We can undermine their influence upon us by becoming aware of them. If the zebra foal in the previous chapter had realised its attachment to the cola sign was just an emotional belief imprinted upon it, it might have made the more rational decision to join its real mum, despite misgivings. In the same way, we can make sharper decisions when we accept that our disabling beliefs might be false, even though they feel so true.
If someone felt it would be catastrophic to be disliked by others, but realised that may be only an emotional belief, then that person might find it easier to behave in a less needy and less sycophantic way. They might end up feeling more confident about themselves.
Or, let’s say you like someone but think you’re not worthy of their company, or you want to apply for a job but believe you’re not up to it. Although the belief feels right and true, you might consider the possibility that it’s just an emotional belief that could be wrong. So, despite the voice in your head saying ‘Forget it, I’m not worthy!’ you would approach the person, or apply for the job, anyway.
‘There is a good chance the belief was right, and I’ll be rejected.’
True. But it was the right decision to try. If we have an emotional belief hammering in our heads, our decision making faculties will be wonky. That means we won’t know the truth of the matter until we try. At the very least, just by trying, we are not letting our emotional beliefs direct our life.
In life we have an obligation to ourselves to make sharp, responsible decisions despite the voice in our head giving us poor advice. Recognising our emotional beliefs is a step towards fulfilling that responsibility.
‘I can ask out a super model? Is that what you’re saying?’
Do you know her?
I’m not suggesting you abandon commonsense! But if you know her, and like her for the person she is, then yes.
In short, the next time you feel hopeless or stupid, or poor, or defective, or better than someone else, remind yourself that it’s an emotional belief and it might well be wrong, even though it feels right. Then make the right decision, even if it feels wrong.
Exercise 1. Discover your emotional beliefs.
Step 1. Find a strong belief you have about yourself or about how things should be. For example:
– I’m not worthy
– Cruelty to animals is wrong/is necessary
– There is/is not human induced climate change
– there really is/isn’t a conspiracy.
Step 2. Answer the following questions.
Q1. What could prove you wrong?
Q2. If someone challenges your belief do you try to prove them wrong?
Q3. When someone questions your point of view do you avoid answering their question by answering a different question, or by asking them a question?
Q4. Do you search for information that supports your view, and ignore information that contradicts it?
Q5. Does your intuition tell you that you are right? Do you ‘just know’ that it’s true?
If your answer to the first question is ‘nothing could prove me wrong’ there is a good chance it is an emotional belief.
If you do immediately look for evidence to prove the other person is wrong, or if you avoid answering their questions, or only look for evidence to support your view, or if you ‘just know that you’re right, then again, it’s probably an emotional belief.
Step 3. If it is an emotional belief is it undermining you? Is it making you look like a goose? Preventing you from maturing? Wasting your time or money? Does your belief dishearten you? Would you be better off without this belief?
If so, try the next exercise.
Exercise 2. Ways to weaken your emotional beliefs.
Emotional beliefs are almost impossible to eradicate, but we can diminish their influence upon us.
1. Keep being aware of them. Label them. ‘Ah. That’s my emotional belief kicking in again.’
2. Make a written list of all the ways that belief is undermining you.
For example, Sam has vowed to never marry because he believes women only want a man for his money. Sam might write:
‘By believing that women are only interested in my money,
1. I might not realise when a woman I like thinks I’m special.
2. I will continue to miss out on the pleasure of trusting someone.
3. I will continue to miss out on the pleasure of being trusted.
4. I will look like a goose, because it’s obvious many women are not interested in a guy’s money.
5. I will miss out on the pleasure of feeling close and intimate with someone.
6. I will miss out on the pleasure of knowing that someone is enjoying my company.
7. I will continue to have a tunnel-visioned, myopic, superficial understanding of love.
8. I will miss out on the possibility of making a close friend.
9. I will continue to foster bitterness and resentment within me.
10. I will doom myself to remain lonely.’
3. Bid the disabling belief, ‘Goodbye’. In his book The Happiness Trap, Dr Russ Harris gives a few ideas on what do do when an emotional belief pops up and tries to interfere. He suggests we tell ourselves: ‘Here’s that thought about me being bad. Hello thought. Goodbye.’
‘Here comes the “I’m the victim” story. Hello story. Goodbye.’
‘Hi thought, see you later’ and let that thought drift away.
After telling the thought ‘Goodbye’ we can then make the right decision, even though it might feel like the wrong decision. It’s the right decision even if the belief turned out to be true.
‘When I say ‘Goodbye’ to my thoughts they keep coming back.’
They will. Keep saying goodbye. Meanwhile, make the right decision, despite how wrong it feels.
4. Challenge the thoughts behind your emotional belief. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) involves disputing core beliefs in a particular way. Apparently it often works. My concern is that if we don’t apply that strategy properly and simply try to prove to ourselves we are not ugly, or not stupid, a voice inside us might insist that we are. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, ‘Good, enlightened advice and eloquent sermons do not register for more than a few moments when they go against our wiring.’
If you do try CBT, do it with a psychologist.
5. Choose to not feed your emotional beliefs. If there is a film, conversation, magazine article or anything else that might reinforce your emotional belief, avoid it. Be the gatekeeper of what you feed your mind.