Limiting beliefs: why are they so difficult to change and what does it take?

Beautiful young woman behind the net of ropes over black background

Scroll

At the beginning of the 19th century, surgeons were faced with two major problems that had plagued medicine for centuries.

The first problem was the pain caused by surgery [7]. At that time, surgery was so painful for patients that when they learned that they would have to undergo surgery, they preferred to commit suicide. Surgery was the worst ordeal a person could endure.

However, in 1846, an American dentist by the name of William TG Morton discovered a substance that rendered his patients temporarily unconscious and therefore unable to feel pain [8]. This substance called “ether” was a major discovery in the world of medicine and changed the course of surgical history.

News of Morton’s discovery spread so quickly that within just a few months it was being used in most surgical rooms around the world.

A good end, it seems. What about the second problem?

The second major problem was the deadly infections that appeared following surgery. At the beginning of the 19th century, surgeons did not perform any sterilization between surgeries. When they finished one operation, they would go into the second one with dirty hands and using the same surgical tools that had been used for the first patient, without sterilizing them.

In 1860, however, a British surgeon, Joseph Lister, operated on patients according to the hygienic methods established by Ignaz Semmelweis and realised the success this brought [9]. He therefore suggested to his colleagues to wash their hands before inserting them into an open wound, as this seemed to save lives. In the early 1870s, he then travelled around the world to share his findings with all the surgeons he met.

However, unlike Morton when he discovered anaesthesia, no one listened to Joseph Lister. For decades, surgeons continued to operate on patients with dirty hands, bloody dresses and surgical tools that were not sterilized between operations.

How is it that anaesthesia was adopted so easily and quickly when surgical hygiene was not? Why is one belief so easy to accept and another almost impossible?

Why can limiting beliefs be so difficult to change?

Simply put: people are stupid. And with good reason: even if we think we are rational, we largely adopt beliefs based on our emotional reactions.

For 19th century surgeons, the effects of anaesthesia were immediately observable. These effects benefited both the patient and the surgeon, and were quite simple to observe: it was enough to inject a gas into the patient to bring him into an unconscious state and allow the surgeon to get down to work.

At the time, such a discovery was unbelievable. It was as if the doctor was doing magic. Because it was so incredible and so easily observable, the practice spread very quickly throughout the world.

Then came the time when you had to wash your hands. Unlike the effects of anaesthesia, the effects of surgical hygiene were not immediately observable. Moreover, surgical hygiene was practically only of benefit to the patient and was difficult and expensive for surgeons to implement. They had to buy additional gowns, sterilize their surgical instruments and use chemicals that irritated the skin of the surgeon’s soft hands.

All these extra measures were difficult to bear and it was not clear enough that lives would be saved by them. As a result, surgeons resisted them, even after seeing scientific evidence of their benefits.

It therefore follows that one of the fundamental elements that make beliefs so difficult to change is the degree of observability of the beliefs one wishes to adopt.

Suppose, for example, you think you are stupid or unattractive. You’ll probably have a hard time proving otherwise because wisdom, attractiveness or kindness are vague and abstract notions. So your desire to be more attractive and less stupid will potentially fail and eventually reinforce your belief that you are stupid and unattractive.

Let’s assume this time that you think you are unable to earn a million dollars because of your social status. Your environment is full of people who have the same or even worse status than you. You will probably find it hard to think otherwise because you don’t know anyone in your environment who has managed to earn so much money. So this desire to earn more money will eventually reinforce your belief that you are unable to do so.

As Holowchak and Lavin noted in a 2015 study, negative beliefs often lead to behaviours that reinforce them even more [1]. When you believe that “you are not good enough” for a job, you are likely to provoke actions that will eventually confirm that you are not good enough for the job. When you believe that “you can’t trust him or her”, you are likely to react in a way that will cause the other person not to care about your confidence in him or her. When you believe that “you are not important in your relationship”, you are likely to tolerate abuse that will eventually confirm this belief.

So what can you do to change these false beliefs ?

Some people tend to simply repeat the opposite of what they believe. Every morning, they stand in front of the mirror, look each other straight in the eye and say things like: “I’m nice”, “I’m smart”, or “I deserve this fucking happiness” [10]. This only makes things worse. Indeed, research on positive affirmations, carried out in 2009, showed that people with negative self-esteem who repeat positive affirmations to each other actually feel worse [2].

Thus, in order to stop this vicious circle of false beliefs, we have two options: unlearn the belief or change the evidence that supports it.

The first option is essentially cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), a psychological treatment that focuses on unlearning irrational thoughts [3].

Suppose, for example, you adopted a phobia of dogs after being bitten by one. With CBT, you gradually learn that not all dogs are scary, but only the most aggressive ones. Then you learn to tolerate the fear when you think of a cute little dog, then when you think of a slightly larger dog, and so on, until you are able to finally think of the dog that bit you [4].

