Can We Change Our Indoctrination?


 As women raised Catholic, we were indoctrinated with a specific belief system about ourselves. Those beliefs are embedded in our brains, and they have to do with our capabilities, our talents, and our value. They’re negative stereotypes, and the important questions for us are, Is it possible to change those beliefs? And if so, how?

A friend of mine shared this video about a backwards bicycle. While the video’s story is about learning to ride a backwards bicycle, really what it’s about is how deeply embedded in our brains what we know is, and how to unlearn what we learned a long time ago.


Destin learned to ride a bike when he was a child, and then he kept riding his bike. This is how that skill became grooved into his brain – through repetition and practice. Later in his life when he got on a bike again, he didn’t have to re-learn how to ride it, because the pathways were already there. They were part of him, and accessing those skills was automatic.

The same is true with us. We learned about ourselves when we were very young, by being immersed in the Catholic belief system. We learned through the Catholic catechism and Bible stories we were taught, and the Masses we attended weekly (or in some cases daily). And we learned by observing how men and women treated each other – our parents, nuns and priests, men and women in our parish.  All of it reinforced the message over and over and over, until it was grooved in our brains. 

Like Destin, we didn’t have to re-learn it every time there was a situation that required a judgement about ourselves. We didn’t have to ask, “Am I capable of doing this?” and “Do I deserve this?” and “Should I think about what I need?” We already knew.

Learning to ride the backwards bicycle required Destin to lay down new brain pathways. It took a long time, and he had to be diligent about practicing, but he was able to do it because the brain is plastic. As women raised Catholic, we should be excited by this demonstration that new brain pathways can be created, even after we’re adults. We can, through diligent practice, lay down in our brains a new set of beliefs about ourselves.

But we can’t forget that the old pathways don’t go away. For Destin, that meant that it took just a little while to access his old way of riding a bike. For us, it means that our old beliefs don’t disappear as we learn new beliefs. They’ll always be with us, dormant in our brains, and the danger is that we’ll encounter situations that activate them, and cause us to relapse to those old beliefs.

Which of us hasn’t had this experience? We can be feeling confident about ourselves and our abilities and our place in the world and what we deserve, only to have those beliefs rocked when someone implies that we’re being selfish or thoughtless, or that we’re overreaching. Then the old beliefs show up, and we think, wait, how could I be thinking about myself? How could I not be putting the needs of others before my needs? Why do I presume to believe I have the ability to do this?

And then those old beliefs throw some shame our way, because shame is so very effective at getting us to behave, to put our heads down and retreat.

When that happens, what do we do? What can we do?

We can start by training ourselves to recognize what’s going on. We all know women who seem to proceed from their bedrock beliefs about what they deserve and what they’re capable of. But our instincts in those areas are damaged. When we’re feeling like we don’t deserve, or that something is beyond our abilities, or that we’re being selfish, we can learn to recognize what’s happening. We can learn to say to ourselves, Oh, right. Those are the old beliefs.

Thanks to my sister Trish, I have a tool for exactly this situation. It’s a simple question that can help so much: “Is this good for me?”

·      Is it good for me to decide not to follow my dreams because I believe I don’t deserve them?

·      Is it good for me to deny what I want, so someone else can have what they want?

·      Is it good for me to put my own needs last, and everyone else’s needs first?

·      Is it good for me to hide my capabilities, so I don’t outshine someone else?

Of course there will be times when we need to put others before ourselves, and to deny what we want so someone else can have what they want. That’s just what it means to be a good human being, to be part of a community, or a family. The problem for us is the Catholic all-or-nothing way of looking at our jobs as women. Contrary to what we were taught, it is NOT our job to always put our own needs last, to always take care of others before ourselves, to always deny ourselves in favor of others. 

If you find yourself feeling that the act of even thinking about these questions is selfish and thoughtless of others, you’re feeling that old belief system. If you feel that asking questions and exploring answers is valid, that’s a healthier belief system.

And that healthier belief system is where we’re all trying to get to. As the backwards bicycle experiment demonstrates, we can get there. We can create new beliefs, though we can’t eliminate our old beliefs. So we must remain vigilant, because there will be situations where those old beliefs will emerge. But with vigilance, and practice, and the help of questions like “Is this good for me?” we can learn a healthier set of beliefs about ourselves, what we deserve, and our place in the world.