Changing Beliefs

In the the very first entry on this blog, I talked about the importance of belief, particularly what we believe about ourselves. Belief shapes everything.

Belief is not the same as fact. Not at all. In fact, the older I get, the more I realize that belief about who we are rarely has much to do with fact. I know this because I see wonderful, amazing people who believe they are not what people on the outside know they really are.

I see beautiful women who think they are ugly. I see successful men who feel they never measure up. I see artists who think they have no talent. I see…. well I don’t need to go on and on. You get the idea. And you know people like that too – people with loads of positive things about them, who just don’t see it in themselves.

Why is that?

It is, because most of us form our beliefs about who we are by what people tell us. It starts when we are children and our parents and teachers and the other kids in the class tell us what they think of us. We are smart, dumb, cute, plain, fat, thin, They tell us and because we are kids, we believe them, trusting them somehow more than ourselves.

This pattern goes on through high school, college, and into adulthood. People tell us what we are and aren’t and we absorb it like a sponge, letting it soak in until those things they tell us become us. Or we become them.

The problem is, we are never taught to really look at those outsider’s view of ourselves to see if they are correct. We just go with it. Other tell us what we are, then we compound the impression on our own minds by repeating what they tell us over and over again, creating a belief that is hard to overcome, but may be very, very wrong.

Let me give you a simple example from my own life.

As a kid, I was probably a terrible frustration to my dad. My father was very good at doing things. He could fix cars, build things, repair things. Honestly, if it involved a hand tool, he could do it.

Me? Not so much. I never seemed to get it right. I couldn’t hit a nail to save my life. I was slow with a screwdriver. I just never seemed to “get it” when I was working with him, and he was quick to tell me I was clumsy, or “no good at this.”

And I wasn’t.

He told me I was lousy at doing things a lot, but honestly, I repeated his mantra over and over and was far more effective in convincing myself that I couldn’t do handywork than anything he ever said to me. A lot of us are that way.

So, for the most part, I never tried to be handy.

Until I got married and we bought a house. Suddenly there were projects everywhere, and no money to pay someone to do them. So I tried. I was slow. but I found I was actually pretty good at handywork. Over the next few years I built out the basement of my house, learned to do a lot of basic work on my car, built and wired a tool house and porch. The projects went on and on and have now continued through dozens of projects and four houses.

My belief was that I am not good at handywork. But that was not the whole truth. Now I get it. You see, I am legally blind in one eye. It’s not something glasses can fix and really, it’s not a big deal. but it means I have poor depth perception, so for close up work, or hammering a nail, or fitting a screwdriver in a screw, I have to take more time. When I can do a project with little time pressure, I do a damned good job. And I enjoy it. But that little issue, and my unawareness of how it would affect things, was at the heart of my problem.

Most of our beliefs are so ingrained in us that we don’t ever examine them.

So if we are going to change our lives for the better, we have to first examine our beliefs. So go ahead now, make a list of some of the things you believe about yourself. Good and bad. Write them down. Take your time. This page isn’t going anywhere….

So, do you have your list in hand?  Good. Now, pull out the positive about yourself beliefs. Oddly, those tend to be more true than the negative ones. (don’t ask me why, I just know it’s true for most of us.)

Now you have a list of negative beliefs. These are the ones we have to change to move our lives to a newer, better place.

If you are like me, and most people….

Wait a minute? Did I just say “most people”?  I did! And that is because most people wrestle with some of the same negative beliefs and fears you do. You are not alone. We are not alone. The only reason we think we are is because we’ve kept things hidden for so long, afraid people will find out that we are not perfect.

This is actually good news. If so many people have wrestled with these same things, then there are answers out there, things that work, and we can find them. A lot of those people are no smarter, no stronger, no better than you or I. But they have found a way to change their beliefs.

There are whole books on changing beliefs, and I am not about to challenge them for completeness, but in general, here is the process.

  • First, you examine the belief. Where did it come from? Is it true or just someone else’s perception? How long have you been telling yourself this?
  • Second, start thinking about how life might be different if that belief was not true? What if you wouldn’t die of embarassment, or fear, or whatever? What if you could learn a skill you don’t have?
  • Third, start changing what you say about yourself.

That third one is important. It’s generally called an “affirmation”. In other words you replace your negative self talk with positive self talk.

Why is this important? Because for a lot of years, you have been telling your brain that you were  (fill in your negative thought here.). YOU convinced your brain this negative thing was true. Others may have started you on the journey, but you did the rest of the work.

But the good news (and yes, there is a lot of good news) is that in the same way, you can convince yourself of positive things too. You don’t have to lie, just look at yourself and pull out the positive things. Repeat them to yourself. Over and over. Daily. For a month or so.

