Monday, October 24, 2005

Limiting Beliefs

There are many factors that can prevent people from Moving Forward in their lives. In my own experience the common ones include:
  • Lack of clear Goals
  • Hidden Benefits - Ignoring the benefits of the current situation
  • Limiting Beliefs
  • Habits - the good, the bad, the ugly
Having broached the first few aspects, this post will move on to Beliefs. Beliefs can be an extremely delicate subject but there's lots of good material to draw on.

What the thinker thinks, the prover proves
In the excellent book Prometheus Rising, the author Robert Anton Wilson models the mind as having two main parts; a thinker and a prover. The thinker is extremely flexible, and can think any number of things. The thinker can think the earth is flat; the thinker can think the earth is spherical. It can think all men are evil; it can think all men are essentially good. The thinker can think that women are intuitive and men are rational; it can think the opposite. It can think that there isn't enough to go round; it can think we live in a world of unlimited abundance. The thinker can think pretty much anything.

The prover on the other hand, is much more predictable: what the thinker thinks, the prover proves. Whatever the thinker is thinking, the prover will sort for evidence to support it. If a person thinks that all homeless people are lazy, the prover will sort through their experience to find evidence to support that idea. If they think all homeless people are victims, the prover will find evidence to support that idea. If a person considers themselves to be stupid, the prover will find evidence to support that belief. If a person thinks they are brilliant, the prover will reason a path on which that must be true. What the thinker thinks, the prover proves.

The power of a Belief
The thinker/prover is a straight-forward way of understanding how our beliefs can be so completely valid and realistic, even when we are horribly wrong. Beliefs are one of the most powerful forces of human nature. They empower us with a sense of certainty and direction in an unpredictable world. They are so foundational to our world view that we often fail to remember that they're not necessarily "true". It is these untrue beliefs that can keep us from moving forward. The unspoken "I can't", the invisible "I'm not worth it", the totally bogus "They'll just say No". These are the limiting beliefs which hold us back.

A funny story I once heard that shows the power of Limiting Beliefs is about a girl invited her friend over. She was making a roast for dinner and before putting it in the pan, she cut off the ends. Her friend asked why she did that. She replied that she had always seen her mother do it, so that's why she did it. Later, as she spoke with her mother on the phone, she brought up her friends question. Her mother laughed and explained that her own pan was never big enough to hold the roast and that is why she cut the ends off.

As someone who has mentored dozens of business professionals, I can say that the best part of my day is when I get to help someone who has a limiting belief set that belief aside for just a moment. Watching their face and their eyes light up, like someone pulled back a curtain or turned their vision from black and white to color.

In Practice
The most common way to practice many of the techniques I'll be sharing in these series is through writing. This particular topic is no different. If you want to find out what is inhibiting you (or others), start by writing down the underlying beliefs that are inhibiting you. Sometimes it only takes seeing them on paper to change your perception. Often times it becomes clear that they made sense at one point in time, but haven't necessarily been kept up to date, just like the girl who was cooking the roast.

Once you have the list of limiting beliefs you can begin to add the facts that contradict or do not support these beliefs. Usually during this step you are just assembling data, you aren't judging or making decisions.

Just removing the beliefs that restrict you isn't enough. To begin to move forward you then need to counteract these by finding beliefs that are empowering and positive. You will also want to look for facts that support these beliefs. Once you have your positive beliefs, you can imagine that they are "true", and detach yourself from your Limiting Beliefs.

Another Exercise
To emphasize this point when teaching a group of people I will often conduct an exercise where I get people to shake hands with each other. The first time they imagine that the other person is going to be difficult to deal with. Then they shake hands again, this time pretending the other person is a great friend who has offered to help them. The difference is always profound. Among the many things it demonstrates is that what you are thinking changes the signals you give off.

Going Deeper
When we talk about our beliefs using language, they are structured as cause-effect statements (x causes y) and complex equivalences (x means the same as y). When you're working with others, they'll rarely offer you a full belief statement. Instead, they express only fragments. For example, "I'll never be able to snowboard".

You can get to the missing portion of the belief statement by asking questions. A good general question to a belief fragment is "How do you know?". When you ask "What makes it like that?" or "Why is that so?" you are paving the way for "because" story. For example, "I'll never be able to snowboard because I'm not coordinated." When the person who offered the fragment tries to answer, they'll inherently work through the internal strategy associated with the belief. By watching and listening you can derive a wealth of information. Not only will the verbal response include some or all of what is needed to complete the fragment, but you will have the context needed to begin shifting those beliefs.

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