As someone living with the so-called Doubting Disease (a.k.a. OCD), I must confess there aren’t a lot of things I can say with certainty. One of them, though, is this: The antidote to doubt is ... belief.
Duh!, I can almost hear you mumbling. Fair enough, but here’s my question for you: Are you able to muster up and draw on your belief when you most need it to confront your everyday doubt? If so, I congratulate you and encourage you to scroll down to another blog post here at Psychology Today. If, however, you sometimes struggle to trust beyond your physical senses, or find yourself questioning your own good judgement, I invite you to read on and learn some lessons from the School of Hard Knocks, Department of Chronic Uncertainty.
What I have discovered, often in the hardest of ways, is that belief is something that needs to be built—step by step—again and again and again. It is the end product of hard work, and it demands of us four key commitments: reverence, resolve, investment, and surrender. I’ve come to think of these requirements as the “ingredients” of belief, and over the years, I have learned to follow a simple recipe for putting them all together.
In hopes that it will prove as helpful for you as it has for me, I humbly share with you my Recipe for Making Belief *
Step 1. Choose to see the universe as friendly.
This is where it all starts—with one simple choice. As Albert Einstein once said, “The single most important decision any of us will ever have to make is whether or not to believe that the universe is friendly.” Think about all the wisdom packed into that statement. First, belief is a choice, a willful decision. Second, no belief is more significant than the way we choose to view our world. And third, the key is not to decide through logic whether the universe is friendly (an impossible task even for a mind like Einstein’s), but rather to choose whether we believe it to be friendly. To this, Einstein added: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Again, I say, Wow. My interpretation of these two Einstein-isms: “Choose to believe that the universe is friendly, and choose to live your life with reverence.” This, for me, is the first and most essential step in making belief. It puts the universe squarely on my side in battling doubt and asks nothing of me other than my willingness to affirm that I am part of some fundamentally supportive life system—even if all outward signs suggest otherwise.
Step 2. Embrace the possibility in every moment.
If the universe is friendly and working in support of me and all of its other infinite parts, then every moment of this life is rich with possibility. Since I am choosing to believe the former proposition, I must also choose to believe the latter. So how do we tap into the possibility of each and every moment? The short answer is through the reverential practice of seeking meaning and purpose at every opportunity. To that end, choose to look at life as a classroom and ask yourself at every turn, In what ways can I learn from this moment?
Step 3. Affirm your Universal potential.
Doubt, I have discovered, consumes from the inside out. It gnaws away at your very core, and left unaddressed, it can rob you of your true identity. During my darkest years, I lost sight of who I am, instead identifying with my endless doubts. I had to learn that I am not my doubts. And neither are you. The trick to doing this, I believe, is learning to mindfully observe your doubt-filled thoughts. You’ll come to understand that the part of you capable of observing your thoughts is much bigger and more powerful than those thoughts. That part of you—the real you—is also part of a Friendly Universe. And, in much the same way that a wave is made of everything you’ll find in an ocean, you are filled with the full potential of a Friendly Universe. Affirm it!
If Steps 1, 2, and 3 of the making belief process point us in the right direction for escaping doubt, then the next two aim to keep us from turning back. They are the steps we need to take when our sense of reverence is tested—as it will be again and again. And they are arguably the toughest steps.
Step 4. Put your commitments ahead of your comfort.
Allow me to share with you what I’ve come to call The Uncertainty Paradox: The key to living with uncertainty is learning to embrace the discomfort of uncertainty. A harsh reality, perhaps, but one supported by both ancient philosophies and recent scientific studies. If we're committed to making belief, then we must be willing to get—and stay—uncomfortable. As bestselling author Pema Chödrön writes: “The central question... is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort.” As she goes on to note, “Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears.”
Step 5. Keep sight of the big picture and the Greater Good.
Delivering on commitments requires both perspective and motivation. Doubt loves to distort our vision, often by narrowing our field of view. The best defense, I have learned, is to pull back the lens, farther and farther and farther. On December 24, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first humans to see Earth as a whole planet—a giant blue marble floating in space. As philosophers have noted ever since, this was a game-changer for all mankind. Just try to look at an earthrise photo and not shift your perspective in constructive ways!
