Walks of Mind
Illuminating What Goes on in our Mind
Please enjoy reading this walk. It has been
created by John Cochrane for your interest and, hopefully, benefit.
We Define Our Self
©John Cochrane 2005-2006
Terms such as ‘belief systems’ and ‘core beliefs’ are now relatively common everyday terms. But how does it come about that we can have, or adopt, sets of beliefs that have a big effect on our lives? And how and why are these beliefs apparently so important to our personality and sense of self?
This is a brief walk that begins to look at our belief system and the impact that it can have on our experience of life.
I think that one of the most vital things that our mind does is to try to make sense of what happens to us and to use this ‘sense’ to predict what will happen next. Our mind takes the example of our experiences and comes to conclusions. These conclusions, about ourselves and life, become our own personal beliefs. In essence beliefs are thoughts. They are put in place throughout our lives, but perhaps most actively when we are young.
We may not think these thoughts consciously for long periods, but they influence our thinking relatively continuously and particularly if some current event ‘reminds’ us about them. In these situations our full belief seems to reactivate, as if it is recovered from store and switched on to become an active source of secondary thoughts, opinions, and associations that reflect the underlying belief.
I imagine that our beliefs are stored in much the same way as our memories. In fact in evolutionary terms it would make sense for our thoughts and beliefs to be stored exactly as if they were actual memories, making use of an existing capability rather than creating something new. And although much of our conscious thinking may include verbalisations it is likely that our beliefs are actually converted to and stored in a non-verbal form. This is partly because they would then be storable as images or experiences along with usual memories and partly because I think it likely that sophisticated memory and a basic belief system pre-dated the human ability to verbalise anything much at all.
The evolutionary benefit of remembering thoughts as beliefs includes a greatly enhanced ability to learn from experience. This would enable us to behave in very much more subtle and effective ways appropriate to changing circumstance. Our ancestors would be better able to cope with changing weather patterns, for example, or to provide appropriate leaders and activists as population levels changed and as different threats came and went.
As experience is, by its very nature, varied and personal, this ability to learn from experience must be a very general one. Thoughts and beliefs of all sorts could and would be stored. However, in order to keep this manageable and useful, it seems likely that there will also be some limitation on the number of more deeply-held beliefs. With too many beliefs we would tend to get confused and with too few we would be left puzzling over every little thing that happened to us. A consequence of this would be that our beliefs would become mutually self-supporting. We will build up beliefs that provide a seemingly self-consistent view of the world and our place in it. From this I deduce that, once we have some basic beliefs in place, we are likely to filter new experiences in the light of those beliefs in ways that reinforce them. Once I believe, for example, that I am superior and others are weak and stupid, I will tend to build on those misguided beliefs by remembering those experiences that support my beliefs and failing to recognise or remember those experiences that challenge my beliefs. Once I start on the path of believing in my own superiority I will tend to live that belief out, and it may take some considerable effort or extreme event to break through my inner pretence.
Some Thoughts Around ‘Self’
The ability to store thoughts and learned beliefs about ourselves and life in ways that have a direct impact on our on-going thinking and behaviour also gives a basic mechanism for our sense of self. My beliefs and thoughts about myself can also become my definition of my ‘self’ – my ego; I am such and such a person, I believe in these things, I go about things in this way, and I have these capabilities and these limits. The set of beliefs that I hold about myself defines ‘me’. Beliefs that I hold about others and life in general define ‘non-me’.
And there is something else that builds on these same beliefs. It is an ability to make predictions about the future. Once we think we know how the world works we have something to say about what it is going to do next. This is important because it gives us an ability to plan and evaluate risks. This means we can get the most out of any situation, if our predictions are any way near correct.
It is also a source of fear. We not only predict success and opportunity, we also predict danger and failure. Our predictions come from our stored thoughts and beliefs, and if some of our beliefs are about our own inability to perform, which they often will be, these predictions will tend to come out as fears.
It is these fears that can also be used to define, or confine, our ego. As long as we stay safe, by remaining in predictable situations and by constraining our activities, then we are confident in our ability to continue existing. If we consider behaving in new ways that trigger our beliefs about our own inabilities then our mind will make predictions of failure and we will experience fear. Our beliefs provide a wall, or ring-fence, of behaviour beyond which we will experience insecurity and within which we will not; a comfort zone.
This takes our definition of ‘self’ and ‘non-self’ much further. When we are experiencing and behaving within our belief-derived fear walls we are reassured in our belief of ‘self’. When we step over those imaginary walls we become uncomfortable and potentially confused or fearful. This definition of ego is much more complete – we have the basis for a description of our self and our capabilities and we have a description of our interactions with the outside world: that which is not ‘me’. This provides us with a basis for understanding our own behaviour and experience that has us either comfortably within our ‘self’ or uncomfortable and believing ourselves exposed to danger.
