Have you noticed, in any traffic accident there will always be multiple perspectives on what happened? The driver will have one perspective, another driver, or a passenger will have yet another perspective.
Each onlooker who witnessed the accident will have a slightly different perspective, depending on where they were, how far away they were, how much their view or vision was restricted, how much danger they felt they were in, what else was going on, how the accident affected them, what the accident means to them.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” — Anais Nin
We look at situations, events, and interpret what other people say and do, according to our own set of past experiences, assumptions, and emotions all of which help us form our beliefs about ourselves, about others, and about the world in general.
Therefore, the meaning we tend to give to events, the way we make sense of our world, is primarily based upon our Core Belief System.
This Core Belief System (CBS) is primarily shaped by our assumptions, emotions, and experiences. Let’s have a look at each of them.
Our internal models are very susceptible to input from other people, especially our parents.
If you have been told throughout childhood that you are a capable, lovable individual you are likely to grow up seeing yourself that way. Similarly, if you have been told you are ‘an idiot’, then you will never amount to anything.
These kinds of remarks end up acting as a building block for your assumptions about yourself.
Feelings expressed through emotions do affect our thought patterns and long-term habit. However, still, some people manage difficult emotions and thoughts by blocking them out of awareness.
Therefore it demands a certain degree of emotional awareness to separate out the different strands of our feelings because each element can point to quite different thoughts.
For example, if I am conscious I am ‘fed up’ — that may not help me tap into the same types of thoughts that enable me to recognize that my ‘fed-up-ness’ is actually a combination of sadness (25%), anger (35%), frustration (30%) and loneliness (10%).
Emotional learning is not very different from experiential learning. A child who is neglected or abused may instinctively generate theories about herself and the world around her: ‘If I am being treated like this it must be because I am bad’ or ‘This person has hurt me… Other people will hurt me too’.
Our brains are remarkably good at searching for patterns. Human beings instinctively draw conclusions from their experiences all the time.
If a child burns his hand on a stove he is unlikely to touch it again: he knows it is hot. However, not only is he unlikely to touch that particular stove, he will also approach any stove-like object he encounters in future with caution. His internal model of the world has been updated.
As a consequence, we are in the habit of generalizing from our experience in ways that helpfully allow us to predict what might be coming up next.
Over time our experiences, assumptions, and emotions gradually harden into our core set of beliefs — a set of a relatively inflexible position that we have intuitively distilled from our accumulated learning.
Core beliefs often take the form of implicit knowledge, only revealing themselves in our most generalized assumptions about ourselves, other people and the world around us.
Let’s try to get into the details of each factor so as to understand how our Core Belief System gets reshaped by them.
Assumption — Case Study # 1
Monica had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). She was terrified that if she allowed herself to mentally picture her mother in a state of ill health then somehow she would bring about her death.
She had developed all sorts of rituals to distract her and keep this image out of her mind. She was unable to buy the logical impossibility of any significant connection between thoughts in her head and her mother’s physical well-being.
However, although she acknowledged that this made no sense, still the risk of inviting these images into her mind just seemed too high.
Challenging Assumption — To Reshape Your Core Belief System
Monica was advised by her psychologist to challenge the underlying assumption whether she could use her supposed mental imagery to affect the health of another living creature — the underlying assumption being tested was:
‘What I do or don’t think can influence the well-being of other beings.’
Monica was living in a small house with a beautiful garden and she was extremely proud of it. The only problem was that the cat from next door would come and defecate in her flower beds. Over the next few weeks, Monica was advised that she would ‘will’ the unsuspecting cat into an early grave. Just using the power of her thoughts she would make this happen.
Each day she would say out loud five times ‘Die cat, die!’ and she would picture the cat becoming sicker and sicker with each passing day. Unfortunately for Monica’s garden, the cat proved immune to her visualizations.
Fortunately for Monica, the experiment was sufficient to introduce a chink of doubt into her conviction that her thoughts alone could make her mother ill.
Quite often assumptions that are rigid, oppressive or narrow-minded, and which makes us unhappy, are usually referred to as dysfunctional assumptions. They often take the form of conditional statements (e.g. ‘If I do everything perfectly then I will be loved’) or moral imperatives (e.g. ‘I must never express my anger…’, ‘I should always put others before myself’). Few of the generic one is captured in the following diagram.
Emotion — Case Study # 2
Anger is one of the pure emotion where inner thoughts are usually littered with distortions. Two main features associated with this emotion:
- Angry people are mind readers par excellence — they spend a great deal of time making assumptions about what other people are thinking, and the attributions they make often imply hostile intent, selfishness or neglect on the part of the other person.
- On top of this angry people stay angry because they take everything personally — their beliefs tell them that the other person is out to get them, to cheat them, to ignore their feelings or hurt them in some way.
They will use massively emotive language to give form to their thoughts. They then use selective perception to gather evidence to support their beliefs and the more plausible heir assumptions become, the angrier they feel.
Michael has just got off the flight from Sydney and is at the airport waiting for his luggage to arrive. The baggage carousel was churning slowly for the past 20 minutes. Other people have collected their bags but Michael’s have yet to appear.
“I've paid rip-off prices to travel business class for God sake: surely that ought to count for something. I shouldn't be kept waiting for this…” Michael can feel his temperature rising. In his mind he pictures the baggage handlers throwing his luggage around in a cavalier fashion so preoccupied with their discussion of last night’s cup final that they have sent his bags to Timbuktu.
