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  • EMDR, Negative Self Beliefs, Negative Family Mottoes

    In this blog I am exploring some complex ways in which human suffering and trauma can occur. I am exploring ways that negative family mottoes can become personal negative Self beliefs. Using examples throughout, I am exploring some complexities and subtleties on how negative Self beliefs and negative family mottoes can develop and then negatively affect a person. As a trained and experienced EMDR therapist I naturally believe EMDR therapy to be one of the best tools out there to help for negative Self beliefs that result from these complex traumas.

    At the end of the blog I will lead you in a short self care/play exercise. Please don’t skip to the end though. You will get the fullest benefit of my work if you read through the ideas I am exploring on what might be some of the roots of your complex sufferings and traumas. So, let’s explore: EMDR, Negative Self Beliefs, and Negative Family Mottoes

    EMDR and Negative Self Beliefs

    One of the many powerful ways EMDR therapy can help is by changing negative Self beliefs (e.g. “I’m not good enough”) into positive and empowering Self beliefs (e.g. “I am good enough”). However, rather than attempting to directly change your negative Self beliefs, EMDR aims to help you change by healing you right at the source/root of the problem. In other words, negative Self beliefs usually have their roots somewhere, and in EMDR for negative Self beliefs we explore what those roots are, or what is feeding your negative Self beliefs in the first place.

    EMDR Therapy and Negative Self Beliefs

    Some people are quite aware of their negative Self beliefs. They can tell you their top 1, 3, their top 5, top 10, and perhaps even their top 25 negative statements they believe about themselves. “I’m not good enough.” “I have to please people.” “I’m not smart.” “I did something wrong.” “I am stupid.” “I’m a failure/I always fail.” “I’m ugly.” “I should have done more” (see list of negative Self beliefs at end of this blog). And those might be only the ones they are aware of and/or the ones they see as negative.

    However, for other people, negative Self beliefs can be hard to detect. People often don’t have awareness of their negative Self beliefs until they start seeing patterns that are incongruent with evidence. For example: You may not feel smart and might often think to yourself, “I am not smart,” but when you pause briefly and look around your life, the evidence does not appear to support this negative Self belief. In fact, you might even be surprised when you do well in that essay, that exam, or when you have a good idea that’s received well at work. You may almost feel like “I don’t know how that happened, but I know I’m not that smart.”

    Maybe there’s that critical voice that says, “yes, but you faked it. You were just an imposter.” Those negative Self beliefs can feel so strong! And Real! And yet, objective truth is that, if you were able to fake it, you were also able to make it. Meaning, it was you in the first place who did this amazing thing that was done here, albeit in your experience, you did it fakingly. This negative Self belief can run so deep that it can at first be hard to even fully comprehend what this means. The words make sense, and the logic is there, but it’s completely incongruent with your experience. And yet regardless of it all, objective truth is and remains that you are the one who did this good thing, had this good idea, it came from you. Your body. It’s really who you are. It’s the truth.

    EMDR and Negative Self Beliefs: A Felt Sense

    It’s quite common for people to experience negative Self beliefs more through a felt sense, or an experience, or just a feeling, rather than verbal, intellectual/cognitive awareness. In other words, negative Self beliefs are sometimes more of a lived experience and less of a verbal experience. You may know what the negative Self belief feels like long before you know the words to describe the experience/feeling. This might look like an internal discomfort for which you don’t currently have the words, and/or more like a feeling of chronic overwhelm. What you are aware of is that it constantly makes you feel uneasy and uncomfortable.

    When Negative Self Beliefs Feel Like Truth

    Another way people might experience negative Self beliefs is that the Self belief is not perceived as a negative Self belief, but rather, simply as objective truth. For example: If the message in your house growing up—whether explicit or implicit—is that you can never get it right or what you do/who you are is never good enough, this shapes your nervous system, and therefore your body, to form and over time deepen Self beliefs like “I’m not good enough,” “there’s something wrong with me,” “I am not worthy,” and so on. As you age and grow up, you start living into this negative Self belief, and your entire system starts believing this more and more deeply. Over time your behaviour starts to reflect this negative Self belief in your life. This might look like you not living your full personal and professional potential, because you are being held back by the negative Self belief of “I am not good enough…” for that job, that partner, respect from others, that lower stress life, that hobby, that regular workout, that friendship, that university or college, that leadership position at work. Or perhaps for you it is simply “I am not good enough,” not for certain specifics but rather, “who I am is not good enough.”