Keeping sight of the big picture goes a long way in building inner strength. But it’s only half the equation. The other half requires that we identify for ourselves specific ways in which we can pursue our Greater Good—that is our role in an infinitely greater Universe-al plan of which we are a part. For me, the most effective way to do this is to ask myself two questions: (1) In what ways can I be of service to others? and (2) In what ways can I build my own sense of purpose? Try this, and I think you’ll find the answers are always right in front of you, offering motivation you didn’t know you had.
Armed with reverence and resolve we are now ready to invest in our cause, as we must do consistently and repeatedly if we are to make belief. It is here that we take control of what is ours to control, and with these next three steps, we draw with confidence on our own free will.
Step 6. Claim and exercise your freedom to choose.
I’ve read a lot of books on this subject over the years, but none has impacted me more than Stephen Covey’s classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. From Dr. Covey I learned numerous strategies for investing in belief, the most fundamental of which is to tap the power of proactivity—that is, to practice willfully inserting my freedom to choose between the stimuli I’m confronted with and my responses to them. It’s worth noting here that this exercising of our free will is a form of training, no different really from what athletes do in between their big games. It’s often extremely uncomfortable, but it also offers us endless opportunities to invest in our belief.
Step 7. Picture possibility and “direct” your attention.
Philosopher Emmet Fox once wrote, “Look where you are going, because you will inevitably go where you are looking. Where your attention is, there is your destiny.” I admire just about everything Fox ever penned, but this particular observation is priceless. In two short sentences, Fox addresses both the value of picturing possibility and the importance of our attention and where it takes us.
So how do we direct our attention with regards to doubt? For me it boils down to remembering this: While we can’t choose our thoughts and feelings, we CAN choose how much attention we give those thoughts and feelings. Specifically, we can choose not to give our doubt-filled “what if” questions the power of our attention. This is tricky business, but with enough mindfulness practice, it gets easier and easier. I promise.
Step 8. Act from abundance in ways that empower.
You might say this step is where the rubber meets the road. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my recovery experience, it’s that when it comes to escaping doubt, there are no shortcuts. No way out of doing the hard work. No way around actually act-ing. Accepting that we need to act, the question becomes, How should we act? The answer, I believe, is twofold: first, “from abundance,” and second, “in ways that empower.”
Acting from abundance is a popular concept in the success literature and one that makes a lot of sense to me. In essence, it means choosing to believe that there’s enough (of everything) to go around. Given that we’ve built this entire making-belief process on the premise that the universe is abundantly friendly, it makes sense that we choose to recognize the abundant nature of life itself. Right?
As for acting in ways that empower, here’s a simple question to ask yourself: Am I doing this or that because it’s of service to someone else and/or enhances my own sense of purpose, OR am I acting out of fear and doubt to relieve my anxiety? The answer can be sobering.
I have a reminder I like to keep nearby: “Never give up. Always surrender!” For me, giving up means admitting defeat, throwing in the towel, raising the white flag. Surrendering, on the other hand, refers to the immensely powerful practice of accepting what I cannot control and letting go of my attachments to those things. Our final two steps aim to help us do just that.
Step 9. Accept and let go of what you cannot control.
Recognizing the many, many things we’re not in control of is a sobering, humbling process. But doing so allows us to take two key leaps of faith: (1) accepting, and (2) letting go of what we cannot control. Acceptance is a reconciling between the way we’d like things to be and the way things actually are—in that moment. It does not mean throwing our hands up in the air and giving up all our universal power. On the contrary, it means exercising that power by using our free will to accept what’s not ours to change so that we can direct our attention to that which is in our control.
Step 10. Allow for bigger plans than your own to unfold.
Do you ever find yourself clinging to your own best made plans? Of course you do; you’re human! Surrendering, letting go: these are not easy tasks for most of us. But here’s the thing about a Friendly Universe. It “sees” a larger, grander plan than you and I can see. It will support each of us in our individual Greater Good pursuits at every turn, but it will also fit these pursuits into what you might call a universal Greatest Good. And for that to happen, we must be willing to loosen our death grip on our plans for life!
So there you have them: my ten steps out when stuck in doubt. If they speak to you, I hope you will give them a try. If they push your belief comfort zone—I especially hope you will give them a try! And for much more on all this, please visit me online at BeyondTheDoubt.com.
Here’s to believing… beyond our doubts!
*Portions of this blog are excerpted by permission (from myself!) from When in Doubt, Make Belief.