We are All Prisoners of Our Unexamined Beliefs

“Think outside the box” has become a mindless cliché these days. So many people repeat it that the meaning has mostly been lost. In fact, most people are unaware they are in boxes, so they have no particular desire to think outside of one.

But most of us are boxed in by beliefs that have been programed into our brains by our culture, families, politics, and that guy at the library check-out desk when you were ten who told you those Nancy Drew books were “trash” and you’d never amount to anything if you didn’t read the classics.

Shaming Creates Beliefs we Fail to Examine

I think shamers like the anti-Nancy Drew guy are some of the most insidious bullies out there. That’s because you usually don’t even remember them. You have no memory of that day at the library. All you know is you feel guilty when you read books you enjoy — plus you have a secret, persistent fear that you’re never going to amount to anything.

Very often a belief you’re sure “everybody knows” has come from a random shamer who once made you feel bad because of your lack of knowledge of a particular subject. It may very well be that the shamer was even more ignorant than you, or just plain wrong, but his condescending or bullying tone made you accept his statement as fact. (Remember that the most ignorant people are usually the most confident.)

The problem is that you’ve never questioned this “information” because you don’t remember the particular incident that planted that belief in your head.

It’s just there. And you think “everybody knows” it’s true.

I once worked in a bookstore where the owner asked me to put a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry in the Romance section.

When I started to protest, she stopped me and said, “I know everybody thinks Emily Dickinson is trashy, but I love her.”

I said I loved her too and I thought the book belonged in Poetry or Literature, not Romance.

She laughed and said, “you’re worse than me!”

The discussion was over, and she made me put one of the world’s greatest poets in the section with the bodice-rippers and erotica.

“First Information” about a Subject Becomes Unexamined “Truth”

The only explanation I could think of for my boss’s behavior was that when she was quite young, some uneducated sexist moron had shamed her for loving Emily Dickinson’s poetry, so the “fact” Dickinson was trashy had become hardwired to her brain. No amount of reasoning could dislodge it. She couldn’t even hear what I said on the subject.

I say she was probably young when she heard this misinformation, because these unexamined beliefs are usually imprinted on our brains the first time we hear about a subject.

If the first time you hear about Emily Dickinson, you’re told she’s a major American poet, that’s what you will believe unless something big happens to dislodge that belief. But if the first time you hear about her, you’re told by an authoritative person (especially if they use a snarky or nasty tone) that Dickinson is “trash” you’ll believe that.

This belief becomes hardwired to your brain and a part of “who you are.” This means you’ll defend this belief as if you’re defending yourself or your family.

You don’t have to be a child when you first hear about something, but whatever you hear first about a subject — no matter what your age — will get filed in your brain as unquestionable fact if you don’t examine it or judge the source at the time of input.

For instance, if the first thing you hear about a political candidate is that he’s a successful businessman, no amount of proof that he’s a bankrupt failure will change your mind. In fact, every new piece of evidence will make you defend him more.

Researchers have discovered that when confronted with facts that negate their unexamined beliefs, most people will double down on those beliefs, rather than consider changing their minds.

So the schoolmarmish know-it-all in your first critique group who told you in a nasty tone of voice that only terrible writers use the word “was” may have trapped you forever in the mindset that “was” is a taboo word. You believe that “everybody knows” using the word “was” is the mark of a bad writer.

And until you finally ask yourself why you believe this odd pseudo-fact, your writing can’t escape that “box” you’re trapped in. (For more on the “was” police see my post “Should You Eliminate ‘Was’ from Your Writing.”)

People-Pleasers are Easily Trapped by Shaming Statements

People who want to be thought of as “nice” and strive to please all of the people all of the time can be especially susceptible to this kind of shaming.

If you have “people-pleasing” issues, when somebody makes a disparaging remark, the thing that has been disparaged may become taboo for you, even long after the unpleased person left the picture. In your mind you still need to please that person by sharing his dislikes.

I had a friend like this who inherited her parents’ house and immediately paid a lot of money to have the drought-tolerant junipers-and-rocks landscaping torn out. But she didn’t have the money to replace it. The house sat unlandscaped for years, turning into a slummy-looking mudhole. When she tried to refinance the mortgage, she couldn’t, because tearing out the landscaping had reduced the value.

I asked her why she had been so eager to pull out the perfectly fine landscaping her father had put in. She said “everybody knows tam junipers-and-rocks are awful.”

