When Beliefs Become Unempowering

Most people don’t realize they have a constricted sense of their abilities simply because of the beliefs they carry around in their heads.  Beliefs are good, particularly when they accurately reflect reality, but they can work against you when they don’t.  It was once believed physiologically impossible for human beings to run a mile in four minutes.  In 1952, Roger Bannister, a British middle-distance runner and neurologist broke that limitation during the Olympics.  After that, numerous people began to break the four-minute mile that was “believed” impossible for the human body to accomplish.  Beliefs are powerful things.

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Once we believe something, even just a little bit, it becomes harder and harder to change that belief.  We frequently engage in something psychologists call “belief perseverance.”  We use belief perseverance to maintain personal congruity.  Personal congruity is simply the idea that when we say we believe something and act on those beliefs we will continue behaving and believing in such a way that our beliefs and behaviors remain consistent.  If they become inconsistent, we find ways to keep them consistent.  For example, if we believe something, we often unconsciously search for evidence supporting that belief and ignore evidence contradicting it in order to maintain consistency.  The more invested we are in a belief the less likely we are to change it.  This experience of staying with something because we’ve invested ourselves into it is referred to as the “sunk-cost theory” in psychology.  We’re less likely to move away from a belief, activity, or behavior we’ve invested in even at the cost of losing everything.  We become overinvested and delude ourselves into thinking if we just stick with it things will turn around.

Because we have this experience with beliefs its important to frequently review what we believe about ourselves, the world that surrounds us, and how the future will unfold.  Who are you, really?  Do you think you’re simply the person stuck in that job because you spent the last fifteen years doing what you do in order to scratch out a living?  Can you be something more than you believe yourself to be?  What have you made a core part of your identity?  When you make certain beliefs a core part of your identity, you immediately make them a powerful enabling force in your life or a limiting factor that keeps you from becoming the person you want to be.  When I work with clients and hear the words, “That’s just not who I am” or “I’m the kind of person who…” I pay a great deal of attention to what follows.  These comments are probably some of the most important things they will share in regard to what they believe about themselves.  Let me give you an example to help clarify my point.

I had a client that wanted to quit smoking.  It was bad for her health, caused her social grief, and kept her from feeling free as more and more smoking limitations became a part of everyday living in the United States.  When she came to see me, she described herself in the following way: “I love smoking, I have been doing it since I was thirteen.  It’s been my best friend when things are rough, and I smoke to calm my nerves when I get stressed.  Sometimes, I like a cigarette after I enjoy something like eating a good meal or after making love.  Smoking is my enjoyable vice along with a good strong cup of coffee.  I guess the best way to describe myself is that I am a smoker and that’s just how I like to live.”

That “I am” statement says it all.  How do you help someone who smokes when they identify it as who they are?  Some people break the habit more easily because they see it for what it is; an addictive behavior that through some discipline and basic behavioral psychology can be broken and overcome.  However, when someone tells you it’s what they are, they’re basically saying they believe smoking is a significant part of their identity.  A number of artists, musicians, actors, and other artistically inclined people frequently identify smoking as part of their identity.  The “tough guy” types also see smoking as part of their identity.  For both these groups smoking isn’t something they do its part of who they are.  Significant motivation is required to get people who think this way to quit smoking because in their mind you aren’t asking them to change what they do but rather who they are.  Beliefs related to identity are hard to change.

I want to share with you a way to explore your beliefs and investigate the level of limitations they’re placing on your life.  Once you have identified these beliefs you can begin to explore how to change them.  First, list several words that describe who you are and what you do.  List words like “smart”, “attractive”, “Hard working”, etc.  Then, ask yourself, “Are these words describing who I am or activities I perform?  Categorize them into groups.  Label the first group “What I can and can’t do” and the second one “Who I am.”  Then explore each of these and see how they either limit or empower something about yourself.  Many of them will do both.  When we say we’re “Hard working” we know that means we’re able to stick with something and hammer away at it until we get what we want from it.  That’s a great character trait when you need to learn a new skill but how might that trait impact your personal life?  Do you “hammer away” at people until they give you what you want?  Look at how the belief about being “intelligent” might play out in your life.  A belief like that might seem like something positive.  Yet for many people, identifying intelligence as a part of their identity means when they can’t show other people how intelligent they are, they experience a personal crisis.  When someone feels their belief about intelligence is under attack, they get anxious and fearful about making mistakes and only engage in experiences where they can demonstrate their intelligence.  More importantly, they avoid challenging and new experiences that can help them learn something new and become a better person (See Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets)!

So, if you want to start looking at changing your life, start with your beliefs.  Begin exploring what they do for you and how they impact your personal growth.  Discover what needs changed and have the courage to challenge those limiting beliefs.  Sit with a trusted friend and have them speak honestly into this self-discovery process.  An outside perspective rather than just evaluating them yourself from the inside out can be very enlightening when done with love and your best interests in mind.  We will explore some of this later, but for now, take the time to complete this “belief inventory” and see what your beliefs are doing to you.  Remember, beliefs can either be empowering or limiting, knowing the difference is a great place to start for building the life you want to create.