    How Negative Self Beliefs Can Form

    Negative Self beliefs can be the result of many different types of hard life experiences and traumas. Let’s look at a short list of examples:

    • Fat shaming leading to negative experienced Self beliefs such as “fat people are less lovable than skinny people” or “skinny people are more attractive than fat people”
    • Sexual trauma leading to negative experienced Self beliefs such as “I am dirty” or “I am shameful”
    • Bullying leading to negative experienced Self beliefs such as “I am not lovable” or “I am worthless”
    • Frequent criticism leading to negative experienced Self beliefs such as “I am not good enough” or “I am inadequate”
    • Struggling in school leading to negative experienced Self beliefs such as “I am not smart” or “I am stupid”
    • Gaslighting (e.g. blaming you for their failings; or turning things on you and telling you it’s somehow clearly your fault that you are suffering) leading to negative experienced Self beliefs such as “I am crazy” or “I did something wrong here” or “I am bad” or “I did this to myself”

    Let’s look at an example more closely so we can gain a better understanding of how negative Self beliefs can form.

    Negative Family Mottoes

    Negative statements that are frequently repeated by one or more caretakers often become a sort of negative motto in the family that some members will live into more deeply than others, but every member is affected by these negative mottoes in one way or another. Siblings might use them against each other, not because they naturally hate each other, but because each sibling’s nervous system was programmed by these negative mottoes to think and behave in this way.

    In other words, negative family mottoes can become akin to a collectively-held negative family belief that’s carried, in one way or another, by each family member. Members can’t not be affected by them. Each member carries a piece of the negative motto. Members are often at opposing ends of the negative motto, leading to significant and often chronic pain and disturbance for at least one, and often both, members.

    For example: Due to negative family mottoes on issues like parental control, sex, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, etc., family member H has a privilege/advantage over family member Y. In this family, H’s privilege automatically grants H more power and control than Y can ever have. H has this power solely due to this privilege, and Y has the disadvantage solely because Y does not have this privilege. This places these members at opposing ends of a negative belief around power and control. Members will experience this power differential through a version of either “I have power/control over you,” or, “I can’t have any power/control.”

    Family Mottoes

    Family mottoes are powerful statements of core values the family holds. If these statements, or mottoes, are usually positive and uplifting, members in this family will tend to believe positive things about themselves and the world. However, the opposite is also true of family mottoes tend to be negative.

    Let’s look at this complicated example: If your family frequently says, “you are smarter than others your age,” at the deepest levels, one part of this statement is meant to be manipulative. To get you to work harder for better grades in school. It’s meant to say, “you should be/I want you to be smarter than others your age.” “I want to expedite your maturity beyond your age.” It’s meant to make you please.

    And there’s nothing wrong with encouraging a child to work hard in school, but the same motto can be stated as a negative motto (i.e. by comparing, in this case), or as a simple, positive statement.

    Think about it: The same statement could be said in, “you are very smart.” No comparison needed in order to make that a powerful statement entirely on it’s own.

    Epigenetics and Nervous System

    For the examples below we will imagine that your parents did not pass along any trauma, and your developing nervous system did not experience trauma in uterus. However, in reality epigenetics would suggest there is no flawless nervous system, since at some point every previous generation would have experienced, and passed on, complex traces of traumatic expression and memory.

    The Perfect Nervous System

    Now, imagine with me for a moment that your nervous system is the computer program running your hardware, the body. And imagine you are born a perfectly healthy child, with a flawless computer program/nervous system, perfectly and completely aligned with the Self.

    Now imagine those negative family mottoes get expressed, whether through a certain look, silence, or verbally, over and over again to that at first healthy, young, developing nervous system. This process slowly starts to hijack this flawless computer program. It starts to fragment (scatter) the computer program. Due to this fragmentation, inefficiency sets in, and parts of your memory/brain are no longer communicating vital data to each other. This is why, after some time, each negative motto can start to feel like an isolated statement. They are all fragmented. Scattered. This is because your body is attempting to reduce the impact these negative mottoes have on you. It’s the body’s way of helping you cope. This is a protective evolutionary function that helps you survive hard and traumatic experiences.  It helps the entire organism/You to function, albeit inefficiently. Survival is ultimately always key.

    Disturbing Nervous System Feedback Loop Causing Inefficiency

    When the nervous system gets hijacked by these harm-full negative family mottoes, this also starts a disturbing feedback loop for the brain. It’s like parts/fragments of you are in conflict with each other. Your body is still trying to protect you (as it always has and always will), and yet some parts can be so hard on you. Different parts/fragments are in conflict with each other. We are not really speaking to each other too well upstairs/in the brain.

    It’s like these parts are not speaking each other’s language. There is too much noise and not sufficient meaning-making in the isolation. And, because nothing gets resolved in isolation, chaos continues. The upstairs literally becomes a bit of an echo chamber, leaving you feeling half uneasy on the inside all of the time, without the information, or data, that goes with that gut-level uneasy sense/experience you’re having.

