Choosing beliefs: is it possible?

I recently read a book on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Under its instruction, I have begun to learn how to examine myself whenever I experience difficult feelings or moods, and identify the thoughts underpinning these feelings. I have begun learning to propose alternative thoughts or ideas to myself, to stand back like an outsider and conduct a Socratic conversation with myself, weighing up the evidence like a detective and ardently trying to find some means of latching on to the alternative, less troubling thought.

I like CBT’s rational, evidence-seeking approach to feeling better. It fits with the way I tend to solve problems. However, it has got me thinking a bit differently about the whole process of belief formation.

The book made the point that beliefs are really just ingrained patterns of thinking. They are thoughts – layer upon layer of thoughts, even – that have become somewhat automatic through repeated use, and that we readily accept on an emotional level. My usual concept of a belief would be like some kind of core, a nucleus in my mind, around which my thoughts obediently orbit… I’m now thinking there may be no “core”, but belief may simply be a label we put on the net effect of all the various trajectories of our thinking.

This is a messier picture, but a compelling one, and one in which it becomes clear that change should be possible if these ingrained thinking habits are consciously changed. In a sense, CBT is about choosing new beliefs. And this is where it has got me thinking. I used to passionately say that we don’t choose what we believe. After all, with religion, I ended up with beliefs that were almost the opposite of what I’d hoped them to be. If CBT works, how is it possible to choose a belief, and why was I unable to in that case?

The interplay of reason, emotion and belief… how does it all work?

I think there must be some emotional feedback that reinforces a thought and turns it into a belief. Feeling convinced of something – it may be a process of reasoning that got me there, but it’s feeling convinced that matters. If I have a brain that enjoys logic and feels all is well when things make sense, then my beliefs will often reflect what makes sense to me. On the other hand if my brain likes to explore ideas through experiencing them, then my beliefs will tend to come through convincing experiences.

Reason impacts on our beliefs, but perhaps only through the emotion it causes; and it has to compete with other influences too. I have often noticed how hard it is to think rationally in the midst of strong emotion. Emotional turbulence, like a storm, upsets the landscape of reason; the peaks and troughs of conviction that would normally indicate where truth and falsehood lie – flattened, in the wake of an emotional hurricane that blows my thinking wherever it pleases.

What does it mean to say that something feels “true”? Clearly we don’t just believe whatever gives us the most happy feelings. CBT is often needed for climbing out of thought patterns that produce very negative feelings – feelings that still somehow reinforce the underlying thinking, perhaps out of a sense that it is helpful to us in some way. It seems to be quite complicated. In the end, maybe belief is still somewhat involuntary: we can present various thoughts to our own mind for it to consider, but we cannot force it to latch on to any one of them – there needs to be some emotional connection with it for it to “take”. Or does there? – would this happen eventually by brute force? Must I sweat my brow with all my detective work trying to find logical reasons that give me a “truth” feeling towards a new idea, or could I simply brainwash myself, repeating the idea like a mantra, until its helpfulness becomes apparent and sufficient to reinforce it as a belief?

I recoil at the idea of believing something because it is “helpful” – as if the truth doesn’t matter as long as what you believe benefits you in some way. I have been taught to be critical and skeptical and to value evidence and reason over these more subjective reasons for belief. Yet I see that I do this all the time! I choose to think that I am no good at [X*] because this belief feels helpful – it should prepare me for difficulty, and it should protect me from the horrible experience of unexpectedly failing at [X]. Where is the evidence for that belief? It doesn’t matter to me! And will I easily give it up in exchange for a more reasonable idea? Not without a fight.

What’s more, science seems to be revealing that being biased is a normal part of life and may be important to our well-being: most people have an elevated sense of their own abilities (something like 90% of people believe that they are better-than-average drivers…!) – those of us who see ourselves through the cold lens of realism are anxious and depressed, not better off. Another example of bias is the way happily married people still see their partner through rose-tinted glasses even after many years together – idealism, not realism, is connected with happiness in a shared life with another person. Knowing this, do I want realism? Do I want to strive to see reality as rationally and objectively as I possibly can? A year ago I would have said yes to that. As a refugee from religion, reason is salvation! Now, I’m not so sure.

