There’s an old fable, similar to the concept that C.S. Lewis presents in The Screwtape Letters, of a devil and his young apprentice. They are monitoring a man whom they are in charge of tempting. They observe him finding peace beneath a tree. The apprentice anxiously pleads with the master devil stop this man from finding happiness. The master, with quiet confidence replies: “Do not worry my child. Our friend will develop a belief as to WHY he found happiness. This will lead to his undoing. We must simply sit back and allow it to happen.”
Beliefs are very dear to us. We hold them close. We cherish them. Like a warm blankie, they comfort us when we are in distress. They help us cope with hurt. They balance us when we are discombobulated. They help us to make sense of the uncertainties of life and are our answers to the enormous “Why’s.” They run very deep—to our core. They are so integral that they seem to form our identity. They establish for us what is right and what is wrong. They guide and influence decisions. Life is lived through them. Unless shockingly proved otherwise, beliefs are always true to us.
Why do we develop beliefs? Our brains want to make sense of life. Also, for those of us who are prideful, we want to be right! We want happiness. We want to avoid pitfalls and pain. We want some sense of certainty. We try to make the complex, simple and the illogical, logical. Our brains will come up with the best clarification they can for the events and circumstances in our lives.
I am fascinated by beliefs. They are the man behind the curtain (and they are running the show!). Although beliefs intend to comfort, they can cause intense emotional pain and mental distress. If you are experiencing a lot of pain, it could be that your belief system is out of alignment. Even though the intent of every belief is positive, there are some observable drawbacks.
Here is a list of the potential problems with beliefs:
PROBLEM #1: BELIEFS ARE LINEAR; LIFE IS NOT
I am not a mathematician by any means (in fact I am pretty close to the exact opposite). However, I did strangely enjoy basic algebra. I loved solving basic equations and finding solutions. Like basic algebra, beliefs tend to be causal, linear, and somewhat like an equation. The basic format of beliefs is: X happens because of Y. With beliefs, there is a sense of certainty in them. In fact, if you want to find out what you believe, just add the word “because” at the end of an emotionally charged sentence. This happened because ___________________. Or I know this is true because ___________________.
Although beliefs and equations are linear, life is not! Simple explanations for our complex emotional and cognitive experience are not always correct. What we feel is always true, but our description of that feeling may or may not be. Life has unexpected twists and turns that may not fit our equation. In order to cope, sometimes we need to adapt and be flexible.
PROBLEM #2: BELIEFS UNITE, BUT CAN ALSO DIVIDE
Beliefs unite families, groups, and entire cultures. However, they can simultaneously and unintentionally place pre-eminence and power of one group over another. If I believe that I am in the “in” or “right” group, I may accidentally send the message that others are excluded (or not wanted). Being a part of a tightly-knit community can lead to a sense of meaning and acceptance. Cultural pride and unity are important. However, it can also lead to conflict with and judgment from other groups who hold opposing views.
It is embarrassing to acknowledge some of the collective, divisive beliefs that our societies have held. “Our group is more privileged or better than your group” based on skin color, hair color, inheritance, or even lineage. Sadly, the list is extensive. It’s devastating to think about the amount of abuse and suffering that have happened by collective, cultural beliefs.
Conflict due to differing beliefs doesn’t only happen on a cultural level, but within families and marriages as well. Differing beliefs are one of the core reasons that couples experience conflict and seek out therapy: Tell me Mr. Marriage Therapist, who is right here and who is wrong? I usually respond: You both are!
PROBLEM #3: WE TEND TO HAVE NEGATIVE BELIEFS ABOUT OURSELVES
Whenever I tell my three year old how awesome he is, he simply responds “yes, my am!” If I happen to tell an adult how incredible they are, the conversation turns into some sort of twisted debate as to why that couldn’t possibly be true: “oh, I’m not anything of the kind, but thank you for being so nice.” Where does this positive confidence and golden self-image go? How do we go from believing we are simply awesome, to vehemently opposing the idea?
Negative beliefs stem primarily from a combination of individual experience and culture. We live in a culture that has defined ideals (and blaring evidence that we are not measuring up to them). We are not good enough, smart enough, fast enough, strong enough, or good-looking enough. Enough!!! We are enough! Period (I guess that was an exclamation point)!
Some of the most tragic beliefs are the ones that are kept locked up within one’s own psyche and soul. Even though we can’t see them, they lead to disconnection and isolation. These tend to revolve around one’s worth as an individual. I have the honor to hear these beliefs and eventually challenge them in therapy. One of the great battles in a therapy office revolves around the limiting concept someone has of themselves and the admiration and respect the therapist has for them.
PROBLEM #4: BELIEFS ARE OFTEN LIMITING IN SOME WAY
In Wicked, When Elphaba was born green, she didn’t believe there was anything wrong. In fact, she was initially convinced that it was unique and special—sure to lead her to distinction and recognition. It wasn’t until she went to school, was made self-conscious, and was ostracized from her peers that she realized she was limited.
