When and how to challenge a belief

In brief:

When beliefs are not serving you well – when they’re causing you unnecessary anxiety or making you “less you”, it’s worth examining them to determine where they came from and whether or not they hold up against more objective criteria.

Ask yourself:

  1. Where did this belief come from – as explored in Episode 6, beliefs come from a variety of sources and we often internalise beliefs we gathered from others.
  2. What other beliefs do I need to subscribe to in order to hold this belief in place?

In detail:

Beliefs are shaped by our experiences and then go on to shape our experiences. This means your version of reality can literally be altered by your beliefs. Think of the differences between someone with a fear of heights and someone exhilarated by them. Stand them side by side on the top of a building. Same situation. Different beliefs. Different experiences.

Someone with a fear of heights might benefit from working out what the belief is that underpins the fear, the “central belief” about heights.

Where did it come from? An experience? Someone else’s fear? An association with something else? etc.

Imagine the central belief to be the centre of a spider web. It needs an infrastructure – the rest of the web – to support it. Central beliefs can’t stand on their own.  They need other, satellite beliefs to support them and hold them in place. Often the central belief feels too difficult to tackle head on so the satellite beliefs can provide a great starting point.

In the podcast, I use an example based on my own experience but here, let’s stick with the fear of heights. Let’s say your father was afraid of heights and you internalised that fear and the corresponding central belief.

What other beliefs might be required to hold the fear in place?

  • My dad is right about everything?
  • If my dad was scared, I must be scared too?
  • I use my dad’s experiences to shape my own? etc.

Whatever the satellite beliefs, they’re usually blatantly flawed and therefore far easier to challenge.

If you can’t subscribe to the satellite beliefs, you weaken the structure of the central belief and can start challenging it more consciously.

So what?

Not all beliefs need to be examined and challenged. When elements of your life feel misaligned, you feel overly anxious or chronically stressed, it’s likely there is benefit in examining the beliefs driving your choices and behaviour.

By challenging – and possibly changing – the belief, you’ll notice new choices become available to you, in terms of what is true and not true, what is possible for you and what might happen if you take a particular course of action. These could shape your experiences in new ways and lead to greater alignment with your values and stronger feelings of satisfaction.

Disclaimer:

I am not a psychologist. The information in this blog and the accompanying podcast is based on my experience and learning and should not be taken as therapeutic advice.

 

 

 

 

 

What does it take to be OK with not being OK?

I read Is it really OK not to be OK yesterday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  I’m working on a podcast series about beliefs and how they shape our thoughts and actions so I  find myself wondering about the beliefs that surround “negative” emotions or being “not OK”. What are those beliefs? Where have they come from? How well are they serving us?

These aren’t questions I’m able to answer in a single blog – not when I’ve got half an hour while the kids watch Saturday morning TV! (Though, I doubt they’re questions I could answer completely even if I had all the time in the world)

What do we mean when we talk about not being ok? If I’m not ok, does it say something about me or my situation? Are my emotions the cause or merely a symptom of a problem? Are my emotions a problem at all or are they valuable clues I could use to better effect? These are questions we’d all answer differently, depending on our beliefs.

We seem to be totally ok with negative emotions in situations where they feel “justified” and, for the most part, we seem to cope with those fairly well. Death, illness and disaster can unite people in their grief and there’s something quite positive about the sense of belonging one can experience in a group going through something big together. But what happens when you’ve been sad for too long or your too sad? What happens when you can’t let go? What happens when you feel differently than others?

I wonder whether part of the difficulty we have in working out how to be OK with not being OK is that we still divide emotions into two camps – positive and negative, OK and not OK. Then we have to force ourselves to believe that negative emotions are ok but really, deep down, they’re emotions we don’t want to come into contact with and when we do, we naturally make efforts to dispense with them as quickly as possible.

For my money, if we’re going to be ok with not being ok, we have to change our underlying beliefs about emotions – maybe instead of “it’s ok not to be ok” we say “all emotions are ok” or even “All emotions have something to say. Listen.”

