Last month, I left you with the concept that ‘who’ we are is whatever we choose to be. This is a wonderful concept – one that allows a greater sense of control, of purpose, of focus – and which allows us to build self-confidence and a stronger sense of identity. There will always be elements of our past in our character – what happens to us cannot help but shape us; but as Dumbledore once famously said “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.”
But I’m going to be honest with you: knowing that we have a choice in shaping ourselves is incredibly valuable, but what if we’re making choices we’re not even aware of?
The term ‘belief system’ has been in common use for many years in psychology, but the concept has long permeated philosophical thought. Belief systems are our assumptions, concepts, values and/or practices that make up our way of viewing “reality”, and forms the basis of our perception.
So, how does perception work? In his book, “If How-Tos Were Enough, We’d All Be Skinny, Rich and Happy”, Brian Klemmer describes them as “sunglasses” with coloured lenses. If we have them on for a long time, we lose our awareness of them, but they continue to colour our view of our experiences in life.
Our belief systems are primarily formed when we are young – we have around 80% of our belief systems in place by the age of 8. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this per se, but if our beliefs are primarily formed around the sum total of our experience up to the age of 8, it’s likely that any negative incidents that occur to us in that time frame are going to significantly colour our view of ourselves, the world, relationships, family, and… well… everything!
As a psychologist, one of the challenges I have is working with clients around belief systems that are no longer efficient. Belief systems are frequently formed as a safety mechanism. For example, a child who grows up in an aggressive or violent household will often have a belief that “it’s my fault”. Now, for a small child, it’s easier to feel a sense of control in a bad situation if there’s a sense of self-blame. This might sound odd, but given that we are all born with a desire to be loved and valued by those around us – particularly our primary caregivers – if violence is “my fault”, because I’ve “done something wrong”, it makes sense. It’s logical. It’s predictable: action… reaction. To be beaten without reason places the situation outside of our control and doesn’t make sense to our “child logic”. If it’s my fault, then I may not like that it’s happening, but it’s ok that it’s happening, because I did something to deserve/provoke it.
Now, I’m not saying that this is TRUTH; rather, it’s a belief system that often forms when bad things happen to us when we’re young, and unable to see the ‘bigger picture’. But I can assure you that the belief is lasting. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve counselled, who have identified and worked to challenge this exact belief!
The trouble is, while this one belief may provide a sense of safety or control when we are a child; the same belief, unchecked, as an adult, can lead to our seeking out other violent, abusive or highly dysfunctional relationships, simply because they fit in with our self-view, our belief that we are somehow deserving of this treatment, and that it is our fault. People often ask me why those in damaging relationships have such difficulty leaving them. If we have a belief, or even multiple beliefs around worthlessness, blame, shame, guilt, lack of control… This is why.
And if we don’t realise that these beliefs are colouring our perceptions of “normal”, in fact, we don’t even have an awareness that we have belief systems that guide our decision making in the first place, how on earth can we know to change them?
Now, not all belief systems are formed in the difficult circumstances I’ve just outlined; but I’d like to ask you: were you ever picked on when you were young? Belittled for your appearance? Told you were stupid? Believed something awful said about you was true? You might just have a belief – or a system of beliefs – getting in your way of choosing the very ‘who’ you want to be!
My mentor, Patrick Dean, recently told me about what he calls a “universal paradigm” – in short, a belief that is universally, cross-culturally held by the human race. It is the belief “that we all have something wrong with us that we have to fix, before we can get on with our destiny”. Every client I have worked with (and I include myself in this list!) has had an element of the belief I call “not good enough”. And I ask myself this: says who?!?!
I challenge you to play detective: Where did that belief come from? Who first gave you that idea? Do you have to keep agreeing with it? Would it be more effective, freeing, wonderful or productive to believe something different? Heck – we created our belief systems in the first place, which means we get first shot at recreating them!
One of my favourite quotes is one widely attributed to Nelson Mandela, but is from Marianne Williamson’s book “Return to Love”. It goes:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I am enough. MORE than enough. If I choose.