Beliefs sculpt reality. They shape how we see ourselves in the world — sometimes as masters of destiny, other times as victims of fate. With the right beliefs, we achieve the near impossible. However, with limiting beliefs, we almost always hinder our growth.
The power of beliefs is instantaneous. Notice what happens when you voice the phrase,
“I cannot be free.”
What effect does it have on your body? What images or memories arise? What feelings emerge?
Now notice what happens when you voice the phrase,
“I can be free and independent.”
Say it several times. Notice how your body reacts, the images or memories brought forth, and what you feel.
If you believe you cannot be free, acknowledging your freedom may feel a bit scary. Hopefully, there is also a sense of possibility, if not aliveness, as well.
Using beliefs to alter body states and emotions is called top-down conditioning, which relies on cognitive schemas to direct attention and organize experience. Cognitive schemas are thought to be innate processes that are shaped through our interactions with the world. They direct our focus towards what we need to survive and guide development. For instance, as social beings humans we are born with an innate expectation of being part of community. Thus we are born with cognitive schemas that lead us to seek information in the environment which will ensure belonging in the group.
In the modern world, our family is typically the first group we attempt to belong to. Through interactions with caregivers, we shape ourselves and worldview to fit the relationships we find ourselves in, adapting in ways that increase the likelihood of being accepted and cared for. The content of cognitive schemas, including beliefs, develop out of this process of adaptation.
However, in the first eighteen months of life the human capacity for cognitions is nonexistent. Instead, infants create the foundation for the subsequent development of beliefs through their bodies. As infants, we orient our heads in the direction towards the door that we learn our caregiver will enter. We learn that reaching out our arms increases the likelihood we will be picked up. Or we don’t learn these behaviors. Perhaps our caregiver is depressed and doesn’t pick us up much. When arms are outstretched, no one is there. This too teaches about the behaviors that will ensure belonging. Infants are born malleable so they can adapt to the conditions they find themselves in.
As the infant grows into a toddler and the capacity for cognitions begins to develop, beliefs about oneself and the world also emerge. Some of these beliefs are derived from earlier body-based memories. Other beliefs arise from new experiences. Most remain unarticulated, nevertheless shaping how we perceive ourselves in relation to our world.
According to Pat Ogden, the founder of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, there are certain beliefs that are part of healthy development. These include:
I have a right to exist.
I am wanted.
I am supported.
My needs can be met.
I have a right to get help.
I can be free and independent.
I am entitled to my own feelings and thoughts.
Both my love and my sexuality are accepted.
I can be loved for myself, regardless of how I perform. 
Such beliefs contribute to resiliency, self-respect, healthy connections with others, and a sense of possibility. They also organize our bodies. For example, a person who believes she has a right to help is more likely to feel comfortable physically reaching out to another, whereas someone who doesn’t feel she has this right might slump her shoulders and divert her eyes even when she needs support, since she has learned not to anticipate people will be there when she needs them.
According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, childhood adversity increases the likelihood of sexual abuse later in life. The ACE study began at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, CA. Patients were surveyed about their childhood experiences and whether they experienced the following: emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, witnessing their mother being battered, someone in the household who abused substances, someone with mental illness in household, parental separation or divorce, and/or an incarcerated household member. All of these experiences increase the likelihood that the child did not have the kind of attention and support that fosters secure attachment, and thus the healthy beliefs Ogden identified.
ACE scores are derived from the number of adversities experienced during childhood. For women with an ACE score of zero, and thus no history of adverse childhood experiences, only 5 percent had been raped in adulthood. However, for women whose ACE score were four or greater, 33 percent had been raped as adults.  Even when sexual abuse does not occur in childhood, if multiple adverse experiences were present, we may nevertheless fail to develop the healthy beliefs and behaviors necessary for protecting ourselves from harm.
I am not implying any girl, adolescent, or woman is ever to blame for sexual abuse. Yet the reality is, if we want to reduce the likelihood of sexual abuse, we have to get better about protecting ourselves and each other. According to a metanalysis of programs developed to deter and end violence against women, the most promising approaches depend on empowering victims and providing needed support in their homes and in their work places.