That has been one of the fundamental lessons I’ve had to learn in my aspirations to have a “Big Happy Life”. It isn’t always happy and that’s part of what makes the happy times happy. They have to differentiate from something in order to be experienced fully. I’m not always happy, nor would I wish to be. I learn about myself every time the dark times loom and every time I descend into them.

This week was one of my most challenging. I don’t have words to describe the emotions I felt. I’m still trying to process them. All I can tell you is that an important figure in my daughter’s life shared some information with me about how she sees me and it triggered feelings in me that I associate with childhood but can’t quite grasp or link to concrete memories. This is exactly the kind of thing that could have sparked months of depression for me but one of the lessons of Big Happy Life is to accept all that comes my way and open myself up to what my emotions are telling me. This time, instead of descending into darkness, I am writing, thinking, talking, making sense of what these emotions have to say.

In truth, I’m quite enjoying the process because I’ve wondered for a long time about some of my challenges around failure and lack of confidence and I think this situation has handed me a key to unlock some of that. It’s quite exciting!

So now I’m out of time and my children’s eyes will turn square if I don’t get them away from the TV and get active. I’m going to need to revisit this topic as there are so many additional layers and levels to consider but in the meantime, I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

Where do beliefs come from?

Take a moment to answer any one of these questions:

  1. What is success?
  2. What does it take to be a good person?
  3. What is the most important thing family members can do for each other?

The only way to answer these questions is to tap into your beliefs.

Our beliefs drive every aspect of our lives – every thought, every action, every aspiration. Is something worth doing? It depends what you believe? Will this project work out? I depends what you believe? Should you ask that person out? … You get the picture.

Most of us get that beliefs feature heavily in our lives but few of us stop to think about where they came from or why we don’t all believe the same things.

Even more interesting than the fact that we don’t all answer the same way is that most of us would struggle to answer these 3 questions without significant time and thought because we’re not always consciously aware of the beliefs driving our choices – and most of us don’t realise that some of our beliefs are not even our own.

What are beliefs?

Arguably, this is a philosophical question and we could debate its answer for hours. For the purposes of using our understanding to shape our lives in positive ways, I like to think of beliefs as rules of thumb. They are the rules we live by and they help us decide whether things are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and whether we should ‘advance’ or ‘retreat’ (not in a fight / flight sort of way, more in a “will something good or bad happen if I do this?” sort of way)

If you listened to Episode 4 (We know what to do so why don’t we do it?), you’ll know about the Rider and the Elephant. It’s worth noting that, for the most part, beliefs are the domain of the elephant.

Three sources of beliefs

Again, if we argued this philosophically or delved deeper into the theory of beliefs and where they come from, we would uncover more than 3 sources of beliefs but for the purposes of making informed choices about which beliefs to cherish and which to change or chuck, these two sources are a good place to start.

  1. Advertising / Society / Culture
  2. People in your life – parents, teachers, friends
  3. Yourself – your experiences and your interpretation of those experiences

Advertising / Society / Culture

These are the beliefs that are ‘sold’ to us. They come from the media, government, religion etc. Once we internalise these beliefs we come to accept them as our own.

People in our lives

We take on beliefs shared with us by significant people in our lives. For example, a belief I internalised from childhood was “never give anyone anything bad to say about you”. To this day, I struggle to have the courage to stand out because my instinct suggests I’ll draw negative attention – something I should retreat from. Every time I post a blog, upload a podcast or update social media, I have a little flash of fear as I push against that deep rooted belief that I’m going to accidentally give someone a reason to criticise.

Yourself

Our experiences provide information about what works and what doesn’t. They provide the blueprints for future decisions. BUT. As I discussed in Episode 3, our experiences and our memories of those experiences are not the same and our beliefs are shaped by the remembering self. For this reason, it’s easy for our beliefs to feel like they’re supported with iron clad proof when in actual fact, they can be massively skewed by our interpretation of our experiences.

