How to Consciously Choose Your Beliefs
A belief is a confirmation bias you think is true. It’s an ingrained mental habit— a pattern of thinking strong enough to condition your thoughts, your actions, and your life all on its own. You can hold beliefs that help you to achieve your goals, live happier and healthier, feel more satisfied or loved or free or worthy, and you can hold ones that create cycles of suffering and frustration. Beliefs impact you constantly, in small ways and large, so you might as well get choosy about the ones you’re going to keep.
For most of us, throughout most of our lives, most of our beliefs are unconscious. Some of our mental habits got ingrained before we even learned object permanence. Our beliefs are conditioned from infancy, by our families, our culture, our society, our circumstances, our friends, our media, our everything. Your unconscious beliefs can come from anything, but what makes them unconscious is that they come from something other than you.
Changing your beliefs is simple, but that does not mean it’s easy. Being told to “just change your beliefs” can feel deeply invalidating when your beliefs feel true, for understandable reasons. Fortunately, this article is not about challenging the truth. This article is about challenging a confirmation bias.
Step 1. Figure out what you believe.
This step takes self-awareness, which is always where we need to start, but it’s actually very simple. To figure out what you believe, call to mind a situation in your life, especially one in which you have negative feelings. What do you think about this situation? Now, try thinking the opposite thought. How easy is it for you to accept that opposite thought as true? If it’s difficult or impossible, you have now found something you believe. Probe it with some more thoughts to find the root of the belief.
For example, let’s say I feel frustrated because I can’t support myself as a writer. I think: what I write isn’t that marketable, and I don’t have “a platform,” so the publishing world isn’t interested in me. I can’t be a successful writer in this economy. I notice that I’m thinking this, so I try thinking the opposite: “I can be a successful writer in this economy.” I find this hard to accept as true, because I can’t just snap my fingers and change the publishing industry overnight. The more I poke around, the more I come back with an inability to accept as true that I can be successful in this economy. I have now identified a belief.
Step 2. Figure out why your current belief is serving your needs.
The tricky little thing here is that your beliefs are always serving your needs, in some way. If they served no purpose, you could not keep them.
This step can be deeply uncomfortable, because it often causes us to recognize parts of ourselves we would rather not see. It is also crucial. If you do not do this step, the unconscious need the belief was meeting will almost crop up again like an ingrown hair. This step may feel invalidating, but please remember that we are not debating whether or not anything is actually “The Truth.” We are just challenging a confirmation bias.
For example, let’s say my belief is “I can’t be successful in this economy.” This belief may seem unhelpful, contributing to potential feelings of failure, frustration, sadness, anger or worthlessness. It’s keeping me from accomplishing what I want to in my career. But the belief is serving me, in some way, or I could not keep it. The way it serves me might be that it takes the pressure off of me to be successful. It might keep me feeling safe, protected from the risks of pursuing my dreams. It might give me a built-in excuse for not being successful that stops me from feeling shame.
All beliefs serve your needs in some ways, but that does not mean you have to keep every belief you currently have. There can be other beliefs that meet your needs, too, and don’t create such suffering in the process.
Step 3. Marie Kondo it: Does it spark joy?
Just like you can with your wardrobe or all that stuff in your garage, once you take a good look at your beliefs, you can ask, of each of them, “Does it spark joy?”
Now, you may find yourself asking, “What does it matter if my belief sparks joy if it isn’t true?” Remember, beliefs have nothing to do with the truth. They are confirmation biases you think are true. Having confirmation biases that spark joy makes your life more joyful. If joy isn’t your thing, you can substitute in whatever you want. Does it spark moral goodness? Does it spark fun? Does it spark productivity I can track on a quarterly spreadsheet? It’s really up to you what you value here.
Once you’ve asked the question, answer it. Does it spark joy? If yes, keep it! If not, put that belief in the throw-away box. You can give it a little mental hug, thank it for how it served you, and continue to Step 4.
Step 4. Come up with another belief that does.
Come up with a different belief, one that meets those needs you identified in Step 2 while also sparking joy. I’m serious; you can literally just make one up. This step is easier if you choose a belief that you already think could be plausible. Do not expect yourself to fully believe this new belief just yet, but notice if you’re willing to entertain the idea of it. You could try picking a belief that seems completely outlandish to you, but doing so makes this process harder on yourself.
For example, rather than “I will never be successful in this economy,” I could come up with the belief: “Success is committing myself to what I love.”
Step 5. Justify your new belief.
A belief is a confirmation bias you think is true. In order to believe it, you must get to the point of having experiences in which the belief seems true. That means, to change your beliefs, you have to decide that your new belief is valid, and start confirming it to yourself everywhere you can.
Start with your thoughts around the new belief. Start coming up with justifications for the belief. What are some thoughts you can have that make the belief seem true? You can write a list of them. Get creative. Look at it from multiple angles. You are not looking to assess the objective validity of the belief; all you are doing is justifying it, validating it, supporting it, confirming it. The point is to be one-sided.
For example, to prove the belief “Success is committing myself to what I love,” I could start listing justifications like, “Successful people are committed to what they love, even if it takes time for the success to come,” or, “I think the capitalist economy is evil so ‘winning at it’ isn’t exactly an accomplishment, and therefore, I have a different definition of success.”
Step 6. Commit to proving it.
This step is about going into the world as if your new belief were true, and acting with your new belief in mind. Like quitting an addiction, you have to commit. It may feel clunky or silly at first. That’s okay. Again, we are not objectively testing a hypothesis here to see if it’s true; we are confirming a bias. Confirmation bias is your goal.
First, remind yourself about your new belief as often as you can. Write it on your mirror, on your hand. Set it as your desktop or phone background. Set little alarms to repeat your new belief. Tell your friends and family about it. Make sure you are keeping it in mind, so you can keep practicing living according to it.
Second, prioritize it. Make living by this new belief a priority. Really try to take this as seriously as an addiction recovery: the change in this pattern is your number one goal every day. Seek support to keep going. Reward yourself for your progress. If you have people in your life who make it harder to commit to your new belief, try to take space from them, at least for now.
Third, take actions as if your belief were true, in little ways at first; the big ways can come in time. For example, a friend might invite me out for drinks, and I might decline, choosing instead to stay in and write. I remind myself, “Success is committing myself to what I love.” Then, after writing, I might reward myself with a yummy salt bath to congratulate myself for prioritizing my new belief.
Step 7: Rinse, repeat.
A belief is an ingrained mental habit, and conscious habits don’t ingrain themselves. That’s what makes them conscious.
You are carving a new mental river through your experience of life. This means you have to actively push your thinking and behavior in directions they are not used to going, and you have to do so again and again and again until they create lasting grooves in the bedrock of your reality.
For example, a year from the night I stayed in to write rather than go out for drinks, I might find myself choosing between a high-paying finance job (ha!) and a book deal. But by then, the thought, “Success is committing myself to what I love” might be a real belief of mine. It might be ingrained. Still, I don’t expect myself to start with something that big. It takes time to build up a new belief, like strengthening a muscle.
This is a practice, which means: it takes time and repetition. It takes screwing up, falling off the wagon and getting back on. The process will not happen overnight. If it does, your new belief is probably extremely flimsy, a shallow floodplain rather than deep river. Keep going. Slip up, dust yourself off, and get back to it. Be patient and kind with yourself. This takes time.
This process can be done again and again, with any beliefs you come across that are inhibiting you from living your best life.
You do not have to change your beliefs. There are no should’s about any of this. You are not a worse person for maintaining limiting beliefs; sometimes, you can’t help it. But sometimes you can, and doing so, well… it can make your life spark a lot more joy.