Having decided to do one thing rather than another, it is always interesting to reflect on the choice and consider what informed it. It might come as a surprise to know that our beliefs play a big, albeit subconscious, part in our decision-making. Not only this, but what we think and feel about ourselves is all wrapped up in our beliefs as well.
Beliefs can best be likened to software that we have unconsciously written, and which runs in the background continually shaping what we think about ourselves and influencing our behaviour; they are the software for our unacknowledged auto pilot, our in-built navigational system that guides us through our lives. For most of the time the software works just fine but at other times it needs some maintenance, some seeing to. Why? From the moment we come into the world we are forming beliefs, based on inferences from experiences. And we develop beliefs as a means of keeping ourselves safe. Just imagine if we burnt ourselves on a flame and then failed to believe that flames can harm us! As we mature our beliefs do as well and are not solely focussed on physical harm but social and emotional harm too. In short, we develop more nuanced beliefs about staying safe in social environments. Our social survival, after all, depends on how well we relate to other people. So why do our beliefs, if they are so good at keeping, us safe sometimes need seeing to?
By and large our beliefs are enabling and helpful. We do, however, have a capacity to develop less helpful and sometimes quite debilitating beliefs. We might, for example, get the wrong end of the stick by giving negative meanings to other peoples’ communication. Our meaning-making brains keep us safe, most of the time but there are other times when they let us down. It is important to remember that beliefs are neither real nor independent of us: they are the outcomes of our perceptions and come from the subjective meanings we give to experience.
Perceptions are often at the root of fractured relationships. We may, for example, work with a new colleague and decide that the partnership is a good one and believe that some good work can be achieved. The basis for the belief might very well be rooted in the fact that the new colleague is very much like ourselves. We like and get on with people like ourselves. But what happens when the colleague is not like us? We might easily infer that the unfamiliar tone of voice or quirky mannerisms are his way of signalling his dislike of us … and it will be either awkward or impossible to work with him. This is a perception which solidifies into a belief with all of the accompanying uncomfortable feelings which can eat away at confidence and self-esteem.
The point here is that we are the authors of our beliefs. We generate them on the back of how we infer or choose to make meanings from our experience. We are generating the software that goes into our own navigational systems and we use the co-ordinates, usually in the form of internal self-dialogue, to make unconscious decisions which can lead to disparaging feelings about ourselves. But how easy is to think about or even acknowledge this software? Simple? Not really. Our belief systems are deeply ingrained and embedded parts of our beings. We have quite literally grown up with our beliefs and it is difficult to stand back and to be objective about them even if we were aware of them. And this is where coaching can be very helpful.
A coach can question beliefs and, very importantly, challenge them by asking for the evidence that supports them. As humans we have at once a useful and an unhelpful capacity to generalise. Just because something happens maybe three times it does not necessarily mean it proves anything beyond doubt. We might for example get cancelled several times by our boss and then assume that she is avoiding us. But what we might not know, however, is that her partner has been hospitalised and she is having to visit, and manage childcare. A coach can engage with our beliefs and look with us for the supporting evidence. A coach can help us to see things differently. Or, put another way, start the job of re-writing the software for the guidance system with the help of actual rather than subjectively fabricated evidence.
There have been occasions when people have very animatedly described workplace and personal goals that they would like to achieve only then to be reined in when they begin to think about their capacity to attain them. Their often tenuously evidenced self-beliefs get in the way. When I hear doubt and hesitation, and I acknowledge Nancy Kline’s work here*, I will ask What are you assuming about yourself that might stop you from achieving what you want? It is at this point that the limiting self-beliefs tumble out – Nobody thinks what I have to say is important, I’ve never been listened to etc – and the enthusiasm to achieve the goal is dented. But to then ask What ideas would you have about getting what you want if you knew that people did value what you say? is a way of punching out of a self-constructed mind cell and seeing exciting, unthought of possibilities.
Asking the question What do I believe about myself? is the beginning of a significant journey. A journey that on the one hand will explain the reasons for decisions we take and on the other why we feel the way we do about ourselves. We do not spring into the world with fully formed beliefs about ourselves: beliefs are learned. They are constructs, outcomes of our inferences, our generalisations and are very often tempered by our capacity to distort information to suit our own view of the world. But anything that we have learned can be unlearned and re-learned. We do not have to subscribe to long embedded constructs that might have served us well in the past but do less so in the present. We can re-assess and decide what is helpful and what is not. We do not have to be what we think we are. A coach can help with the process of renewal.
To begin a journey of self-reflection alone is not impossible. But to have a coach alongside to ask questions, questions that we might never even have thought about, let alone ask, can help to break out of tired loops of thinking that keep returning the same old problems and unhelpful answers. A coach’s mission is to enable fresh, generative thinking: the antidote to beliefs that all too often stop us from doing what we want and being who we want to be.
*Nancy Kline Time to Think (1999)
Ron Piper April 2021