One morning, a little girl playing in a park threw a gum wrapper into a garbage can. She squealed with delight, then went in search of more garbage to throw away. Other passersby did the same. Soon, hundreds of people were looking for trash to throw into the can.

Were these especially conscientious citizens? Or was something else going on?

A group called “Fun Theory” had inserted a speaker into the trash can, making it sound like the garbage was falling a long way. As a result, pedestrians looked for random bits of garbage to drop into the receptacle just to hear the sound. Making throwing away garbage fun led to a crowd volunteering to pick up others’ litter.

Behavior on the surface often seems to have one cause when an entirely different factor is at play. Similarly, when it comes to deep unhappiness, we often think external events are to blame, even when internal factors have a stronger impact. One factor that’s often overlooked as a cause for unhappiness is survival strategy beliefs.

What is a survival strategy?

Survival strategies are beliefs we form to help us cope with the pain of negative beliefs about ourselves, people, or life. For example, if we have a belief such as “I’m not good enough,” we’ll often create a belief to make us feel OK, such as “What makes me good enough is pleasing others.”

How do survival strategy beliefs contribute to deep unhappiness?

Survival strategy beliefs make us happy when we are able to live up to them. When we have a survival strategy belief such as “What makes me good enough is achieving,” then we feel wonderful when we are achieving. But, when we don’t achieve in some important domain, we can feel down. And if that “failure” lasts for weeks or months, as in the case of long-term unemployment, it can even lead to depression. The one thing you need to prove you are OK is the one thing you cannot do. So you are unable to feel good about yourself.

Years ago, we had a client who was a well-dressed woman in her mid-forties. She was always praised for her beauty, but she received less and less of this praise through the years, and eventually, it petered out. She had gradually become more and more unhappy but couldn’t understand why. We discovered one of her beliefs was, “What makes me worthy is looking good.” Once this belief and other beliefs about herself, such as I’m not worthy, were eliminated, she no longer based her self-esteem on her looks. She still wanted to look her best, but the unhappiness about not getting the praise she used to get was lifted.

Roger was a man in his fifties whose entire life revolved around work, but he wanted to finally enjoy his free time, not always to have his mind on work. He said, “Other people look forward to weekends. But on weekends, I look forward to Monday.” His belief: “What makes me worthwhile is achieving.” After this belief was eliminated, he started to do things he hadn’t done in years, such as attending theater and reading novels. Roger wasn’t deeply unhappy, but his life had much greater joy after eliminating this belief and several others.

As you can see, survival strategies make us dependent on specific activities or specific types of praise to be happy. Once they are eliminated, we can find many more sources of happiness. The constraint is lifted. Life opens up. And if we’ve been deeply unhappy, the sun rises again.

But don’t people feel bad because something “bad” happened to them?

It seems that way, doesn’t it? We lose a job, we become unhappy. We are rejected by a lover, we become sad. We fail at reaching a goal, and we become disappointed. These negative feelings can spur us to take action to solve these problems. But when they lead to a spiral of negative thinking and feeling, often it’s because they triggered a negative belief about ourselves, and our survival strategy for coping with it is no longer working. If we aren’t able to get that strategy working again, we’ll feel worse and worse until we are deeply unhappy.

Summary

  • Survival strategies are beliefs that help us cope with the pain of negative beliefs about ourselves, people, or life.
  • When a survival strategy belief fails to help us feel better over a long enough period, we can become deeply unhappy.
  • It may seem like a “bad event” caused the negative feelings, but the real culprit is the failure of an old strategy to make us feel OK.

Our survival strategy beliefs are a bit like marionette strings. They direct our behavior and feelings without us even knowing about them. They threaten us with danger if we fail and give the promise of lasting happiness if we succeed. Of course, both messages are illusions. By trashing these beliefs, these illusions are shattered. And fewer things will have the power to plunge us into deep unhappiness and despair.


How to Eliminate the 19 Beliefs That Stop You from Taking Action

When you set a challenging goal, does a little voice creep in, asking, “Can I really do this?”  Do you get a little nervous, worried you’ll fail in some way?  Do you feel that you are not really moving ahead with full force but instead are driving with the brakes on?

When that inner voice of doubt is silenced, and you feel truly confident, you take action.  You follow through.  You feel like a train moving at full steam ahead with nothing in your way but the air.  Life becomes an adventure.

How do we get to this place of living free of the inner doubts that plague so many of us?

One answer is the Natural Confidence Program.

When we’re learning to walk, we keep trying no matter how often we fall.  And we fall hundreds of times.  Yet somehow, along the way, we learned to give up after just a few dozen tries. We doubt ourselves.  We learned to hesitate.  We may even have learned not to risk at all.  When you eliminate the beliefs in this program, you’ll find that you reclaim the confidence we were all born with.  You reclaim your persistence.  You reclaim the optimism of a child.

See for yourself here: http://www.NaturalConfidenceProgram.com

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