Your guide to breaking down and rebuilding unhelpful beliefs
“Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.” - Mahatma Gandhi
I chose to study Psychology for my undergraduate degree because I wanted to know, why do people do what they do, and why is it that I can I never do what I actually want to do?!
I quickly learned that if I was looking for a quick fix, or a “proven” method to change my behaviour, then I would be disappointed. There is no magic bullet that makes you eat less, save more or stop procrastinating.
There is, however, a reasonable body of evidence that shows that what you think influences what you do. Since what you do influences your outcomes, then you better be clear about what is going on in your head if you want your life to follow a plan that you have designed.
After many years of struggling, I finally got over some deeply held beliefs that held me back in my career and threatened to ruin the relationship I had with my mum, all by working out just what the heck I was thinking.
In this post, I will explain exactly how I became a master of my thoughts and how you can make your thoughts work for you.
Conscious Beliefs — The Tip Of The Iceberg
There is a body of evidence which shows that your beliefs:
- about your own capability (self-efficacy)
- what you perceive other people think (normative beliefs)
- regarding how much control you think you have in getting the outcome you want (locus of control)
all influence your behaviour.
Let’s illustrate this with an example, imagine that the goal is to be a profitable entrepreneur and work for yourself.
Positive Pete believes that:
- He is confident that he can run a successful business.
- His friends and family are supportive and want him to succeed.
- He knows that if he puts in the hard work, he will see the results.
Tentative Terry, on the other hand, believes that:
- He is not sure if he can run a successful business, he’s never done it before.
- His friends and family don’t think that he can do it, no one else they know has been an entrepreneur.
- Whether or not he succeeds will be largely down to luck.
Who do you think would be the most likely to go ahead and launch their business?
Why would you put in all that hard work, effort and investment if you truly think you can’t do it and you won’t be successful?
The theory of Cognitive Dissonance suggests that it is uncomfortable to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time, and that your beliefs and behaviours need to be congruent with each other.
If you ask a smoker why they continue to smoke despite the undeniable health risks, they will likely cite a belief that is consistent with the idea that smoking will not seriously harm them. For example, “my gran smoked until she was 80 and she was fine!” or, “I only smoke a few light cigarettes a day, those people who get ill are heavy smokers.”
It would be difficult to justify continuing to smoke if the smoker believes that they are killing themselves. It is much easier to minimise dissonance and select a new belief that fits in with their behaviour.
Our friend Tentative Terry will therefore experience tension if he works on his business and simultaneously does not believe that he has what it takes to be an entrepreneur. This tension might surface in the form of procrastination, self-sabotage and low motivation.
Examining and Re-writing Your Conscious Beliefs
You will often have a good insight into your conscious beliefs because they are well, conscious. To liken the mind to an iceberg, these beliefs are the tip of the iceberg, you know you think this stuff, and you can also hear it because it comes out in what you say.
I once watched this program which is like a life swap where rich people live the life of a poor family and vice versa. This particular poor family upon entering their magnificent new home for the week walked around with their jaws on the floor gasping “oh my goodness, I could never live in a house like this!!!”
It is pretty evident what their conscious beliefs were regarding wealth. Unfortunately, according to Cognitive Dissonance theory, that family will never be wealthy and live in an amazing house if they continue to think that way.
OMG, the Instagram meme is true!
You do have to believe it in order to achieve it.
The cool thing about beliefs though is that they are not true. In fact, you can have a belief that has zero grounding in reality, why else would you get those awful performers on talent shows?
No one can definitively prove an opinion, you can only have evidence for or against it. That is why we have debates and wars and different religions.
There is no one truth.
So if you are more likely to identify with Tentative Terry than Positive Pete, then it’s time to become a detective and find some additional evidence which will support some new positive beliefs and refute the old negative ones.
One of the best ways to do this is to find a role model/s who has struggled with similar circumstances as your own but has already done what you want to do.
- Richard Branson showed that you don’t need to go to university to be a successful entrepreneur.
- Oprah Winfrey showed that you can thrive and have a successful career despite being a victim of abuse.
- Peter Dinklage the actor who played Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, showed you don’t need to conform to the normative standards of male beauty in order to be a respected actor.
- Andrew Taylor showed that you don’t have to follow conventional rules around dieting in order to lose weight (he only ate potatoes for a year and lost 50kg).
