Updated: Dec 18, 2020
We can adjust our beliefs, as our understanding of ourselves and the world evolves and deepens.
What are Beliefs?
belief : something that is accepted, considered to be true, or held as an opinion : something believed
: conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence
What shapes our beliefs?
What shapes our beliefs? Mine, yours, specifically and collectively, of our neighborhoods, cities, states, workplaces, countries, etc. We’ve seen a polarization politically and socially recently. Relationships have always been fraught, and with hard-won rights and freedoms for human beings with difficulties of various sorts, come complicated questions to grapple with. Power relationships are shifting. People, as well as communities and nations, hate change as much as they love progress and novelty.
Here’s the problem.
Sometimes we hold onto old beliefs that literally make no sense anymore in our current lives. Young people see this readily in relation to old people! Fashion, technology, communication, all these things are changing the face of our relationships and how we interact with people, and we are projecting a whole lot of very specific beliefs out to the world at large.
That there would be misunderstandings and both aggression and defensiveness tied tightly together is inevitable, and as much as we like hearing everyone’s voices and expressing our own, it becomes cacophony. So how do we figure out what is “true,” and what makes sense to us. Individually.
Our beliefs are deeply ingrained
Our most core beliefs come from our childhoods, and we learn them at the earliest ages. Some of us were lucky and were praised and loved and were able to absorb information in healthy ways that unfolded easily as we developed. Others aren’t so lucky, and they have to incorporate confusing, random messages, sometimes violence and anger unconnected to their own actions, unpredictable expressions of love and attention, which just logically would seem to breed disconnected anger and unstable emotional expression in turn. (Not a doctor or a Ph.D. here, and I don’t have a study to quote on this, but this seems like common sense.)
Then, more specifically, we hear certain repetitive themes that we start to attach to ourselves. We hear:
You’ll never amount to anything
Who cares what you think
What’s wrong with you
Who do you think you are
You’re fat (lazy, stupid, ugly)
Later, we start to tune into our early peers and other important people around us. Sometimes we are traumatized. Sometimes we feel lonely, misunderstood, neglected. And some live out horrible realities all the time. Some find kindness or people they trust and respect who can implant some alternate ideas.
Sometimes we get those confused, though, or we focus on the wrong things. Someone says, “You’re pretty,” and we hear, “If you’re not pretty no one will like you.” Someone shows appreciation, and that feels so good that we will do anything to feel that. Hormones kick in, and we start creating identities about ourselves in various ways, trying to incorporate all that feedback, so we can function in the adult world (hopefully). And most of us do. It’s an amazing thing about the human spirit, that we can struggle so hard and still prevail and survive.
So, we arrive at adulthood, stacked high with all of these “beliefs,” about ourselves, about how the world works for us (bad things always happen to me; no matter how hard I try, things never work out; everyone hates me; I’m worthless …) And our vision of the world is often skewed -- maybe always skewed.
But here’s the thing. EVEN if any of those things were true in the past, they may well not be now! Think about it. And think about how we sometimes turn to addictive behavior at the first hint of a reminder of those scenarios, so we don’t have to face those feelings that came with being told we were stupid and ugly and useless.
AND those things don’t have the power they did in the past! We were little children back then. We couldn’t make sense of things, and we did the best we could. Now, that doesn’t mean that everything we thought was wrong. But we want to learn to use good critical judgment on those, because sometimes these are the things that hold us back and we don’t even know it.
So how do we go about sorting through all of that. It feels scary and it sounds like hard work, and it’s pretty vague, too.
Looking at our Beliefs
Whenever I feel at a stuck place or frustrated about something I find an approach in which I assess what’s going on, zero in on what seems to be the core issue at the time, and then decide how I’m going to act.
Albert Ellis, founder of rational emotive behavior therapy REBT, a core branch of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) described a specific process for this type of thing with his ABC tool, an elegant way to process all kinds of things in life and come up with sane, calm approaches rather than over-emotional, damaging reactions (like anger or drinking) or short-term fixes for more entrenched issues.
I tend to find that we get bogged down sometimes in the details and try to account for every little thing, and we lose the plot entirely. When my brain is whirling, I need something that is simple, sensible, and applies regardless of the situation, and REBT and its thinking has proven durable for me. CBT in general is great. I find the simplicity and elegance of the way I was able to apply this, first to addictive behavior, and later on to literally everything in the world, really sturdy.
I think that if we really approached life with this kind of rigor of thought and purpose that the world would be a better place. Our institutions and our current fast, fast, fast, instant gratification, more, more, more, displays of power and wealth as measures of success orientations are temptingly addictive overall! Who wants to be out of the loop? Out of step? Not accomplishing? Not killing it all the time. But I just don’t know that it’s sustainable -- not without considerable sacrifice -- like with any other addiction. I digress.
In addressing addictive issues, I think it can really help to open up our thinking about what we believe. Sometimes our parents were WRONG. Sometimes we drew conclusions that were completely off-base.
Whose voice do you hear when you hear those negative thoughts now? Is it yours? Your mom’s or dad’s? Listen in. Was whatever was said even true at the time? Is it true now?
I talk a lot about compassion, but as with many things, it’s really about compassion for ourselves. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and sometimes we believe things that are a) faulty, b) not quite accurate, c) completely off-base; d) pure fantasy; e) old tapes that have nothing to do with real life anymore.
We can discard the beliefs that aren’t serving us well anymore. Think about that. We can do that! When we examine what we are thinking, feeling and saying to ourselves, we can CHANGE our thinking, which in turn changes how we feel and then act. This is a primary tenet of CBT.
So how in the world do we do that?!
Well, first off, I think it can help to start small. We don’t have to figure out how what we thought about the meaning of life was wrong right off the bat. We can start with little things. Like “I can’t stand it when ____,” or “you’re so clumsy.”
This last is one that I mention because I hear this in my head, even though I’m NOT particularly clumsy, and I don’t even think this consciously about myself. I don’t even know where it comes from, but I immediately say that, negatively to myself every time I bump into something or trip or anything like that. We can really make ourselves feel self-conscious and bad when we hear stuff like that all the time without addressing it!
Questioning our Beliefs
The 5 W’s: Who, What, When, Where, Why … plus How
One of the things that can help is to run through a list of the reporter’s 5 W’s:
Why? So, in trying to change the negative self-talk (and feelings it causes us), why do we care? Isn’t most of it unconscious? Well yes, but it seems to have an effect on us. Do we think it’ll help?
Who? Whose voice is this?
What? What is it about? What types of things?
When do you hear this? What are you doing? What types of thoughts turn this way?
Where? Same. (Walking through my mother’s door is a surefire one!)
Do you see all those questions!? A dear facilitator friend of mine used to say, “Questions are the answer.” This is a principle of motivational interviewing -- a technique and approach developed by William Miller, Ph.D. that is very useful in all sorts of therapeutic and supportive efforts.
Do this noticing lightly for a while. Just recognize those thoughts, and maybe remind yourself, “that may not be entirely true!”
Somewhere in this process, you may feel overwhelmed! We think negative things all the time. Don’t be discouraged by that. It doesn’t mean that you’re so messed up you’re hopeless. It’s just that you’re starting to see (hear) it now.
See if you find any themes or threads that keep coming up. Which are they? Maybe those could use a little more work -- like with Dr. Ellis’s ABC exercise.
Disputing -- the How
A process of questioning ourselves can be one way to approach -- our How. Albert Ellis calls this questioning, “disputing,” and I like that mainly because there’s a little bit of a challenge implied there, but really it’s just asking as many questions as you can possibly think of about your thoughts/beliefs. And some of our thoughts and beliefs are absolutely true! We’re not trying to question everything. Just the questionable, like the negative toxic stuff that is getting in our way.
We want to keep firm ideas about reality in the mix too. Just because things feel good doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good for us or that they’re setting us up well for the future. We can sometimes try to fool ourselves or others with all kinds of happy talk that really avoids and evades the questioning I’m describing. There are all kinds of reasons for that; yet another thing to be on the watch for.
So what do we do with all these negative thoughts?!
Well, once we start to question them, we can start to poke holes in them just a little bit. We don’t have to change what we believe all at once. It probably won’t work that way. Most of us won’t jump up and say, “I’m beautiful exactly how I am,” or “It’s okay that I haven’t accomplished everything my father had hoped for,” and mean it. I think we want to look at it as an incremental process.
Changing our Beliefs
Effective New Beliefs
REBT talks about finding “effective new beliefs,” and yes, that’s what we’re going for. I think that if we start small, it’s surprising what we can dislodge, and we can start to rearrange from there.
So look for little things. “Sometimes I look pretty good,” or “I haven’t accomplished ALL my father’s dreams for me, but I grew up to be a decent provider, or I have a kind heart, etc.” Little baby steps along the way. If it is just a little less absolute, negative, and demanding, that’s success!
Probably the most important concept and the one that’s foundational to Ellis’s work is that of Unconditional Self Acceptance (and further, acceptance of others and life itself). At the simplest level, that means that we accept that this is where we are (honest appraisal), and accepting that as fact. That doesn’t imply judgment. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It’s just an assessment at one point in time. From there, we can clearly see what we want to change and go after it. It’s a foundation for real change, not a stopping place. Like a springboard. This can take a lot of practice on all three dimensions!
Using Healthy Beliefs to Navigate our World
Beliefs are like a manual that we go by for day to day operations. Mostly they are fine. They align with our goals and our values, and they inform our thinking and give us some solid guidelines so we know what we feel about all kinds of topics and situations. Beliefs are generally useful, and they serve valid purposes for us. Sometimes, though, they become outdated and outlive their usefulness, and sometimes they are fundamentally flawed to begin with. We can look at and change those beliefs that aren’t working for us anymore. It’s not an instantaneous process, and the physical realities of life change for no man, but finding beliefs that are healthy and that serve us is very much under our control and is a worthwhile endeavor.
Here is a sheet with some common faulty beliefs and some alternate suggestions. The handout taken from Wayne Froggatt’s piece, Who Controls You, reprinted by SMART Recovery, and spruced up a little bit. Try reading it over a couple of times a day and start practicing as you go through your week.