Why a month?  Because one thing we know about the brain is that it takes about 21 days to ingrain a habit. Being a little cautious. I tell people to do it for about a month.

Brain scientists can explain what’s happening and often call this “reprogramming” as we program our brains to think differently, more positively. There’s a ton of science behind it.

Law of Attraction people will tell you that as you think positive thoughts, the universe (or God, or whoever you want to give the credit to.) re-arranges things to make the more positive things become true.

It seems that every book has an explanation for why self affirmations work. I really don’t care why. I just know they do. And everyone from psychologists to sociologists to pastors to new age gurus say it works. When that many people from that many walks of life agree, it merits paying attention to.

So look at your beliefs. Examine them. Claim the good ones. Focus on the good ones. Make sure the bad ones are true (they probably aren’t.). And start telling yourself how great you are.

One, because you are. And two, because telling yourself will change your beliefs. And that is the start of something amazing in your life.

Take care, Journey wisely,

Tom

Lesson 7

Admitting what you are.

I walked into my studio this morning and something happened. I finally admitted to myself that I am an artist.

Understand, this should be nothing new to me.  I began drawing over thirty years ago and my drawings hang in a lot of people’s houses, sometimes as gifts (people saw drawings in my wall and wanted one), and at times, selling an odd drawing here and there. Last year, I began to take painting lessons so now I add watercolor to the mix.

Recently, I had the chance to hang a few paintings and photographs as a “fill in” at a local art gallery. They had a wonderful display of sculpture books that they were featuring, but after the show was curated and hung there were a couple of walls to fill, and I got the chance to display some work. Much to my surprise, a couple of them have sold.

What makes us an artist? Just doing art? Selling art? The place creating art takes in our lives?

After I began to learn to paint, I converted a room in my house to a studio space. In a day of madness, I had to re-arrange 4 rooms to move things around and make the room work as a studio. Now I have a place to work, which is slowly becoming cluttered and over run with new paintings and drawings.

I didn’t have to buy anything new to create the studio. I had everything, the drawing table, the brushes, paper, tools, all of it. It was just scattered around my house here and there. I had to move things out of the room to make room for the drawing table, and move things in the room to give me storage for the art supplies. I rewired a light to bring more light into the room at night. (in the day, I have two wonderful windows.). Creating a space brought focus to it, but it was all there before.

But that was months ago. And even then after giving art a larger part in my life, I didn’t immediately start admitting I was an artist. I don’t know what changed. Why this morning I looked around and said. “I am an artist.”.

I’ve been through this with other things in my life. I have a masters degree in creative writing from Hollins and have been writing poetry, prose, articles, and all kinds of things for over thirty years. When I was in school I would call myself a writer, but years of being a grownup went by and I stopped. I didn’t stop writing. I just stopped indentifying myself as a writer.

The same thing with photography. People pay me to do it. People have bought my photographs to hang on their walls. Yet I didn’t really call myself a photographer.

Over the past year though, I began to do more and more of both writing and photography. I began to realize that even when we called it “marketing” or “documentation”, it was still writing and photography. That it was these two expressions that really defined what I do, what I LOVE to do. And I finally began to call myself what I always was, a writer and photographer.

The same with art. I LOVE doing it. I love the creation. The experimenting. The ability to fail and try again and it’s OK. I love it when what I envision actually happens, or when an experiment creates something beautiful. It energizes me in the same way writing and photography energize me.

And that is what has been slowly sinking in, I think. That in reality we aren’t what we do. We may think we are. How often have you, in the midst of introductions, defined yourself by your job, even if your job is just something that fills time and pays you money, not something you are passionate about? I’ve done it lots of times.

But you are more than that. I am more than that.

So what, you ask? Well, here is what I, at 57 years old, am finally learning.

We can become a self fulfilling prophecy. If we define ourselves as we are, as our hearts really are, our chances of having those things we love in our life increase.

Can I explain why? No. But you read about it all the time. There’s a whole genre of books that go back generations that have theories galore about why it works. Call it “The Secret” or the “Law of Attraction” or “Synchronicity” – all terms from popular books on the subject. I don’t care what you call it.

I just know it works.

When I define myself as a writer, artist and photographer, opportunities in those things, which are the things I love, HAPPEN.

I still don’t know why the switch turned this morning. Maybe it was just an accumulation of things that finally took on a critical mass in my mind. Maybe it was some sort of revelation. Maybe it was something else. I really don’t care. Just the fact that the switch clicked is enough.

I am an artist.

