Suppose you have goals that you are certain you want to achieve, such as starting a successful business, getting into a great relationship, or excelling at school. And suppose you understand, at the intellectual level, that you need to do a lot of hard work to move you closer to the goal. But somehow you just cannot bring yourself to do those tasks. You self-sabotage at times, blowing hours on social media, TV, video games, procrastinating and postponing your dreams. Or you may find yourself getting stuck in negative emotions, low self-esteem, and the feeling of hopelessness to the point where actions are not possible.
What happens? What’s the difference between people who succeed to take consistent actions towards their chosen goals and people who just cannot? In this post, we will explore a simplified answer: it’s all because of your beliefs.
When your intellectual goals and your behaviors are not aligned, it indicates there are a lot of underlying beliefs that facilitate that incoherence. For example, if you goal is to do well in school, but you find yourself binge watch TV series before the exam, what’s running in the back of the mind? Perhaps you thought “Well, school doesn’t matter to me after all. It is kind of stupid we have to learn these subjects” or “I don’t think studying is going to help. Either I can do it or I cannot do it” or even “Studying will feel unpleasant right now since I’m not in the mood and it would be better if I wait till I am in the mood”. These beliefs support your decision to procrastinate, and from the look of reality, it wins over your judgement.
Changing beliefs is indeed a hard work. Have you ever tried to convince someone of the opposite political belief to come around your side? Next to impossible, right? That’s because a belief is not just one simple concept. Each belief is resting on an interconnected network of other supporting beliefs and habits. For example, if you are struggling to keep up on all the tasks important for your job, chances are that your habit of postponing tasks leads to a belief that you will not finish the task you started anyway, which leads to another belief that engaging in this task is not going to yield rewards, which leads to another habit of seeking reward from socializing, so on and so forth. Changing one belief, and you still have dozens other beliefs holding you back from real progress. So if you want to transform, you have to change the whole network of beliefs that are supporting your current habits.
There are tons of crazy methods out there to change beliefs. I tried a bunch (tapping meridian points can change your deep dark beliefs, anyone with me? Nope? Am I the only one who falls for that?) But over time, I gradually changed a LOT of my beliefs, resulting in dramatic shifts in my day-to-day behaviors. Now, I am quite confident that I can change any of my beliefs, if I want to. It is possible for anyone to develop this skill too, and once you are good at it, it doesn’t necessarily require much time to change either.
To change beliefs, you have to first be willing
The first step is to be open to change your beliefs at all. Some people feel resistant when they hear an advice, such as “Believe you are rich, and you will be rich” or something of that sort. They ask why should anyone believe in anything that isn’t true? Well, first of all, that advice is ridiculous and you will see why in the next paragraph. But pause here a bit, why would you only believe in something that is true?
We all believe in gravity because gravity is real, but most beliefs out there are not as clear cut as that. For example, suppose people accused you of being a selfish person. Do you necessary take that as an evidence and keep feeling bad about your apparent selfishness? Or would you rather believe more constructively that “I am not selfish in nature, and I can convey my generosity more so people see the real me.” Note that these two beliefs are opposite in wording and might have opposite effect on how you act, but they were neither true nor false in the scientific sense, just opinions. Most beliefs regarding the character judgements are neither true or false. In my opinion, we should not focus on facts too much in this domain, and opt to adopting beliefs that are most useful and constructive to our growth.
If you still feel resistant to change beliefs, consider another point to open up your mind. Society pushes us to set objective goals, such as “I want to make $5,000 dollars a month from my business” or “I want to lose 10 lbs”. One of my favorite authors, James Clear, said it could be counter-productive to set outcome-based goals where your end results depend on so many external factors outside of your control. Instead, you should set an identity-based goal, where you say “I want to adopt the habits and beliefs of a successful business owner”. This would prevent a mismatch between what you want to achieve and who you really are, and might be the most effective way to reach that goal anyway.
I found that setting an identity-based goal automatically opens my mind for belief changes. It links what I want to the inner work necessary for driving actions towards to the goal. If you want to achieve your goal, you have to be open to adopt new beliefs and habits that are necessary. The advice should not be “Believe you are rich and you will be rich”, but it should be “Adopt the beliefs and habits of a wealth-generating person, and you will most likely achieve the wealth you wish for”. You should not focus on believing in the outcome, instead directing your attention to modifying thoughts and actions necessary to achieve the outcome.
And there’s an additional benefit to identity-based goals: immediate positive feedback that reinforces positive behavior. With an outcome-based goal you may experience “I want to be rich -> I am not currently rich -> I feel bad about this mismatch -> I don’t want to do this anymore”. Where in contrast, with an identity-based goal it may go “I want to behave like a wealth-generator -> I am behaving like that right now; thus accomplishing my goal in this moment -> I feel good about that -> I want to keep this up”.
To change beliefs, you have to be aware of them
The nasty thing about negative beliefs is that we are rarely conscious of their existence. Our attention is often pointing elsewhere when the beliefs are running in the background.
So you must develop a habit of paying attention to your thoughts. For me, the method that works very well is journaling. I journal first thing in the morning everyday to ensure I keep at it. I also keep a notebook with me at all times, and complementing with a journaling phone app. When I feel bad, bored, sad, unproductive, I turn to my journal to jot down how I feel. I simply ask why do I feel this way, and pay attention to my thoughts. You would be surprised how many deep dark and embarrassing thoughts and emotions you can pull up to the conscious mind when you develop a habit of writing things down. But you would also be very glad to find out about them and do something to change them instead of letting them run around in your head and sabotage your life.
