In the last two posts I reviewed how the emotions of fear/anxiety and anger/frustration push us to say and do things that are against our best interest. I suggested taking a second or so to interrupt your emotionally reactive response and ask yourself the Master Question, "What is my goal — what do I want to see happen?" The answer will help you to not say or do something that carries you away from your goals.

This may seem difficult. After all, who wants to stop and think: "Is what I'm about to do or say really in my best interests?" Most people prefer to follow through on their impulses.

After decades of experience as a therapist I came to realize that the reason it's so difficult to change is because everyone struggles with both their habits and their beliefs. Habits are all the things you do to stay comfortable and reduce anxiety. For example, Justin comes home from work, turns on the TV, opens a beer and "chills" for an hour or two — or three. Justin's habit of "chilling" reduces stress. Without the TV and the beer, he'd feel tense and unsettled.

But Justin also complains about not having a girlfriend. Well, drinking beer and watching hours of TV won't get him closer to his (supposed) goal. But even if he really wants to change his habitual behavior, his beliefs keep him stuck.

Justin, like everyone else, has a complex belief system that acts as the software that runs his personality and determines his behaviors. Justin might believe that "relationships always fail anyway" so why bother. Maybe he watched his parents divorce early and never achieve relationship success, so he believes (unconsciously) that it's an impossible goal. Even if he tried to relate to a woman, it wouldn't work out. So he chills with a beer to assuage the anxiety of loneliness.

Justin's habits and beliefs work together, in one immoveable packagem to tie him up.

Everyone's personality is composed of a complex interlocking system of beliefs, beginning with the Mother of them all: self-esteem. How you think about yourself, whether you see yourself as valuable, competent, attractive, diligent, intelligent, etc. is only partly connected to actual reality. Most of your self-esteem is what you make up about yourself and believe to be true.

In fact, it might not be. The most classic example is Marilyn Monroe, who believed herself to be unattractive.

Most of us have known someone who acts with assurance regardless of their "factual" attractiveness. These people act confidently because their internal belief system tells them they are competent and therefore attractive.

On the individual level, real change can happen only when you recognize that it's your responsibility to feel, think and act differently. The same is true for the wider society. The reason it's so difficult to make meaningful social or political change is because a large bloc of people believe it's neither possible nor desirable. For instance, a common belief is that "government's the problem." Well, that belief blocks just about all progress.

And it blocks all progress for individuals too, until we simply decide, “I’m going to initiate a new set of beliefs.”

About the Author

Carl Alasko

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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