Changing Beliefs, Changing Significance

Thinking

Thinking (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

Thoughts and feelings which trouble us may signal the need for changing beliefs. People sometimes feel they are at the mercy of ‘unconscious’ thoughts which spring to mind without any conscious beckoning on their part. These thoughts arouse negative feelings, such a anxiety, anger, envy, resentment, and the like, which affect our judgement and the actions which follow. But are these thoughts truly ‘unconscious’ and are they beyond our control?

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Changing Beliefs, Changing Significance

By Ivan Kelly

Thoughts which spring to mind that are self-sabotaging and not consciously arrived at can persist without us seeing a way to escape them. Historically, as with Freud, the traditional approach has been to explore past memories hoping to discover the root cause, thinking that would rid us of them. Others, such as Albert Ellis, preferred a rational approach which explored past decisions and aimed to make a new, constructive decision about the past which would help the sufferer. Sometimes these approaches helped but are terribly inefficient.

Any approach which keeps the focus on past events is like pushing a pebble uphill with your nose. Essentially, the unconscious processes producing these thoughts are a response mechanism, similar to a reflex, that constantly responds to our current attitudes, especially the feelings generated by them.

For instance, if we think that someone is sure to reject us, not only does our body respond with alarm but unconscious processes also are activated that will move us towards the realization of that belief, so that it becomes true. We are alerted to suspicious signs, we feel more distant and hostile, our dreams explore scenarios where we fail, etc. Our actions make it likely we will be rejected. The belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The thought to which the unconscious is responding is the conscious perception, the decision we have made about ourselves or our world. It is available to us. What we consider to be ‘unconscious’ thoughts beyond our control are actually responses to decisions we have made which are consciously available to us.

How do we identify them? We don’t have to be constantly alert to all of our thoughts as that would be an impossible burden. It is much simpler to be alert to negative feelings, such as anger, sadness, jealousy and anxiety at the time we feel them and look for the conscious thoughts that triggered the feelings, then consciously look for a different perspective which evokes positive feelings.

It doesn’t matter whether the negative thought is “true”. We’re looking for a different “truth”. The negative thought will gradually diminish as its “truth” becomes less significant. It takes practice to learn to make this shift and traditionally we’ve accepted that we can’t do anything about thoughts which bedevil us, but we can. We have available to us conscious intervention.

There are two points which perhaps summarize the position I’ve described above. The first is actually a question: What is the conscious belief which triggers the unconscious response? For instance, someone who believes they are overweight has other thoughts triggered by this. They may believe that clothes are too tight, that friends look slimmer, that the world abounds with chocolate – responses consistent with the ‘too fat’ belief.

Those who see themselves as lacking the ability to effectively control their lives – powerless in the face of greater forces – may generate thoughts of many instances where they have been the victim and are taken advantage of by others, by inconsiderate friends and lovers, by exploitative business. It is the conscious belief which triggers the unconscious process and this stimulates further thoughts and perceptions that lend support to that belief.

The second point is Significance. We have thousands of beliefs and our conscious mind serves to sort them into those that are of greater or lesser importance. The ones considered more significant are given greater emotional weight and we pay more attention to those. They then trigger stronger unconscious responses. However, by shifting attention, by choosing a different perspective, by paying more attention to an alternative belief or decision, we are in effect changing the significance of what we believe and the unconscious support we receive for those beliefs will also shift.

As an example, an earthquake may bring death, destruction and widespread chaos. Rebuilding afterwards, as in the aftermath of war, boosts the economy, produces jobs, creates safer buildings from sounder construction practices, the installation of more modern equipment, and more. I’m not saying this perspective is better, only that there are positive aspects, that there is another perspective to consider when looking at negative beliefs. We can’t change the past, but we can look for perspectives which benefit our future.

When we change our perspective of a rose from the thorns to its beauty and fragrance, our perception of the garden also changes. We aren’t denying that thorns exist but recognize that other qualities are more important to us. We become more alert to, and receive more unconscious support for, these. We consciously create a more beautiful world.

“I am the parrot of candy and sugar, I eat only sugar; whatever sour is in the world, I am far and indifferent to it.” ~ Rumi

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