Have you ever petted a rescue dog? I can’t resist petting a dog that I meet when I’m out for a walk, but I can always tell the ones who were rescue dogs. Just about every one that I’ve ever petted has reacted in a predictable way.

As gentle and loving as your intentions might be, when you raise your hand to pet them, they flinch. The tail goes between the legs, the head goes down and they cringe, waiting for the slap they know is coming.

Makes me want to cry.

Of course, the reason they react this way is that, from the youngest age, they’ve been ignored, scolded, slapped down, maybe even beaten. It’s trained them to expect to be hit so whenever they see a raised hand, they brace for what they know is coming.

We’re trained to be afraid

We’ve all been trained, to one degree or another, to expect to be hit. Perhaps not physically, but the mental and emotional blows we’ve been dealt have been just as painful and just as effective in training us to flinch and stay down on the ground.

Maybe it was your mother who, once too often said, “You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?” Or your father who, upon seeing the 98% you got on the test, asked what happened to the other two points. Or a lover, who liked to play passive-aggressive control games. Or the gym coach who smirked at your athletic attempts.

It could have been the math teacher who rolled her eyes when you raised your hand with a question, the music teacher who suggested that you just lip sync and let the rest of the choir carry the tune. Or maybe you watched as your parents struggled to make ends meet in the monthly budget.

Doesn’t matter where or by whom we were trained, we’ve all picked up a whole lot of useless baggage and a big set of fears and self-doubts along the way. And they always give us that instinctive and painful emotional flinch when we evaluate how we look, how smart we are, how physically adept we are or how much we’re worthy of being loved.

I like to call it, ‘rescue dog syndrome.’ If you’ve been beaten down often enough, you start volunteering to stay down.

Shrinking self-esteem

The best way to avoid that pain? If you simply take a pass on trying to look nice, taking up running, signing up for a course or going out on a new date, nobody can judge or criticize you. And every time we give in to that unfortunate training and accept the judgment of others, we shrink. Our possibilities shrink, our self-esteem shrinks, our willingness to try new things shrinks. And we end up as small, shrunken people who flinch at the first hint of a raised hand, whether that hand is metaphorical or real.

In the vast majority of cases, our fears and self-doubts have no basis in objective reality. They’re simply what we’ve come to believe about ourselves. We’ve convinced ourselves that we’re not good with money. We’ve trained ourselves to believe that we’re unattractive. We’ve come to accept that we will always be passed over for promotions.

These fears we harbor, though, are rarely based on some external, uncontrollable reality. They’re merely our own thoughts; beliefs we’ve grown to accept. Have a thought in your head often enough and it eventually becomes a belief. Your beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies and end up as your reality.

Do your thoughts serve you?

If these fears, self-doubts and limiting beliefs have been learned, and if you decide you’d be better off without them, then it might be a good idea to set about un-learning them. Step one is to become aware. Catch yourself in the act of doubting yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts, don’t just accept them as they waltz through your head.

Then ask, does this thought serve me? Is my life better as a result of this belief I’m holding? Or would I be stronger, more capable, and willing to try more if I could get rid of this belief?

By paying attention to the thoughts that habitually swirl around in our heads, we can begin to get a handle on the limiting beliefs we’ve convinced ourselves are true. These are the culprits that we can then root out on our way to a contented and joyful life.

When that fearful, flinching dog unlearns her old thinking habits and understands that a raised hand does NOT mean she’s about to be beaten, her life becomes a whole lot more joyful.