In coaching and change work, we often come up against some very odd, un-useful and limiting beliefs. Personally I regard all beliefs as limiting, even the so called ‘good ones’.
It had to happen at some point, I just wasn’t expecting it at my son’s tender age of three years old.
‘Daddy’, he said, looking at me with his mum’s big blue eyes, ‘is Santa really bringing presents for Christmas?’
My first thought was ‘shit, why now?’ Then I remembered the deal my wife and I made when both our kids were little buns rising in the oven: ‘treat them with the same dignity and respect that we ourselves demand from the world, no matter what’.
‘No mate’, I said in the most enthusiastic tone I could muster. ‘He’s not really coming. Santa is just a make believe person who grown ups tell their kids about for reasons I… uh, don’t really understand’.
My son barely blinked as he accepted that Santa lived in the same class of experience as his numerous make believe brothers, or his imaginary dragon which he flies around the house. His look said it all, ‘Santa isn’t real, and its no big deal’.
As a father, I sometimes allow myself to dream of my sons growing up in a world free of beliefs. Imagine, for a moment the peace we might experience if every person sought evidence for his or her assumptions. Imagine if politicians and decision-makers acknowledged that their wars and policies stemmed from the limitations of their own perceptions and/or their needs to be right. When we stop believing in the meaning we create, we might make fewer errors as a result of the assumption that our reality, and our culture’s reality is THE BEST REALITY.
Beliefs tend to affect pretty much everything we do: who we spend time with, where we live, what we do for a living, how we react to world events, and so much more. It could be argued that there are a lot of positive outcomes from holding beliefs. For example, if you believe you can always overcome a challenge then you are more likely to do so than if you believe you are incapable of achieving anything at all. However, the problem with both such operating positions, and indeed all beliefs, is how they limit our choices.
In the language that you and I use, no word or statement has any inherent meaning beyond what we attach to it. This is not only relevant for words, but also for everything else around us. We humans are meaning-making machines, adept at making meaning out of everything we encounter, even though almost none of that meaning is in the experience itself, but rather in the belief structure behind our interpretation of the experience.
Our beliefs are simply the imposing of meaning on an event that hasn’t happened yet. They’re potentially limiting and corruptive because they’re decisions made about what will happen or what something will mean prior to actually having an experience. They guarantee that if we are wrong (which to some degree we almost always are) that we’ll filter out counter-examples that would correct our false notions. In psychology, this phenomenon is called confirmation bias.
If you take a long look at human existence, current events have disproved or failed to deliver on countless beliefs that humans have had throughout time. Shouldn’t we have had at least one judgment day by now, other than the movie? Think about it, if what we believe can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted, or, more likely, a combination of these sensory inputs, then it’s not a belief—it’s evidence of something tangible.
For humans to hold beliefs, we have to accept a large amount of unverified perspectives and continually make unempirical predictions about the future—pass the crystal ball, tarot cards, and tea leaves while you are at it.
Almost any fool can see that meaning isn’t inherent in the world, but created.
What is limiting about that? You might notice that it is in the subjects you feel strongest about that you are least likely to seek counter-examples. Being “right” may help us feel secure, but it leaves little room for new experiences, learning, and development. I don’t know about you, but knowing how flawed my own version of reality has been over the years only makes me more suspicious of the version of those around me, especially anyone who claims to have THE version or THE truth, which must be followed in order to find heaven, social stability, happiness, or a quick million bucks.
Being belief-free, or at least flexible enough to let go of your beliefs when necessary, enables a freedom to make choices based on a simple formula: will the choices you make have the consequences that you desire?
Imagine if everyone were to get curious and adventurous enough to wonder what would happen if they stopped believing everything for a day and, instead, asked themselves over and over again:
“How do I know this is true and what evidence do I have to support it?”