What is the driving force behind your personality, behavior and the way you interpret experiences? Beliefs. They govern how you will behave, feel and ultimately live your life. If you’ve been exposed to any self-help material before, you probably have heard a lot of talk about these influencing forces in your life.
Sadly I think there is a bit of a misconception about beliefs. Firstly, what beliefs actually are and how they actually influence you. Secondly, how you can use the knowledge of your own beliefs to reshape your experience of life. Despite the wealth of information on the subject, I haven’t found many sources that actually explain this.
One of the things that is evidence of this greater misunderstanding is that so often I here a lot of discussion about how to change your beliefs. Sometimes this involves fancy NLP practices (which I haven’t found that effective) or deep introspection (which won’t work on its own). But I think the truth in changing your beliefs takes a far deeper understanding.
What are Beliefs?
Now to many of you I may have just asked a very dumb question. Beliefs is such a commonly used word that I doubt many people have really thought this through. If I use the terms velocity based goal setting, neurolinguistic programming or gestalt therapy, I’m more likely to get a confused response.
Unfortunately just because the term ‘belief’ is a commonly used word, doesn’t mean the actual concept is that simple. The truth is ‘belief’ is just a piece of terminology to describe what is a more complex idea. The other problem is that there are many uses of the term belief, each describing very different concepts.
Most people think of beliefs as their conscious beliefs such as a belief in a god, a belief that murder is wrong or a belief that people are generally good. These conscious beliefs are only a small part of the story, and the easy part at that. If I had to make a prediction I would say that less than 1% of your beliefs are conscious beliefs. The rest are subconscious.
What is a subconscious belief? Well first of all you don’t refer to them as beliefs. Chances are likely that you don’t even see their influence. These beliefs are the small pieces of subconscious wiring up inside that brain of yours that dictate a huge portion of your behavior.
For example, you may have a subconscious belief that when someone smiles at you it means they like you. This often isn’t consciously registered. When you see someone smiling at you, you simply feel liked, there is no conscious process. Now for sake of clarity I’m picking an extremely obvious example of subconscious beliefs. There are subconscious beliefs buried so deep into your psyche that you probably will never realize they are even there.
Research has shown that there is a disproportionate amount of tall men as CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies. This is simply because people have subconscious wiring that tells them that taller men are better leaders. This is never a conscious belief and it lies so deep that most people wouldn’t even notice it within themselves without evidence coming from statistics.
A better metaphor for what I am describing is to think of all your beliefs as wiring inside your brain. Some of this wiring is fundamental and you have little awareness and even less control over. Other beliefs range in complexity and awareness from subtle motivators to the beliefs that you recognize.
Understanding that most of your beliefs lie outside your awareness is important to being able to utilize them. A new belief cannot be installed unless the current one is uncovered. This also leads to the next important point, that uncovering a belief takes far more work than actually controlling it. Although certain deeply rooted beliefs are much more difficult to change, the real challenge lies in finding the beliefs you already have.
A greater self-understanding is pivotal in changing beliefs. Certainly there are beliefs that are almost impossible to change and some that are so ingrained that removing them isn’t an option. However, most of the beliefs that impact your life will lie somewhere between your conscious and subconscious zones. Those are the beliefs you will try to uncover.
So how can you uncover beliefs if you don’t know about them? In my own experience there are three main ways. None will give you perfect accuracy because searching for beliefs is a little like looking for marbles in the dark. You will never know where they are, you just have to feel around everywhere until you find one.
The best way to start uncovering your beliefs is simply to direct these three techniques I will discuss at any area of your life that you want to improve. Whether that area is relationships, career, health or happiness, begin searching in the areas of weakness to uncover the internal wiring that has been causing the problems.
Method One: Journaling
The fastest method to uncover beliefs is simply through introspection and journaling. By writing down your thoughts you can explore questions more thoroughly and start to uncover those hidden beliefs that have plagued your results. Unfortunately journaling is more than just words on a paper but a skill just like any other.
