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The anatomy of a belief.

beliefs thoughts Jan 25, 2019

I have spoken about beliefs many times as they are so important to how we perceive the world and show up in it. These beliefs run in the background, most of the time we are unaware they are influencing our decisions and judgements. I've learnt that becoming self-aware, and having mastery over which thoughts become reinforcing and which don't, introduces a sense of autonomy and agency to how you live your life.

Beliefs are really just thoughts that have been reinforced over time with direct experience (or sometimes without). Here's how I make sense of beliefs, explained with a little story about high jump.

This is Fred. He has never tried high jump before, has no past good nor bad experiences of anything that looks remotely like high jump. He is a person who enjoys new experiences, so runs towards the bar with abandon.

Unfortunately for Fred, the bar is set a bit too high for him, and he doesn't make it. The bar bumps him on the knee and it hurts. This is his first experience of high jump. Immediately after that sensed experience, his brain offers a thought, "that was too high for me". 

Soon after the initial thought, comes the emotion. This emotion is in response to the thought that is attached to the experience. Almost instantaneously another thought comes along that is eager to make meaning about what just happened. The sensed reality, accompanied by the thought and emotion must mean something. Fred's brain is very good at making meaning about events that happen to him. So in this instance, the combined events create the meaning that he is hopeless at high jump. 

Now Fred is in a bit of a predicament because he has entered a bit of a loop. This loop is the reinforcing cycle that exists between the emotion that he feels, of sadness and disappointment, with the meaningful thought that he is hopeless at high jump. The more he thinks about how hopeless he is is the more he feels the emotion, the more he feels the motion, the more sure he becomes that he's hopeless at high jump. And around we go again.

Then the next time Fred attempts to clear the bar, he is no longer unencumbered. He now has a fresh new thought that says that he is hopeless at high jump. And the link between mind and body is so strong, that what we think we tend to create in our world. So the thought affects the way his body responds and he doesn't clear the bar again. So his new thought is validated by another experience. Can you see how we can get stuck in this loop?

When you understand the anatomy of a belief, you are able to interrupt the process before it gets to the reinforcing and validating phase by controlling the thoughts you have in response to what happens to you.

Remember, your brain is going to find evidence for whatever you believe to be true, so make sure you become super vigilant about what thoughts you lay down. Test whether that thought and belief are actually going to help or hinder you from being who you want to be, or what you want to do in the world.

Fred felt sad because he really loves high jump. The belief that he is not good at it, doesn't really help him. If Fred had read this blog before he tried high jump, he would realise that he doesn't need to make meaning about the emotion or the thought post the event. He can leave it at, "the bar was too high for me, and I feel sad that I didn't make it." Then he could lower the bar, and have another go.

Remember, we are not our thoughts, we are able to observe our thinking and if we can do that, we can mess with them too... in a helpful way of course. When we can get into the habit of checking in with ourselves and asking whether the meaning we are making of an event and emotion is going to help us or set us back, we will be more impactful in our selves, our work, and our lives.

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