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Self-perception can trap us in harmful behavior. Our past experiences create deeply held beliefs about ourselves. These beliefs can create barriers to changed behavior because our experiences are fundamental to our perceptions of “truth” in the world.
I can’t remember who said this quote, but I remember the quote because it so succinctly captured what I was seeing in the traumatized kids I work with, what I was learning in my neuroscience studies, and the truth in Scripture I had memorized; “Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:1-2).
How Do We Come To Believe What We Do?
Whether they are beliefs about God, yourself, or the world in general; you might be surprised to learn how much of your beliefs are based on your experiences rather than on any teaching you received. What we are taught will only be regarded as true to the extent that it is compatible with our reality or our own experience. It looks something like this:
For example, let’s say one day your mother is taking you for a walk in your stroller. Out of the blue the neighbor’s giant boxer jumps up on your stroller, barks, and tries to lick your face. Your body is designed to pick up all the accompanying sensations; the sound of the barking dog, the sight of it’s teeth showing, the feel of the tongue on your body, etc. What happens next is the key. In a process that is still not fully understood, our mind makes meaning out of this experience. Almost instantaneously your brain determines if this experience is pleasurable or threatening and releases the corresponding neurotransmitters; adrenaline for threat and dopamine for pleasure. How we understand our experience becomes our perception. If our perception is “Dogs are mean and scary”, we will feel fear. The next time we encounter a dog, we will probably try to avoid it. We might even say we hate dogs. People with dogs will not encourage their dogs to engage with us, and we will persist in our perception that dogs are mean.
On the other hand, if your perception was, “The doggy wants to play with me”, “Dogs are fun”, you will feel happy. The next time you encounter a dog you will attempt to pet it and play with it. It probably will play with you. This will further your perception that dogs are fun.
In short, our experiences create our perceptions which largely determine our behaviors. Our behaviors often create self-fulfilling feed-back loops that deepen our perceptions. What we think is profoundly important. Our thoughts impact what neurotransmitters get released and thus, our very brain chemistry. Our thoughts also determine our emotions. For example, it is neurologically impossible to think you are worthless and feel happy. Likewise, you cannot believe you are safe and loved and feel fear. And the vast majority of time our behaviors are driven by our emotions, whether we are aware of them or not. When was the last time you intentionally reached out to someone in whose presence you feel afraid? Or when did you lose your temper with someone to whom you feel great compassion?
Behavior is the Symptom
This is the problem with trying to bring about transformation in yourself or others by primarily focusing on behaviors. Behaviors are not the problem, but rather the symptoms of the problem. The root problem is our thinking. We often say that Jesus is really after our hearts and we see this in his many encounters with people. When we say that, we don’t mean that Jesus is trying to deal with a person’s physical heart and address their clogged arteries. Rather, we understand that He wants to get to the crux of the matter and deal with the core issue. The woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the tax collectors, the prodigal son; all had major sin behaviors. But when they encountered Jesus His concern seemed to be first and foremost that they knew and believed that He was the Son of God. Then He wanted them to experience and understand that as such He knew them, He knew everything about them and everything they were doing. And in spite of that, He loved and valued them, had the authority to forgive them, and the power to heal them. Then He invited them into a relationship with Him and a new way to live based on these truths. He was challenging their core perceptions of themselves, the world, and God.
Transforming the Mind
The Hebrew word for “heart” (Lev) is what we call the “mind” or “the will”. And this is why Scripture implores us to transform our minds. A huge misconception prevails in the church when we equate the “will” with behaviors instead of with the mind. This leads to beliefs that we can simply flip a switch, grit our teeth, try harder, and change our behaviors. I have not found that theory to be helpful in my own life or in any life of the many orphans, traumatized kids, or counseling clients I have seen over the last 30 years. When we understand that our “will” is actually connected to our minds, we get a lot more serious about transforming our minds.
The Lord tells us in Matthew 6:22-23; “The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore, the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” Again, Jesus is not concerned with our blue or brown eyes and whether or not we have cataracts, but rather with what we see. That is, our perception or understanding of reality. If our perception of ourself, the world, and God is based on truth, then our whole body will be full of light. Our very neurotransmitters and brain chemistry will be impacted. Our emotions will be able to find the peace that passes understanding (Phil. 4:6-8). Our will, our choices, our ability to love others will increase as we are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ for us and filled up to all fullness (Ephes. 3:16-19). We will be like cups so full of His love for us that we won’t need to act out of a desperation to get our own needs met. When our deepest needs are met by Him and His love, then we will be able to give to others out of our abundance and overflow.