Who knew? Well now, the universe does. I can’t wait to see what happens.

Take care. Travel wisely,

Tom

Lesson 9

The Pliable Brain

I am focusing right now on beliefs, since our beliefs in life are what drive us, cause us to act (and react) certain ways, direct our behavior, and either help or hinder us from becoming what we want to become.

Look up the word Belief and you might find something like this:

  • 1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another.
  • 2. Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something.
  • 3. Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons.

Read that over carefully. The phrase in this typical definition of belief that leaps out at me is that it is a mental process. That seems to indicate that it is, or at least can be, a conscious choice.

And yet, my experience, both in my life and in the lives of most people I talk to, is that belief is more of a habit, not totally conscious. We believe things because of how we feel, and turn facts to reflect what we believe, refusing, either consciously, or just from habit, to consider things might not be as they seem.

You know how that happens. Someone – a parent, a lover, an enemy, a teacher, a friend tells us something about ourself over and over until we begin to tell ourselves the same thing, either good or bad.

And as soon as we begin telling ourselves that same thing, the jig is up. Because our mind tells us that thing over and over again. We tend to see situations that reinforce that belief as “proof”, with an exaggerated validity, and we tend to dismiss things that challenge that belief by discounting them, or giving them a diminishing importance.

And whatever we believe, good or bad, becomes reality.

Let me give you an example. As a kid, I was constantly told that I was no good at doing mechanical or household things. Probably as I kid, I wasn’t very good at it, but hearing that over and over again, I took it as a definition of me, a belief.

When I bought my first house, at about age thirty or so, I had to do my own work to fix up and improve my house. I simply did not have enough money to pay someone to do it. And in the few years I was there I completely redid my basement, hung ceilings, did wallboard, electrical, custom cutouts for stereo gear under the stairwell. I build a porch and attached workshop to the back of the house. It turned out that I actually was pretty good at it. Design simply made sense to me. Now my belief is different., I realize I can pretty much do what I can conceive. I am not a master builder, but I am fairly skilled.

We do the same thing in our lives, take snippets of our life and make it cornerstone beliefs.

When those beliefs help us reach for and accomplish good things in our life, that’s not a bad thing. When those beliefs hold us back, prevent relationships, keep us from being who we would like to be, then it is a bad thing.

But here’s the thing. Belief is a mental thing. We can choose to believe anything. But to do it, we have to create different habits. We have to cultivate the habit of telling ourselves positive things, of consciously discounting the negative belief.

We can’t get rid of a crippling belief without replacing it with something else. And we can do that consciously. Our brain, is oh so re trainable. That’s evolution at work. Way back in the primeval, part of what set humans apart and helped us survive was our ability to adapt. Tell the brain the same thing over and over again, and it begins to believe it’s own press.

So we have a choice, repeat the same old crippling belief over and over again out of habit, and let it stay our reality, or tell ourselves something far more positive, over again and having that new belief slowly take hold and change our life for the positive.

Is it easy? Heck no. But neither is it as hard as we make it sometimes. I’ve been on both sides of this, and while it has been work to change and replace one set of beliefs with something more true and positive, I’ve seen it work. And trust me, I am nothing special. It’s simply the way our brains work, and the good news is that we can control it, if we are willing.

Take care. Journey Wisely,

Tom

Lesson 31

When the Shirt is too tight

My uncle died this past weekend. My mother’s brother.

I was in Virginia visiting my son when I got the word. My parents also live in Virginia, so after finishing my visit with my son, I cut across from Roanoke to Richmond to spend a few days with my mom, hopefully helping her out, and going to the funeral, which was Wednesday.

I had not packed for a funeral. I had packed to do things with a 14 year old boy, so I had jeans, T shirts and tennis shoes. I had a sport coat only because I habitually use a sport coat as a casual jacket. So the day before the funeral, I was off to WalMart to get some cheap dress clothes – a shirt, tie, dress slacks, dress socks and a pair of black shoes. An unexpected expense, but far cheaper than doing the 11 hour drive to Vermont, then driving back to Virginia to get something out of my closet.

I brought everything home, took the clothes out of their wrapper and ironed them. I laid them out on the chair in my bedroom and the morning of the funeral, I slipped on the shirt and it was too tight.

Not just a little tight. No, this was not a matter of having gained a few pounds and my old size no longer quite fitting right. This was inches too tight around the neck. I could button the lower four or five buttons (although they were crying for mercy, they were straining so bad.), And the upper few buttons were never going to happen.

I looked at the wrapper again. 16 ½” neck. 33”-34” arms. Same size I’ve worn for a couple of decades. Then I looked at the tag on the back of the shirt. Size 16. As in boy’s size 16.

