How to Change a Belief

If you want to change a belief you will have to trade in your "knowing" and "certainty" about how things are for skepticism.
03/31/2016 04:30 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2017

With all our intellectual smarts and education you would think that changing a belief would be easy. Except that if it were easy we would change any thought without it showing up again, but that doesn't happen. Yet sometimes a thought or belief does change quickly. Maybe some beliefs are easy to change and some others are harder. Why is that? What if there are certain techniques that work for some beliefs but don't work for others? Could it be some beliefs are like nuts and bolts that are reverse threaded? Most come apart with a turn to the left, but certain beliefs need to be turned in a different direction to loosen?

How can you change a belief in a way that will work?

The first step to changing a belief is to understand their construct and what makes us so attached.

Here are some typical beliefs that you might be motivated to change?

*They are so stupid. -- A judgment that tends to create conflict.
*I'm not lovable. -- A self judgment that creates feelings of unworthiness.
*He is such an idiot. -- Can create anger, resentment, disappointment.
*I hate/dislike/am unhappy with my body. -- Unhappiness and shame.

The first thing you notice is that I've identified emotions that are often connected with these beliefs. Usually the idea, or thought, by itself doesn't FEEL bad. It is when we have that thought as a belief that we have strong emotions. It is the emotions part that cause us the misery. A thought by itself is just a concept in the form of a sentence or statement that we can manipulate with our intellect. We can pick up an idea or drop it in a moment without any problem. When a thought has emotions it is in the form of a belief in our mind and has other components as well. It is these "other" components that need changing.

For example, we can have a thought about what we, or someone else is wearing and whether it looks good or not without having much emotion. But what if we walk into a business social event wearing jeans and find everyone else in business suits? The "thoughts" about what we are wearing now comes with heavy emotions. It is no longer a conceptual idea that we can easily drop or change with our intellect.

We might think thoughts about what people think of us.
But we are likely having strong emotions because our beliefs say they are judging us.

We are quickly into emotionally charged beliefs connected to thoughts like:

"I'm such an idiot (worthlessness feeling). I must have misread the invitation (feeling stupid). Everyone here is staring at me (feeling judged). I should go back home and change (self doubt and insecurity about a decision). This is going to look bad to my boss's boss (feelings of inferiority). I'll never get promoted again (fear of loss). This is a career ender (feelings of doom and hopelessness)."

What is important to note about all these thoughts and emotional beliefs is what you were wearing didn't change. When you got dressed you believed you were perfectly fine with what you were wearing. But suddenly you looked at the same clothes with a different set of beliefs and that activated many emotions. The strength of emotions connected to a belief are part of the difference between an "easy" belief to change and a "hard" belief to change.

Identity is Part of a Belief

Suppose that in your negative self talk there is a thought such as: "I feel like such a loser." With this thought our mind is building a mental story or movie. In that movie our mind projects an image of our self as a loser character. That character has one attribute, "Loser" and for that moment this is your identity.

Since it is a version of you based on only one negative attribute it is a completely distorted image of your identity. In that moment you have no other characteristics, or other qualities that would make this image accurate. It also might seem true because it is congruent with emotions you feel in that moment. When changing a belief you have to change this false sense of identity.

The part we don't see of the movie is that it is archived in our sub-conscious memory. Our mind is making a simple movie for the moment in an effort to explain the current emotions. When our mind plays the "Loser" movie in memory or sub-consciously, it fixes that as our WHOLE identity. Whenever we look to those "Loser" moments in our past our memory calls on the "Loser" character to show up in our memory and imagination. Another word for this false self image of an identity is "Ego."

By taking something that is a slip up in one moment and exaggerating it we have turned it into a self rejecting self image and will generate lots of emotions every time we think about it.

This False Self Image of Identity is Part of the Belief.

In the process of changing a belief you have to include changing your identity, or at least your mind's false version of identity. Since your false identity is part of memories, when you change a belief you will also change emotional memories. One of the ways you can make this go smoother is to have another sense of your identity that you can associate to in its place.

If you have been unsuccessful in the past at changing beliefs sometimes it is because you have not successfully shifted your sense of identity at the unconsciously stored level.

Sometimes the belief wills seem it is about another person, such as, "they are such an idiot." Yet behind this statement is still implied or projected Identity. There is a belief in our own persona that feels righteous, better than, and smarter than the other person. We are indirectly propping our ego up with this image.

Something to consider that makes this easier, is that you aren't actually changing your identity. You were never the distorted image of a "stupid" person to begin with. When you give up this identity you will be giving up something false.

Faith -- the Glue that Holds Beliefs Together

I give a detailed explanation about the role Faith has in beliefs in my book MindWorks so I will be brief here. Faith (not the religious kind) is a kind of personal power that we invest in thoughts or ideas. It is the power of our conviction that turns an idea into a belief. When you are absolutely convinced or passionate about something there is a certain kind of energy that flows through you and keeps any contradictory or distracting thoughts out of your mind. When we are "convinced" that someone else has done something "stupid" or "wrong" it is that force of faith that makes it difficult to see it any other way. The opposite of this energy is skepticism. When we are skeptical we look at what we are telling our selves or what others tell us in a very different way. We look at it from all sorts of angles and consider alternatives.

If you want to change a belief you will have to trade in your "knowing" and "certainty" about how things are for skepticism.

Beliefs that are held in your mind with a small amount of faith (glue) are easier to break than beliefs you have invested a lot of faith in. Your ability to change a belief will depend on your skill at skepticism as well as your ability to direct your personal power of faith. Fortunately, the self-awareness and skill to do this can be learned.

Steps to Change a Belief
• Become aware of the different parts that make up a belief.
• Release the emotions held in those beliefs.
• Shift your perspective so you can see the identity as false.
• Break the bonds of faith that make an idea or thought powerful.

It's not a complicated or long list, but it needs to be done for each belief. Since we might have many beliefs, the process will have to be repeated. In the beginning these mental and mindfulness practices might seem slow and clumsy. That is to be expected because you are doing things like shifting perspective and releasing emotions for the first time. It is normal to feel somewhat incompetent when you are learning new skills. However, the more you practice, these things will become natural and you will do them with ease. Like any skill, you get better with practice.

I mention that these practices are skills, and I mean that. Much like doing math, or reading, we fumbled through and practiced our multiplication tables and long division. We spent hours upon hours listening to conversations in order to learn a language and then were taught through repetition how to pronounce syllables and read words. Releasing emotions, changing perspective on our identity, and changing the ideas we have faith in are also mental skills. If you haven't learned these skills then you have probably had a difficult time struggling to change your beliefs in the past.