As a therapist and clinical counselor I am always listening to what people say. I have learned that what people say can provide clues about what they believe about themselves, others, and life in general. That’s because beliefs play a fundamental role in shaping every aspect of our life. They serve as the foundation for who we are, what choices we make, and how we go about making them.
Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the most critical parts of counseling work is the initial evaluation. For example, at MYND MVMT, we start by evaluating our clients on certain measures to learn how to build the most effective strategic change plan for each of them. The evaluation is centered on listening to them, so we can understand their beliefs, see how far they are from where they want to go, and learn what is preventing them from achieving their objectives. This evaluation is the first step in the development of a road map that will help them get where they want to go.
The relationship between someone’s beliefs and their change plan is critical the the change plan. Your beliefs are generated from your experiences. Every detail, every moment of your life has been carefully sculpted and crafted by your perspective. From what your parents told you as a kid, to where you grew up, to who your sports coach was in college, to what your friends said was cool in middle school. Everything you have ever experienced has been compiled and integrated and now constitutes your belief system. This belief system, above all else, determines how you see and interact with the world around you.
To highlight what I mean further let’s say you and a friend decide to visit an old college buddy in NYC for the weekend. As part of your venture into big city life your host convinces you to brave the subways saying, “You can’t come to NYC and not ride the subway!” Despite your apprehension, you all agree and head underground. Sure enough, on your first subway trip ever, soon after you get on, out of nowhere, a fight breaks out, and someone pulls a switchblade right in front of you! It all happens so fast, and although things get pretty scary for a moment, in the end no one is hurt thanks to a group of bystanders who courageously broke it up before any blood could be shed. You and your friends promptly exit at the next subway station and as soon as you get off your host remorsefully turns to you and says “I’m so sorry you guys. I swear this stuff never happens here!” You can see she’s barely affected by the fight and more concerned about your wellbeing than the near-death experience you felt you just had. Your other friend responds in a very different way. Rushing to her phone to capture the moment and post it on Instagram, she turns and says, “No Way! How cool was that? That was absolutely awesome! Only in NYC do things this exciting happen!” Looking at her like she’s crazy, you can still feel your hands shaking and heart pounding out of your chest. You say, “That was utterly terrifying! I’m never riding the subway again!” You don’t say it out loud on behalf of your friend, but in your head you think – and this is most certainly my last trip to New York City!
All three of you witnessed the same event, at the same time but how you perceived what happened, your beliefs, and your interpretation of the event itself, what it meant or didn’t, could not have been more different. Not only did you draw conclusions directly related to this incident but you also made decisions pertaining to life in general. In this case, for example, is the world a safe place? Or do you always have to be looking over your shoulder? Were you lucky to make it out safely? Or unlucky to choose that subway car to begin with? Are people either good or bad, or do good people sometimes do bad things? Maybe the heroic efforts of a few, feeds your faith in humanity? Or the fact that one man had hidden a weapon in his pocket makes you think about how many others might be doing the same? In the end, just one 5-minute segment of your life carves new pathways of experience into the brain that adds to the complex web that makes up how you see the world around you as you interact with it all day, every day.
Beliefs are a funny thing. Their invisible nature so terribly misleading. We just can’t see the extent to which they are impacting our lives. Yet, in a culture where achievement is what we value most, and where we see success as our vehicle to happiness, it is our beliefs about who we are, and what is possible for our lives that might be the most important variable of all!
Most of us are continually measuring ourselves against those around us. Whether it’s secretly competing with the person next to you on the treadmill at the gym, a coworker, a family member, or spending hours on social media looking at pictures of friends, you are always assessing how you measure up. Deep down your beliefs about yourself, your self worth, your value, invisibly permeates every aspect of your life. In my 17 years as a clinical professional, despite all of the variations in my clients, all of the diagnoses and demographics, there is one single thing, one belief that each and every client has had in common, no exception… an underlying fear that they are not good enough.
You see, most of us want evidence to feel good about ourselves. We want people to like us, praise us, we want to win awards and receive accolades. We want to be the most beautiful, the smartest, make the most money. The problem is we want that first, before we can feel like we are worth something. We say “show me the success, and then I will feel successful.” “Give me the relationship and then I will feel loved.” “When I lose ten lbs then I will be happy with my body.” Here’s the thing, it does not work that way! It can’t and it never will. Getting what you want can only make you feel worthy, if you feel worthy first. It’s why most end up spending their lives climbing up the never ending ladder of achievement. Always striving, always needing one more thing to feel fulfilled. One more accomplishment to feel worthy.
