This I Believe

Jeanette - Richmond, California
Entered on April 12, 2007

I believe that I can’t always trust what I believe. At least about myself.

I am sometimes plagued by false beliefs. False beliefs are distortions of reality that make my life more difficult than it needs to be. “I can’t finish the presentation on time” is a false belief. “I won’t lose 10 pounds before my class reunion” is a false belief. “I will never learn Spanish” is another false belief.

They are naysayers, self-esteem saboteurs that can’t be trusted. But false beliefs can empower. You just need to know how to use them. That’s something I didn’t know when I first encountered them while flipping burgers at McDonalds.

I was a teenaged fast-food disaster. Point to any item on the menu, and I burned it, spilled it or toppled it over. I dropped trays of Big Macs. I splattered special sauce into co-workers’ faces. I sent Filet O’ Fish to their hissing demise in vats of hot grease. When my manager summoned me to his office one day, I knew the jig was up. I was toast.

But he greeted me with a smile. “Jeanette, I’d like to make you an assistant manager.” Turns out my blunders were the routine mistakes of rookies. My boss pointed out what I failed to notice. How fast and accurately I rang up orders. How my workspace always gleamed. How courteous I was to even the surliest of customers. He saw my strengths where I saw only false beliefs.

They come, I think, from my mother, whose tongue was as sharp as cut glass: “You’re not working hard enough. You can do better” (pause) Okay, that’s the G-rated version of what she said. My mother was a tough one. She survived a hard life, growing up an orphan in the segregated south. She wanted better for me. I realize now that she used gruff, pull-no-punches language to push me to exceed my own expectations. But all I heard was, “You’re a failure.”

After many years, I’ve learned to use my false beliefs as triggers. When they emerge, I immediately activate the message my mother tried to convey: I can do this, whatever this happens to be at the time. I repeat it like a broken record.

I know. It sounds too simple, too much like “The Little Engine that Could.” But you’d be surprised how far “I think I can” will take you when it’s 5 a.m. and the presentation is due in four hours. A word of caution: If you’re working in a group, keep the mantra to yourself.

Telling the difference between a false belief and a true belief is easy. False beliefs play to our worst fears about ourselves. Buying into them is buying into failure. I wish I had the strength of mind to completely eliminate false beliefs from my psyche. But I don’t. The best I can do is use them to make me stronger.