Notice that the sense of self as described here includes a concept of capability and comfort. When we are behaving and experiencing ‘within’ our ‘self’ then we are comfortable. However, our assessment of our own capabilities and our resultant behaviour may or may not be realistic, it may include an element of self-delusion. For example, we may believe that we have a greater mental capability than we actually have, or we may have a strong belief in our own importance that is not shared by those around us. These beliefs will lead to behaviour that is not well matched to our surroundings – you and I may be thought of as egoistical by those around us.
It seems to me that another thing that our non-conscious mind does is continue to evaluate our beliefs, and hence our definition of ‘self’, against current experience. However, this process itself can become a contributing element to ‘egoism’ once we become anxious about our limitations. In testing our limits without stepping through them we tend to also reinforce our separation of ‘me’ from ‘non-me’. Our existing beliefs will colour the way that we interpret and accept the evidence of reality and we may unconsciously ignore experiences that challenge our self-belief. We may well become more and more entrenched in our own belief system rather than more and more realistic.
Our deeply-held beliefs define self-imposed limits to our capabilities and behaviour. Our experience of life can become defined by our mind rather than by reality.
Shifting Deep Beliefs
But these deeply-held beliefs are, I have argued, stored along with all our memories at an unconscious level. And we have already seen that we do not have the capacity to directly choose what is remembered and what is not. Our conscious mind does not have a direct influence on what goes on with these beliefs. I can ‘know’ at a conscious level that “I’m weak” is untrue, but that does not actually disable that belief at a deeper level, and when that particular belief is active I am very likely to find myself acting out a countering demand; “I must be strong”.
In this and other walks I touch on ways of changing self, the basic starting point of personal development (and personal transformation). However, I do little more than touch on techniques to generate change where this is appropriate to deepening our understanding of what we are exploring. This is one of those places.
The good news, if what we have been looking at so far is even half correct, is that much of our belief system is based on a general-purpose ability to learn from experience. This gives us an ability to choose behaviour that works well for us in a variety of environments. It also gives us a potential to change. The bad news is that over time some beliefs become more and more developed and embedded and so it may take more effort to effect a permanent change.
Just as there are many ways to enhance memory, or to get a specific result from memory, so there are a number of ways to change our deep beliefs. By changing our beliefs we can modify inappropriate or inhibiting behaviour. We can reduce automatic thinking based on untruth or self-deception. We can shift away from stressful and unhappy states of mind.
There are a number of natural events or processes that will create change:
Trauma – If we experience a particular traumatic event, and this can include events where we are welcoming of the event, we are likely to find that we are changed in some way. The existence of the ‘trauma’ is an indication that our beliefs are undergoing change, that the event has challenged our existing beliefs and our mind is making changes. I must add though that I generally think of trauma as creating a new negative belief, one that has fear and self-denying behaviour attached.
Behaviour – We can choose to change our behaviour in particular ways. We can choose to ‘be’ a different way. This takes a certain amount of determination and self-discipline, and can lead on to genuine changes in the way that we think and act. However, my experience of this is that it is changing the symptoms rather than the cause and that I can end up fooling myself that I have changed when the changes are not actually very deep.
Realisation – We can experience an inspirational change when we get a realisation that our thoughts have incorrect logic, or that we have reached a false conclusion. Realising that we have a belief or thought pattern that is flawed can sometimes be enough for us to stop using it, and particularly if we have a ready alternative.
Faith – We can adopt a set of beliefs from outside ourselves, from a religion or from particular people that we regard as teachers.
Exploration – When we experience new situations we have the opportunity for our mind to make new judgments about our experiences in general and to make changes. This is a very natural process when we are young and still adding to our basic beliefs, however as I have become older I find that I interpret even new experiences through the filter of my existing beliefs. I become less and less likely to change appreciably.
Based on these natural ways of changing there are also a range of techniques that allow us to make this process of change much more explicit, and these are used widely in self-development methods:
Disavowal – By directly confronting an untrue belief, by repeatedly and consciously refusing to believe it, we can weaken it. By repeating this over a period of time the belief is further reduced. We also learn more about the thoughts and behaviours that are linked to the belief, giving us further opportunities to change through a process of realisation.
Affirmation – Regular self-acknowledgement and directly recognising personal truths, such as “I care about my life”, strengthen alternative beliefs that challenge our undermining beliefs. However, I think that there is a danger that affirmation in isolation can build a false façade that may collapse under some challenges leaving the old beliefs free to reappear.
Analysis – In many different forms. This process exposes the thought patterns and the individual beliefs, identifies the likely causes for their presence, and sets up the environment that allows change to take place. Analysis by itself does not necessarily promote change but it does provide a very important context that promotes deep re-learning to be made.
Enquiry – This is a technique that avoids the ‘forced’ changes of disavowal and affirmation and yet can be very effective. The enquiry basically looks at what a particular thought brings, what other thoughts it links to and what feelings are evoked, and then asks what would happen if we dropped this particular belief. For example, we can ask ourselves “What would my life be like if I did not believe that I cannot cope?” and then spend time visualising the changed result. This is an invitation to explore with a visualisation of the outcome that we want from the exploration.
