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Believe it or not. How your beliefs affect your happiness.

Ripples of belief

*This article was first published on the Huffington Post

Believe it or not: How your beliefs affect your happiness.

a) An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof
b) Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion
c) A religious conviction
d) Trust, faith, or confidence in (someone or something)
Oxford English Dictionary

Do you ever stop to question what you believe? Do you ever ask yourself why you believe it, or where that belief came from in the first place? Have you ever considered that it may be your beliefs that are causing you to feel anxious, unwell or unsatisfied?

I’m not really talking about those big lifestyle beliefs such as religion or politics (although, you had to learn to believe in those somewhere too), but all those other things you believe about yourself that by believing them affect the way you experience your life. Such as:

“I’m no good at meeting new people.”
“I’m too fat for anyone to love.”
“This is as good as it gets.”
“I’m disgusting.”

If you’re reading this and thinking that you only believe good things about yourself, then that is excellent. However, you’re definitely in the minority. And, if you’re honest with yourself, there are times when that little voice in your head gets a teensie bit critical, right?

One of the main reasons driving my clients’ decisions to seek out coaching and cognitive hypnotherapy is because they believe something that’s causing them to suffer. Often, they don’t even realise that’s the case, or they may rationally know it’s not true, but still the unconscious sticks to it anyway.

And the problem is, people operate from what they believe to be true, not what is true.

We suffer when we believe something about ourselves that by believing it causes us to limit our experience of life.

Getting in your own way

Consider the beliefs I quoted above (all real things my clients have said to me):

The woman who believes she’s no good at meeting new people turns down opportunities to meet new people and instead stays at home, thinking ‘what’s the point I’ll only make a fool of myself’. She never gives herself the chance to prove herself wrong, for fear of proving herself right. Her world becomes very small.

The man who believes he’s too fat to be loved, never opens himself up to love because he’s afraid of proving himself right. But guess what, if you never open yourself up to love, you’re never going to let it into your life. Something that he believes to be true produces a behaviour that causes him to suffer. His world remains smaller than it could be.

The man who believes that this is as good as it gets, doesn’t bother to ask for a pay rise or apply for a new position. He doesn’t want to rock the boat in case he loses something – something that he’s not really passionate about anyway. Who is more likely to get the job, the man who applies or the man who doesn’t because he doesn’t think he’s good enough?

The lady who told me she believed she was disgusting, had suffered abuse as a child then later physical and psychological violence from the two fathers of her children. She believed, as they had told her many times, that she was disgusting. This belief fuelled an eating disorder that meant she frequently had to be hospitalised.

Soak it all up

Ok, so sometimes believing negative things about ourselves won’t have such extreme consequences, but it will prevent us from really being the happiest we can be.

So how did these beliefs that seem to run the show that is our experience of life come about?

The truth is that as children we have a sponge-like talent for absorbing the information that we receive through our senses. The things that we experience – within our family or the greater culture that surrounds us – are accepted as the norm. Just as we absorb the language we hear around us and it becomes an intrinsic part of our personality (notice how even little children’s unique personalities shine through in the way they speak and the things they say), so do we absorb the messages our parents, teachers and the media give us. The information we unconsciously consume. And you are what you eat, after all.

So really, a lot of what we believe is an accident of birth. An accident of who we grew up with, what teacher we had at school, who our peers were, what channel our parents had the TV tuned to, everything and anything that happened to us just because that it where we were at that point in time. That’s why I can see a client in my clinic who wears size 14 clothes and believes that she is ‘too fat’, when if I was seeing clients in a country where larger bodies are a sign of status, size wouldn’t be affecting their emotional state in the same way.

Our culture does a really good job of telling us from a young age that we are not ‘enough’.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

You see, we are imitators. We see other people doing things and then we copy them. You only have to consider fashion to see the truth in this. This is why in the 80s the glorious mullet happened and why now so many men are sporting hipster beards and man buns. It’s why Kate Middleton can wear a Breton stripe jumper in one photo, and suddenly stripy jumpers sell out everywhere.

We have a natural, evolutionary need to fit in. After all, if we didn’t fit in to our tribe back in caveman days, we risked being booted out to fend for ourselves – which meant an almost certain grisly death at the sharp end of a sabre-toothed tusk. This instinct for unity is hardcoded into us at birth, and then reinforced by our parents and schools. Conformity reaps rewards, disobedience plonks us on the naughty step without any tea. So to make life more comfortable for ourselves, we believe what others around us believe.