Somehow the wrong shirt had gotten in the wrapper.

Thank goodness in the big city WalMarts are open 24 hours a day. I made an early morning run to WalMart and got the right sized shirt an hour before we were slated to leave for Franklin, Virginia, 2 hours away, for the funeral. This time I didn’t trust the package, I read the tag in the neck. The second shirt fit. I was able to be respectfully dressed for my uncle’s funeral.

Driving back to Vermont last night, I thought about that little adventure. And about how often, after we’ve lived in it a while, our lives no longer fit us.

At times, our lives no longer fit us because we have changed. It was entirely possible that I had put on so much weight that shirt didn’t fit. I don’t exactly pay a lot of attention to what I eat, after all.

And a lot of times we don’t pay much attention to our lives. We just skate through them and suddenly realize they don’t fit any more. We are uncomfortable in our own life, wondering…. “how did I get here.?”

At other times we buy into a life advertised as one thing, that turns out to be another, just like my first shirt. We gladly invest ourselves in our lives, thinking they will lead us to a certain place, but the packaging lied to us, and we find ourselves as uncomfortably crammed into a life that doesn’t fit as I felt in that boy’s size 16 shirt.

But trading in a life is not as easy as trading in a shirt. We can’t run down to WalMart at the 11th hour and pick out a new life.

We can, however do something about a life that doesn’t fit. In fact, we should.

Some people let their lives slowly get so out of whack that they end up feeling like hey are in an ever compressing straight jacket (much the way I felt in that first shirt!). Honestly, that’s how it happens to most of us.

Others realize quickly that they have bought into something terribly wrong, but don’t know what to do.

Because for many, the only way they see out of their ill fitting life is to either rip it up and start over, or resign themselves to it. Ripping it up generally means they rip the buttons and seams of their life, often terribly hurting and damaging the people around them. Resigning themselves is ever more painful and sad. We all know people in both situations. Many of us have lived one or the other ourselves.

I’ve learned that there is a third way, something in between the nuclear option and the do nothing option. That we can craft a new life in tiny steps. We can’t do that with a shirt. But we can with life.

Tiny steps may be frustrating, because most of us want to just do it, like I went and got a new shirt.  but if we have the discipline to keep at the tiny steps, they can be liberating.

And they have a lot of benefits. Tiny steps means, when we do go off track, it’s only a little off track and getting back on a good path is easier. Tiny steps take less effort. They give us lots of small things to celebrate and encourage us.

There is a magic in tiny steps too. We whittle away at things, and for a while it seems like we are making very little progress, but at some point, we stop and look back and we’ve resewn our life into something that does fit. It’s like somehow we miraculously restitched that boy’s 16 into the men’s size 16 ½” neck shirt we really wanted.

People don’t notice the tiny steps, but they do wake up one day and go “Oh!”. And so can we.

One last thing…. When I went back to WalMart for the second shirt, I was a little more careful. I read the package first, but then I looked at the label in the collar to make sure it matched the packaging.

That’s a wise thing to do in life too. Take time to pay more attention the second time around. We’ll make mistakes, but make them new ones, and leave the old ones behind. What you will find, like I found with the shirt, is that when you recraft a life that fits, you will revel in it’s comfort, and it will be something special to savor.

Take care, Journey Wisely.

Tom

Lesson 19

A Little Broken

The Mad Hatter – “Have I gone mad?”
Alice: “I’m afraid so…. but I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are. ”  

                                                                      – Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

It’s one of the harder lessons I had to learn, how broken most people are. No matter how together they seem, no matter how many positive traits they have, no matter how much they do or give or produce, there is almost always a brokenness somewhere in their lives.

That’s not a put down. In fact quite the opposite. We’re human and imperfection is our lot. Perfection belongs to God alone. We can’t expect to be perfect. And yet, somehow, we do.

Years ago, when I was struggling through a divorce, I was obviously broken. You could look at me and tell how broken I was. People still tell me how haggard and broken (the word they use) I looked.

Yet, a surprising number of people came to me in that period for advice, sharing their own broken lives. At times, these were people who had lived with their brokenness in secret for years, and suddenly they were sharing their own hurt and pains with the most unlikely candidate – me.

This really confused me. “Why?” I asked one friend who particularly poured himself out to me one night. “Why were you silent so long about this? And why share it now?”

“Because I always thought you were perfect.” He said. “And now, I know you are human.”.

What an indictment! And what a lesson. People may make myths out of us and endow us with perfection. Or we may create that image of ourselves in the public arena. But in reality, people respond better to us, and we can often be more credible, helpful and healing in our imperfections!