Fear of Fear
There is one particular stumbling block to changing our beliefs that I want to cover to complete this walk, and that is the role that fear plays in protecting our deepest and self-denying beliefs.
What are your most deeply-held undermining beliefs about yourself? Do you hold yourself as weak, or unlovable, or selfish, or disgusting, or dangerous, or perhaps irredeemably damaged or even evil? What do you notice about your feelings and general state of mind when you think those things?
It is likely, if you are reasonably honest about yourself, that you will have one or more beliefs that you want to keep very much to yourself, that you want to keep as secret. Beliefs that you would not share willingly with others. Beliefs that you find so distasteful that you will not even want to admit them to yourself.
Through talking with many people it seems to me that many of us live with some deep beliefs that we want to keep secret, and we have a fear that others will discover our secret and that we will then be exposed and rejected or at the very least humiliated.
We may even have on-going anxiety that others already see this dark side of ourselves and are judging us because of it. This is a classic self-esteem issue where we experience our self-belief primarily as a fear. Often our beliefs about our self will show up in our thinking as fears, along with predictions that we will be exposed to those around us for what we fear we really are.
As long as we experience the fear, as thoughts or as the feelings of fear, we will tend to avoid addressing the underlying beliefs. For example, suppose that I had a hidden deep-belief that I was unloveable or even a danger to those around me. Rather than showing directly this might surface in my mind as an impression that I should actually be excluded from society and as a fear that if the ‘truth’ about me gets out, that I will indeed be shunned by everyone around me. When the underlying belief is active I will notice my fear of rejection rather than the underlying belief itself, and I will try to avoid that uncomfortable fear by finding ways to make myself more acceptable. By keeping myself busy with keeping the fear contained and hidden from view I attempt to deny it.
This is a fear that we are afraid to face up to. We believe that to bring this fear out into the open will be to admit the truth of it and so it is safer to ignore it and pretend that it is not there. Through avoidance and denial we fool ourselves that we will be safe from the unpleasant ‘truth’, we convince ourselves that we will be OK. And, of course we are not because the underlying belief is still there no matter how much denial of the fear we do.
Denial of a fear is also a way that we can get into attempting to disprove our secret belief by acting out the opposite – by, say, acting strong and independent when we actually believe ourselves to be weak. We work hard to show that we are not worthless, we seek attention from others to prove to ourselves that we are not unlovable, we have the last word to prove that we are not a nothing.
Our fear of facing our fear, our fear that we cannot live with the truth, is actually sometimes stronger than the fear itself. “I dare not look at this because if I do then I am doomed” is actually a reinforcement of my feared belief. Because of this fear-of-the-fear we stay as we are, we do not verify whether or not our underlying belief is valid or not, we do not compare the reality of our actions and our achievements with our belief. We do not compare the reality of the feedback that we get from our own senses and from others with our belief. Our belief remains unchallenged in that dark and dusty part of our mind.
In these cases there is an additional step that we must make before we can have any chance of making effective change. We must choose to step through the fear and expose the actual belief that the fear is hiding. When we work on the belief itself, which is usually directly referred to by our fear, we can make the change.
It is important to separate the core of the fear, which is a thought, from the feeling of fear that we experience as anxiety, discomfort, and maybe even terror. The thought is a prediction about the future, such as “I will be rejected” or “I will be left on my own”. Stepping through the fear may be a case of simply accepting the fear and going for what we want anyway. It may require asking ourselves whether the fear, the thought, is true or not (usually not) which will weaken the feelings of fear. Or we may ask ourselves what would happen if the worst that we fear were to come true and would that actually stop us from acting – which it usually does not. If the feelings remain strong it may be that we have a non-conscious association with a previous trauma that will require deeper work to identify and break.
The fear that ‘hides’ a belief is derived directly from the belief and so we can think of this as the belief protecting itself. A belief that, say, ‘I am weak’ may protect itself with a fear that the belief is too tough to shift. A belief that ‘I am damaged’ may protect itself with a fear that any attempt to work on the belief will make things worse, it will expose the fault more undeniably and fail to change it. A belief that ‘people hate me’ may raise a fear that others will judge us for even attempting to work on the belief.
Just as beliefs will become self-reinforcing, they can also ‘protect’ themselves by raising fears that inhibit challenges to them.
In this walk we have explored the idea that deeply-held beliefs are a natural consequence of having a general-purpose ability to learn from the experience of life. I have argued that beliefs are largely non-conscious and thus, like memory, not directly controllable. Deeply-held beliefs and thoughts will often determine our behaviour and give us a particular experience of life and they are also a vital component of our sense of ‘self’. If we want to change our experience of life then it is these deep beliefs that we will need to work on. We have also seen that we can use some specific techniques to make changes.
We completed this walk with a look at how beliefs not only become self-supporting and self-justifying but that they can be self-protecting. Working on this self-protection may be the first stage to changing the beliefs themselves. And, of course, the beauty of identifying an obstacle is that once we know it is there then we can do something about it. This is a theme for this whole collection of walks; once we know what we are dealing with we can make progress.