply says “why not put it on the ground and leave it?”. Of course, it must be stressed once again that you needn’t ditch old beliefs simply because they are old. Not all change is for the better.
Once you have identified these beliefs, you can then challenge them. This isn’t always easy. Indeed, in the case of a religious faith it can be terrifying. At first there may be a sense of dizziness or nausea, as if the ground has gone from beneath your feet and you are adrift in a void. Liberating yourself from something familiar and safe can also lead to a sense of loneliness. Sharing the beliefs of the crowd and blindly following others is comfortable and easy. A man who ditches the socialist beliefs of his working class community, or the college student who rejects her parents’ religion, may feel outcast and alone. Even negative beliefs about oneself can feel safe and comfortable – after all, if you decide that you are not stupid or ugly after all, you may feel obliged to try something scary and new.
Once you have uncovered the beliefs that cause you harm and hold you back, you must replace them. If you are not in the habit of thinking for yourself, this may be difficult. But stick with it and you may find the process soon exhilarates and excites you. Always ask yourself what you think. Do not fool yourself into thinking that you are being original when you are in fact repeating things you have heard other people say.
The ultimate liberation is simply living as an individual. Most people feel inferior in some way and many spend their lives in awe of those who are tougher, braver, wittier, or better educated. But trying to be like someone else is guaranteed to end in failure. Even if you succeed you will merely be a pale imitation of someone else. Have the courage to be authentically you. Being your own person should in itself be enough.
So cultivate all that is unique, authentic, and good in you and refuse to allow others to define you in ways that suit them. Remember, people often derive their self-esteem from how they feel they compare to others. It is therefore in their interests to label, define, or box you in a way that makes them feel good about themselves (as “the quiet one”, for example, or “the sensible/ dull one”). This happens all the time, and it can take immense courage and strength to resist – especially when confronted by a strong personality.
Know who and what you truly are, deep inside. And understand what it is that is holding you back and preventing you from growing. You have a right to let go of old beliefs, whether they are political beliefs, religious beliefs, or simply beliefs about yourself and your limitations. As Oscar Wilde put it, “the aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for.” And that cannot take place unless you are psychologically, as well as physically, free.