As soon as you start any personal development, you bump into the term “beliefs”. These are thought patterns that are set in our mind, mental shortcuts we use to make decisions quickly. The catch is that by not questioning our beliefs, we no longer keep an open mind about everything. And sometimes, keeping an open mind is just what we need.
Imagine you are learning to drive. Every little task requires mental effort and after driving around for half an hour, you get out of the car feeling exhausted. Over time and with practice, however, you get the hang of it and then you just go where you want to go.
Now, imagine you’ve been driving on the right side of the road for 10 or 15 years. And you move to a country where people drive on the left side of the road. Continuing to believe in your training and to assume that everyone drives on the right side of the road can be fatal.
Life is the same. As babies, we have to figure everything out, often with enormous effort, until we know it and start doing it as a matter of course. When we grown up, the circumstances change – we go to school, we grow in size, we move to another environment, we become adults, we have children, we grow old.
Holding on to beliefs from our first years of life may not be fatal, but it can seriously complicate our life.
Awareness: the start of an open mind
Another good part of personal development is “awareness”. It’s often mentioned in relation to meditation, some ancient eastern philosophy and spiritual practice, and many gurus encourage us to be aware all the time. My guess is that this puts people off.
Fortunately, there’s a middle ground, suitable for every person, which requires no special training and minimal effort.
Once in a while, we need to stop and ask ourselves, “Really?”
It’s good to check yourself periodically, but even better to do it when things seem to be repeatedly going the wrong way or when you notice you feel unhappy in similar situations, like when you have friction with someone and the conversation gets stuck at the same place every time.
You see, beliefs are a kind of filter. We run everything we experience through our beliefs and produce our own version of reality, our personal interpretation.
We may not be aware this is happening, but when our flight is delayed, the boss looks upset or someone gives us a knowing look or a smile, we subconsciously try to figure out what it means. Having a unique life, which produced a unique set of beliefs, we can only find out what it means to us.
So when we see someone smiling and we think it means they like us, it brightens up our day. We’re happy and our beliefs have done a good job. But when our boss’ mother found out she had cancer, which makes him preoccupied and short tempered and we think it means we have caused it somehow, it makes us stressed and miserable and our beliefs have gotten in our way.
Time to question our interpretation.
Whether we say these things aloud or we just think them quietly inside our head, the telltale signs of potentially harmful beliefs are:
- Rule expressions containing words like “must”, “have to” and “should”
- Sweeping statements, like “That’s the way to do it”, “That’s what everybody thinks”, “It’s the only solution” and “Nobody can do this”
- Statements about other people’s thoughts and abilities, such as “I know you’re gonna hate me for this” and “This is too hard for you”
- Over-generalizations, like “You always do this” and “You never listen”
- Expectations about the past, which have already been proven unrealistic, such as “Well, you could’ve told me” and “They could’ve done it better”
Mind opening exercise
For the next week, pay attention to the way other people speak. Note how they use rules, sweeping statements, assumptions about others, over-generalizations and past expectations. Just pay attention. Don’t comment about them. Remember that this exercise is about you and this is just the warm-up.
Whenever you hear a limiting belief being expressed by someone else, note any conflict with your own beliefs. For example, let’s say someone says, “Meat is good for you” (sweeping statement, assumption about others), and you’re a vegetarian. Notice the thoughts and emotions this arouses in you (possibly “No, it’s not. It’s better to be vegetarian. This person doesn’t know anything”).
In the following week, pay attention to the way you speak. As you get the hang of it, also start checking your self-talk, your thoughts and your emotions. When you catch yourself expressing a personal belief as a statement of fact, ask yourself, “Really?”
It takes too much effort to do this continually. But if you do it from time to time, this will gradually open your mind to other possibilities and other points of view.
Structured mind opening exercise
In life coaching, we use something called “the life wheel” to help our clients identify the areas of their life they would like to change. You can do this yourself.
Find a quiet spot and a block of time when you won’t be interrupted. Then, list the various aspects of your life: family, health, money and so on. Ask yourself how happy you are with each of these areas. Then, pick the area of life you’re the least happy with, where you have the most pain.
Write down why you think things are the way they’re in this area – why you’re not happy at work, why you don’t have enough money or why you’re overweight. Try to come up with all the reasons you can think of. When you run out of reasons, keep trying until you find more. When you get stuck again, keep trying until you find more reasons.
Now, look at your list of reasons and ask, “Really?”
Very often, it takes far more effort to eliminate old beliefs than it is to create new ones. This is because we’re unaware of most of our beliefs while they’re being created. And we accept them as part of who we are. This makes us want to protect them and fight off anything trying to eliminate them.
The answer is to examine ourselves with curiosity. By becoming aware of them and questioning them, they will gradually weaken until they disappear. In their place, we can form new beliefs that work better with an open mind.
Be happy in life,