I’m endlessly fascinated by the impact of our beliefs on our life experience and emotions. I’m talking about our core beliefs here- not surface level beliefs like: “I believe in this political party”, or “I believe in a certain cause.” The beliefs I’m talking about are so far out of our awareness that we don’t realize they are beliefs. They appear to be objective fact, just like “the sky is blue.”
We have beliefs about all sorts of aspects of our functioning, including our lovability, likeability, intelligence, future potential, attractiveness, and hundreds of other things. We might think that our beliefs about the world are just the conclusions we make, after getting back all the evidence of our experience over a long period of time, and that the belief is just a summary of that experience. For example, if I perform poorly on a series of exams when I’m at school, my belief might be that I’m not very intelligent. Those failed exams are the evidence leading to my belief of not being very intelligent.
But let’s put a bit of a twist on this story. What if, rather than beliefs being summaries of the reality about us, beliefs themselves create the reality about us? The core beliefs we hold affect what information we pay attention to in the world around us, causing us to focus only on that information which supports our existing beliefs. By narrowing our attentional focus to only certain aspects of our experience, and filtering out other data that doesn’t necessarily fit with that pre-existent belief, we create what I’ll term a “closed loop”, where any experience we have or any piece of data we observe and absorb just reinforces our existing belief. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what we experience- our closed loop can be so ingrained that total polar opposite experiences can be interpreted as meaning the same thing.
Let’s look at an example of how this could work. I once had a client who suffered a traumatic experience a few years prior to seeing me. That incident had led to a collapse in her confidence and an extreme drop in her levels of self-esteem (Read more about self esteem here). She had developed beliefs from this incident; that she was incompetent, incapable and worthless, amongst other things. In the early sessions she often described herself as a loser. Anyway, she came at a point where she had narrowed down her life and avoided all the things that she used to do. She was hardly leaving her house, in a constant state of depression (You can also read a useful post on How to change your relationship to anxiety and depression). She wanted to try to do something about this, if it was in any way possible, but she wasn’t feeling optimistic about her chances.
Eventually she decided that she would like to “get back out into the world”, a bit at a time. At that stage this was a terrifying prospect to her. Thus, she decided that her first foray into this would be to start with an activity in which she had a history of success and confidence. Starting with something she already knew made sense to her. She planned to start doing yoga classes again- an area in which she had a long history and felt that she had previously achieved a higher level of confidence. Thus she went along to her first class in quite a while, cautiously optimistic, but also a little terrified.
On our next session, she came in and I asked her how things went. She replied: “It was an absolute disaster.” When I asked her to elaborate, she said that the teacher spent the whole class correcting every pose she was in: “move your knee more this way”, “move your hand more that way”, “tilt your neck more that way.” Whether or not this was an exaggeration or not does not matter; it was her experience and memory of the event. She then said that either she’d lost her “mojo”, or she was never as good as she thought she was. Both of these ideas made her feel even worse about herself and even more depressed. She admitted that she had hoped that the yoga experience would have been positive for her and would have made her realize that her very strong beliefs in her incompetence were exaggerated. However, after the experience she had, she said that those beliefs of incompetence were even stronger than ever before and now she felt even more hopeless.
After a long discussion, she decided that she would try one more time to go to the yoga class, the next week. Again, feeling a little bit more terrified than the first time, she plucked up the courage to go along. On our next session I asked her how it went and she replied: “An even bigger disaster than last time.” Again I asked her to relate her experience, and she said: “Well, in this class the same teacher didn’t even look at me once and spent her time helping out the other people in the class. She obviously decided that I couldn’t matter myself, all lesson. We’d meet again after the week before, so she just left me… left me on scrapheap to fend for myself. So obviously, I’m a drain on the class.”