If they can do it, you can do it.
Seriously, why not?
What do you think?
What could you think?
Once you have cross-examined your beliefs, it’s time to update them in light of new evidence. You won’t automatically adopt your new beliefs straight away, but every time you find yourself going down the track of your old thoughts stop yourself and go “no, that was the old me. The new me thinks this…”
Every time those negative, disparaging words fall out of your mouth, catch yourself and go “no that was the old me. The new me thinks this…”
And if you feel like you are faking it before you truly believe it, then it might just be enough to question your status quo and ask yourself “why not me?”
“It always seems impossible until its done.”- Nelson Mandela
Core Beliefs — The Hidden Underbelly
Okay so conscious beliefs were the warm up. Now it’s time to sink into the grittier core, or subconscious beliefs.
Even in light of new evidence, some beliefs remain pretty steadfast and unchangeable. For these beliefs, you may have to dig deeper.
To go back to the iceberg of the mind metaphor, core beliefs are the larger submerged portion of ice that you are not necessarily aware of. They are part of your subconscious and they are important because they drive your conscious thoughts and behaviour. Core beliefs are also one of the basic tenets of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Two-second detour — I found that there is an official name for this submerged portion of ice which has the best name ever, the bummock. Totally my new favourite word.
Anyway, core beliefs tend to be strongly held and rather inflexible. They also most commonly relate to conceptions of competence, lovableness, fairness and money.
Unlike conscious beliefs that you think in your head, core beliefs are deeply held hidden rules about the way we view the world and they play out in our lives over and over again.
“Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.” — Buddha
Core Belief Example 1 — Competency
I had a deeply held core belief about my own competency. See if you can identify what it was from the following narrative.
I graduated with a First (the highest degree class you can achieve) from a top 10 University (in Psychology — lol, the irony) and went straight into a low paid unskilled job. And then another and another…
I then completed my Master’s degree (this time in Health Psychology) and when I finished I allowed myself to apply for a somewhat skilled job in the NHS.
I interviewed for the role and the panel were so impressed that they offered me a job which was a grade higher than the one I applied for.
After a few more years and promotions, I decided that I really enjoyed my work but I wanted to become an entrepreneur and earn my living by helping people solve their problems about how to change their own behaviour.
So naturally, I applied for and secured a part-time PhD…
What was my core belief?
When it’s laid out like this, I hope it becomes apparent that I didn’t think that I could succeed in my career, unless I had proof in the form of lots of letters after my name.
This core belief meant that I spent years applying for low skilled, low paid jobs and very expensive education programmes. I needed the security of a degree/s to show myself that I was capable, because deep down I didn’t think I was without them.
The unfortunate thing is, I didn’t realise this until I reached the halfway point in my PhD. At this point which comes after two years of studying, every student must make the decision whether they want to continue and upgrade to a full PhD, or exit with a Masters.
I had been killing myself working, studying, trying to set up my business on the side and live a normal life. It was completely unsustainable and the pain forced my realisation that if I wanted to be an entrepreneur and help people, then I do not need to have a doctorate. So I exited my programme with a new core belief and another Masters degree.
Core Belief Example 2— Lovableness
I love my mum. She is the kindest, generous most wonderful person and gave me the most brilliant childhood. She is also an older parent and we have almost nothing in common.
I moved out of my parent’s house in 2012 and moved half-way across the country from them a few years after that. We try and visit each other about once a quarter for a few days at a time.
Before our visits, I would always have to mentally prepare myself. Sometimes my mum would go on and on about something that I thought was inconsequential, often she’d tell me what to do and I’d get frustrated. We wouldn’t really argue because I had enough self-control to not let it escalate that far, but I frequently found myself irritable and bad-tempered around her which is highly unlike me. This made me feel guilty because I didn’t always enjoy hanging out with her and I hated myself because of it.
One night my partner and I were talking about our goals for the week. He asked me what mine were and as I was visiting my parents that weekend, I said I wanted to be a good daughter.
Well, it was like a red flag to a bull and he went into full therapist mode...
“What do you mean by that Alison?”
“Well, just that sometimes my mum annoys me and I get frustrated, and it makes me feel bad that I can’t enjoy having a normal conversation with her.”
“Give me an example.”