Here’s something else I have learned about being honest about our broken places – When we admit them, people are incredibly kind and gracious and helpful. When we hide our broken places, they will not be as kind, gracious and helpful.

Not because they are mean, but because they don’t think we NEED their kindness, their grace, or their help. They don’t know. And because they don’t know, we rob ourselves of their loving help, and they are robbed of an opportunity to help. We’re all poorer.

When I began therapy, years and years ago, I went through three years of peeling the onion of my life and emotions. And three years of reading book after book on the various issues that came out. One of the big surprises in the reading was how common my own kinds of brokenness were. I had thought I was far more alone than I was. Knowing how normal brokenness is, made me feel somehow, like I was going to be OK.  I was struggling, but I was struggling on a path others had trod, and where others had found their way out.

And if they, in their brokenness, could find their way out to a better place, so could I. It made the mountains smaller, the depression more manageable, the struggles easier.

Today, I think I listen better knowing how broken I am. I manage better knowing my weaknesses and working with them instead of hiding them. I am a better friend. A better father. I think my love is better in it’s imperfection than it ever was when I thought life was less broken. I forgive easier. And that includes forgiving myself.

I am blind in one eye. That means I have no depth perception. Which makes things like hitting nails more than a challenge. For years, I thought I was just bad at it. Then one day, I was working at home and bent the shaft of the hammer I was using.

And suddenly, I could hit nails. That hammer would be useless to most people. But to me, that slightly bent, very battered hammer corrected the problem with my depth perception and I could work.

The broken tool was perfect.

Often, I have learned, a broken person is often perfect for someone else who needs something only another’s particular brokenness can offer. That might be you, or me, or someone yet to enter your life,

So… if you have been hiding from your brokenness, embrace it. Yes, you can work on improving, but understand you are not alone. You have so much to offer. It need not be a roadblock, but a launching point. A connection place. The start of a beautiful, broken, greatness.

Tom

Lesson

On Belief

Readers here , or visitors to our Facebook page know that I have been re-reading many of the books that have influenced me over the past couple of decades, books that weren’t just interesting, but actually caused a change in the way I see the world and the way I live in it.

I was telling a friend about my re-reading project, and some of the lessons they have in common and some of the things that were unique to each book and he asked me a valuable question: “What,” he asked “do you think the first thing we need to learn to become who we want to be?”

The first thing. That’s important. Because like anything, if the foundation is tended to, then you can build on it. But if the foundation is missing, eventually everything you build on it washes away.

I thought a minute, over the books I had re-read up to that point. Then I realized what the real basis is, what the one thing that all the self help books I have ever read had in common. “Our belief controls who we are.” “I said. “And we can change that belief.”

Belief is any habit or thought that controls or influences our actions. They start piling up in our heads and hearts when we are kids and they control who we are and what we do until we are old. Belief has the power to propel us to amazing things, or hold us back from them.

For many of us, perhaps all of us, belief is intially instilled in us by someone on the outside – family, friends, schools, co-workers. They all see things, decide things about us that may or may not be true, and convince us that they ARE true.

At times their convincing of us may have good motives, at times they may have self serving motives, and at times they may be thoughtlessly done. The truth is, however, that they are borrowed beliefs, but with time and repetition, the habit of thought makes them become ours. And then our own minds take over and we repeat the belief over and over and over again until it becomes, in our own minds, THE TRUTH. It’s not the truth of course. It’s just a belief. A habit of thinking.

And habits can be changed. Any habit.

And that is the first and most fundamental life lesson, that belief controls our actions, and we can control our beliefs.

I am not kidding myself and I would never try to kid you, that it is easy. But, if we really want change in our lives, to become more (You fill in what you want to become more of.), or to become less (Fill this one in for yourself too.), then the very first thing we must realize is that we can do it. It’s not some mysterious process. It’s not some Goliath. It’s a habit.

And how long does it take habits to change? 21 days, the experts tell us. Three weeks.

My suspicion, both from my own life and from listening to many, many others, is that many people who profess to want change and growth don’t really believe that they can do it. They would like to believe. They know it’s worked for others, But somehow, we think that our case is different.

Nope. It’s not. Your case is unique. Trust me on this one – I’ve made that mistake enough times to know it IS a mistake. The beliefs you need to change are different than the ones I need to change. But the fundamental concept, that we CAN change a belief, does not vary from person to person. So, life lesson number 1: Beliefs guide who we are and what we become, and we can control those beliefs.

Scary huh? The gig’s up. It’s up to us.

Tom

Lesson #1