What is the truth? Limiting vs empowering beliefs

consultancyI was working with a group last week that I’d been asked to come and speak to. The theme of the session was really ‘think for yourself’, an attempt to help the group to see that as human beings we often live unconsciously, running routines, acting out of long-established daily habits, not being consciously aware of what we’re doing, the decisions we’re making and where they are leading to in our lives.

Joan Didion wrote ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’. How true! When any event happens externally, we sense it, then we create an experience from it. Because we are human, and have a gift other animals and life forms do not possess – imagination – we create a story to give meaning to our experience. This is why two people can observe the same external event and have completely different interpretations of what it means. One may view it as an opportunity, another as a threat, for example.

I suspect our brains have not evolved at the same speed that our world is changing. Our brains evolved to ensure survival of the human beings housing them. When our ancestors peered out of a cave and saw something moving, we needed a quick assessment of whether the thing we saw was a sabre toothed tiger or a mammoth. If it was a tiger, we’d run back into the cave. If it was a mammoth, we grabbed a spear and chased it, because we needed to eat. This is the so called ‘fight or flight response’, designed to flood our bodies with the chemicals needed to increase strength, speed and agility, to help us survive.

Today, we don’t often need to chase tigers or mammoths, but the body still assesses shadowy figures approaching us in the same way, and in a sense, we create our own ‘tigers’ to be afraid of. We still generate the same chemicals and this leads to high levels of stress in Western cultures, because we are not using those chemicals in our relatively sedentary lifestyles, sitting at our computers or watching TV.

It is perhaps useful to be aware that we are creating stories to explain things that we notice happening in the world; our interpretation of events, to give them meaning. Of course, unless we are quite self-aware, we don’t realise that we are creating stories; we simply see the story as the truth. And the story is usually in the form of a judgement; is this a good thing that is happening, or a bad thing? (The answer depends, of course, on the individual making the judgement… we don’t see the world the way it is, we see the world the way we are).

So what IS the truth? Is it my interpretation of events, or yours? Which is true? Which is more true? Is the interpretation I place on events now more true than the interpretation I would have placed on events when I was 20 years younger? The truth becomes more and more elusive, as we grow in our understanding that we are creating our world in our brains.

Perhaps a more useful way of thinking about this is to realise that much of what we take to be ‘the truth’ is actually a belief we hold. ‘I believe what just happened is a bad thing because…’, ‘I believe what just happened is a great opportunity for me to…’.

Many beliefs are either empowering, or limiting. In other words, each thing that we believe will either help us towards our goals, objectives, desires, or may hinder, block or challenge us.

If we are able to be self-aware enough to identify and articulate a belief, we then have the ability to imagine a more helpful belief, and to examine the evidence for either belief and consider which is actually more real and more helpful. Quite often, both a limiting belief and an empowering belief will involve a lot of guesswork about the future, and neither of them is ‘true’. So, if they are both ‘unreliable’, why not adopt the belief that is more helpful, always assuming that you can identify evidence to back it up as being a reasonable hypothesis?

Think of a belief as a sturdy table, held up solidly by four strong legs. Remove one or more of the legs, and the table becomes unstable and shaky. The legs represent the evidence for the belief. So when you want to reduce the power of a belief which is standing in your way, examine the ‘legs’, the evidence for that belief, and ask in each case: ‘how do I know that this is true? Is it possible that I’m wrong? Is it possible that the opposite is at least equally true?’. Then to build a more useful, empowering belief, look for a minimum of 4 pieces of really strong evidence that this alternative hypothesis could be true. When you find these bits of evidence, be willing to adopt this more useful belief (take care always that the beliefs you adopt do not cause any harm to yourself or others, that they are positive, mutually supportive and sustainable).

There is no point trying to kid yourself into a belief that sounds great (‘I believe I’ll win the lottery next week’) when there really are not 4 strong pieces of evidence to support it! So this is not about kidding yourself, but simply recognising that we make up stories all the time, based on the limited information available to us on any subject, and our creativity in ‘filling in the gaps’ in our interpretations, usually unconsciously, based on our brains trying to cope with the information deluge of the modern world.

In the group session I was speaking at, we worked on a limiting belief that was holding back one of the group members, and identified a much more empowering belief which could be adopted, and some strong evidence that this belief was at least as likely to be true as the old limiting belief. The group member left the session fired up and ready to work on achieving her goal, and it was a great example of how coaching (whether one to one or in a group/teleclass setting) can really help to move us forward.

If you’re interested, please get in touch, share your views on this, and let’s keep supporting one another to get more from life, by getting the best from ourselves.

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