As a young woman, Shirley was happy and confident.  When she graduated from high school she knew she wanted to be a secretary and went to work for a small company where she made herself indispensible.  She married her high school sweetheart and had children.  She did everything expected of her in these roles. 

She thought she would enjoy feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction.  Instead, she began to feel empty and depressed.  Her decisions had felt right when she made them, but as she matured, she realized that she wasn’t living the life she truly wanted.  Her earlier decisions had been influenced by others and were based on false beliefs. This discovery devastated her. She realized that she didn’t know who she was anymore. 

Although very painful, this awareness was a positive development. Shirley had moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence.  These are stages one and two, respectively, of the Four Stages of Learning.  Contentment with the status quo, a feeling that everything is fine, characterizes unconscious incompetence.  Internal dialogue will discount any discontent, saying “I am in control here and I can improve things by doing x, y or z.” Conscious incompetence is the awakening to one’s new state of mind.  Stages three and four are conscious competence and unconscious competence.

Awareness is usually the result of a wake-up call, something that forces us to take in information that we have denied. A wake-up call flicks a mental switch. In the resulting light, we become aware. We see what was there all the time.

Many problems lend themselves to denial because you are either not ready to face the truth or you doubt you can manage or survive any change in the status quo.  For instance, you think you were on the fast track at work, but suddenly comprehend that you are at a dead end; you were blind to the fact that your daughter is a bulimic or your husband a compulsive gambler; you kept looking for approval and validation from others until it hit you that approving and validating yourself was the only way to get those needs met.

Startled into awareness, you may feel as though your world has been turned upside down. You have become consciously incompetent.  You are in shock and may wonder, “What am I going to do now?”

Take stock. Tell yourself the truth because unless you come to terms with this awakening you can’t move forward.  Some of us can do this quickly; some of us need time.  You might even return to unconscious incompetence and go back to a state of denial. 

When you are ready, talk to someone who can help.  Perhaps see a career counselor, or find a therapist, financial advisor or support group.  Get as much information as you can.  Talk to people who have been through the same or a similar experience or ask friends for recommendations. This is not the time to isolate yourself.  You will learn that you are not alone. Others have survived and moved on to become stronger and happier than they were before.

Decide on a new direction. Begin the next stage: conscious competence. You may feel awkward.  You might have to think about everything you are doing because it doesn’t feel natural. You start and stop, advance and retreat, or practice extreme behaviors until you find a middle ground.  You want to give up because you fail as often as you succeed.

Unconscious competence is the new normal that comes when your new beliefs, thoughts and actions have become natural to you.

Shirley decided to go back to school.  When she went to fill out the registration form for her first class she broke down in tears.  She asked a trusted friend to accompany her when she enrolled.  With each new accomplishment she overcame her fear and started feeling happy and confident again.

Are you due for a wake-up call? What stage are you in?  Acknowledge your fear of moving forward. Know that others have gone through these stages, and trust that you can do it, too.


If we could tune into someone else’s radio-mind to hear what stations are playing we would find their core beliefs. They explain why our results aren’t always what we consciously say we want.  Let’s call this destructive radio voice, “Buster”. Buster unconsciously directs our actions in most areas of our lives and is responsible for the way we sabotage ourselves.  On a level hidden from our conscious mind we don’t believe we deserve what we say we want and Buster works relentlessly to be right.

John and Mary

Johnny wants better relationships but his Core Belief is that the world is a hostile place so he is always on guard. In order to protect himself, he is either defensive or aggressive with friends and family.  He acts the same way at work.

When he walks into a room of strangers he is energetically drawn to anyone with a hostile attitude.  If someone he meets is not hostile, he finds a way to provoke them.  Because of this belief and his behavior based on this belief, people respond to him in hostile ways.  At the end of the day Buster tells him: See I am right.  The world is a hostile place.

Mary believes the world is a friendly place, so she treats her friends, family and colleagues with a warm and open attitude.  She welcomes new people into her world. If she meets someone with a hostile attitude, she seeks out common ground and turns them into friends. People respond in kind and she gets to be right.

Core beliefs can be either negative or positive.  They provide the flavor for each slice of our life. 

Negative Core Beliefs Affirmative Core Beliefs
Life is a struggle Life is a wonderful adventure
I’m not good enough I do enough, I have enough, I am enough
People abuse me People support me.
I don’t trust myself. I believe in myself.
Good things happen to others, not me. I act in ways to empower myself.
I’m trapped with no way out My mind is open to new possibilities every day.
I’m invisible I have a voice and it’s safe to use it.
People discount me I attract positive people.


What would it take to change Johnny’s belief (The world is a hostile place.) to an affirmative one: The world is a friendly place?

Our unconscious belief system controls us.  In a negative belief system affirmations are alien and don’t fit anywhere. Before we can integrate an affirmation we must tune into our neutral observer and become aware of Buster. Once we are clear about and accept that Buster exists and has an agenda, we are no longer compelled to follow it.  At any point in time we have a choice.  Do we allow Buster to sabotage us or can we choose to pursue what we truly want?

 What core beliefs are preventing you from having what you want?

Our thoughts create our world. The chatter in our heads is constant but we’ve become accustomed to and oblivious to it. If we don’t know what we are thinking we can be hijacked by the default station of our radio-mind. We get to choose our thoughts if or when we know what we are thinking!

We need to start paying attention to the voices in our head; become aware of our thinking. After observing our thoughts without judgment for a while we become aware in the moment. Awareness is the next step in the process of change.

Jesse realized that most of her interactions with Clara, her mother, made her feel guilty and angry. Her mother had a negative opinion about everything Jesse did and didn’t keep her opinions to herself. Even though Jesse was an adult, she desperately wanted her mother’s approval and love and blamed Clara for her own unhappy life. She reasoned that if her mother were different she could be happy.

Jesse didn’t realize how much time she spent playing this scenario in her head until she started Observing with her non-judgmental mind. With her new awareness of her own blame voice and how it controlled her, she recognized that she was giving her power away. She needed to break free—not of her mother—but of her thoughts.

The Serenity Prayer gives us a formula we can use in situations like Jesse’s: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Jesse can’t change her mother no matter how hard she tries. While trying she is robbing herself of the opportunity to change what she can. She can change a couple of things: her thoughts, when she becomes aware of them, and the only physiological process she has control over: her breathing. By changing the station playing in her mind she can tune into constructive thoughts and transform her self-defeating behavior.

Using positive thoughts sets us in the direction we want to go. Here are some affirmations to start us off:
The path I choose is the right path for me
I learn lessons from everything I do
Conscious breathing brings me clarity and serenity.
I am willing and able to change old ideas and dysfunctional patterns
My mind is open to new possibilities every day
In any given situation there are options that never occurred to me before
I am in charge of my life
No one can make me feel inferior without my consent (Eleanor Roosevelt)
My choices are limitless; the power to choose is mine
I take responsibility for my choices
I act in ways to empower myself

Our thoughts create our world. How have you used affirmations to break free of old patterns?

Barbara Plasker, EdD

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