“Oh I don’t know, sometimes she just goes on and on about potholes, or cleaning or other boring stuff and I just don’t really care. But I know it’s important to her, but I can’t make myself care! Like I really try, but then I just end up feeling irritable and guilty for not being a better daughter to her.”
“What does being a good daughter look like?”
“Having a nice conversation with her, caring about whatever she is talking about and not feeling so irritable all the time.”
“Do you think it is reasonable for a 70-year-old woman and a 30-year-old woman to always have loads in common and enjoy sparkling conversation?”
“Well no, not really. We are at different stages of our lives and we are interested in different things.”
“Is it okay that a 30-year-old woman finds a conversation about potholes boring?”
“Yes, I suppose it is okay.”
“Does it mean that because you feel irritable or you find talking about potholes boring, that you are a bad daughter?”
“Err no… I suppose not.”
“Do you think that your mum might think you are pretty good daughter because actually you phone her all the time, remember her birthday and are going to visit her?”
“Yes, that probably makes me a good daughter.”
“So why are you crying your eyes out Alison?”
“Because I am absolutely ridiculous and I can’t believe that I have felt this way for so long and not done anything about it!”
I had a core belief, that in order to be a good daughter (and for my mum to love me) that I must never find her boring or annoying. Every time I felt guilty or irritable in her presence, I violated that belief which made me feel like a bad daughter and therefore unlovable.
The thing is, I didn’t know that I held that belief.
Only when I was forced to articulate what had been bubbling under the surface for years, could I uncover my core belief and see it for what it actually was.
Which was totally wacko and unrealistic.
After I realised what was going on in my head, I made a new core belief. It was okay to find my mum boring or annoying, we are different people at different stages in our lives. It does not mean that I love her any less or am a bad daughter.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” — Marcus Aurelius
Take Action — Uncovering And Re-Writing Your Core Beliefs
Now I have bared my soul, it is time to work out what core beliefs are holding you back and hold them up to the cold light of day.
This is my step-by-step guide of how to uncover and re-write your core beliefs.
Get your detective hat out again.
1. Pick one area of your life that you want to examine.
It will most likely be an area where you consistently feel stuck or have a lot of associated negative emotions.
2. Explicitly articulate what your core belief is.
There are three strategies which you can try to get deep enough to figure it out:
- Write out your life narrative in that area.
- Go for a long walk and just talk to yourself, use the voice recorder on your phone to capture any insights.
- Find your most emotionally intelligent friend and ask them to play devil’s advocate and challenge your assumptions. Record this conversation on your phone as well.
Look for themes around decision making and examine events that took place prior to you experiencing any negative emotions. Push yourself to articulate any vague statements, e.g. “good daughter”…what does that actually mean?
What keeps coming up for you over and over again? This is most likely your core belief.
3. Write out your core belief in plain English and interrogate it.
Treat that core belief as a dangerous suspect and cross-examine that motherf***er! Ask yourself:
Does it make sense?
Is it realistic?
Is it reasonable?
Do you have any evidence to refute it?
4. Consciously create a new core belief.
Craft a new core belief and write it down. If you are finding this tricky try and move from black and white, all-or-nothing thinking, to a more easy going grey area.
Give yourself bonus points for making your new core belief rhyme, e.g. “I can succeed without degrees.” There is some evidence which shows that rhymes are perceived as more truthful and they are also more memorable.
5. Use your new core belief as often as you can.
Notice when you might be in a relevant situation that calls for your new core belief and plan to use it. For example, now when I see my mum I remind myself that it’s okay to feel bored or irritable in her presence, it doesn’t make me a bad daughter.
You can also remind yourself of your new core belief at irrelevant points in the day. I often run through mine when I am walking my dog or stretching. If it’s a really good, day I will write them down as affirmations in my journal.
6. Treat yourself with compassion and curiosity.
As soon as I understood and articulated those two core beliefs I changed instantly. It was truly night and day difference. But remember that these are very entrenched views and that it might take a lot of time and effort in order to accept them and change your behaviour.
I am currently working on a core belief around money and this is proving to be a lot trickier and stickier. But I’m okay with that, the fact that I am even working on myself is to be celebrated and I know that I will get there at some point. Just as I know that if you do the work, you will get there too.
Please share your experiences in the comments below. Are any thoughts that are keeping you stuck and holding you back? Do you have any strategies or tips on how to become a master of your thoughts?