To successfully journal to find beliefs, you aren’t going to write down how your day went or what you think you should do next. Instead you are going to make use of two questions, “Why did I do that?” and “Why do I feel that way?”
Lets take an example. Bill wants to start working out at the gym but just can’t bring himself to get there. So he decides to look at the beliefs that are bringing him down. He can start by writing down the situation, as in, “I can’t bring myself to go to the gym.”
At this point he can ask our first question: “Why do I do that?” Immediately he writes down the response, “Because working out is hard.” Again he uses a question, “Why do I feel that way?” By continuing with this process he may come up with several beliefs that influence his compulsion to avoid the gym. Perhaps he finds it boring, he is self-conscious, working out brings attention to his unhealthy lifestyle, etc.
Now journaling isn’t always the best process for uncovering beliefs, but it is the best place to start. I’ve used it many times to uncover beliefs whenever I am failing in an area of my life or even when I want to increase my success. It doesn’t usually uncover all the beliefs but it provides a good start.
Method Two: Self-Analysis
The next method of uncovering beliefs is less process and more experience. While journaling is a separated practice, self-analysis is performed while you are involved in the activity in question. It is generally harder to perform unless you have done some previous journaling and gotten started with uncovering beliefs but is still useful.
Self-analysis simply means noticing carefully what you feel when certain things in your environment happen. Although remember emotions while journaling is good, it is nowhere near as effective as understanding them while they are being experienced. An imagined experience doesn’t have the depth of a real one.
For example, if you wanted to know why you found it hard to approach members of the opposite sex, wait until you are given an opportunity to do so. Then when you start feeling the emotions that disable you, start asking yourself questions about why you feel the way you do and take careful note of what is running through your head. You may very well uncover beliefs about your subconscious expectations of what might happen.
Method Three: Research
The third method to uncover beliefs is simply to research human behavior and watch other people. This serves two purposes. By watching other people you can note both similarities and differences in internal beliefs. When you and another person both respond similarly to a set of outcomes you can often see the controlling beliefs.
Even better, when you see another person who does not respond the same way you would, this can open you up to a belief you didn’t know you had. A recent example for myself involved women. I noticed other men took relatively few signs that a woman was interested and decided to act upon them. I realized within myself that I got a fair number of signs but dismissed them. This uncovered a couple key beliefs that had previously hindered me.
Along with direct research, understanding human psychology and reading about the scientific research in this area is invaluable in understanding yourself. Go pick out books about the psychology involved in whatever area you are struggling and you will uncover hundreds of beliefs that you didn’t realize you had.
Once you have uncovered your beliefs, you may want to change it. Fortunately this is easier than it sounds. Belief changing is mostly about truly recognizing the belief. Until you can see it clearly it cannot be changed, but when a belief becomes conscious it is much easier to change.
The way to change beliefs is quite simply to test them and then to get multiple perceptions of your results. In order for you to think it is a belief and not just fact, doubt must already have been created which loosens the beliefs hold. This method allows you to break the self-reinforcing structure of a belief and disregard it for good.
Testing involves taking your belief and experimenting it in reality. So if your belief was that people will dislike it if you talk with them, go up and talk to people and get some results. Beliefs don’t change through trickery but reality. When you start getting contradictory results your belief will crumble.
Multiple perceptions of your results is incredibly important too. Sometimes your belief has to do with how you perceive an outcome and not the outcome itself. With myself I figured when I was being confident and funny with women and the response was good I usually assumed that they were just being friendly or appreciated the conversation. By using multiple perceptions I also realized that this was just one way of seeing things.
It may seem odd that I am placing more emphasis on discovery of beliefs over changing them, but I have found in my own life that whenever a belief is hard to change it is either because you didn’t really discover it, or you were unwilling to test it.
Go through your own life and see if there are any hidden beliefs that are robbing you of success and happiness. Then change those beliefs and build an empowering alternative. Ultimately you build your own life out of the beliefs and associations you have. Build a good one.