    Deciphering the Codes and Language of the Upstairs Echo Chamber

    The same fragmentation process named above is also part of the reason you struggle to make sense of many of your early life experiences. The reason you sometimes felt so icky inside without having words for the experience. The reason it was so hard to decipher what was real and what wasn’t.

    For example: If one of your parents frequently repeated negative mottoes to you about the other parent (e.g. your other parent “didn’t want you,” “left me to raise you by myself,” “it’s hard for me on my own, you know, you need to be nicer to me,” “I gave you a roof over your head”), you may feel that one of your parents was particularly “good” and one of your parents was particularly “bad.” Negative and untrue mottoes about the other parent can make it nearly impossible for you to see the whole picture and truly make up your own mind about the other parent, based on your experience with them. In other words, it’s entirely possible that the fragmentation process made it difficult for you to recognize how things really were. Maybe it’s possible that the good parent/bad parent was actually reversed, or maybe the good parent wasn’t as good as they are remembered. It all feels so confusing. Almost a bit crazy-making. That’s because it is indeed all so fragmented in your body. The computer program is literally being hijacked. One. Expressed. Negative. Family. Motto. At. A. Time. It happens very slowly, drip, drip, drip, over a long period of time.

    EMDR for Negative Self Beliefs and Family Mottoes

    In simplified terms, in EMDR for negative Self beliefs and negative family mottoes we work towards restoring this access so that each upstairs department can start to communicate with each other again. That is, we work towards defragmentation. And once defragmentation has been accomplished through EMDR for negative Self beliefs, the system can resume speaking to each other again, which allows your entire system to make informed decisions about life once again. This time, decisions that are YOUR own. The career YOU always wanted and can still have. The simple life YOU always wanted. The business YOU always wanted to start.

    When Negative Family Mottoes Become Your Own Negative Self Beliefs

    Over time, negative family mottoes can become chronic negative personal Self beliefs for one or more of the children who grow up in this environment. It’s like your nervous system literally gets programmed by these negative Self beliefs and mottoes, and your body begins to believe a version of the negative Self beliefs for itself.

    Negative family mottoes originate from a source other than yourself. Somewhere in a previous generation (your direct caretakers or earlier), these statements were started by person One. In other words, this was ONE parent or caretaker’s original negative Self belief. This person then started their own family and brought this negative Self belief into their own family, where it then took root in their children, then in their children’s children, and so on. In other words, this negative Self belief was strong enough to negatively affect person One’s own children, and unless a later generation interrupts this cycle, this negative Self belief can carry on for generations.

    Let this sink in for a moment: The reality is that these negative Self beliefs were never your personal negative Self beliefs in the first place. They could actually personally belong to your great-great-great-great-grandparent! Maybe they even go back 100, 600, or maybe even 2000 years, carried via religion and culture (e.g. all-loving God up there’s always watching you and seeking to punish your every wrong move). Crazy, right?  This is one of the reasons they feel so confusing and chaotic to you. They are not yours. And yet, they can affect you in very complex and negative ways in every aspect of your life, throughout your entire life.

    Your Family’s Negative Self Beliefs

    Pause for a moment right now and think about this: What were some of your family’s negative Self beliefs and negative mottoeswhether verbal or implicit? About how life works. About money. Sex. Relationships. Education. Gender. Sexuality. Religion. The end of the world. YOU. What were some of the negative things that were frequently referred to in one way or another?

    Self Care Exercise

    Let’s look a bit more closely at an example of a negative family motto, how complicated negative family mottoes can be, and then I will lead you in a brief self-care exercise.

    Negative family motto: “You are smarter/more mature/more responsible than others your age.”

    Sounds so innocent, right? So complementary. Or is it?

    Maybe that’s one of the major reasons you have always felt so overly responsible.

    Maybe you, like the rest of us, liked/needed words of affirmation when you were little, and child-you noticed that adults liked it when you acted maturely. It pleased them. It felt good when adults offered words of affirmation. And who wouldn’t want that, right?

    Maybe that’s the reason you so often feel like you need to please people. Even now still.

    Maybe those words literally never allowed you to be young.

    Child-you deserved to be young.

    To be a child.

    Child-you deserved to play.

    The child within still deserves to play.

    It’s true.


    Play Exercise

    Ok, let’s be a bit playful. Let’s give the little one inside some time. And space. It don’t matter how old or young you are today. There is no age limit on play!