Why does it matter?

Not all of our beliefs serve us well. Some hold us back, some make us unhappy, some stop us from noticing the opportunities to do things differently.

Where this is the case, it’s worth examining our beliefs more closely. Beliefs are not facts and should not be treated as such.

Where your beliefs serve you well, help you make choices that allow you to improve your life and the lives of others, it’s worth leaving them in place. When they’re doing the opposite, it’s worth challenging them and working out where your beliefs came from is the first step in this process.

In next week’s episode, I’ll explore how to challenge beliefs.

 

Beliefs – cherish or chuck?

How is it possible that we all have such great potential yet so few of us end up living our dream lives?

As a child, I wanted to be an actress. I was going to win my first Academy Award in the year 2000 and it would be presented to me by Sylvester Stallone (Don’t ask. I have no idea!). I was 7 years old when I first vocalised this aspiration.

My parents felt that acting was a risky profession – too risky to warrant missing school to pursue – so on I went with my education until I was 18. Drama school followed, where I gained a qualification that would allow me to become a drama teacher – because acting is a risky profession – too risky to put all your efforts into it; better to hedge your bets.

I arrived in London, aged 21, with dreams of becoming a West End (I no longer wanted to work in film. I believed I was too fat.) I didn’t attend a single audition. Not one.  I became a waitress.

Yes, the odds were against me but it was my beliefs that ultimately killed my chances. Every time I had a choice, what did I pick? The safe option. Every time I had an opportunity, what did I think? ‘It probably won’t pan out. Is it even worth bothering?’ Soon enough, acting disappeared as an ambition and off I went to build another sort of life for myself.

Fortunately, I am now of the belief that we can have more than one dream life and I’m currently in pursuit of my dream life 2.0.  Again with the odds stacked against me. This time, however, when I have a choice I’ll take a risk if it means I might get a step closer to that dream. Where opportunities present, I will be bothered. This time, I choose to chuck the beliefs that hold me back. I choose to cherish just one overriding belief; the belief that I have what it takes to beat the odds.

What beliefs should you chuck or cherish?

 

What’s really stopping you making the change?

Changing behaviour is HARD! Most of us know what to do but knowing it and doing it are not the same thing. Why?

In last week’s podcast, I spoke about the metaphor of the Rider and the Elephant. The rider represents the conscious, logical processes in the mind – the ones we know are happening – while the elephant represents the subconscious, emotional, instinctive processes – the ones we remain largely unaware of.

Often it’s the rider who wants to make the shift.  We’re conscious of our desire to eat less sugar, drink less alcohol, exercise more or whatever goal we’ve set ourselves. We know the goal is good for us. We know it’s in our best interests to achieve it but something stops us. That something? The Elephant.

Are you failing to achieve your goal or succeeding in achieving a different goal?

When we fail to achieve the goals we set ourselves, we often put it down to a failure of willpower but that’s rarely the case. The elephant has goals too – and they’re far more powerful and deep rooted than goals based on things we think we should do for whatever reason. (More on this in next week’s podcast). When we fail to achieve our conscious goals, it’s often because we’re succeeding in achieving our subconscious goals – the elephant’s goals.

How do we find out what the elephant’s goals are?

This is difficult to do. To find out how this might be possible, I enlisted the help of Counselling Psychologist, Dr Despina Learmonth.

Despina Profile Card

Here is what she shared:

1. Start with a Question

What is this behaviour giving me?

If you end up with answers that don’t surprise you or enlighten you, you’re probably still getting information from the rider – information you’re already aware of. This information is unlikely to help you uncover the best route to help you make the change you’d like to make.

2. Free Associate*

Dr Learmonth shared a technique she uses with her clients, called Free Association. It works by starting with the behaviour you’re focused on – in the podcast, we use the example of giving up coffee so the central concept is coffee.

