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Rag Doll Revelation: The Lasting Effects of Negative Core Beliefs

Struggle with feeling worthless? Maybe it's what you believe about yourself.

Key points

  • Difficult experiences can lead to the development of negative core beliefs.
  • Negative beliefs about ourselves can impact our emotions and behavior.
  • A negative core belief can lead to feelings of worthlessness.

It was a simple rag doll, and yet one that meant the world to me. Not because it was expensive, but because my father placed it in my little hands with the words, “Mija, look what I saw on the way home. Do you like it?” My Cuban father’s hands were soiled with dust, his face tired and body drenched in sweat after having worked on a construction site in the hot California sun, but as he gave me the doll, I saw the joy in his eyes as he looked at me with expectation. I smiled broadly and hugged him. “I love it, Papi, thank you.”

I cherished that rag doll more than any other toy I’d ever been given; more than my toy piano, my Snoopy Sno-Cone maker, or the little plastic pool that sat in our driveway. We were a humble family, the toys we received coming only on Christmas or birthdays. My father had bought me a gift on a regular day, and my 5-year-old brain interpreted this gift as something very special.

I carried that rag doll everywhere I went, and refused to leave it behind when we drove down to Tijuana for vacation. My doll was a source of pride: I told everyone that Papi had given it to me as a special gift. She reminded me that I was loved and protected, and I thought she was perfect.

And then she wasn’t, and everything changed.

I’d been outside in the front yard setting up a picnic for me and my doll, who was propped up against the tree. I heard a man screaming and realized that our neighbor’s dog, a large Doberman pinscher, had gotten loose and was running directly towards me. I panicked and ran inside the house, forgetting my rag doll in the process. By the time I realized what I’d done, the rag doll was inside the dog’s mouth.

I watched through the screen door in complete horror as the owner screamed, “Stop! No! Put it down NOW!” He managed to get the doll out of the dog’s mouth, and then grabbed it by the collar and yanked it towards home, leaving my doll on the ground. When I picked her up, I was crying, my heart overwhelmed with a kind of pain I'd never felt.

Mami was there in a flash. “Mija, don’t worry, we can fix it.” Placing the doll on her sewing machine table, Mami went to work. She examined the damage and determined that a patch would be the best solution for the large, gaping hole in my doll’s tummy, and she added a black button to replace one of the eyes that had come off.

Mami put the doll in my hands, my relief to have her back in my arms so great that I didn’t care about the large patch on her tummy, or the new eye. But how quickly things changed. Each time someone saw my rag doll, they commented on how different she looked. “Too bad your doll is damaged,” my aunt said. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Look at her,” she said, “she’s not the same, not as pretty anymore. You should’ve taken better care of her.”

That last comment hit me like a blow to the stomach and made me feel guilty for running inside the house without her.

The nail in the coffin was the comment my teacher made when I brought the doll to school. “Oh, I see your rag doll has suffered an accident! What a shame. She was such a pretty doll, but now she’s damaged. Maybe you should ask for a new one.”

But I didn’t want a new doll. I wanted the special one my father gave me, the one with a story that made people smile. “My Papi bought it for me,” the story would go. “She’s my best friend, and I love her.” It troubled me that her patch and button eye were always the focus, and that I should ask for a new doll.

Fear, shame, and guilt hit me whenever I looked at her. I carried her around less often and stopped bringing her to school, instead keeping her in my room. When I walked into my bedroom and saw my doll in the hands of one of my brother’s friends, rage overwhelmed me, the scream generated by my anger enough to scare him into dropping her at once.

I asked Mami to put her on a shelf in the closet, where she would be safer. “Why do you want to put her away?” She asked. “She’s damaged,” I said, “and I don’t want anything else to happen to her.” Mami didn’t argue, and although I missed her terribly, the doll remained on the shelf until at last I grew out of my doll phase.

I would’ve forgotten all about her had I not unpacked a box tucked away in my closet at home. My father had just passed away, and I was helping her clean the house. I was in my late 40s, and I’d all but forgotten about my rag doll until I opened a box and found her staring up at me, her dress and the patch that covered most of her tummy faded from the years.

A memory of my father surfaced, and it instantly brought me to tears. Not long after I’d asked Mami to put her away, Papi asked me, “Mija, where is your doll?” I told him the new story, and he shook his head from side to side. “No, mija, she’s not damaged,” he said. “She’s still the same rag doll, no? She’s your best friend, and you love her so much.” But it was too late; the new narrative had been cemented, its message powerful. She was damaged and would never be the same.

Years later, as I held the doll in my hands, I would look back on that moment and realize that my father had been trying to teach me a lesson, that rather than view my doll as damaged, I should’ve focused on her inherent value, on what she meant to me and how she made me feel. Standing there, the loss of my father still fresh in my mind, the doll reminded me that I’d always felt loved and comforted, her value then lost on me when I put her away in my closet.

It hit me hard, this revelation, and made me reflect on the words I’d often used to describe myself.

I am damaged.

It is impossible that we should go through life without having painful experiences. The reality of our world is that we can be wounded by any number of things: by bullying, by physical, sexual and verbal abuse, by judgment of our appearance or sexual orientation, experiences that might need a patch or two.

The patches themselves do not cause harm, but the meaning we make of ourselves in light of these patches is what can devastate our sense of self-worth and change how we move through the world.

My doll was relegated to the closet not because of the patch, but because the adults in my life who were charged with helping me develop an understanding of what is normal and what is true told me the patch meant that she was damaged, that she had lost value, and sadly, I believed them.

I’ve heard these words many times in my career as a therapist. “I just feel like I’m damaged,” someone will say, “like I’m broken.” When we carry this kind of belief, it usually comes with feelings of worthlessness and shame. With self-doubt and despair. Sometimes we feel guilt simply because we were led to believe that we are to blame for whatever we suffered, much like I believed it was my fault my doll was torn by an angry Doberman pinscher.

Some of us tuck ourselves away on a metaphorical shelf for fear that we might be damaged even further, and we lash out in anger whenever we perceive that someone or something is trying to harm us. In some cases, we use harmful substances to completely numb our emotional experience, or to help us forget that we’re permanently damaged and will never be the same.

Source: Slphotography/iStock

It was only when I pulled the doll out of the box that I was better able to see the truth about the situation. She may have been torn and needed a patch, but she had never really lost value. Forty years later, I could still feel the happiness she brought to my life, and as I held her to my chest in that moment of immeasurable grief, I once again felt loved and comforted.

Funny that a simple rag doll with an old patch could offer me such a profound revelation, it being that we are so much more than our wounds and patches, and that whatever we were led to believe about what we are is not always the truth about the indestructible and eternal value of who we are and what we offer the world.

More from Yvonne Castañeda, MSW, LICSW
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