Beliefs: they’re more than ethereal ideas
Beliefs play a major role when it comes to our wellbeing and performance. They are tremendously powerful and have very real, tangible effects. However, despite their value, they can seem a little ethereal.
One way to think of beliefs is that they’re like gravity: you can’t see them, but you can see the effects they have.
There’s this common idea that the genes you were born with dictate the rest of your life. Eg: “there’s a history of cancer in my family, so there’s a high chance I’ll have cancer” or “I’m not good at maths, it’s just who I am, I can’t change that”. However, modern science is now showing that it is our beliefs that select the gene, which then affects our health and our behaviour. The good news is that beliefs can be changed. When you change a belief, you change your gene expression. This means we are not doomed to be a certain way or to contract a certain disease.
Here’s an example of how this plays out:
Imagine a typical person (we’ll call him Mike) goes up to give a public speech. Mike believes that he has to get everything right in his speech, yet he also believes he could make any number of terrifying mistakes that could end his career. He believes that people will judge him harshly if he slips up. He believes that he isn’t ready. He might have had some negative experiences in the past that are now emotionally linked to public speaking. Ultimately, he doesn’t believe he is safe giving his speech.
As you can imagine, this causes him to feel considerable amounts of fear. His heart races and he begins to sweat. He becomes hyper vigilant, his vision becomes hyper narrow, his whole body tenses and he feels sick in his stomach. In this state, his immune system is being suppressed and blood is being directed away from the parts of his brain he uses for logic and clear thinking, causing his mind to go blank. As he begins, his voice trembles and he stumbles on words he usually wouldn’t.
Now let’s imagine that Mike finishes his speech, and another person whom we’ll call Dave, gets up on stage to give his speech.
Contrary to Mike, Dave believes that public speaking is a wonderful opportunity to share his message. He doesn’t just believe this consciously, it’s also a subconscious belief. He thinks of the audience as being on his side. He believes that even if he does make a mistake, it’s not a big deal as he can easily correct it and make sure his point comes across clearly. He doesn’t have negative experiences that are emotionally linked to speaking in front of people and ultimately he feels safe.
Thus, he feels calm and confident giving his speech. His heart rate is normal, his hands don’t sweat, and his brain is able to function at its optimal best.
The difference in outcome between Mike and Dave’s speech has little to do with genetic predispositions, or “natural talent”. One of the major differentiating factors is their beliefs.
The emotional response that they both have to giving a public speech is very real. Things like an increase in heart rate and a loss of blood in the area of the brain used for reason and clear thinking are objective measurements, not subjective ideas or opinions. Research shows that changing beliefs causes a change in the brain. Changing a belief actually creates new neural pathways.
Let’s take another example. Let’s say everyone in Mike’s family is a control freak. Mike is now a leader in an organisation and everyone knows that he always tries to control everything to the most minute detail. This behaviour hasn’t jumped out of the blue. It’s a learnt behaviour or a belief he picked up from his family. Mike saw people being control freaks and so he thinks “this is just how it’s done” or “if I don’t control things, everything will be chaotic”. You can see how these beliefs have a direct influence on his behaviour.
Beliefs also have an effect on your health. This is because your body responds to how you perceive the world. If you perceive (ie; believe) danger is all around you, your body will react by engaging the stress response. And we know that stress is a major factor in the majority of diseases today.
If you perceive something to be exciting or novel, again, your body will respond in very specific ways. When something causes you to feel excited, there’s a different biological response than when something causes you to feel loved or inspired or bored etc. The reason you feel different in these different situations is in part because there are different hormones and chemicals being released in your body, thus making you feel different. What dictates these different biological responses is your perception of the world, ie, your beliefs.
The placebo effect is when the body heals after a person is given a substance which has no healing effects. It is the person believing they are getting the real drug. In other words: the belief creates the healing. The body responds to the belief. Belief affects biology. The placebo effect is so common that it is tested for in every good scientific test. In fact, in placebo studies for say, antidepressants, about 83% of people who are given the placebo respond just as well as those given the actual drug.
However, most of the beliefs of most people are negative and self sabotaging.
Change can happen
It’s possible to change our beliefs to support us in our professional endeavours and our health. Let’s take from the example above and imagine you want to become good at public speaking and not be so distressed.
The traditional approach would be to research best practices for public speaking, give lots of speeches applying what you’ve learned and maybe get coaching. Do this enough, and you may form a belief such as “I am good at public speaking”, simply due to repetition. However, this is not a guarantee as many people still get immensely stressed before speaking in front of others despite years or decades of practice. If you take this approach, it means that during the whole process, you either have no beliefs supporting your goal, or you may have beliefs that actively impede you such as: “I’ll never be good at giving presentations” or “I’m terrible at public speaking.”
But what if you changed your beliefs before you began to research and practice? What if those neural pathways were set up to support you before you took your first step?
It would be like cultivating the soil and ensuring the environment was right before planting the seed (as opposed to demanding the seed to grow in dry sand that’s depleted of nutrients).
Doing it this way requires much less effort and very often less time (though it does require specific processes to change or create a belief.) You no longer have the internal conflict of wanting something but having internal barriers (ie: beliefs) to getting it. Creating the belief first is aligning your internal state with your external goal. You’ll still likely have to practice public speaking to become proficient at it, but you can move forward without having quite so many ropes pulling you in every direction.
For just about any situation that causes you distress, you can re-write beliefs about it.
Taking it further
While one perspective says that our beliefs are dictated by what goes on around us and our past experiences (eg: seeing someone struggling with doing their taxes, so now you believe that taxes are a struggle), another perspective indicates that our beliefs create what goes on around us and the experiences that we have. This can be explained on many different levels, but here’s the most tangible one:
If Mike (our useful example person) believes that everybody is against him, and that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, he will act accordingly. For example, he might avoid cooperating or collaborating with others because that doesn’t feel safe when you believe that everybody is against you. He might treat people poorly or dishonestly in order to get what he wants, because he believes that if other people win, he loses.
This kind of behaviour sets people up to treat him in a way that supports his belief, ie: that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Because if he doesn't want to collaborate with others and help others, people are less likely to want to collaborate with him and help him. If he treats people poorly, other people are less likely to treat him well.
Conversely, if Mike believed that the best work comes from working with others, he would get a very different response. If he trusted other people, brought out the best in himself and in them, his whole reality would change. This is not to say that everything would go perfectly, but it would do a lot to set up the fertile conditions for a different experience.
An overwhelming amount of research shows that we communicate to others far more through our body and the emotions we feel, than through the words we speak. You’ve likely had the experience of walking into a room and feeling palpable tension in the air. Without anyone having to say a single word, you just knew that there had been some kind of argument. Conversely, you’ve likely also had the experience of entering a room and instantly feeling welcomed. The vibe we give off, which affects all our interactions with people and much more, is significantly affected by our beliefs.
This is all to say that your beliefs are very real. Whether you look at beliefs through changes in your biology (such as stress and the placebo effect), neural pathways in your brain, the vibe you give off or how you act, your beliefs are powerful.
If something is difficult or feels off, part of the problem will generally be that you don’t have beliefs that support the outcome you desire. And it is often because of this that you require so much willpower, effort and struggle to make it happen. The good news is, beliefs (and subconscious beliefs) can be changed in quick and painless ways.
The biology of belief: unleashing the power of consciousness, matter & miracles by Bruce Lipton
Cover photo by Pascal Meier on Unsplash