In this case, we would start by writing down “coffee” or drawing a picture of a cup of coffee. Then we would write words or draw pictures of anything that comes to mind when we think of coffee. The idea is to do this quickly and include everything that comes to mind, no matter how random.

Put a time limit on this exercise – maybe 60 – 90 seconds to start with but if you’re still going strong after that time, keep going for a little longer but don’t think hard on it – you’ll be getting information from the rider if you mull it over.

Once you’re finished, review what you have and examine what it tells you about some of your hidden motivations.

3. Think about how you felt and what you didn’t write down

There may be some words or phrases that resonate with you more than others. Those are worth paying attention to.

It’s also worth thinking about the words or phrases that crossed your mind but that you didn’t write down. What stopped you?

New Insights

Following these three steps can offer new insights into your behaviour and motivations. With that information, you stand a better chance of working out strategies to help you achieve your goal.

Next week, I’ll look at the role of beliefs in behaviour and how these can affect happiness.

*NOTE:

Free association is typically not used for people who are in any kind of mental health crisis. For those who are having self harming, suicidal or homicidal thoughts and plans, the problem needs to be dealt with much more quickly and directly.

Do not engage in free association exercises without a therapist to support you if you are currently taking psychotropic medication or are in psychological crisis (as described above).

Mental Health Time Management

I think I may have just discovered something very important about how I live my life.

I’m a person who rarely stops. I don’t have time to waste. As a result, my life currently contains all of these things:

  1. Stained clothes. I don’t wear them because it’s too much of a faff to soak them.
  2. Creased clothes. I don’t wear them because I can’t be bothered to iron them.
  3. Coats piled on the playroom sofa. Why put them away? We’ll only have to get them back out again tomorrow.
  4. Books piled up next to my bed. I’ve started all of them and finished none of them.
  5. Kitchen counters with clean items I haven’t packed away. See 3.
  6. Dead plants in the garden. It’s such a lot of work to care for plants
  7. Dead plants in the house. See 6.
  8. A cluttered work desk. Well I haven’t finished with this stuff. See 3.
  9. 14 unread text messages.
  10. 364 unread emails
  11. 2 school forms I haven’t yet taken the time to read

There’s more but you get the gist.

This morning something potentially life changing occurred to me. I care about all of these things but force myself to ignore them in favour of whatever work task or blog idea is whirring in my mind (ironically, this morning it is this blog!)

There has also been something of a snowball effect. My buzzing, whirring mind is ON. All. The. Time.  I don’t go for walks or runs without listening to podcasts or audiobooks. I don’t listen to music or read for pleasure anymore. I hardly sing anymore – something I used to love doing. I make more mistakes, forget more, feel more disappointed with myself and have to apologise to people a lot more for messing them about.

I’ve been telling myself that I’m prioritising but I’m clearly not prioritising my mental health. I’m ignoring more and more. I’m switching pace less and less and I’m getting stuck in thoughts that go round and round.

Today I remembered something I read about that I think might help.

Paired Tasks

Pairing tasks is not multitasking. It involves using one task to take a break from another task. It’s a way of giving your brain a break from a particular type of thinking. It allows you to change speed and change focus.  It’s actually a time management tool not a mental health tool. The idea is that, even when your brain is tired, you can keep going and get things done, but I think it has great capacity to contribute positively to mental health.

Here’s an example of how it works. You write a blog and then sweep the floor, water the plants or iron a shirt – any task that isn’t about language, communication or words. Phoning friends, texting or emailing would not be appropriate tasks because they require the same type of thinking as the blog requires – you need language and have to think about how you’re communicating so there’s no brain rest there.

It occurs to me that pairing tasks has three advantages – firstly, if the theory is correct, I’ll be more efficient. I’ll handle those 11 things and end up with clearer cupboards, clothes in better condition, clear surfaces in the kitchen, a sofa I can actually sit on, up to date school paperwork, friends who know I value them and an email inbox I can actually stomach looking at.

Which leads me to the second advantage – I’ll have more mental energy because I won’t be using so much of it to ignore things or pretend I don’t care about things.