This therapy can help you to reduce and tolerate your fear. However, it takes time and can be uncomfortable.

This leads us to the second option, which is to change the evidence that supports our beliefs. We do not have direct control over many of our beliefs. However, we do have much more control over the evidence that supports them. Therefore, by changing the evidence, we can, over time, influence the beliefs in question. To do this, let’s start by identifying the evidence.

1. Identify the evidence that supports your beliefs

The identification of evidence is fairly simple: ask yourself simple questions about the belief and demand honest answers. These answers can sometimes be hard to admit, but the success of this step depends on the level of self-awareness you have of yourself. If at times you are uncomfortable with an answer, be aware that there is probably some truth in it.

Suppose you think you are unattractive and unworthy to partner in a relationship with a great person. What evidence led you to this belief? Did you grow up in a poor suburb? Do you think no one would want to be with someone who grew up this way? Have you experienced a trauma that makes you feel unworthy of love and appreciation? Or does the disaster of your last three relationships make you feel that you are not good at relationships?

These questions, sometimes very deep, will allow you to get your hands on the evidence that supports the beliefs you have nurtured for so many years. Once identified, this evidence needs to be challenged.

2. Question the evidence identified and decide whether it is still useful.

A negative belief as we know it is potentially neither true nor useful for our lives. We very often adopt it as a result of negative experiences that support and confirm this belief deep down in our being.

The objective of this step is to believe what is useful in your life. It’s not about believing blatant facts like believing you’re rich when you’re up to your eyeballs in credit card debt. No. Rather, it’s about starting by separating the facts of your situation from the interpretations you make of them.

Let’s go back to our example about relationships. It may be true that you grew up in a poor suburb and have had quite traumatic and disastrous relationships in the past. But does this necessarily mean that you are not attractive and would not make a good partner? Of course not.

You might think about how your experiences make you an interesting person who, by being open and vulnerable to her partner, could make her see the complexity of her person and the fascinating trials she has had to go through in her life. This approach seems much more appealing than talking about your favourite programme [6].

The third and final step in changing the evidence that supports a belief is about positive experiences.

3. Have positive experiences that invalidate the negative belief

Positive experiences can prove to us that we are “capable, good enough or important” as convincingly as negative experiences have proved that we are “incapable, not good enough or useless”.

You have probably experienced this in your life without realizing it. A simple deep breath in and out during one of your lunch breaks has made you feel “good”. A supportive conversation with a friend, family member or therapist made you feel “important” to you. Passing an exam after hard work has shown you, even for a moment, that you are “able” to overcome obstacles.

However, there is one condition that you must meet. In a 2018 study [5], six neuroscientists showed that when our nervous system is busy fending off threats to our survival, we cannot be in a state of healing and recovery. Therefore, for positive experiences to work effectively, we need a stable environment that does not reinforce false beliefs.

Once you have found this environment and are able to implement these steps in a healthy way, your false beliefs will gradually dissipate to make way for the beliefs you have chosen. And as author Marianne Williamson said, “Nothing traps you except your thoughts. Nothing limits you except your fears. And nothing controls you except your beliefs.”

Notes

  1. Holowchak, Mark & Lavin, Michael. (2015). Beyond the Death Drive: The Future of “Repetition” and “Compulsion to Repeat” in Psychopathology.. Psychoanalytic Psychology. 32. 10.1037/a0037859.
  2. Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others.. Psychological Science, 20(7), 860-866.
  3. Rector, Neil A. (2010) Cognitive behavioural therapy: An information guide. ISBN 978-1-77052-298-5.
  4. Zayfert, C., & Becker, C. B. (2006). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD: A case formulation approach.
  5. Sullivan, M. B., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonaz, S., Taylor, J. N., & Porges, S. W. (2018). Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12.
  6. Hey Sigmund. Vulnerability: The Key to Close Relationships. Intimate Relationships & Marriage.
  7. Brown M. Surgery and Emotion: The Era Before Anaesthesia. In: Schlich T, editor. The Palgrave Handbook of the History of Surgery. London (UK): Palgrave Macmillan; 2017 Dec. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK481552/ doi: 10.1057/978-1-349-95260-1_16.
  8. Your World Healthcare. “A History of Anaesthesia and Surgery in the Nineteenth Century: Your World Healthcare – Ireland.” Your World Healthcare, yourworldhealthcare.com/ie/news/a-history-of-anaesthesia-and-surgery-in-the-nineteenth-century.
  9. Moore, Levi. “Joseph Lister and the Story of Antiseptic Surgery.” Hektoen International, 16 Dec. 2019, hekint.org/2017/01/22/joseph-lister-and-the-story-of-antiseptic-surgery.
  10. For your information, you don’t deserve anything. Happiness is not something you deserve.

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *