At some point, whether it’s halfway through our life, after some major loss or significant event, or during a period of pain or difficulty we all start to look at our lives and the different aspects of our lives and question whether or not it’s right for us, if we’re happy, if we made the right decisions or are doing the right things. We start to look at the people around us and wonder whether or not we even like them or want them in our lives if we feel good in our job or even believe it is the right job for us. We look at all of the areas of our lives and begin to wonder, “Am I living my life right? Is this the right life for me?”
This can be a wonderful experience, or a terrifying one, depending on the answers to those questions. Once we have an answer, another set of questions might pop into your mind; “Why is my life the way it is? How did I get here? How did things end up the way they did? What’s wrong with me?” Unfortunately for most, these questions can feel alarming and overwhelming. You might see a person attempt to make a radical change in their life after having the experience of these questions arising, such as buying a sports car, moving cities, changing their hairstyle, quitting their job, ending a marriage or relationship suddenly, or any number of things. They try to create a change in feeling, rapidly, hoping it will be the cure to the burden of those questions. As we’ve all seen, that doesn’t really work. In fact, it usually causes more problems, because once the intensity of the emotion wears down, they regret the decision and try like hell to fix what they’ve done.
What’s going on here? Why do these questions cause so much strife? And more importantly, how do we end up living the lives we live, having the experiences we have, with the people we’re having them with, in the way we are? How does our life end up where it is, and is it a life we’re truly happy with?
I hear these types of questions daily working as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. People come to me when they’ve hit their breaking point. They’re ready for something, anything to finally change so they can feel like themselves again…or maybe for the first time ever. They want clarity, they want answers, they want to know why they do the things they do, and more importantly, they want change. Whether it’s someone dealing with a serious mental illness, or someone who’s deeply unhappy but just able to perform their daily functions, the root problem is usually the same, there is a core belief that has been in charge for years, if not decades, running your life below the surface without you even realizing it.
The entire outcome and experience of our lives are shaped by the beliefs we develop and hold about ourselves. Our beliefs define who we are, the decisions we make, the emotions we feel, who we allow or don’t allow into our lives, and so much more. As Tony Robbins once said, “Our beliefs shape our destiny.” The problem with this is that most of us did not choose our beliefs, we developed them during childhood and they expanded or contracted throughout our lives based on a number of factors.
How Beliefs Form
Our beliefs start to develop the moment we enter this world. We’ve all heard the saying “Children are like sponges;” we absorb any and all information that is around us, whether it’s helpful or harmful, and that information starts to seep into our consciousness. We don’t choose our families, we don’t choose where we’re born, what the circumstances are that we’re born into, we don’t choose our gender at birth or the beliefs of those around us, and yet these factors all play a role in the beliefs we develop. If you’re from Sudan or South Philadelphia, your beliefs will be radically different just from the location you’re born in. These factors that we have no control over make an impact on what is around us, what opportunities we have available to us, what messages we hear, what from those messages we pay attention to, and thus what we start to believe.
So, our environment plays a significant role in what we believe, but there’s another aspect of this, too, and that’s the internal environment within us. What we choose to focus on, the meanings we assign to those things we focus on, and what we choose to do about it also shape our beliefs. Have you ever had the thought, “Why did my sibling and I end up so differently?” or if it wasn’t you and your sibling, a pair of siblings from another family? You think, “They grew up in the same exact home, had very similar experiences, how did they end up so differently?” A good example of this is my brother and I. To say we are exact opposites would be an understatement. We look very similar in appearance, but our entire perceptions and ideas about the world are different.
The way we viewed our childhood, the lessons we took from it, and how we saw our parents and our family were completely opposite, even though we grew up in the same house. The reason is that even though you may be in the same home, you don’t “see” the same things. Based on traits that are personal to you, you notice certain things, like or dislike certain things, assign certain meanings and interpretations, choose to take certain actions, are treated one way or another, and thus develop different ideas and beliefs about the world. The world around us, our perceptions of that world, and the choices we make that give us the experiences we have are what form our beliefs. And, as mentioned before, our beliefs shape our destiny.
Why Do Beliefs Matter So Much?
We don’t choose the beliefs we develop from a young age, but once these beliefs are developed, they become the driving force for every single experience we have from then on. Our beliefs become a lens through which we view the world. Everything we focus on, the meanings and interpretations we assign to those events and experiences, the emotions we feel, and the choices we make as a result all stem from the beliefs we hold. If you have a core belief that the world is a dangerous place and people aren’t to be trusted, you are going to navigate through the world much differently than you would if your belief was that people are generally good and you are safe. With that difference in belief, you will react very differently to the world around you, even the slightest noise will be significant and cause distress if your belief is the former.
