How do you change negative beliefs? Three simple steps: notice it, halt it, replace it.
This is WAY easier said then done. Buddhists call this practice mindfulness. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has all sorts of tricks for accomplishing this. Coaching schools are now focusing a good deal of their attention on teaching these CBT techniques as well.
What is a negative belief?
Core negative beliefs act like an emotional defense and are constructed by the limbic brain in an effort to defend, protect, manipulate, and control a world that threatens you. The limbic brain developed in us when we needed to escape big sharp-toothed creatures that were going to eat us. It’s the source of the fight or fight response. Modern day threats include scary parents when we are young, bullying bosses, betraying lovers, or the day-to-day dangers of living, like drunk drivers and bankruptcy.
Developmental psychologists believe that we form our primary emotional defenses (core negative beliefs) by the time we are 7-8 years old. A negative belief begins in the mind as a thought that stimulates the release of hormones into the body that result in what we identify as intense emotions that then motivate us to act. These negative beliefs become very problematic as we age and the conditions of our life shift, because they can become rigid and unyielding to change until we consciously choose to challenge them and rewire the neuropathways upon which they live.
The nocebo/placebo effect
Negative beliefs act like nocebos, the Latin root of which means “I shall harm.” Researchers have proven that the nocebo/placebo (the Latin root: “I shall please”) effect is real. What you tell yourself, positive or negative, will in fact determine not only your physical health but also the rest of your wellness, emotional and otherwise. If you have any doubts about this, check out the work of stem cell biologist, Bruce Lipton in his book, The Biology of Belief.
Research indicates that we are functioning in the unconscious mind 95% of the time. The average person has upwards of 60,000 unconscious thoughts and 50 brief stress response episodes each day, and lonely people or those unduly stressed about work, relationships, you name it experience even more, requiring the body to devote energy to maintaining a healthy homeostasis. At first, the body keeps up, but over time, the body gets tired and things go wrong. Frequent elevations in blood pressure result in blood vessel wall thickening and tears. Excessive production of fatty acids and glucose cause plaques that lead to heart disease. Chronic muscle tension and inflammation lead to pain and musculoskeletal disorders. Overproduction of cortisol suppresses the immune system, predisposing the body to infection and cancer.
If you have organized your world around a negative belief, you are unwittingly inducing a stress response and unconsciously scanning your environment for the people, places, and things that will reinforce your negative belief, filtering out anyone or thing that challenges it, symbolically or otherwise. The negative belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What to do?
Understanding the source of negative beliefs is part of step one, noticing. Next, stop a negative belief by identifying what your thinking habits are. Albert Ellis, the grandfather of Cognitive Therapy came up with what he termed “Thinking Errors.” He created the list (up to 25 now) to help identify what shapes negative beliefs so you can stop them in their tracks. You may notice that you do several of these frequently:
All or Nothing Thinking: Absolute. Seeing no middle ground.
Overgeneralization: Unintentional exaggeration of the frequency of a situation or an inaccurate extrapolation.
Mental Filter: Acknowledging only information that is consistent with what you already believe.
Discounting the positive: Believing that positive information (that is contrary to your current beliefs) somehow “doesn’t count” as evidence that the situation is better than it seems.
Magnification: Exaggerating the importance of something.
Labeling: Assigning a name to someone or something that does not accurately reflect or describe the person or object.
Catastrophizing: Thinking something to be terrible, horrible, and/or awful, rather than it being simply “bad.”
Magical Worry: Believing that somehow your worry keeps the feared event from occurring.
Ambivalent Beliefs: Believing an idea strongly enough to feel badly that you are not acting on it, but not strongly enough to act on it.
When you find yourself lost to a thinking error, see this as an opportunity to change your mind. Breaking habitual thinking errors takes time. Be patient, willing, and curious about the world that emerges as you perceive a new reality.
Yours in psyche and spirit,