In his awesome blog post on this subject, Scott H Young also recommends reading about people who have obtained your goal, in order to absorb beliefs they have. Try to pay attention to what they say and how it reflects their beliefs, how those beliefs differ from yours, and why. Write down the observations so that you can work on it later.
Casting doubts and weighing the benefits
How do you convert someone to change their political views? Well, you first plant doubts about their old views and bit-by-bit convince them how ridiculous it is to believe such thing. Then you slowly replace the old beliefs with fresh new ones, convincing them that the views from the other side can have life-changing benefits to their community and their souls.
That’s exactly what happens when I change my beliefs. Your skepticism is your best friend on this one. Once you identify a set of beliefs you want to change, you write it down, and you start asking lots and lots of questions about it. You can dig deep, find the chinks in the armor, dismantling the dysfunctional beliefs, and eventually change the whole belief system this way.
Let me give you an example by sharing an embarrassing story about my old beliefs. I used to struggle, a lot, with jealousy. I would constantly compare myself with other people and rationalize why I haven’t yet had the same level of success they did, and scheme about how I can achieve greater success. So on and so forth. This belief is so deep rooted in my psychology, it’s hidden in so many things I do. For example, when I procrastinate – I will have a random thought like: “I wish I was born rich like [insert person’s name], so I don’t have to do all this work”. That type of chatter has no benefit whatsoever, it only demotivates me from taking actions and makes me feel impatient. I discovered this thought when I caught myself feeling unmotivated to do work and about to head to YouTube, I grabbed my journal and asked “why?”. When the thought is brought to my attention, I ask myself a series of questions, like “What would you do instead if you are born rich?”, “What prevents you from doing what you really want, like a rich kid would, right now?”, “So you cannot change the fact that you are not born rich, what would you do with life now?”, “Are you open to change the belief that being born rich is necessary to live a good life?”. After a series of questions and answers, the beliefs are getting weaker and weaker. It took several sessions of belief Q&A for me to completely abandon jealousy, but it really is no longer a part of my life.
Beliefs can also get weaker when you consciously weigh the costs and benefits of them in your life. Some dieters found that a great psychological trick to stop dessert cravings is to consider how hard it is to burn off those calories in the gym later. When they see how much it costs, they abandon the belief that they need those desserts to begin with. I use that a lot. For example, I thought of myself as someone with attention deficit, I cannot seem to focus on one thing for long. So I analyze how much it costs to jump from task to task and ultimately wasting my time. I start to imagine paying a lot of money to switch tasks. That’s when I realize these beliefs and habits are too costly to carry, and willingly drop them right away. 1
If you have done lots and lots of journaling and reflecting work, and wonder if negative beliefs are still running in your system, try taking actions and see how you respond. Let’s go back to the entrepreneur example. If your goal is to start a successful business, you can check for negative beliefs by taking actions towards starting and growing your business. If you can proceed with the actions without any friction or internal tantrums, you are solidly free from negative beliefs. If something is stopping you, maybe noticing the feelings and writing them down would help you identify the next roadblock beliefs you want to work on.
Actions also have a self-confirming side effect that kicks the negative beliefs in the butt. It is an incredible phenomenon. For the business goal, suppose you have negative beliefs about reaching out to people for product promotion. You will find yourself procrastinating on emailing people forever. As you try to work through unscrewing the beliefs, take small actions, like spending two minutes drafting the said email, or send it to one person you feel most comfortable with. Actions create a new concrete set of beliefs which weaken the old undesirable beliefs. Successful actions confirm the belief that you can accomplish what you set your mind to, and you can carry on to attain your new identity with improved confidence. 2
The relationship between beliefs and emotions
Beliefs are supported by a network of emotions. For example, Jim (a fictional character) wants to have a girlfriend, but he spends all his free evening time watching TV and playing video games, instead of socializing to find a girlfriend. The incoherence between his goal and his behavior is fueled by supporting beliefs like “there aren’t great girls these days” and “dating is boring”, but it can also be fueled by fear such as “fear of rejection” or “fear of commitment”. Deep rooted emotions like fear and anger are much much harder to get rid of and they might be sponsoring a lot of your negative beliefs. 3
Overcoming fear deserves its own blog post since there is so much to cover, but I just want to emphasize that, although emotions feel intense, it doesn’t mean that you cannot overcome them. The fundamental rules are the same. First, believe that emotions can be changed, just like beliefs. They might be take more time and more work, but even the worst phobia can be treated. There’s no good reason for you to believe that you are unfixable. Second, just like beliefs, you must work towards recognizing your fear and keeping your attention on it so you conscious mind can process it. Whenever you suspect you have a fear, you can write them down, just like other beliefs you try to change. And for many types of fear you can try to use the “casting doubts and weighting benefits” and “action tests” techniques to overcome them.
Another thing to keep in mind; when your life is affected by your emotions, it’s common to blame yourself and hate yourself. Work on that first. Think of it this way: your fear is your evolutionary response to threat and it’s designed to keep you safe, triggering your immediate flight or flee responses. We should be grateful that the system is working, and work towards taming it with unconditional self-love and self-acceptance. For more extreme cases of fear, where it triggers physical symptoms, we might need more thorough interventions. Some people have success with self-administered exposure therapy and mindfulness meditation.
Let’s do it
Belief modification is one of the most important piece of puzzle you need to solve in order to develop a healthy foundation that helps you achieve your goals. I hope you take an action now after reading this article. Grab a notebook, download the journal app; take the first step to abandon those thoughts that have been holding you back. And stay tuned for more ultimate guides to self-growth from GrowthOptimizr!