Beliefs & Ideas
Ideas about how the world is supposed to treat us have a powerful impact on the way we feel. Yet, few of us take the time to review our beliefs. Especially when times are good and life is going our way, we are content to operate as we always have, without peering too closely at the footing of our mental world. But when times are hard, we may feel undermined and confused by the way life is treating us. Our foundation no longer feels so solid, and we begin to question the validity of our belief system.
Strongly held shoulds
When people don’t behave the way we expected, we feel frustrated, angry, or depressed. Our feelings may rise or fall, depending on the match between our expectations and other people’s behavior. Since we have far more control over our own attitude than over theirs, adjusting our expectations is the most effective way to improve our feelings. But we tend to cling to our beliefs about other people’s behavior with remarkable tenacity, even when the world doesn’t work the way we want it to. In the face of overwhelming evidence that people around us don’t really behave according to our rules, we hang on to our shoulds as if they are divinely ordained. Learning about our shoulds, becoming more flexible with them, and finding new ways to respond to them can dramatically reduce frustration and improve our sense of well-being.
When we are unhappy, we may automatically channel our thoughts outwards, trying to identify, locate and mentally attack the culprit who we believe is responsible. Blame focuses our attention on people and situations over which we have little control. Often we fix blame before we have examined our own actions and attitudes. When we take the time to creatively explore the part we play, we find opportunities for self-correction and growth. No matter what circumstances caused our problems, looking within can lift us out of fruitless fretting and frustration.
Based on our beliefs about the way the world works, we choose whether to assign blame to others or seek our own opportunities for change. If we find ourselves blaming others and being frustrated by behavior over which we have no control, we should seek to change these beliefs.
Decisions and risk
Every time we make a decision, we must select one option from among many. After the decision has been made, we become committed to our chosen course of action, and now we must face the consequences. This raises some terrifying questions. Are we on the right track? Are we really doing the best and right things? What if some alternate course of action might have been better?
Each choice represents a fork in the road, and as we look forward to future decisions or look back at the past, we may fear that we don’t really know the best way to steer through the maze of life. If we believe we face a judgmental and unforgiving world, our decisions will come heavy and hard. Such fears could drain away our will to act on our own, preferring to wait for events to change or others to make our decisions for us. We would be vastly more energized by viewing the universe as a generous place that forgives mistakes and allows second chances. In such a world-view, even incorrect choices can turn into opportunities for growing and learning. As we look more carefully at these far reaching beliefs, we discover their roots in our childhood training. If our caregivers taught us that our choices didn’t matter or were dangerous, we grew up with less confidence. Now as we retrain ourselves to take more responsibility we need to review this early training, and embrace beliefs that empower us.
Meaning and purpose
Existence is a difficult proposition. Every day we shoulder responsibilities, face challenges, and work hard just to stay even. We worry about our parents, our kids, our health, our future. As we go through life’s unpredictable pleasures and pains we wonder about the meaning of it all. Does life make sense? On balance, is it all worthwhile?
While these questions seem abstract, the answers we come up with lie at the very foundation of our will to live. When we’re satisfied by our explanations about where we’re headed, we feel empowered to take chances and sacrifice. We have a reason to move forward vigorously and enthusiastically. People around us feel our vitality. When we have a hazy purpose or, worse, none at all, we have no strong pull towards the future. Obstacles loom large and fill our horizon, and our lack of enthusiasm makes us feel and appear dull. We have little to offer others, and they have little to offer us. Without a sense of purpose, we may lose our emotional mooring, drifting into depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and perhaps even suicidal thinking. When we feel like we’re on the outside of life looking in, evaluating our ideas about meaning may be our single most important task.
One way to bring our purpose into focus is to imagine what we would like said about us at our funeral. Where do we want to end up? When we consciously understand where we want to go we can search through our own list of values and select the ones we want to emphasize. Guiding our actions towards the accomplishment of our deepest dreams and values, we have the best chance of steering ourselves in a satisfying direction, and the best chance of feeling deeply involved in each day.
No matter how clear we are about life, eventually we must face death. We try to ignore this fact by avoiding hints of the advance of time and age. But inevitably the realization crashes in on us. When we lose a friend or loved one or have a brush with death ourselves, we find ourselves face to face with the grim reaper. Thoughts of death can demoralize us, throw us off track, and force us to confront basic questions of existence.
Mortality seems so profound and final. But despite our destiny, death can’t take away the life that we live each moment. Unless we let it. We have the choice to allow it to consume us or, by directly confronting our attitudes and beliefs, we can learn to peacefully coexist with it. Religion gives us powerful tools to understand and cope with mortality, by expanding our vision beyond the limitations of our individual existence. Open, energetic acceptance of death defeats its finality and provides us with the freedom to live life to its fullest.
Challenging our ideas
When we’re frustrated with the world, we rail against it, wishing it would change or that God would treat us better. Eventually we discover the world won’t change, so we try to change ourselves. At first we expect change to come quickly and easily, but gradually we realize our problems are so familiar we don’t know how to move beyond them. As we dig deeper into ourselves, into the person at the center of our universe, we realize we must work hard at our core to make meaningful changes. Some of the basic assumptions we hold sacred may be the very things that trap us in our outmoded and unwanted behavior.
