a) An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof
b) Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion
c) A religious conviction
d) Trust, faith, or confidence in (someone or something)
Oxford English Dictionary
Do you ever stop to question what you believe? Do you ever ask yourself why you believe it, or where that belief came from in the first place? Have you ever considered that it may be your beliefs that are causing you to feel anxious, unwell or unsatisfied?
I’m not really talking about those big lifestyle beliefs such as religion or politics (although, you had to learn to believe in those somewhere too), but all those other things you believe about yourself that by believing them affect the way you experience your life. Such as:
“I’m no good at meeting new people.”
“I’m too fat for anyone to love.”
“This is as good as it gets.”
If you’re reading this and thinking that you only believe good things about yourself, then that is excellent. However, you’re definitely in the minority. And, if you’re honest with yourself, there are times when that little voice in your head gets a teensie bit critical, right?
One of the main reasons driving my clients’ decisions to seek out coaching and cognitive hypnotherapy is because they believe something that’s causing them to suffer. Often, they don’t even realise that’s the case, or they may rationally know it’s not true, but still the unconscious sticks to it anyway.
And the problem is, people operate from what they believe to be true, not what is true.
We suffer when we believe something about ourselves that by believing it causes us to limit our experience of life.
Getting in your own way
Consider the beliefs I quoted above (all real things my clients have said to me):
The woman who believes she’s no good at meeting new people turns down opportunities to meet new people and instead stays at home, thinking ‘what’s the point I’ll only make a fool of myself’. She never gives herself the chance to prove herself wrong, for fear of proving herself right. Her world becomes very small.
The man who believes he’s too fat to be loved, never opens himself up to love because he’s afraid of proving himself right. But guess what, if you never open yourself up to love, you’re never going to let it into your life. Something that he believes to be true produces a behaviour that causes him to suffer. His world remains smaller than it could be.
The man who believes that this is as good as it gets, doesn’t bother to ask for a pay rise or apply for a new position. He doesn’t want to rock the boat in case he loses something – something that he’s not really passionate about anyway. Who is more likely to get the job, the man who applies or the man who doesn’t because he doesn’t think he’s good enough?
The lady who told me she believed she was disgusting, had suffered abuse as a child then later physical and psychological violence from the two fathers of her children. She believed, as they had told her many times, that she was disgusting. This belief fuelled an eating disorder that compelled her to take up to 100 laxatives at a time, and meant she frequently lost so much blood that she had to be hospitalised.
Soak it up
Ok, so sometimes believing negative things about ourselves won’t have such extreme consequences, but it will prevent us from really being the happiest we can be.
So how did these beliefs that seem to run the show that is our experience of life come about?
The truth is that as children we have a sponge-like talent for absorbing the information that we receive through our senses. The things that we experience – within our family or the greater culture that surrounds us – are accepted as the norm. Just as we absorb the language we hear around us and it becomes an intrinsic part of our personality (notice how even little children’s unique personalities shine through in the way they speak and the things they say), so do we absorb the messages our parents, teachers and the media give us. The information we unconsciously consume. And you are what you eat, after all.
So really, a lot of what we believe is an accident of birth. An accident of who we grew up with, what teacher we had at school, who our peers were, what channel our parents had the TV tuned to, everything and anything that happened to us just because that it where we were at that point in time. That’s why I can see a client in my clinic who wears size 14 clothes and believes that she is ‘too fat’, when if I was seeing clients in Fiji or Tahiti where larger bodies are a sign of status, size wouldn’t be affecting their emotional state in the same way.
Our culture does a really good job of telling us from a young age that we are not ‘enough’.
I used to live on a small island in the South Pacific. Most of the islanders had never left their island, or if they had then it was only to visit the nearest mainland. Instead, they caught or grew their food, spent time on sporting and physical activities. Playing music, dancing and socialising with family was a way of life. When I first arrived I couldn’t understand how they could be so happy with NOT seeing the world. I judged them for their lack of desire to expand their cultural horizons. I believed that travel was important, so I assumed they must be narrow-minded to not see it as an essential part of life. Over time, I began to see things differently. The way they respected their elders, the importance of sharing things with their family and extended tribe, how front doors were never locked (took me a long time to get used to that one!) and you’d frequently find a bag of fish or yams left on the table for you with no note and no expectation of thanks. My beliefs, taught to me by a culture famous for placing a high importance on world domination and geographical ownership, just didn’t exist over there. Now, while I still adore travelling, I no longer feel like I am ‘not cultured enough, not cool enough’ if I don’t clock up X amounts of air miles each year.
Monkey see, monkey do
You see, we are imitators. We see other people doing things and then we copy them. You only have to consider fashion to see the truth in this. This is why in the 80s the glorious mullet happened and why now so many men are sporting hipster beards and man buns. It’s why Kate Middleton can wear a Breton stripe jumper in one photo, and suddenly stripy jumpers sell out everywhere. Heck, I’m wearing one right now.
We have a natural, evolutionary need to fit in. After all, if we didn’t fit in to our tribe back in caveman days, we risked being booted out to fend for ourselves – which meant an almost certain grisly death at the sharp end of a sabre-toothed tusk. This instinct for unity is hardcoded into us at birth, and then reinforced by our parents and schools. Conformity reaps rewards, disobedience plonks us on the naughty step without any tea. So to make life more comfortable for ourselves, we believe what others around us believe.
We are born into our families and our culture through no choice of our own. As babies, we have no choice about the lessons we are taught, the messages we are fed, the truths or lies we are given often in order to try to make us behave in a more compliant way that makes someone else’s life easier – or under someone else’s belief that it will make our lives easier if we learn to conform early on in life. If you are born into a certain family, then you are more likely – generally speaking – to have the same beliefs as that family.
So beliefs become important to us. It becomes important to confirm our beliefs, which is why challenging them is so difficult. We identify with our beliefs as if they are an intimate part of ourselves, and losing them would be as traumatic as losing a limb. We confuse belief with identity. We believe without questioning.
Until, that is, we learn to question. To overcome the suffering that the critical voice inflicts upon us, we must learn to think for ourselves.HOW TO CHALLENGE YOUR UNHELPFUL BELIEFS
- Write down those things you believe about yourself, that cause you pain or limit your life in some way. Usually this will be phrased as “I…”, or “I am…”
- Take the top one. Ask yourself, “Is that true.”
- Ask yourself, “Can I absolutely know that this is true?”
- When you realise that you can’t absolutely know that it’s true, then you can ask yourself: “Whose belief is this anyway?” Where did that belief come from? Where did you learn it – we all have to learn our beliefs somewhere. Was it really someone else’s belief, perhaps a bully, a teacher, a parent?
- Then you can ask yourself, “Who would I be, if I believed… [insert the opposite here].”
- And just begin to imagine how your life would be different if you simply chose to believe something else. Imagine what you’d be doing, who you’d be doing it with, where you’d be, what you’d be achieving.
- Then see if you can see any reason to keep believing that old belief, or whether the new one would be a lot more fun.
- A belief is just that. A believe. A thought that you accept as true, without any real evidence. It’s not true! You just accepted that it was. So challenge those old, outdated beliefs. Hear them, note them down, and investigate whether you can prove them to be true, or if it might just be time to let them go.