Our minds are limited. We do the best we can to describe important concepts and events, but some things are indescribable—especially our worth. Shame is usually a limited perspective. Even a good belief can become great if we allow it.
PROBLEM #5: POSITIVE BELIEFS CAN BE NEGATIVE
The intent of almost every belief is positive and meant to be helpful. However, the implication may or may not be: “If you are worthy and good and do what is right, then you will be blessed.” Initially, this idea sounds wonderful. This is a common and deeply entrenched tradition that is imprinted on us from the time we are children. It isn’t just religious; it is cultural: “If you are on the good list, Santa Clause will bring you presents. If not…” Be aware of the opposite meaning that your beliefs could be sending.
SOLUTION #1: CHALLENGE YOUR OWN BELIEFS (NOT OTHERS)
Have you ever tried to tell someone that they need to change their beliefs about their religion or political views? How did that go for you? When someone’s belief system is threatened, they will usually close up and get defensive (or lash out, so be careful!).
Understanding that changing other people’s beliefs is an exhausting task, how do we challenge our own? How do we change our own lived truth? I find that the most helpful strategies with changing beliefs are to get curious about them. I call it (and I am finding others do as well) The Power of Maybe.
There is an incredible book written by Allison Carmen called The Gift of Maybe. Essentially, she writes that we all have common narratives (beliefs) that we tell ourselves over and over. “I know this is true and I know that is true.”
Just add the word “maybe” to any belief and it opens up new possibilities. “I am not smart enough.” Maybe… Maybe you just haven’t found the right teacher yet. “Crying is for wimps.” Maybe… But maybe crying shows strength and courage. Maybe it can improve your relationships. By challenging our need to be right, we open ourselves up to new experiences and become more able to grow personally and connect with others.
SOLUTION #2: RESPECT THAT OTHER’S BELIEFS ARE JUST AS VALID AND IMPORTANT AS YOURS ARE
Respect is such an underrated value. Showing respect to one another is important both on a cultural, as well as a familial level. There is a time and a place for healthy conflict and debate. However, when we incessantly focus on the need to be right, it can strain precious relationships.
One of the most basic ways to honor another human being is to just listen to them. They have a reason to think and feel the way they do. It can be hard to just listen when you adamantly disagree with them. However, it will broaden your perspective and improve your ability to show empathy. Dr. John Gottman (marriage expert), said that showing respect is one of the essential habits to a healthy marriage. Listening, not discrediting, will improve your relationships.
SOLUTION #3: BE FLEXIBLE
I have to admit, whether it is physically or emotionally, I am not the most flexible person in the world. I recently read a quote from the book Mind Gym: “The mind is like a parachute. It only works when it is open.” Being open to new ideas and perspectives is necessarily for survival.
I recall, with sensitivity, a close friend who confided in me their struggles, as a couple, with infertility. They had been through hell and back emotionally, financially, and mentally. Initially, in the darkness, they developed a belief that they had done something wrong to deserve this. Why would God curse them with an inability to do what they felt they were destined to do? They were doing the best they could to make sense of an extremely difficult circumstance (and intensely challenging emotions). Gratefully, they were open to other explanations that were far less limiting and significantly more empowering.
SOLUTION #4: SEE THE PERSON, NOT THEIR BELIEF
Research has shown that there are two types of problems: solvable and unsolvable ones. Differing belief systems fall in the category of unsolvable problems. Even in the most important relationships, you may never be able to reconcile differing belief systems. Don’t let this get in the way of connecting with the ones you care most about.
Sadly, I have seen over and over again, parents who are unwilling and unable to convey messages of love to their children due to a differing cultural perspective. I have seen couples contemplate separation or divorce due to uncompromising positions. Even strongly held beliefs do not comprise the entire person. Even though you disagree, the reason it bothers you so much is because you care so intensely about them. Rather than arguing your point, convey a message of love. Beliefs are not identity.
SOLUTION #5: YOU ARE ENOUCH, YOU ARE SPECIAL
Not to sound too much like a motivational poster, but look past your limiting beliefs and honor that you are important as well. Regardless of what you have been through, know that you are important and unique. Whatever you are feeling is important; your description of why you are feeling it may or may not be true. Don’t let your belief system get in the way of knowing that you are incredible. Let Dr. Seuss convince you: “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
If we look at children, they don’t have the intricate core beliefs we do—but they are happier! They don’t have the prejudice, shame, and negative self-concept that we develop individually (and reinforce culturally).
Beliefs are strong influencers on our lives. We can become more aware of what we believe and challenge our limiting or negative beliefs through curiosity. Let go of the need to be right and you may experience life in a wonderfully different way.
“It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities (beliefs).”