We need to review our beliefs, but they are built so deeply into our psyche we barely know they’re there, and when we try to reconsider them, they are so abstract they seem inaccessible. How can we start?
Agents of change
As children, we started out by absorbing the beliefs of our family, building their ideas deeply into our outlook. Over time, we gradually built up more complete ideas, each one on top of the ones that came before, like the layers of an onion. As adults, we are the products of that process, and without realizing it we may still be using our parents’ treatment of us as our model of the universe. When our treatment from our parents was harsh, unforgiving or emotionally distant, we grew up forming beliefs that the universe would continue along the same vein. When we realize these childhood ideas have become unproductive, and are hurting our chances to enjoy life, we may need to peel back some of layers of the onion and look at the connection between our beliefs about the universe and our early childhood experiences.
While our family gave us the most important environment for our development, our beliefs about the world were formed in a larger context, with information arriving from many different directions. We learned from our religion, our schools and friends, even television and movies. When we wake up every morning and consider the world we’re entering, what we see is informed by the foundation of these early understandings. Now, as we seek to change, and want to find new, energizing ways to look at the world, we need to untangle those aspects of our beliefs that may be restricting our range of possibilities.
But because our beliefs are so central to the way we look at the world, we generally see the things that will reinforce our ideas, and overlook the things that will challenge us. If we want to challenge our existing idea system, we need new input. Once we start looking for it, we realize that support for change is all around us. We can explore the wealth of ideas from teachers, counselors and mentors, classes, readings and tapes. Since the beginning of history religions have offered answers to fundamental questions of existence. Whether we embrace the religion we were born into or embark on a journey of discovery, we find perspectives that challenge our doubts and give us strength and hope. Another route is to dig within ourselves and seek meaning through reflection, artistic expression, or belief in a higher purpose or higher power. By observing our mind in the laboratory of our own experience, through meditation, journaling and the creative arts, we can learn more about the wellspring of life.
When we want to challenge our ideas, patterns and perspectives we can learn rapidly about the way the world works by participating in a therapy group. In therapy groups, we give and get frank spontaneous feedback that reveals the secret of how others see us. While therapy groups give us the most high-powered, condensed interaction, there are other types of groups that can help us grow and learn. Twelve step programs and other group experiences connect us with others at the individual, community and spiritual level.
Our ideas form a central framework around which we build reality, and trying to change these ideas requires that we adjust our most fundamental thinking. Just as we expect the sun to be yellow and rise in the east, we have been working within our existing beliefs about the world for so long we expect they are unchangeable and absolute. Only after we’ve explored further do we discover that the things we have believed all our lives are based on our own unique interpretation of reality.
When we start changing our beliefs, we realize how one belief affects another, and how much we depend on the stability of our own ideas. Once one idea changes, we need to adjust others, requiring us to enter a period of openness to new perspectives. For example, as we look for tools to cope with death, we open our world-view to include an all-knowing Being. But now, with a higher power in our lives, we feel naked and exposed. We realize that when we had denied God’s existence, we were protected from scrutiny, and now we have to prepare ourselves for this transparent exposure. The existence of a higher power may also challenge cherished ideas of self-sufficiency. The belief that we are “in control” may have been an important pillar of our world. Now we must shift our focus from self to a more transcendent view. These changes in beliefs may be uncomfortable, but there’s no turning back once we realize our old ideas of isolation block our progress.
Our beliefs also affect the way we relate to other people. As we change our ideas about the world, we may need to adjust our social approaches. For example, when we start seeing the world optimistically, people who have been accustomed to hearing our pessimistic approach may experience anxiety until they adjust their expectations. As we become attuned to more positive beliefs, we may also begin to seek out people who support our beliefs, or we may realize that with our support, the people around us share more of these beliefs than we previously recognized.
We can feel safer and explore our beliefs faster with a counselor, who keeps us in touch with the stability of our personality, and helps us identify those ideas that get us closer to our goals.
At the very heart of our life, we find our ideas about our place in the universe. Our ideas about where we fit in may seem sacred because of their familiarity, their abstraction and their relationship with religious traditions. But the particular beliefs we operate by are limited by which corner of the world we were born into and the particular point of view of our parents. We need to be open to the possibility of exploring these ideas, and learning about their impact on our lives. If our role in the universe is murky or self involved, we drift through life lonely and aimless. As we seek deeper satisfaction in life we need to continually evaluate and update our ideas to ones that will serve our goals more effectively. By squarely facing our place in the universe, and tending to the health of our overall beliefs, we’ll improve our clarity and poise in every aspect of our lives.
See also: Cognitive Therapy, Death, Decisions, Goals, Grief, Higher Power, Identity, Leadership, Prayer, Religion, Self-help, Story, Twelve Steps,Values
Existential psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom
Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl
Seven habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey
Embraced by the Light by Betty J. Eadie
The Light Beyond by Raymond A., Jr. Moody
The right to be human, a biography of Abraham Maslow by Edward Hoffman, Ph.D.
The World’s Religions by Huston Smith