The first person gets a big smile on his face, as warm and fuzzy hormones like oxytocin start flowing through his body. He squats down for some doggy love and is very happy about this spontaneous encounter.
The second person backs away from the dog, heart pounding and sweat forming on his brow as all the symptoms of the flight/fight hormonal response kick-in. Why do two people have such different responses to the exact same encounter?
The second person was attacked by a dog as a child and can only see dogs as dangerous animals that should be controlled and avoided at all cost.
Both people are in the same situation, yet have completely different responses based on what they believe or perceive about dogs. Perception and belief systems are the lenses through which we see the world and understand our place in it.
Belief systems are neither good nor bad, they just are. Just as they are created by experiences, they can be recreated through challenging our thoughts around an experience.
One of the key components to changing behavior is to determine what your belief system is around that behavior and to recognize when it no longer serves you. The way to go grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually is to occasionally challenge your assumptions about the world.
There are belief systems that keep us safe and healthy such as “I should lock my doors at night” or “I don’t eat fast food because it’s not good for me.” Whether a belief system is “true” or not isn’t really the point, it’s more important to determine if a particular way thinking is helping or stifling you as you move through your life.
Here are some examples of belief systems that encounter in my practice:
I don’t like exercise.
I don’t have time to exercise.
I can’t quit my job, even though I hate it, because I need the money.
I have to eat chocolate after dinner.
My kids have to have snacks at home like Cheetos, etc.
My whole family is obese, so I don’t have a choice.
It’s too expensive to eat healthy.
If you are someone who wants your body to be healthy, you need to incorporate exercise of some kind (that’s my belief system showing itself). So, that belief system that “I don’t like to exercise” might be getting in the way.
To change that belief system I would point out that exercise doesn’t have to be a Jane Fonda or Beachbody kind of workout. Exercise can be dancing, gardening, or walking, for example. So when you limit yourself by saying, “I don’t like exercise” you have just gotten in your own way of creating a healthier you. What I encourage my clients to say instead would be something like, “I haven’t found the type of exercise that I love yet, but am still looking!”
Another example: saying that you have “no choice but to be obese because your whole family is obese,” is to waive any responsibility you have in creating the life you live.
As soon as I hear this kind of belief system in my clients, I know that we will be challenging family belief systems and creating new ones that allow my client to achieve his or her goal.
When we believe that our genetics are preventing us from achieving a goal, it is very easy to slip into victim mode and feel powerless at creating change. If a client were to restate that belief system in an empowering way, it would sound something like this, “My whole family is obese and I have accepted habits that keep me as obese as well. While genetics may play a role in the way that my body looks, I know that my personal genetics can be expressed in many healthy ways.” When someone believes that statement, then changes can be made and goals attained.
I would challenge you, either alone or with family, to identify the ways that you have come to understand your world through perceptions and belief systems, and then decide if those ways are helping you or getting in your way.
Remember, belief systems and perceptions are not necessarily about right or wrong — if you want to believe that the sky is green and the grass blue, have at it! This is about changing your thinking in order to change behaviors to move yourself to a better place. If you feeling like you’re in the perfect place and no changes are needed, then just keep doing what you’re doing!
Next week, I’m going to build on this idea of belief systems by talking about the metaphors that we use to daily conversation especially where health and wellness is concerned.
Here’s a hint: you can read someone like a book if you pay attention to the metaphors with which they chose to communicate.