A while back, an MBA instructor of mine asked me to find some information for him on a term he’d read about (I think it was in Kevin Cashman’s Leadership from the Inside Out). The term was “Shadow Belief,” and he wanted to talk about the concept in one of his corporate training programs. The information I found for him is worth sharing more broadly.

The term “Shadow Belief” has been around for about a decade. Cashman put the term in his 2009 book, but the first reference to it I found was associated with a life coach named Cheryl Richardson, who made a name for herself when she appeared on Oprah on 2000 to speak about this subject.

Here’s the basic idea. Fundamentally, we have to define our value to and our place within society by hanging our hats on some basic mental assumptions: I’m very good at my job, I’m attractive, I’m morally well-behaved, I’m creative, I keep an excellent house, I’m social and extroverted, I have a personal relationship with God, I’m a great parent, I have a perfect body, I know all the right answers, etc. We usually pick two or three areas that are important to us, and define our worth by our relative quality in those areas.

In the past thirty or so years, two developments have come along and ratcheted-up our sense of competition for self-worth: increased population density, and a media-fed pop culture that skews our personal expectations. It now feels more difficult to claim relative excellence at the same time as it seems more important to do so. Some poor kid trying out for the school musical is choking under the pressure not only of increased real competition, but having to also compete with benchmarks set by Glee, Smash, American Idol, The X Factor, The Voice, viral YouTube videos, and God knows what else. As a result, we feel an increased sense of collective fragility and insecurity (and advertisers find it much easier to sell products).

As a result of this sense of pressure, sometimes we develop beliefs about our own abilities and attributes that don’t reflect reality. Either we have a distorted sense of our own attributes, or a misguided sense of expectation. Shadow Beliefs are the exaggerated or irrational beliefs about oneself about which one is not fully conscious, and that can perpetuate unwanted behavior. That “shadow” part of the term is Jungian and signifies the unconscious and un-dealt-with nature of the belief.

Investment bankers who are not making six figures by age 27 are failures, and obviously can’t take the heat. A girl burns her sketchpad because a voice tells her she just doesn’t have “it.” A man who had a condescending father gives up on every endeavor because he knows he’s still just a stupid kid. A Japanese teenager who does not score within a specific percentile on acceptance exams kills himself.

Shadow Beliefs have been talked about for years, using different names. Self-help gurus have been throwing around terms like “Limiting Beliefs” since the movement began in the late seventies. In the eighties, when executives were drinking the self-help Kool-aid to make more money, many would uncover preexisting, deeply-rooted Limiting Beliefs like, “I’m just a poor kid from Jersey.” To this day, gurus like Joe Vitale and Tony Robbins talk extensively about Limiting Beliefs, and the need to bring them into conscious awareness.

However, not all Shadow Beliefs are performance-limiting, which may be the reason for the name change. Cashman talks about Shadow Beliefs that can also cause manic over-performing, and not just under-performing. In other words, these beliefs are at the core of our tendency to over-apply our strengths and inadvertently make them into weaknesses.

Think about a Stepford Wife character like Betty Draper from Mad Men: judgement-oriented, looking immaculate, with a clean house, well-groomed children, and dinner ready…and unable to figure out why her hands suddenly start trembling. Think of your high school valedictorian, and what it was that kept him or her so motivated. Think about titans like Richard Branson and Jack Welch, and the goalposts they must have set for themselves.

Shadow Beliefs are part of the cognitive psychology concept of Cognitive Distortions. The recognized therapeutic course for dealing with distortions is called Cognitive Restructuring. Cognitive psychology, and its progeny Neuropsychology, have dominated academic psychological research in the last 25 years. Like any school of psychology (e.g. humanist, behavioral, psychoanalytical), its followers are more fervent than the evidence of its effectiveness would warrant. Research does show, however, that cognitive therapies seem effective against certain kinds of neurosis.

Since research is still debated, I can only speak in terms of “seems.” It seems, for example, that a lot of neurotic or otherwise unwanted behaviors are linked to irrational beliefs about ourselves and our abilities. We tend to talk ourselves into thinking that we’re much better or worse off in some way than we actually are. We also talk ourselves into thinking that the world expects much more or much less from us than it actually does. This can produce varying degrees of unexpected behavior, ranging from despair to self-sabotage to compulsiveness to social awkwardness.

It seems that by becoming consciously aware of these beliefs, we can start to bring the belief into perspective. I should stress that recognizing the belief is not the same as curing the behavior. Psychological patients who have breakthrough moments, for example, commonly keep repeating the unwanted behavior afterward. This is one of the criticisms of cognitive therapy. Recognizing these kinds of Shadow Beliefs should be considered a difficult first step that can help people monitor themselves and behave differently over time.

For more information, please see this previous post.

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