I’d just got home from work and it came on in a flash. I couldn’t breathe and my heart was beating so hard it hurt. My legs were shaking and all I wanted to do was run. But I didn’t run because I knew what it was. It had been happening for weeks. Every time I got home from work my nervous system (my fight or flight response) was triggered and I was left to pick up the pieces.
I was in therapy, uncovering a lot of past experiences I didn’t want to remember. But I knew I couldn’t move forward until I did. Uncovering the memories of physical abuse brought back the PTSD symptoms I’d avoided, out-run and covered with addiction throughout my young adult life.
So what does this experience have to do with changing limiting beliefs? EVERYTHING. All healing and all change comes down to changing our beliefs. Through my experiences I’d come to believe that home was not a safe place. So when I finally moved into my own place (something I’d always wanted ) I had to face that fear directly. It made no difference to my mind (or my body) that there was nobody there to harm me. The belief WAS that strong. And we live the effects of our beliefs.
In this post I’ll share my own experiences of how I changed my limiting beliefs (the good, the bad and the ugly) as well as a 5-Step process that will, I hope, help you change your own.
Why Is It So Hard To Change Our Beliefs?
Whenever you’re changing a belief what you’re actually doing is believing the impossible. Even if everyone else in the world can lose weight, quit an addiction or overcome anxiety, depression or PTSD, your mind can still believe its impossible for you.
I remember my therapist asking me once “Who’s in charge?” This question spun me out cause I didn’t know the answer. Or rather the answer didn’t make sense. I didn’t feel in control of my own mind but who else was there? The belief that I couldn’t take control of my mind and body was just a belief. Powerful, yes, but a belief not the truth.
How I Did It
Leaning heavily on my therapist, I come to understand that my belief that home wasn’t a safe place was behind my PTSD symptoms. Therefore, the logical solution was to change the belief. That made sense to me I’d just moved into a lovely little flat with my harmless cat Queenie (she was grumpy at times but definitely harmless). No-one could get into the flat unless I invited them, and once in there, I could lock the door and begin the arduous work of reassuring myself I was safe.
This involved locking my door, going back to prove to myself it was locked, telling myself I was safe, breathing, trying (!) to practice mindfulness, going back to the door to check it was locked, reminding myself I was safe, breathing again, mindfulness again, going back to the door to check it was locked… Sound repetitive? It was!
It was incredibly tedious but there was a gift hidden in there. You see I couldn’t just give up, The PTSD symptoms weren’t going away by themselves. All manner of thoughts would come “It’s not working”, “Its never gonna change”, “I’ll be like this for life”. And then suddenly, after weeks if not months of this, something did change. It was subtle at first. The symptoms weren’t so intense and I had bigger periods of calm in-between. I kept going and eventually I reached a place where I didn’t even think of it.
How Do You Change A Belief When You’re Not So Certain?
I see now that the above example, my first experience of changing a belief, had one advantage. It made logical sense to my mind that I was safe, i.e. the belief was so out of step with my current situation that it had to change.
I’ve had other experiences of changing my beliefs since then, where I was a lot less certain of the outcome. But there’s not a huge amount of difference between the two. In the example above, I may have logically known I was safe but the signals I was receiving from my body indicated a big part of my mind believed I was still unsafe.
Since then, learning to drive caused me a whole lot of stress, Although I passed my test no-one could tell me for certain that I wouldn’t lose control of the car, kill myself, someone else or write it off (yes, I was still catastrophising). Then there was my health I had a series of stomach problems and the GP could only prescribe medication to alleviate symptoms rather than cure. At a friends recommendation, I saw a holistic health practitioner. Through a combination of vitamins, nutrition and energy healing both conditions were healed and haven’t troubled me since. That was a big leap of faith! The vitamins and nutrition I could understand but energy healing? My perspective (and my beliefs) had to shift if I wanted to be well.
Underlying all these experiences was the central belief in my own powerless to effect change. Building new beliefs that I could heal my PTSD, control a car safely and do what was needed to help my body heal, have all helped me challenge the belief that I’m powerless. In counselling we call this self-efficacy. Its one of the steps I’ll describe below to help you with this difficult, often messy but totally rewarding process. These steps have helped me and my clients change their beliefs around anything.
5 Steps To Changing Your Beliefs
1) Connect It With Something Important
I learnt a lot about change through studying and practising counselling. Something we used at the Cardiff Alcohol and Drug Team was Motivational Interviewing which highlights the importance of intrinsic value. That behaviour (and beliefs) have to change when they challenge something important to the person. When I was dealing with my PTSD, I wanted the symptoms to go but the most important thing was being able to live independently and enjoy my own space. I wouldn’t have moved into my own flat if that wasn’t the case. Similarly I wanted the freedom of being able to drive and feel healthy in my own body. If these things hadn’t been so important to me I’d still be living with my limiting beliefs.
So if there’s something you want to change, why is it so important to you? I cover this in my last video blog ‘Cant Stay Motivated?’ so check that out for more info.
2) The Be, Do, Have Paradigm
This step is about a shift in your perspective. We usually operate from the Have, Do, Be paradigm. In the case of my PTSD I could have waited to HAVE the feeling of safety, then I could DO what I wanted (live by myself) and BE the independent person I wanted to be. But it doesn’t work like that because I didn’t feel safe and if I’d been waiting for the feeling first I’d probably still be waiting.
Instead I stepped into the Be, Do, Have paradigm. I had to BE the person who knew she was safe, so I could DO what I wanted and move into my own place, so that (eventually), I’d HAVE the feeling of safety. This is a very different perspective and enables change.
3) Build Self-Efficacy
In Full Catastrophe Living Jon Kabat-Zinn explores how mindfulness can help you change your beliefs. In particular, building the belief in self-efficacy – moving from the “I can’t” thoughts to the “I can”. He talks about how having the experience of change (even if its brief) can motivate you to continue until it becomes more consistent and builds your belief it’s possible.
He also refers to the inspiration of being around others who are achieving what you want. Again, this is something I talk about in my last blog so check back there if you need to.
4) Just Cause You Feel It Doesn’t Mean Its True
We’ve all heard about the importance of trusting your feelings. But when you’re in the process of change your feelings are not always to be trusted! Anything new or out of alignment with your beliefs can trigger feelings of inadequacy and fear, sometimes the stress response itself. A wiser course of action is learning which feelings to trust and which are part of your resistance to change (see below). Whenever I’m feeling anything I’ll recognise it and own it, but its up to me to decide whether its true or not. And importantly, whether I’ll act on it or not.
5) Expect Resistance And Roll With It
Or as I like to say Hello Resistance, my old friend. Resistance and I are very well acquainted because I’ve changed many things in my life and resistance is a natural part of change. Motivational Interviewing and Jon Kabat Zinn offer solid advice on how to meet it and although they use different language the meaning’s the same.
Don’t try to fight with, or change, the thoughts or feelings that come from your resistance. What kind of thoughts and feelings do I mean? Well anything from sadness, despair and self- pity to anger, frustration and feeling cheated (that’s just a few of my own😉). As for the thoughts, they’ll be telling you its impossible, you can’t do it and you’re wasting your time.
Instead – roll with them. Let them be there, notice them for what they are (your resistance to change), restate your intention and continue.
By following these steps you CAN change your beliefs. Anything is possible if you choose to believe it and put in the hard work to achieve it. You’ll be glad you did. If you need further help with any of this, get in touch.