But if what we see, our perception, is not based on truth, Scripture tells us the whole body will be full of darkness. Neuroscience supports this. People with perceptions of worthlessness and powerlessness are flooded with stress hormones that impact their emotions, physical health, behaviors, and relationships.
Understanding Your Self Perception
It is important to understand that most of our perceptions are subconscious. Our core perceptions or beliefs have been hard wired into us by the time we are three years old. Am I loved and valued? Is the world safe and predictable? Are people basically good and trustworthy? Do I have the power or ability to get my needs met? Is God a good, kind, faithful God? The most important things we believe become like the hard drive of our brain that is installed way before we develop conscious memory. These become the narratives on which we build our lives. This seems a bit unfair! If our minds and perceptions are formed from our experiences and we have been unfortunate enough to have had negative, abusive, or neglectful experiences, what are we to do?
Some Practical Tips
- Do an inventory. “Behold, Thou does desire truth in the innermost being. In the hidden part Thou will make me know wisdom.” (Ps. 51:6)
- “Search me O God and know my heart; Try me and tell me my anxious thoughts.” (Ps. 139:23) “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, Searching all the innermost parts of his being.” (Prov. 20:27)
- Journal. What do you really think about yourself? Are you valued? Loved? Worthy? Able to be forgiven? Have a purpose for your life? Belong somewhere? What do you really think about God? Is He good? Kind? Faithful? Predictable? Available? Interested in you? What do you really think about the world? Are you safe in it? Do you have the ability, know-how to get your needs met? What do you really think about relationships? People can/cannot be trusted? You can/cannot really be loved? They are unpredictable? Worth/not worth sacrificing for?
- Pay attention to your body. Take 5 minutes in the morning, afternoon, and before bed to just tune in to your body. Are you tense or relaxed? Is your heart rate elevated? Do you have headaches? Knots in your stomach? Knots in your neck? This will tune you in to your emotions. Do you feel peaceful? Happy? Anxious? Depressed? This helps you verify if you have understood your perceptions in “b” above correctly. Your perceptions and emotions should correspond. Your body will tell you the truth. If you think you feel secure and loved and purposeful your muscles will be relaxed. If you are aware you think you are powerless and incapable of receiving love your muscles will be tight, heart rate elevated, etc. If you have clearly identified your core perceptions go to #2. If you have not repeat steps “a” and “b”.
- Get In Scripture
- Study the Psalms or Bible characters to whom you can relate. What were their struggles in perceptions? How did God change them?
- Find Bible Study Guides to help you study certain characters like David, Gideon, Habbakuk, Jonah, Ruth, Peter or Paul.
- Wrestle with God as you seek to align your perceptions with the truths in His word.
- Ask the Lord to meet you on the way
- The Lord delights for us to taste and see that He is good, that He loves us, that He is for us. He knows that our perceptions are based on our experiences. He designed us that way. He knows that we cannot believe something we are taught if it does not line up with our reality. He longs to meet us and give us corrective experiences. Ask Him. “We have not because we ask not.” (James 4:2)
- Ask Him to open your eyes to what He is already showing you and ears to what He is saying to you.
- Pray for new experiences with safe people to correct your false perceptions
- Take slow, deliberate steps as you enter unchartered waters; learn how to discern who are safe people you can trust (if this is hard for you ask a trusted friend, pastor, or counselor).
- Ask the Lord for a mentor someone who can help walk this journey with you who is further down the road as a Jesus follower and in knowledge of truth especially in areas of our identity in Christ.
- Seek a counselor – Get the help you need.
Remember, “It’s impossible to live right if you believe wrong.”
Self Perception Resources:
- Some Kind of Crazy by Terry Wardle Personal testimony of profound brokenness and healing. www.Terrywardle.org
- https://slingstones.podbean.com/. Great podcasts and prayer guides for inner healing prayer.
- The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. Changing your narratives about God.
- A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller. Changing your narratives about God.
- Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Learning to develop safe and healthy relationships.
- Frientimacy by Shasta Nelson. How to develop new experiences, good and safe friendships.
- Seeing Yourself Through God’s Eyes by June Hunt. A 31-Day Interactive Devotional
- Matter of Mind by Kenneth M Heilman. A Neurologist’s view of brain-behavior relationships.