Have you ever thought something like, “If I could only _____, everything would be so much easier” or “I wish I could ___”? Did you stop and ask yourself why you couldn’t do _____. Often these seemingly innocuous statements hide our assumptions about what is and is not possible. By challenging these assumptions, you can open the door to possibilities you had previously overlooked.
After my second child was born, I was trying to arrange childcare for when I went back to work. I had been looking for a few weeks and I was overwhelmed and unhappy with all of my options. Sitting and brooding one day, I said to myself, “This would be so much easier if I could just do what was best for my kids.” A light bulb went off. “Why not?” I asked. “Why can’t I focus on what is right for my kids?” So I set off to look again with a much lighter heart.
Rather than constraining my search based on my guesses about what life would look like 6 months later, I worked from what I knew about my older son and the kind of environment where he would thrive. I found a wonderful preschool for my older son and trusted that I would figure out how to make everything work when the time came.
As that time got closer, it became clear that my baby would nap most days while my older son was at preschool allowing me to work without requiring additional childcare. For when I need to work outside those times, I found a college student who my boys both love. By removing self-imposed constraints of what I “ought to” or “needed to” do, I found a solution that suited our family and our situation much better.
How Beliefs Shape Perception
Our beliefs filter what we perceive in the world; emphasizing some things and hiding others. The world as we perceive it is simultaneously information-rich and information-poor. It is information-rich in the sense that there is more input in any scene or situation than we are capable of processing. From moment to moment, we have to make choices about how we direct our attention. We filter the scene before us, focusing on certain aspects while ignoring others.
At the same time, our perceptions of the world are information poor. In every situation, there is vital information that we cannot directly perceive. We do not have direct access to other people’s feelings or intentions. Nor do we consistently know the underlying causes and history that led up to the events we are currently perceiving. We use our past experience and beliefs to fill in the gaps, building mental models of the world around us.
When our mental models are well-matched to reality they can help us understand the world and make good decisions despite limited information. However, when we encounter new situations our past experience may not always be the best guide. Moreover, at times we have formed false beliefs based on our own experience or messages from our parents, friends or society at large. When our mental models do not fit the current reality we tend to distort reality to fit our expectations. When we mistake our perceptions for reality, we may find ourselves struggling to understand why things don’t work the way we expect them to. In the extreme, our beliefs can become self-fulfilling, blinding us to any evidence which contradicts them.
Sometimes the root cause of being stuck, unable to move forward or find a solution to the problems we face lies in this kind of attentional blindness. We believe that we need to do things in a particular way or that only certain avenues are open to us. In the face of frustration and a lack of progress, it is wise to consider whether what you believe about the situation is actually true.
7 Steps to Check Your Beliefs Against Reality
1) What Evidence Would Falsify My Belief?
Most of us have a ready answer to the question of what information supports our beliefs. Fewer of us could tell you what information would prove our beliefs wrong. Once we can clearly identify what information would contradict our beliefs, we can go and look for it.
2) Seek Out Opposing Views
There is a natural tendency to emphasize information which confirms what we already believe. If you are serious about challenging your beliefs you have to fight this tendency. Actively seek out dissenting opinions and make a concerted effort to fully understand the reasoning and assumptions that underly them. Talk to people who disagree with you and listen carefully. Ask questions to clarify points you don’t understand. Then paraphrase what they have told you to make sure you have it right. It is easy to view another’s words through the lens of our own beliefs and misunderstand their intent.
3) Question Absolutes
Rarely is anything always or never true. Look for the exceptions to every rule. Consider carefully whether they apply in the current situation, undermine the general conclusion or point to other exceptions that may be relevant in this case.
4) Look for Hidden Assumptions
Examine each link in the chain of your reasoning. Does B really follow from A? In all circumstances or only in specific circumstances? “Obviously,…” (and similar statements) can be tip-offs. It often signals that you haven’t actually given the issue much thought. It’s just obvious. Take the time to explain the rationale and see what emerges.
5) Ask Why Not…?
The answer to “I can’t…” of “It’s impossible” is “Why not?”. Too often, when we deny the possibility of doing something we often have not seriously considered how we could do it. By rigorously justifying why something is not possible, we provide the opportunity identify any assumptions we may be making. This is true whether the denial is explicit or implicit as in my example at the beginning of the article (I assumed I couldn’t decide on childcare based on what was best for my children).
6) Ask What If…?
One of the most powerful tools for challenging any idea including our own beliefs is the counterfactual. What if the truth is the opposite of what I believe? What would be the implications of that? How would this situation play out differently?
This can be especially effective when we feel like we “have to” do something. What would happen if I didn’t? What if I did nothing? What would happen? What alternative courses of action could I take and how would they play out? Sometimes the results would be catastrophic and it truly is important that we take a particular action, whether or not we want to. Often, however, there are more options than we initially assume.
7) Get an Outside Opinion
It is said that the fish is last to discover water. It is difficult to see that which you are completely immersed in. Yet, from the outside, the water is perfectly obvious. Our beliefs are the water of our mind, so universal they are virtually invisible. Just as a person standing beside a pond can easily see the water, what is invisible to us about our own situation and beliefs may be obvious to the people around us. If you are struggling with a situation but can’t seem to pinpoint where you are going wrong, it is time to get an outside opinion. A friend, family member or even a profession may see clearly what is invisible to you.
If you are struggling with a situation but can’t seem to pinpoint where you are going wrong, it is time to get an outside opinion. A friend, family member, co-worker or professional counselor may see clearly what is invisible to you.
We all face times when we struggle in our lives. Sometimes we face real external barriers that are difficult to surmount. But other times there is a door right next to us in the wall we are pounding our head against. We just have to open our eyes and look.
What situations are you struggling with in your life? Are there assumptions you are making about the situation?