The best way I have found to explain how the brain works is to compare it to a GPS system. Just like you program a GPS by typing in the address of your desired destination, your brain looks for and takes you in the direction of what you tell it to find. By “tell it to,” you don’t do it on purpose you do so subconsciously with what you believe to be true, and what you give your attention to. The brain has no opinion outside of yours. It’s not looking out for your best interest. It’s not separate from you, it is you! Just like when you head to your in-laws house for dinner, or to an ex-lovers for a drink, your GPS doesn’t warn you not to go. In the very same way your brain too does not assign good or bad, right or wrong to what you believe. Your brain simply sees, hears and evaluates what you do! It’s so efficient in fact, as soon as you adopt the belief that something is “true” your senses begin to filter information as though it is, whether it is or not.
For example, let’s say you’re heading out to catch a movie with a friend. As you go to lock the door to leave, you realize the keys are not where they are supposed to be. Having a long history of misplacing your keys you immediately worry that the keys might be gone! After only a few minutes of looking in the most likely places you declare the keys as lost and frantically start tearing up the house. Here’s the interesting part. As soon as you made the decision that the keys are likely “lost,” you won’t see them, you can’t see them! You could be staring right at the them, your fingers brushing up against them as you reach into your bag, but your eyes won’t “see” them and your fingers won’t “feel” them. You decided they were lost and as such the brain does its job to make that true … for a while. Until you’re distracted long enough to stop actively thinking “the keys are lost,” or until someone less invested comes along and points out that the keys were right in front of you the entire time.
This is all because of a system of circuitry in your brain that acts as a gatekeeper; deciding what information is important and what can be ignored. The system, known as the ARAS, is a network of neurons that works to filter information from the outside world! Its job is to make sense of what is happening around you. In every moment your senses are contending with 11 million bits of information! The conflict is of all of that sensory input, you are only capable of handling 100-110 per second! For this reason, the brain develops a mechanism to decide what information is important to pay attention to, and what information can be ignored. Naturally, that leaves one obvious question. What criteria does the gatekeeper use to decide what information to let through? The simple answer is the criteria are set by you! With your prior experiences, beliefs and expectations, this gatekeeper sifts and sorts to determine what to give your attention to.
Said a different way you find what you “look for”! It’s the reason why my dad and I can watch the President of the United States give a speech and walk away with two completely different, and opposing, versions of what we just heard. It’s partly why eyewitness testimony is unreliable at best, and as a lifelong NY Jets fan, no matter where I am in the world, I will spot a green & white #12 football Jersey! In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the world actually does revolve around you, or maybe more accurately your world revolves around you!
Ask yourself, have you ever had someone on your mind, someone you definitely did not want to talk to, someone you were avoiding, yet somehow accidentally sent them a text message? Or even worse spent 20 minutes searching for your glasses only to find they had been sitting on your head? How about noticed something for the very first time, a new car, an unusual name, or a catchy phrase and then forever after noticed it everywhere you went?
This gatekeeper is what makes your experience so specific and so unique! It is your beliefs about you, about the world around you, about what’s right and wrong, true or false, good and bad, that determines what you see, when you see it, and the choices you make as a result. It amounts to an invisible film that colors your lens, that shades every interaction, every experience, and ultimately creates the unfolding that is your life.
Ask yourself this one question, how might the world look to you if you were walking around with a long standing and deeply held belief that you were not good enough ? Given all that you now know what types or experience might you have?
About the Author
Samantha Benigno is the CEO & Founder of MYND MVMT, a program that offers an alternative approach to mental health & addiction treatment. MYND MVMT uses an integrated, health & wellness model where mindfulness, nutrition, fitness, and long term goal attainment are built into the rehabilitation process. Mind Mvmt specializes in the treatment & recovery of depression, anxiety, substance use & abuse, behavioral addictions, and working with those who struggle to feel fulfilled in their lives. Samantha is a career mental health professional, educator, and consultant.