Perhaps I will begin experimenting with selecting new helpful beliefs with which to brainwash myself, and let you know how I get on. 🙂

(* insert just about anything here)

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10 Responses to Choosing beliefs: is it possible?

  1. caraboska says:

    Basically, what appears to be going on is that ‘choosing new beliefs’ amounts to ‘teaching oneself new thought patterns’. And the way one would go about that would be the same way that one would teach oneself anything else: get as many senses involved as possible. Ensure that one is experiencing the thing to be learned at a visual, aural and tactile or kinesthetic level. And if you can throw in scent and taste, all the better 😛

    So, one would, for example, construct short, concise verbal representations of the new thought pattern, put them into some graphic form and place them in appropriate, high-visibility locations in one’s day-to-day environment. One would read books that expand upon the thought patterns on question. One would listen to audio that expands upon the thought patterns in question. One would memorize appropriate items to be recited at appropriate moments.

    And one would attempt to construct for oneself a kinesthetic experience of some kind. This could be as simple as physically writing appropriate sentences, or as complex as incorporating this thought pattern into one’s daily life by finding actions that match this thought pattern and proceeding to perform them on a regular basis.

    And one would likewise give thought to what the outcome of this new thought pattern would be, construct appropriate visualizations of this outcome that include as many senses as possible, and also the target emotional state. The more one can visualize oneself ‘in the picture’, the better.

    In short, one would create a holistic experience for oneself relating to this new thought pattern. And that having been said, all that would remain would be to establish criteria for selection of appropriate thought patterns to teach oneself.

    • Sarah says:

      Some good practical suggestions here! Thanks for those.

      From what I’ve read, the behavioural aspect (or kinaesthetic as you call it) of adopting new behaviours in line with the new thoughts, is very powerful, for anxiety and fear anyway – less so for depression. It is a lot easier to change a behaviour than change a feeling. It can also provide a means of “experiments” to gather evidence that will (hopefully) support the new thoughts and dispel the fears.

      Selecting appropriate thought patterns to teach yourself – seems difficult, and I think this is one of the reasons I find it hard to let go of the old – I can’t be sure that the new will serve me any better – but it has to be worth a try sometimes 🙂

      • caraboska says:

        Indeed, you could always treat them as experiments to be tried out, to see whether they work in practice. That is a good philosophy that I hadn’t even thought of. But as a point of departure in selecting new thought patterns, you can obviously look at what isn’t working and think about how to tweak it so that it will work – perhaps even just taking the opposite view as a starting point, if something is just totally not working.

  2. Mark Johnson9987 says:

    Sarah,

    I have truly enjoyed reading most of your posts and thoughts related to religion and belief. I also was very interested in the Derren Brown video post. It reminded me of when I saw it a few months back. I have to say, I agree with you on rather many many ideas concerning many issues looming around in this 21st century–specially what appears to be a movement for faith healing.

    I can tell you that I believe in God. I believe there is an Almighty God that is in control of everything. I also believe that there is a Devil. I believe that there are evil things just are there are good things.

    I do not like to over-spiritualize things nor speak as if “the Lord said so” in a super fascinating way. In fact, if I am attracted to believe something just because of a “miracle” or some other “fantastic” thing, I would actually worry and question it a whole lot!

    If I may, I would like to suggest the following video from the church that I assist:

    Please do take the time to watch the video in order to fully understand what I am trying to communicate. In short I believe that there are more and more “fake” pastors than what I can count. If they speak and emphasize healing there and healing here, then I am positively that something is off. If they claim to be “slain in the spirit” and “go on and speak in tongues” then again I think something is off. Etc..etc…

    Anyhow, please do watch the video above and let me know your thoughts. In fact, let me know what you think after watching the entire series.

  3. SI says:

    Can I ask what book it was please?

    Thanks 🙂

  4. SI says:

    Read ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Russ Harris.

    • Sarah says:

      Funny, I am just reading another book by him at the moment – “The Confidence Gap”. So far I’m impressed by it. Never heard of ACT before, but it seems very interesting.

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