Why are so many of us “driven” compulsively to seek or do things that frequently aren’t in our own best self-interest?
You probably aren’t surprised that my answer is: beliefs. But there is a specific type of belief that results in “driven” behavior. And it is formed in a very specific way. Let me explain.
Imagine you are a young child who has created a host of negative beliefs about yourself or about life. (Very few of us escape childhood without forming a bunch of negative self-esteem beliefs. I’ll explain why in a future blog.) At this point you are in school, interacting with lots of other kids and adults. It dawns on you that you are going to grow up and will have to make your own way in life. You are confronted with a real dilemma, albeit an unconscious one: “How will I make it in life if there’s something fundamentally wrong with me or the world?”
Imagine the fear and anxiety you must feel when you experience these two conflicting “facts”: On one hand, you sense that you must make it on your own in life. On the other hand, you have concluded that “There’s something fundamentally wrong with me or life that will make it difficult, if not impossible, to make it on my own.”
Fear and anxiety are unpleasant and painful feelings, so children who have them try to find ways of not feeling them. In tens of thousands of sessions with clients, I’ve discovered that people have two basic ways of dealing with the unpleasant feelings that are caused by negative self-esteem beliefs:
First, they use alcohol, drugs, sex, food, or other substances to cover up the feelings and numb themselves or to make themselves feel good.
Second, they develop strategies that help them deal with the anxiety that stems from their negative beliefs. I call them “survival strategies” because the fear one experiences when one has negative self-esteem beliefs often makes one feel as if his survival is being threatened.
When a survival strategy is formed, the child also forms a belief about that strategy:
“What makes me good enough (or important, or worthwhile, etc.) is ….” A variation of that is: “The way to survive is ….”
Survival strategies are based on a child’s observation of what it takes to feel good about herself, to be important, to be worthwhile, or to be able to deal with life in spite of negative self-esteem beliefs.
Susan’s parents placed a heavy emphasis on friendships, on what others thought of them, and on impressing people, so Susan concluded that the way to survive was to get everyone to like and approve of her.
Fred formed a similar belief in a different way: When he got praise and acknowledgement from his parents he really felt good about himself, in a way he normally didn’t. So he concluded what made him good enough and important was having people think well of him.
Here’s Lauren’s story: She noticed that people treated her dad with respect and admiration because he had been so successful in business and had so much money, so Lauren concluded that what made her important and good enough was being financially successful.
Art lived in a community where the people who were considered important and given respect were in gangs and carried guns, so he chose that as his survival strategy.
(By the way, one way to know if you have negative self-esteem beliefs is to ask yourself: What makes you good enough [or important, or worthwhile, etc.]? When you answer anything other than: “Nothing,” it becomes clear that you need whatever you answered in order to be okay.)
Once you decide that a positive sense of yourself is “because of” anything, you’ve created a lifelong problem. For example, if you believe the only way to be good enough is to be wealthy and have a big house, your sense of worth is linked to those conditions. If you aren’t wealthy and don’t have a big house, you are forced to face your belief that you’re not good enough, which produces anxiety. Moreover, even if your survival strategy is achieved, there’s the danger of losing it. Total disaster is always just around the corner for you. Life becomes a sea of anxiety, in which you are constantly struggling to meet the conditions you have made for being good enough. Your self-esteem is always in question.
Tom, an executive in a Wall Street firm, earns over $200,000 a year. His core belief is I don’t matter, and his survival strategy belief is: “What makes me worthwhile is being seen as important by others.” As a result, Tom becomes anxious whenever a new person gets hired, or a colleague wins praise, or he isn’t included in a meeting, or his boss doesn’t acknowledge him after he’s completed a project.
Miriam has the survival strategy belief: “What makes me acceptable is being beautiful.” For most of her life, she has lived comfortably with that belief. Her beauty earned her quite a bit of attention, admiration, and even love. But now Miriam is approaching fifty, and she’s frightened. The march of time is threatening to rob her of the one thing that she believes makes her acceptable. She has become increasingly depressed; every time a man fails to look at her admiringly, she has a deep feeling of not being okay.
One consequence of being run by survival strategy beliefs is that instead of living out of choices and pleasure—doing things because you want to do them—you do them primarily to survive (to feel okay about yourself). You experience your survival as dependent on the success of your survival strategy. The need to fulfill the terms of your survival strategy dominates your life.
Someone once said, “You can never get enough of what you never really wanted in the first place.” That’s an excellent description of trying to live using survival strategies to compensate for negative self-esteem beliefs. Once you say you’re not worthwhile just the way you are, no amount of accomplishment or praise will provide the unconditional sense of self-esteem you want and need.
People who have beliefs that are indicative of low self-esteem are not just criminals or drug addicts or unsuccessful people or those who suffer from deep depression. Many people with low self-esteem are visibly successful, living in nice homes with stable families. What distinguishes people is not their self-esteem beliefs, but their survival strategies—the ways they cope with a negative sense of themselves.
Although the dysfunctional behavior that people exhibit is usually a direct result of their survival strategy beliefs, the energy that drives the survival strategies is the underlying negative self-esteem. We don’t want to have to acknowledge the negative self-esteem belief (it’s too scary), so we do whatever it takes to manifest the survival strategy belief. That’s why the underlying self-esteem should be eliminated before the survival strategy belief.