Change your beliefs and you can alter your feelings
Diederik Wolsak knows that his life story is more dramatic than that of most people. Born in Indonesia to Dutch parents in 1942, he spent the first three years of his life in Japanese concentration camps. As a boy, he lived in a foster home in the Netherlands before rejoining his parents at the age of 10. He went on to become a first-division field-hockey player with a reputation for competing aggressively. Later on in life, Wolsak achieved great success in business, owning a restaurant in Vancouver and operating a hotel in Whistler—before his life spiralled into miserable depression marred by alcohol addiction and drug abuse.
In the mid 1990s, he was in a state of total desperation. “I had picked the part of the highway where I was going to drive the car off the road and end the story,” Wolsak recalled in a recent phone interview.
Looking back, he now realizes that the turbulent first 10 years of his life shaped his later behaviour. “I made up a whole bunch of beliefs of being not good enough, of feeling guilty, of being dumb,” he said.
This was apparent in how he approached the game of field hockey. Wolsak declared without a trace of shame that he played from a deep level of self-loathing. “I became a very good athlete in order to humiliate the opposition.”
Wolsak said that some ice-hockey players, such as the great Wayne Gretzky, skated with a sense of joy, whereas others, such as Todd Bertuzzi, don’t appear nearly as happy when they compete. “His potential is limited by his beliefs and self-hatred,” Wolsak maintained. “If Bertuzzi fell in love with Bertuzzi, he would be an unspeakably good player.”
Wolsak is just as quick to offer judgements on his own play as a young adult. “I was very good—but I was a total asshole.”
So what happened to turn things around? Rather than end his life on the Sea to Sky Highway, Wolsak chose to spend a year immersed in study, self-reflection, and meditation to try to transform his life. “I very quickly realized that the way out would not be as difficult as I thought it would be,” he stated.
This led him to a new career as a counsellor and therapist, in which he helps people expunge their negative beliefs about themselves. He founded the Choose Again Attitudinal Healing Centre, which is based in Vancouver and employs 14 staff. It offers a nonpharmaceutical, holistic approach to helping people overcome challenges including addiction, depression, eating disorders, relationship challenges, and mental blocks affecting athletic performance. Those interested in extensive self-exploration can stay for several weeks at the company’s retreat in Costa Rica, where Wolsak lives part-time.
Wolsak said that Choose Again is nonreligious, but it promotes spiritual growth. “What we teach is, ”˜My entire experience in the world is the result of who I think I am, which is a result of the beliefs I made up about myself,’ ” he said.
Choose Again’s communications coordinator, Anna Rice, was a world-class badminton player when she first came in contact with Wolsak. In an interview at the Georgia Straight office, she described her sport as “physical chess” because it requires so much mental energy and strategic thinking. Rice, who competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, approached Wolsak to overcome mental obstacles limiting her progress as an athlete. He helped her realize that self-imposed beliefs that she held about herself as a person formed part of her identity, and needed to be addressed for her to advance in her sport.
“I’ve been curious about the philosophical side of why some people achieve certain things, whereas others don’t who have the talent,” Rice said. “I had the drive and the commitment, but I wasn’t what you would call a natural talent by any means.”
It sounds simple to change one’s self-perception, but Wolsak explained that it can’t happen without probing deeply into how those beliefs were formed. He said that in working with clients with clinical depression, chronic anxiety, or a bipolar diagnosis, his staff have found that a negative self-image is often rooted in something totally innocent. “It’s something like, ”˜My mother was late picking me up from preschool,’ ” he commented. “That is where the belief is developed.”
From there, Wolsak stated that these perceptions about ourselves become rooted in the neural pathways of our brains. And the ego doesn’t want to let go of them. The way out, in his view, is to recognize that there are three parts to the mind: the ego, which tells a person what he or she is feeling and which directs actions throughout the day; the self, which is the entire psyche including what resides in our unconscious and which wants peace, joy, and harmony; and the “decision-maker”, which helps mediate the different perceptions of the ego and the self.
Wolsak insisted that meditation is helpful in coming to terms with the impact of the ego on self-destructive behaviour. In addition, therapists at Choose Again help people identify the feelings that they experienced as children, which led to their beliefs about themselves later in life. “We’re addicted to feelings,” he said. “We know people who are infatuation junkies, people who are sadness junkies, or rageaholics. People don’t talk about that.”
He acknowledged that his personal story is interesting because it’s more extreme than most. But Wolsak said that everyone is, at some level, shaped by their beliefs about themselves, which are often not a reflection of reality. “The feeling comes from a belief that I hold about myself,” he stated.