    Maybe you want to be bold and giggle a bit. Just make your body laugh for a bit, you know. See if an artificially-induced laughter can lead to a bit of organic laughter. How amazing would that be!

    Maybe you want to puzzle a bit.

    Maybe take a long hot shower like you used to when you were much littler.

    Right…, you liked naps when you were little. Can you take a short nap? Or a long one? Actually, who really cares. Got a few minutes right now? Go for it. Long, or short. Just lean in.

    Yep, there it is, you’re doing it!

    But then I knew you could. And would. It’s who you are.

    It feels hard to get started. I know.

    And…, you know it will feel good, or maybe only better, once you’re in it. You know of what I speak 🙂

    Lean in. Right now.

    Pick up a lovely book to read, and then lean against a tree to read just like when you were little. Don’t have a tree growing in your house :)? Too cold to go outside right now? Middle of the night right now? No problem. Be a bit silly. Roll up a blanket and lean it against the wall, then sit down with a book while leaning against your “tree” and then briefly or longly imagine you’re back under that tree where you always felt safe and calm.

    Can you close your eyes briefly? Rest for a bit?

    It takes time. Sometimes.

    Now from me to you, the gentlest “you can do this. You got this. Lean in. You’re doing so well. You’re doing it.”

    Give it a chance. Right now.

    When you were little you loved walks. Go for a short walk. Or a long one. Long. Or short. Actually, who really cares. Seriously. Who really gives a damn. It don’t have to be long. Or short.

    Close your eyes and stretch a bit. Even if you are seated. Stretch your body a bit.


    Smile a bit. Artificially. Then giggle a bit. Even if you don’t feel like it. Lean in anyways.

    Always gently.

    Always compassionately.

    Always play-fully.

    Always. Always. Always: Lovingly.

    Give it a go.

    Lean in.

    You deserve it. Truly.


    Go have some play-time. Allow yourself to be the age you feel for a moment, and then come back to read the rest of this post. There’s lot’s here already to digest anyways. Go now, but do come back please 🙂


    Continue Here After Play-time

    If you find that you’d like some support to process or you need to talk to someone, please reach out to a therapist in your local area. Find a local EMDR therapist and give EMDR a try. Reach out to us if you’re in Manitoba you’d like to book an appointment with one of our warm and compassionate therapists.

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    Examples of Negative Family Mottoes

    • You are lazy
    • You are not trying hard enough
    • You are fat
    • You’re too sensitive
    • You will never amount to much
    • You’re so dramatic
    • You’re the rebellious one
    • You’re attention-seeking
    • You’re the peacekeeper in the family
    • You are the smart/dumb one in the family
    • You are the joker in the family. The entertainer
    • You’re just like that aunt/uncle/relative
    • If only you weren’t so…
    • You are too much/not enough
    • You were a difficult, maybe even defiant, child
    • What will people think/say
    • People who need help are weak
    • You are better than that
    • You are needy
    • You are stubborn
    • Our family is less than/better than…
    • One parent repeatedly making the same derogatory comments about the other parent, the intent being to isolate you from the other parent
    • This one’s often not spoken but everyone in the family just knows that, if it’s not practical/useful, it’s useless, or a waste of time (e.g. play, rest, making art, listening to or making music, sleep, etc.)

    Examples of Negative Self Beliefs

    • I can’t tolerate/handle this
    • I am responsible
    • I am worthless/inadequate
    • I am not good enough
    • I am different / I don’t belong
    • I can never get what I need/want/desire
    • I have to be right
    • I am undeserving
    • I am helpless
    • I should have done something
    • I am not lovable / I’m unlovable
    • I can’t/shouldn’t forgive myself
    • I did something wrong
    • Who I am is wrong
    • I should have known better
    • I cannot tryst myself and my judgment
    • I am powerless
    • I always mess things up
    • I’m a failure / I will fail
    • I have to be perfect
    • I have to please people
    • I am permanently damaged
    • I cannot stand up for myself
    • I can’t/shouldn’t be powerful
    • I will not succeed
    • Everything is always my fault
    • I’m the problem child

    You Are Appreciated Today

    Thanks so much for reading. And playing. You did so well today. Truly.

    My hope is that your choice to invest time in this space was a positive contribution to your healing and growth regardless of the reason(s) that brought you to my blog on this day.

    You is amazing.

    You is kind.

    You is wonderful.

    You is uniquely and wonderfully. You.

    Just, You.

    May you be well. Today, tomorrow, and the tomorrow after tomorrow. And every tomorrow after all your future tomorrows.

    And when the going gets tough, which sadly will happen I must say, lean in the best you can anyway.

    Your best is always good enough.

    You, are always good enough.

    You are always, enough.

    May you be well. Always.

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