We continually develop new beliefs throughout our lives, although those first beliefs tend to stay with us, framing how we perceive ourselves and react to the world. We project these initial beliefs, which were made to ensure belonging to a handful of people — a caregiver or two, grandparents, maybe siblings — on every subsequent relationship and community we encounter. Those early beliefs also include gender expectations and attitudes toward sexuality that may complicate efforts to recover from sexual abuse.
Healthy beliefs about sexuality include:
My sexuality is accepted.
My body is mine to express freely.
I can both love and be sexual with the same person.
Unhealthy beliefs about sexuality include:
Sex is not okay.
I have to give sex to get love.
My sexuality is for my partner.
I don’t have the right to say no.
These two different sets of beliefs lead to radically different thoughts, relationship patterns, and ways of living in one’s body.
Beliefs also change in response to sexual abuse and new beliefs are developed. According to Francine Shapiro, traumas like sexual abuse tend to influence beliefs about safety, choice, and responsibility.  In response to sexual abuse, there is a likelihood of believing one cannot be safe, is powerless, or is to blame for what happened. Such beliefs become obstacles to reducing posttraumatic stress and symptoms such as depression and dissociation.
Fortunately, there are several ways to change beliefs, whether they arise from early development or the trauma of sexual abuse. Prominent ways of working with beliefs include 1) mindful reframing and 2) studying the relationship between beliefs and the other core organizers to shift how you organize experience. The following are examples from Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy:
Addressing magical thinking. According to Ogden, we often rely on developmental beliefs in circumstances that result in “infantile logic.”  We’re thinking like the child we were rather than assessing our current situation from an adult frame of reference. We all do this periodically. Humans regress. Perhaps it’s our nature. Yet when it comes to recovering from traumas like sexual abuse, magical thinking can potentially be dangerous. For example, if early in life you developed the belief “I don’t have a right to say no,” and this belief is activated in response to the potential for sexual revictimization, there is less likelihood you’ll take protective actions.
Addressing magical thinking takes commitment, time, and mindfulness. The cognitive schemas directing attention and organizing experience are not always easily discerned. You have to purposefully ask what you may be holding true about yourself and the world that no longer serves who you are becoming. Sometimes this is done by identifying the belief that keeps you stuck in the past, like “I don’t have the right to say no.” Other times, it’s more helpful looking for the missing piece — the belief that would support becoming the person you desire to be, such as “I always have the right to say no.” This process is supported by noticing how changing beliefs alters emotions and body states.
Sometimes new beliefs, such as believing you have the right to assert boundaries, can feel unsettling despite that they lead to growth. You may even experience grief when you realize you lacked a belief needed at a crucial juncture in your life. Unfortunately, painful emotions are sometimes part of meaningful change.
Address limbic logic. This is another idea from Ogden, which points out we tend to believe what our bodies tell us. If we feel unsafe, we think we are unsafe. Such beliefs can be reframed by identifying what in your body, emotions, and thoughts suggest you are unsafe, although sometimes a sense of safety must be established before reflecting on experience. To do this, while holding awareness that there isn’t any danger (for example, by mindfully scanning your environment), use an exercise from the Window of Tolerance Guide to bring yourself back into the window of tolerance and feeling safe. Verbalizing “I am safe” may also be helpful.
If you feel you would benefit from working with beliefs developed either in early life or in response to sexual abuse, I recommend seeing a therapist trained in sensorimotor psychotherapy in your area. The Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute website has a page devoted to referrals. Psychotherapists with at least Level II training would be able to support you in this work.
Questions to ponder: Revisit the list of healthy beliefs above. Do you hold some of these beliefs? Are there any you would like to hold about yourself? Are there any other beliefs you would like to develop? Similarly, look at the healthy beliefs about sexuality. Are some of these your beliefs? Are there any other beliefs you would like to foster about your sexuality? What changes do you imagine you might make in your life if you revise some of your fundamental beliefs about yourself?
See you next week,
- Ogden, Pat. (2007). Training for the treatment of trauma. Boulder, CO: Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, pp. 1-2.
Kolk, Bessel van der. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking, p. 146.
Ogden, p. 253.
Ibid., p. 255.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).