“It’s so bloody typical of this lame-duck company! That distant cousin of a fat chimp who checked me in was really offhand as well. Would it have cost him to smile? And the slop they served up no wonder I've got indigestion…People just don’t take any pride in their work anymore. Nobody gives a damn. ****ing idiots! One thing’s for sure: someone’s going to pay for this…”
The knot in Michael’s stomach tightens as he feels resentment building inside him. The throbbing in his temples is becoming more and more intense. ‘And who’s that joker smirking at me behind his desk? Thinks it’s funny?
I bet he just loves to see us all waiting around like stranded sheep. Well, I’m not standing for it. Let’s see how amusing he finds it when I give him a piece of my mind…
Michael storms off to interrogate the airport official who innocently smiled at him, oblivious to the fact that his bags have finally arrived.
Challenging Emotion — To Reshape Your Core Belief System
If you notice it carefully
- A number of negative assumptions and thought distortions have turned Michael’s delay from an inconvenience into a violation of his human rights.
- Not only does Michael use highly emotive language and imagery to portray his experience but immediately starts seeking someone to blame for it.
Underlying his response are rigid assumptions about what he is entitled to, and the hostile motivations of the ground crew.
- He searches around for evidence to support his belief (selective perception) that the airline is committed to providing a substandard service, generalizing from localized instances of their apparent failings.
- Most of all, he makes liberal use of mind reading and fills in the gaps with his own negative attributions when little solid evidence about the intentions and feelings of others is available.
So what is making Michael mad? The answer unambiguously is Michael himself.
Experience — Case Study # 3
Sam was the youngest in his family. His birth was not planned and his parents were both a bit shell-shocked when his mother fell pregnant at the age of 44. They weren't prepared to have to revisit nappies and sleepless nights, especially since his eldest brother had just set off for university and they were looking forward to having time to pursue their own interests.
Unfortunately, their resentment had communicated itself to Sam. Deep down he felt unwanted and an inconvenience to his family. (‘There was always this slight sense of three’s a crowd…’)
Nevertheless, Sam was a bright and popular child and did well at school. His childhood was generally unremarkable and, despite sometimes appearing rather driven, he appeared a happy, well-adjusted boy.
Sam met Sally at college and they married shortly after they graduated. He got a sought-after post in a prestigious marketing company. Everything seemed to be going well for the young couple, and one day when he returned from work Sally announced that she was expecting a baby.
Both parents were delighted, but shortly after the birth of their daughter, Molly, Sam noticed that his mood was changing. He felt fed up and became uncharacteristically snappy. Sally was constantly busy with Molly and, although he loved his daughter, Sam found himself feeling increasingly resentful of how little time they had together.
Friends told him this was entirely normal in the early months and Sam dismissed his low mood as a function of disrupted sleep and adjusting to the upheaval of a new baby. However, as the weeks went by, things got worse. Sam became more and more withdrawn.
The family struggled on, but over the next few months, a downturn in the economy started to make Sam’s position at work look increasingly vulnerable. During a recent performance review, his boss had expressed concern about their declining sales figures and Sam became obsessed with fears about being made redundant, even though there were no indications that this was likely.
‘I know I am not coping with anything anymore,’ he told himself. ‘It can only be a matter of time before they realize what a liability I am and chuck me out. Then what’s going to happen to us? Maybe it would be better for everyone if I just didn’t exist…’ Looking haggard and tearful as he was having this internal dialogue.
Challenging Experiences — To Reshape Your Core Belief System
In Sam’s case, his parents’ reaction to having an unplanned child had contributed to dysfunctional experience and assumptions about being unwanted and unvalued.
When Sam met Sally, the intimacy between them gave him a real sense of belonging that largely buried the insecurities of his childhood and his success at work continued to build his self-esteem.
However, for Sam,
- The birth of Molly proved the critical incident that activated his childhood dysfunctional experience based on misplaced assumption.
- Sally’s preoccupation with the baby triggered Sam’s old fears of exclusion. He felt that now she had Molly, Sally no longer wanted or needed him.
- Suddenly all his unhelpful and negative core beliefs started to become self-fulfilling prophecies: His fears that he would ultimately be rejected professionally, as well as personally, flowed naturally from his underlying convictions: ‘I am not really wanted’ and ‘Other people are more valuable than me’.
One of the recommended exercise to counter this dysfunctional conviction is —
- Start living in the present moment after dropping the excess baggage of past. We spend much of our lives in a state of divided attention — a lot like a computer with several programs up and running at the same time. Because we are quite capable of automatically running depressive processing subroutines alongside whatever else we are doing.
- By learning to live fully ‘in the moment’ you strive to bring your awareness into a single integrated channel that diverts energy away from fruitless rumination.
This may strike you as deceptively easy but you should try it! Mindfulness belongs to a meditative tradition long established in the east, and like all meditation practices it is a discipline that requires considerable practice to perfect, and if you wish, you can monitor progress in your meditative practice by learning these three stages and five principles.
Our minds are constantly trying to make sense of our world, forming judgments and opinions about every situation, event, and interaction. As a result, most of our judgments and opinions often get affected by our core belief system.
However there is no denying that everything begins with a simple thought and that thought has the capacity to attract similar ones until your mind is filled with the cluster of thoughts — making a pattern of thinking so that it ends up forming a habit, which in turn gets applied to many different situations as a default setting.
Since your conscious mind is capable of coping with only about seven pieces of information at any given point in time — — it makes sense to guard your conscious mind against the negative cluster of thoughts.
If you are able to exercise more choices over your conscious thinking through your internal selection process you would be better placed to have your thoughts under control.
The comedian Irwin Corey once remarked that ‘If we don’t change direction soon, we will end up where we’re going.’ So if you’re not too happy with some aspect of your current destination, perhaps it is time for an overhaul of your core belief system. Because your core belief system shapes your perception — that is your interpretation of events — and the way you chose to react ends up dictating the course of your life.