Calling Bull***t on Your Beliefs
How challenging your cognitive biases can start to change your life.
Posted Oct 09, 2020
The woman rummaging through clothes next to me at the department store is a judgmental snob. The family that lives next door to me, whose conversations I can sometimes overhear, is totally dysfunctional. Some of my friends have completely childish and immature ways of dealing with life. My boss is too demanding; she doesn’t appreciate anything I do.
People are out to get to me.
The future is uncertain.
The world is a terrifying place.
Aside from the particularities, does any of what you just read sound familiar? I would bet that, to some degree, it does. And the reason I’m willing to bet so is because if you’re reading this, you have a human brain, and the human brain is—among many things—a judging instrument. It takes in information from the outside world and makes assessments. It generates assumptions and creates distinctions, which is what helps determine what each of us thinks, feels, and does in response to the world around us. This is generally a good thing. If not for our brain’s capacity to process information, we’d have no way of making sense of anything or making our way through the world.
But here’s the tricky part: Our brains don’t process things in a neutral way. What we perceive and interpret depends on the beliefs we have in place. You know the expression “Seeing is believing”? Well, it’s really a lot more like “Believing is seeing.” Whatever we believe about ourselves, other people, the world, and life in general shapes what we see. And it gets trickier. According to the psychological principle of confirmation bias, we are skewed to notice things that confirm our beliefs and ignore things that contradict them.
Have I lost you? Maybe an example would help. If I believe that all people are rude and unkind, my brain is primed to find examples of this in the world around me. So when I go to the grocery store, I’m going to notice people behaving in rude and unkind ways. If there’s someone acting in a way that contradicts this belief—demonstrating generosity or friendliness, for example—I’m not likely to notice it. Our beliefs have a powerful filtering effect. They assign meaning to everything we encounter and, thus, play a big role in determining how we experience life.
It’s easy for us to fall into the delusion that everything we think is real and true, because our thoughts are always entering our minds and distracting us. In essence, they make up the soundtrack of our lives. There’s a ceaseless stream of chitter-chatter carrying on throughout our waking moments, and if we aren’t careful, we can get swept under by it. Once that’s happened, we have difficulty seeing things clearly. We lose perspective.
There’s a powerful quote attributed to the late, great writer Anais Nin that goes like this: “We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are.” With those words, she perfectly summed up the way beliefs work: They influence us to see the world in particular ways. We become convinced that the way we see it is the only way to see it, and because of that, we set ourselves up for unnecessary suffering.
Since our beliefs play such an important role in shaping our reality, it helps for us to be mindful of what we’re going around believing. And, more importantly, it’s a good idea to hold those beliefs up to the light, so to speak, and question how much they’re serving us. One way that I’ve seen this manifest particularly powerfully is with a common belief of unworthiness that has plagued many of my clients throughout their lives. Each of their beliefs about this looks a little different, but the basic idea is, “I am only worthy if I’m ______ enough.” That blank can be filled in with anything from thin to powerful to wealthy to approved of by others, and the list goes on. Until that core belief is addressed, it negatively impacts my clients’ lives, limiting their potential and hampering their ability to live as they desire. As I mentioned before, our beliefs are the birthplace of our thoughts, feelings, and actions; whatever we believe will influence what we perceive, which will ultimately determine how we experience and respond to the situations that arise in our lives. If we want to change our experience in the world—if we want to change the world, period—we must begin by exploring and challenging our own beliefs.
The reason I titled this post “Calling Bull***t On Your Beliefs” is because one of the cornerstones of personal growth and transformation is a willingness to question and replace irrational, unhelpful beliefs. Most of the beliefs we carry around have been in place for most of our lives; we formed them in early childhood based on the things we were taught and picked up on from scanning our environment and observing our most significant attachment figures. We came about our beliefs honestly, and at one time, we relied on them to give our lives a sense of order and predictability. But our beliefs can become a source of suffering if we don’t keep them in check.
Please understand that I’m not saying all beliefs are unhelpful and invalid. Believing that touching a hot stove will burn you is a perfectly rational and adaptive belief. There’s evidence to support it, and holding on to it will help keep you safe. But other beliefs—like “I’m unlovable” or “People can’t be trusted”—serve a far less adaptive purpose. It’s those beliefs—the ones that trigger unhelpful thoughts, unpleasant emotions, and undesirable actions—that require some challenging. If you can call bull***t on beliefs like those, you’ll significantly improve the way you feel about yourself, other people, the future, and the world at large.
The best way to start questioning and discarding unhelpful beliefs is to recognize when you’ve gotten caught up in a stream of negative thoughts. If you’re paying close enough attention, you’ll be able to identify the thoughts that are stemming directly from irrational beliefs. Once you’ve recognized the belief-based thought (e.g., “Everyone rejects me;” “I’m stupid;” “Things are never going to get better;” “The world is a scary place”), ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the evidence to support that this is true?
- Have I ever experienced anything at all that would suggest it isn’t true?
- How does it help me to continue believing this?
- How does it harm me to continue believing this?
- Who would I be if I no longer held on to this belief?
- If I were to let go of this belief, if only for right now, what might become possible?
Do you want to live a freer, more content life? Do you want to experience more self-esteem and a greater sense of connection to the people around you? Why not start now? Stop believing the bull***t. Question everything. Release your certainties. Shake off the shackles of your self-limiting beliefs, and watch yourself, your world, your life transform before your very eyes.