Our beliefs are typically unconscious. Most of us don’t realize we are seeing the world through a lens, but our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all evidence of it. We develop beliefs about our worth, our lovability, and our capabilities. We develop beliefs about ourselves, the world, and the people around us. And whether these beliefs are helpful or unhelpful, adaptive or maladaptive, are why our lives end up the way they do, and why we may “wake up” 30 years later, in the midst of crisis, wondering how we got here. Those beliefs led to certain thoughts, emotions, and choices made. Those choices are why you are where you are, doing what you’re doing, living the life you currently have. And unfortunately for most people, it isn’t a life you consciously would have chosen. The good thing though, is that beliefs can change.
How Do You Change Beliefs?
There’s a false idea that has circulated the Earth for centuries; the idea that people don’t really change. There was even an entire song in the Disney movie Frozen where the trolls sang to Ana, one of the main characters, how Kristoff, her companion, wasn’t “ideal,” and couldn’t really change, but she could learn to love him anyways. Evolve Ventures was built on the foundational concept of evolution, the notion that human beings and everything else in the world are constantly changing, with or without conscious control. Humans change every single day, and we have the capacity to change radically, and for the better. I’ve seen clients go from having multiple suicide attempts per month, indulging in self-harming behaviors, and starving themselves, to being a top performer at their job, in a loving relationship, and feeling excited about their future. Change is the only thing that is certain in this world, and we do have the power to control it.
Step 1: Identify the Patterns
In order to start changing your beliefs, you have to become aware of them. One of the first activities I will take clients through is an exercise known as a Thought Record. A thought record is simply a piece of paper divided into four columns: situation, emotion, thought, and behavior.
Thought records are used to help you start understanding the perceptions, interpretations, ideas, insights, and memories that might come up in your life based on certain situations that you experience. Our thoughts stem directly from our beliefs, and once we can begin to understand your pattern of thinking, the emotions those thoughts produce, and your reactions and behaviors in response to them, we can begin recognizing and uncovering your beliefs. I typically suggest to clients to do this daily, and for a few weeks; take stock of the situations that come up that produce any change in emotion, positive or negative, and track it. We typically notice our emotions first, we recognize a change in how we feel and a physiological shift, like our stomach churning or our face becoming hot.
Once you have enough information, you begin to see patterns. We have certain patterns of thoughts and emotions about certain situations, for example, feelings of sadness and loneliness at nighttime, memories of anger when we see our parents, and thoughts of lack when it comes to work. These patterns are the foundation of our beliefs, and when we see the patterns, they clearly define what our core beliefs are: beliefs of our worth, beliefs of our lovability, and beliefs of our capabilities.
Step 2: Challenge the Beliefs
This next step is particularly challenging for most people because the thoughts we have and the emotions we feel seem so completely true. We’ve navigated through the world with these beliefs, thoughts, and feelings for so long that it feels almost impossible that any other idea could be true. We almost feel a sense of righteousness about them, looking for anything to validate the beliefs we have, even though they’re hurting us because we need some justification for how things have turned out, for how long we’ve held onto them, and the outcomes they have produced. We feel attached to these beliefs and can’t fathom letting them go. This is where many of my clients struggle, and where delicacy is required. Our beliefs have been the runway of our lives, and asking someone to change their beliefs is like asking them to let go of a piece of themselves, a piece that has outlasted anyone and anything.
The process of challenging thoughts and beliefs is simple, but the actual process of change can be incredibly hard. The process includes challenging and questioning the thoughts, assumptions, ideas, images, and meanings that are had and assigned to the situations that arise. This style of questioning is known as Socratic Questioning. A list of these types of questions can be found in the graphic below.
It’s best to get some help when you first start this. I typically suggest having a friend or someone you trust go through these with you; allow them to gently ask you these questions, and guide you to potential new answers. These are also incredible journal prompts to utilize if writing is a tool you use, which I always recommend to clients. The more you ask these questions, the better you will get at challenging the original thoughts that pop up, and over time, your previous thoughts and ideas will transform.
Step 3: Gather Evidence
The last step is also one that can be incredibly difficult but is the greatest method to really change these beliefs and build a new life. This step involves utilizing the first two, but with the added component of going out into the world and testing your beliefs; you have to gather evidence. What I will do with clients is something called a behavioral experiment. We take one of the beliefs that they hold and create an experiment to determine whether or not the belief is true. We discuss what the experiment will be, what thoughts and emotions arise in thinking about doing the experiment, predictions, and strategies to cope when the inevitable happens: your beliefs try to talk you out of doing it. The client will then go out and do the experiment, and almost every single time they see that their belief was not true, that in fact, the opposite of their belief was true, or a much more watered-down version of their belief was true. When you do this enough times, when you get exposure out in the world and take on new challenges, try new things, and surround yourself with new people, you begin to see that your beliefs were invalid, they were just there for so long that you couldn’t imagine believing anything else.
Our beliefs truly shape our destiny, and if you are unhappy with your life in any way, it’s time to start changing those beliefs, and reconstructing your destiny. I’ve seen it happen with the hundreds of clients I’ve seen over the years, I did this process for my own life, and now it’s time you do the same.
You don’t have to do this process alone,
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