That feeds into the third advantage – if I learn to change pace, shift focus and value tasks other than those currently associated with whatever my mind is whirring about, I might achieve greater balance. I might even learn to relax!

It seems to me this idea is a brilliant time management tool with the capacity to offer fantastic mental health advantages.

A side note

I’m on day 9 of my 66 days of meditation. I haven’t yet developed the ability to calm my mind and focus for any longer than a few seconds during meditation but the intervals seem to be getting longer.

The pairing tasks revelation came to me shortly after this morning’s meditation. Coincidence? Or might my mind subconscious mind have found a way to share an important insight about a pattern that’s affecting me but that I have been ignoring?

I guess time will tell.

We know what to do so why don’t we do it?

Listen to Podcast

This week’s podcast is all about the difference between knowing what to do and doing it.

I am well versed in the psychology of behaviour. I understand the theory. Yet I often find myself unable to put it into practice when I need it most. Why is that?

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt uses a metaphor to describe the mind in two parts – the rider and the elephant.

The Rider and the Elephant

The rider is the logical, conscious part of the mind. It’s the part we can ‘hear’. We know it’s there and we feel in control of it. For most of us, it’s the part we think is in charge of our decision making and behaviour.

The elephant represents the unconscious, emotional and instinctive processes of the brain. Most of us believe ourselves to be logical and rational yet most of our decisions are already made by the time we become aware of making the choice. The elephant is faster and more powerful than the rider.

*Side note – If you’d read Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow“, you’ll know the Rider and the Elephant as System 1 and System 2.

The Problem

We can communicate well with the rider. The rider uses language, appears logical and has clear, accessible thought patterns. The elephant has none of these things, yet many of us – myself included – insist on trying to reach it the same way as we do the rider. We read, listen to podcasts, learn the theory and try to use our knowledge to force the will of the elephant.

It doesn’t work.

The language of the Elephant

The language of the elephant is physiological – it comes from the body. In times of anxiety, we have to calm the elephant and the best way to do that is to use the body to calm the mind.

Practices like meditation and mindfulness promote this body-mind calming.

If you’re like me, you’re not great at these practices. You sit down to meditate and it’s tantamount to the rider attempting to hold the elephant in a head lock. It’s pitiful and painful.

66 Days of Meditation

In an effort to improve these skills, I’m doing 66 days of daily Kirtan Kriya meditation. (This is Day 6 and so far I still suck at it)

Future Podcasts

Over the next 6 weeks, I’ll invite people far more proficient than me at talking to the elephant to join me on my podcast and share their wisdom and practices.

If you have questions you’d like me to ask them, please comment below.

Does focus distort perception?

66 Days of Meditation – Day 4

It strikes me that the more you focus on something the more it distorts. Over the last four days, I’ve had a laser focus on my memory and I fear I may have burned a hole in it. I started this meditation project in an effort to improve many things including mental clarity, mood, patience and memory.

Now, 4 days in, I’m ready to get myself tested for early-onset Altzeimer’s (admittedly , my crappy memory has been a concern for a while).

Yesterday I reached over to get my laptop out of my bag and panicked when I realised it wasn’t there. I was typing on it at the time. That was just one example. There were dozens. I repeatedly lost my train of thought mid-sentence, found myself unable to respond to people because after they’d finished speaking, I couldn’t remember what they’d said and I lost count of the number of items I misplaced. I forgot to do things I was asked to do by the organisers of the training I was running. I even forgot the name of a VERY senior member of the organisation – as I delivered his introduction to 500 people.

The more these things happened, the more anxious I became and the more I worried. Now I’m wondering whether or not I made these ‘symptoms’ worse by focusing on them so intently. The more worried I became, the more the gremlin in my head gnarled and crunched and clawed at me. Instead of being able to listen to someone talking to me, I’d hear the gremlin’s voice in my head. “Your memory stinks right now and it’s not even anything you can fix. Forget meditation. You have a disease. It’s probably from all that wine you drank. Idiot. You should have taken better care of yourself. See? Hell, this guy’s still talking! How are you going to remember it all? Are you even listening? What was the first thing he said?” No wonder my attention was divided! I was using half of it to freak myself out!