We are born into our families and our culture through no choice of our own. As babies, we have no choice about the lessons we are taught, the messages we are fed, the truths or lies we are given often in order to try to make us behave in a more compliant way that makes someone else’s life easier – or under someone else’s belief that it will make our lives easier if we learn to conform early on in life. If you are born into a certain family, then you are more likely – generally speaking – to have the same beliefs as that family.

So beliefs become important to us. It becomes important to confirm our beliefs, which is why challenging them is so difficult. We identify with our beliefs as if they are an intimate part of ourselves, and losing them would be as traumatic as losing a limb. We confuse belief with identity. We believe without questioning.

Until, that is, we learn to question. To overcome the suffering that the critical voice inflicts upon us, we must learn to think for ourselves.

How to Challenge your Unhelpful Beliefs

Write down those things you believe about yourself, that cause you pain or limit your life in some way. Usually this will be phrased as “I…”, or “I am…”

Take the top one. Ask yourself, “Is that true.”

Ask yourself, “Can I absolutely know that this is true?”

When you realise that you can’t absolutely know that it’s true, then you can ask yourself: “Whose belief is this anyway?” Where did that belief come from? Where did you learn it – we all have to learn our beliefs somewhere. Was it really someone else’s belief, perhaps a bully, a teacher, a parent?

Then you can ask yourself, “Who would I be, if I believed… [insert the opposite here].”

And just begin to imagine how your life would be different if you simply chose to believe something else. Imagine what you’d be doing, who you’d be doing it with, where you’d be, what you’d be achieving.

Then see if you can see any reason to keep believing that old belief, or whether the new one would be a lot more fun.

A belief is just that. A belief. A thought that you accept as true, without any real evidence. It’s not true! You just accepted that it was. So challenge those old, outdated beliefs. Hear them, note them down, and investigate whether you can prove them to be true, or if it might just be time to let them go.

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Here be dragons – step out of your comfort zone

Here be Dragons

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.

I love old maps. When I was a kid, we had a print of an old map on the wall of the upstairs landing. It was one of those ones where the globe is split into two circles, with each half containing within it the continents and landmasses on either side of the world. I enjoyed looking at the illustrations of the weird and wonderful creatures that the cartographer had drawn rising from the depths of the oceans or looming ominously across distant lands.

Hic sunt dracones. “Here be dragons.”

Although there are only two historical incidences of this phrase recorded as having been found on maps, the term has become synonymous with the idea that dangers lurk in unchartered waters. A warning for fishermen and travellers of the places to avoid in order to remain safe.

A natural alarm system

If we stray away from the ‘safe’ path in life, our subconscious will flag up that there be dragons nearby. It uses the warning to steer us away from setting a path towards something that it fears may be a threat to our survival. Sometimes, without even being aware of it, we unquestioningly listen to that warning, in the same way that fisherman and travellers would have looked at the razor-sharp toothed sea serpents depicted on their maps and sailed instead in safer waters.

That’s the job of our subconscious, you see. To keep us safe. Pretty much every action and behaviour we find ourselves undertaking has been carefully considered by the subconscious for its potential to threaten our lives. It takes the information that it has gathered about the world in the years that we’ve lived up until now, and plots the safest course to the end of our lives, with little regard for our happiness or fulfilment.

A different perspective

What it doesn’t see, is that while there may be dragons in the uncharted territory, so might there be lands filled with riches and opportunities. For the brave and the bold, those riches and opportunities are there for the taking, and with the right resources the dragons are there to be slain.

So whatever your endeavour, whatever your goal, whatever the dream that lies beyond your comfort zone, step boldly towards it. Arm yourself with the tools you need to slay the dragons. Arm yourself with self-belief, pack courage and resilience in your pockets (if those don’t seem to be available to you right now, seek the help of a good coach or therapist). And as you take your first tentative steps into the unknown, when you hear the alarm bells ringing (and ring they will), remind yourself that in the uncharted territory beyond the familiar, here be growth. In exploring the boundaries of what you once thought was possible, here be potential. And in growth and potential hic vita est. Here be life.

Victoria Ward is a Cognitive Hypnotherapist and Coach. Find more from her at her Colchester life Coach and Cognitive Hypnotherapy Colchester pages, and on Facebook.