What is a belief?
A belief is simply something that you think is true. Beliefs are critical because we use them to make sense of what's happening around us. Imagine if you had no beliefs, you had no idea what things meant; you would have to interpret everything you saw and heard afresh, you'd go mad trying to make sense of all the information assaulting your senses!
Beliefs come in many forms; generally they let us know what things mean, and what things are likely to lead to. To take a tangible example, from time to time we make generalisations e.g. we know what a window is, and how to open it, based on the ones we've seen before. From time to time we may come across a new kind of window latch and we can update our beliefs about how they open accordingly, at least we don't have examine each one as it we'd never seen it.
Beliefs are a bit like a filter on our brains. They let us know what information to pay attention to, and what to ignore. We tend to notice things that re-inforce what we already think, and reject information that doesn't match our views. Sometimes we might even distort what happens to make it fit our way of thinking. An example of this is rejecting feedback because it doesn't fit with how you see yourself, I'm sure from time to time you or your colleagues may have done that?
Where do beliefs come from?
Beliefs come from all sort of places. It's important to know that for every belief we have, even if we don't think it's helpful now, it was a useful belief at the time we created it. Beliefs come from a number of sources:
Social norms - big boys don't cry for example
Our parents, teachers, siblings and other responsible figures
Experience over time - when we have a number of similar experiences beliefs start to form e.g.love leads to pain, conforming leads to being accepted at work
A significant experience- sometimes one big experience can significantly change our perceptions and beliefs about something, this can be a positive, or troubling experience e.g. having a baby or getting married often updates people's beliefs
Why do beliefs matter?
Beliefs are there to prove themselves right. Once they are in place, you'll unconsciously take account of all the evidence that re-enforces them, overlooking evidence to the contrary. This is great news when a belief is supportive and helpful, it's a little more problematic when your belief is holding you back.
To take an example, in a recent presentation skills course, a delegate was telling me that she just can't present in a work context, she gets very nervous and as a result forgets what she was going to say, and doesn't come across well. Her belief that she's no good at it is no doubt fueling her nervousness, and making the problem worse.
During the workshop I noticed the same delegate speaking eloquently, confidently and persuasively to a table of eight colleagues. She was presenting her point really well, in a work context, doing all the things she believes she can't. When I pointed this out, she was really surprised and pleased, it offered a different perspective, hopefully that's one belief on the move!
Beliefs are very powerful. They have a big influence on:
What you notice - we tend to see and hear things that re-inforce what we think is true
The meaning you make from things - how you interpret events
How you feel, about yourself, others, and events
How you act and what you say
The good news is that beliefs are changeable, and that it's pretty easy to change them.
Can beliefs change?
I'm sure you can remember key moments in your life when a belief changed. For example, was it when you stopped believing in Santa Claus, or the moment you fell in love (having not believed in love at first sight), or when your view of a friend or a celebrity changed markedly because of something you heard? Have you ever pleasantly surprised yourself with your performance? Did you update your belief about how good you were, or did you write it off as a fluke?
Our beliefs naturally change and update all the time as we learn. We can deliberately update beliefs that are no longer helping us and when this change is not happening naturally.
How can beliefs be changed?
Step One is to realise that you have a limiting belief, as we aren't always aware of them. When you want to change your performance, or well-being, and you're not getting what you want, ask yourself 'why is it like this?' When we ask why, we tend to give explanations; you may learn a lot about what you think is true by asking that question!
Step Two is to update the way you talk to yourself about the limiting belief. We all have different beliefs, not everyone thinks about things the way you do, and that's really good to know because it means you have choice. So, ask yourself questions like:
How do I know that's true?
Is this always true? What are the exceptions?
What other ways of seeing this are there?
What else might be true?
What have I not noticed yet?
What might another person say about this?
For more information about challenging your thinking in this way, click here.
Step Three is to do something different, the golden rule if you're not getting what you want right now. Act as if you had a different belief, and you may well find that things start to shift for you. Ask yourself:
What would someone with a more positive belief do right now?
If I didn't believe x, what would I do?
The most important thing in Step Three is to go ahead and do something different, and then reflect on what happened, making sure you're noticing all the evidence, not just the bits that back up your old belief!