I pointed out my mom’s pricey Southern California house had the same kind of landscaping.

She thought about it a while and said she once dated a landscaper who spent the whole evening complaining about people who still had junipers in their yards.

“They’re so 1970s,” she said.

Hmm. One date with a guy who had a financial interest in shaming people who didn’t keep up with landscaping trends…and this woman had to turn her own house into a slum.

That’s because she was a prisoner of her unexamined belief that the opinions of Mr. Bad Date had value and that pleasing him was important. Also, she had probably never heard of tam junipers until he delivered his tirade against them, so the only “fact” she had about them was they were “awful.”

Writers fall into this trap all the time. Because your 9th grade English teacher had an attack of the vapors any time somebody ended a sentence with a preposition, you feel compelled to twist your sentences into verbal pretzels to avoid displeasing that teacher, even though she has probably been dead for twenty-five years.

Perfectionism is the Bully that Keeps you Locked in that Box

People who are prone to perfectionism are also likely to be trapped by this kind of shaming.

I once had a roommate who was the worst housekeeper ever. In fact, he got evicted from every place he ever lived because of the squalor. When I moved in with him, I thought the mess was temporary (we were both actors in the middle of Hell Week before the opening of a big musical.)

But I was handy with a vacuum cleaner and a mop, so as soon as I moved in, I tackled the worst of the mess. I knew I couldn’t get it spotless all at once, but I could tidy things up and clean the high traffic areas.

I thought he’d be pleased, but when he came home, all he said was “you didn’t move the couch! I can tell you just vacuumed under it without moving it. And the drapes are still filthy.”

I later found out his mother was a meticulous housekeeper. Because he couldn’t clean the house to his mother’s standards, he simply couldn’t clean it at all. The only thing he could do was criticize people who did. He was paralyzed by the belief that everybody had to clean exactly the way his stay-at-home mom did.

I had another guy drop me as a friend when I wrote a story loosely based on an anecdote he liked to tell about his family. I asked a mutual friend why. I thought the guy would be pleased that I’d paid attention to his story. He wasn’t, the mutual friend said, because he wanted to write it himself.

I protested that:

1) My story changed all the characters to women, so it was very different from the one he might tell.

2) The man had never penned so much as a line of creative writing in his life, so the thought he might want to write fiction had never crossed my mind.

“But he’s always wanted to be a writer!” the mutual friend said.

The man died recently without ever having written a word. If he did indeed want to be a writer, he took that longing to the grave — along with his perfectionism.

This guy was a textbook perfectionist. Every article of clothing he wore was perfectly pressed (including his boxers.) He loved the theater, but he’d notice every dropped line and prop that was out of place. He could find fault with the most beautifully designed costume, and you did not want to go to dinner with him afterward, because he’d always send something back to the kitchen.

I suspect he feared his writing wouldn’t be “perfect” and that kept him from writing at all.

The man probably had more unexamined beliefs than most people, but we all have them. I know I have many. But I used to have more. (Therapy helps.)

The first step to freeing yourself from them is acknowledging they exist.

The next step is allowing yourself to play and have some fun. Put yourself back in the child-like state of mind you had before you were fed all those limiting beliefs.

I was able to change my misconceptions about genre by having some fun. Because my parents were both literature professors, I had an unexamined belief that literary fiction was superior to genre fiction. This kept me writing and rewriting the same unpublishable literary novel for years. When I finally let myself write a funny mystery, my writing flowed easily. I loved to read mysteries. Why not write them?

Some writers get stuck in the wrong genre for years because of an unexamined belief in its superiority or their own lack of range.

Others might not actually want to write at all. Maybe their creativity would be better served in another medium entirely. I was in a critique group with a man who struggled with every word, and went into despair when he got less than glowing responses to his long, conflict-free pages of description. Finally he dropped out of the group. A couple of years later I ran into him at an art opening — his. He had become an accomplished painter.

He told me he’d always thought he “ought” to write and that painting was “just playing,” but the writing had become so painful, he’d decided he might as well play. That led to him becoming a painter who made a lot more money than most writers do.

Like me, he had decided to take the easy route and “have fun.” And it turned out the easy path was also the way out of the box that trapped him.

Having fun and letting yourself play can be the key to unlocking that box and freeing your creativity from the beliefs you don’t even realize are keeping you trapped inside.

This piece was first published on Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris on April 3, 2016