Can you see what’s happening here? From an outside perspective we may have a very different idea of what went on at those two classes. Perhaps in the first week she’d been a little “rusty” and the teacher just decided to polish her up a little bit. And by the second week, she was back to her former skill level and didn’t need any further correction. This experience could have been interpreted in many different ways. However, this client was not in the head space to consider that possibility. She said: “I’ve been twice now to an activity that was my safest, strongest ground, to try to prove to myself that I wasn’t as incompetent as I thought. And now, that experiment has turned out to be another failure and it just reinforced the beliefs that I had already feared were true.”
Thus in her mind, she thought that she was conducting a very rational, careful experiment about her core beliefs of incompetence, and was trying to collect data to hopefully disprove the extent and magnitude of these beliefs. However, the experiment had given her data which she had feared and not wanted.
And most of us do things like this all the time when we try to test our beliefs. But maybe something else is going on here that we don’t quite realize on the surface. Rather than argue against her conclusion or challenge the thoughts that led to that conclusion, or any other standard psychological technique, I simply asked her one question: what would have had to happen in that class to make you decide that your beliefs about incompetence were not a true reflection of reality? What would it have taken for you to feel that the class went well? She paused for a number of seconds, thinking deeply, and then with a look of shock and horror on her face, she started crying.
She had realized that there was absolutely nothing that could have happened or been said that would have chipped away those beliefs about incompetence. If the teacher of class was nice – they were being patronizing. If they’d call – they wanted her out. Any scenario she could think of, she realized, she would have filtered through her beliefs about incompetence. Rather than letting experiences change her beliefs about herself, her deeply held perception of herself as incompetent had altered her experience into something that confirmed her worst fears. Her belief was shaping her experience. The entire time she had been playing a rigged game that she could not win. Rather than conducting a thoughtful scientific experiment, which she thought she was, she had setup as closed loop that was acting like a Chinese finger trap, where the harder she pulled, the tighter it got.
We can all be guilty of letting beliefs shape our experience, and most of the time we are completely unaware. Are there any negative beliefs you hold about yourself that are creating a closed loop or self-fulfilling prophecy of expectation and confirmation? Start investigating some of your own beliefs today, about your intelligence, your attractiveness, your prospects for the future, your lovability and likeability, and have a look to see whether you’re caught up in a closed loop that could potentially create a lifelong experience of unused opportunity, unfulfilled potential and needlessly negative thinking.
And ask yourself that deep, honest question while fishing for closed loops: what would have to happen or be said that could meaningfully change a negative belief about yourself? If on deep reflection you realize there is nothing that will do it, then you might be caught in a closed loop and the apparent negative truth could be a delusion. It could be like drinking sea water. When you feel lost in a boat in the middle of the ocean, drinking the sea water seems like the thing to do, when you’re thirsty, but it will slowly kill you. Maybe land is closer than you think and maybe there’s a water bottle that you have with you, that you hadn’t noticed.
Once you identify how loops of belief, interpretation and behaviour impact your life, you can start to use them to your advantage. Just as a negative loop of thinking can trap you in a hopeless worldview where any possible situation is interpreted negatively, the right beliefs can give you a powerful and productive frame of reference for even the most troubling of circumstances. Positive core beliefs can give you a brighter context in which to see events, which causes you to interpret your experiences in a more positive light. This in turn reinforces your optimistic beliefs, creating a positive closed loop that is self-reinforcing and can have a great impact on your psychological wellbeing.
The trick to establishing a positive, functional closed loop is finding an entry point into the cycle. You can’t always change events around you but you can always alter your interpretation of them, and act independently of challenging emotions that surround them. This doesn’t have to be a grand, life-changing gesture. Internalising a simple exercise such as listing things you are grateful for at the end of your work day can help you build positive closed loops. Something as simple and immediate as thinking about how you can make the next hour more meaningful and then acting on it can kick-start your thinking and get the cycle of attitude and experience into gear. Choosing to interpret things more functionally and positively increases your healthy beliefs about yourself and the world, which makes it easier to interpret events positively next time around. Experiment with this and see what effect it has! Deliberately creating functional closed loops and replacing the negative ones can help support your psychological health and help you live and grow a more content, resilient, and meaningful life.