Here’s the thing though. There are plenty of possible reasons for the severe decline in memory and none of them have anything to do with my new daily habit of meditation. I did my first meditation the day I arrived at the hotel – where I spent 3 days delivering training. I spent those days in windowless rooms, drinking too much coffee and eating too much junk food. Each night I slept badly and woke every morning before 4 am. On top of that, I was doing things I hardly ever do anymore. I’m a stay at home mum most of the time while these 3 days had nothing to do with parenting, playing, meal preparation or homework. There was no routine, no familiarity.

Had I relaxed and cut myself a little slack, realising how much I was asking of myself, I might have performed better. Instead, I chose to place my cognitive functioning under a microscope during the busiest 3 days I’ve had all year. I came home feeling anxious, stressed and more than a little disappointed with myself.

There are no signs yet that the meditation is having any effect but one thing I’ve learned is that, rather than monitoring every thought I have and every mistake I make, this 66 day experiment will prove more productive if I stop analysing and let things happen as they will.

Sadly, I’m not sure how to do that. I need meditation to calm my mind.

66 Days of Meditation – Day 1.

Every road I go down in search of peace of mind leads me to mindfulness and meditation. As someone with a whirring mind, I find the practice difficult to say the least, so despite seeing benefits from daily meditation, I dropped it as soon as life got busy again, in favour of having more time to exercise, write, build my website or whatever other pursuit seemed more interesting.

Now I’ve reached the point where the cacophony of characters in my mind regularly run around up there, creating havoc, knocking things over, breaking valuables and keeping me awake – usually between 1am and 4am. It’s time to take charge.

I have chosen to do a Kirtan Kriya meditation. Since I’ve decided to keep a video diary each day, I’ll save the explanation about why that specific meditation for another day.

Day 1 is off to a great start though. I did my meditation, headed to the gym to do a HIIT workout (I’m in a hotel so it made sense to go to the gym despite only exercising for 20 minutes), recorded my video diary, wrote in my journal, wrote this blog and still have an hour left before my work day is due to start.

If every day is like this, it’ll be a total pleasure!

How many ways are you being pulled?

Yesterday I was thinking about what “big happy life” is really about. Simply put, the bigness of my life got in the way of the happiness of my life and this is my way of making a conscious effort to change that and track my progress.

As I was thinking about it, I remembered an exercise we did during a training course we attended as part of the adoption process. They asked for a volunteer to stand in the middle of the room and then tied a piece of string around her waist. Then the trainer asked for another volunteer. That person was to represent “birth mum”. The other end of the string was tied around her. Then one for “birth dad”, one for adoptive parents, one for school, one for friend, one for foster carers, there were strings for grandparents, extended family members and so on, until the person in the middle had over a dozen strings tied around her.

“PULL!”

The trainer shouted the instruction and we all pulled. The person in the middle doubled over and the trainer shouted “STOP!” She looked at us and said, “It’s your job to help your children manage very complicated lives.”

It was an incredibly powerful excercise, one I’ve thought about often since that day but not really in relation to my own life. Suddenly it dawned on me that I’m in the middle of my own pulley system, in just the same way as I’m part of my children’s, husband’s, colleagues’ parents’ and friends’ pulley systems. Not only that, but I’ve added a load of strings myself – so even I pull myself!

It occurred to me suddenly that to have a big happy life, we have to understand all the ways we’re being pulled, who’s doing the pulling and what that’s doing to us. We also have to think about how we’re pulling on others and what that’s doing to them.

I’m going to spend some time thinking about that today. Becoming conscious of the pulls and paying attention to what’s working and what’s not seems an excellent place to start if I want a “strings attached” life without tearing myself in half to have it.