I love systems – systems for learning, systems for business, systems for health. When I consciously implement the best systems possible in order to make my life easier, happier and more fulfilled, I win. When I don’t, I start to feel like I’m being held hostage. The systems we have in place for our life can either bring us greater freedom or harsher constriction. There is no place this is more true than in our belief systems.
A large part of my work has to do with not only identifying the patterns, habits and thoughts that create personal limitation but also the underlying assumptions – or belief systems – that keep us in these limitations.
Belief systems are the conscious and unconscious assumptions that drive the way we think, speak and act. Like the frame of a house, they are the structure that our life is built around and then lived in.
Belief systems are a necessary part of life. Whether or not we are conscious of our belief systems, we are living them (or, perhaps, it feels as if they are living us). Some of our belief systems are conscious choices we have made – usually in the form of values that we ascribe to and try to live by. These values may determined by our religion or personal sense of moral code. They may be concepts we learned about in college and chose to adapt. They may be personal values acquired through living. An example of a conscious belief system of mine is to be honest with others and to keep my word: I so my best to say yes only to what I can commit to and show up when and where I say I will.
Sometimes our belief systems are hidden, unconscious, acting in the background of our day-to-day lives. These types of unconscious belief systems are often formed in early childhood, either through our parents, religion or cultural influences. As children, we are like little computers, easily programmed by those in authority to us. This programming is completely natural and necessary – we need to learn basic safety and survival information if we are to grow into adulthood. Along with these belief systems or programs about safety and survival often come beliefs about how the world works — which may or may not be in our best interest, especially as we grow and become individuals.
Most of the work I do with clients is in identifying limiting belief systems, removing their energetic imprint, and changing the regular behavior associated with the old pattern. This three-step approach is one of the pinnacles of spiritual and personal growth and be both extremely liberating and deeply uncomfortable.
Imagine for a moment a young, bright, highly sensitive child who is naturally very inquisitive about the world and asks many questions. Let’s call her Sue. Sue’s parents, busy themselves and often exhausted by her questioning, ignore or quiet her for her questions, yell at her when she does something wrong, and praise her when she accomplishes something. She does not learn that it is okay to praise herself just for being her. A possible outcome of this childhood is that Sue learns to accommodate the needs of those around her first in order to avoid conflict or confrontation and to be as perfect as possible in order to be praised.
For her childhood years, Sue’s learned behaviors may work as a system for having her needs met. As children, our main needs are for survival and affection. As we grow older, the need to differentiate ourselves becomes more of a priority and we begin to form an identify based on our lessons as toddlers and the continued support (or lack thereof) of our parents. So, Sue probably obtains good grades, looks to adults for validation, chastises herself for mistakes and becomes a very good friend/caregiver, serving the needs of others ahead of herself.
As Sue grows into adulthood, her ways of living, based on the unconscious belief systems she picked up through childhood, may now be limiting her. She may become co-dependent in relationships, always serving her partner above herself and obtaining validation only from her partner. She may still seek approval from authority figures, which shows up as staying in the same, mind-numbing and soul-crushing job year after year. She may be afraid to move on from relationships, jobs or apartments, afraid of destroying all that she worked for because she still believes that approval comes from outside of her.
When we seek help, we usually do it because certain things in our lives aren’t working – we are unable to make money, we can’t get our health under control, we feel constantly stressed, we’re working and seeing almost no return. These are usually the symptoms of a belief system that is no longer serving you.
When something in your life isn’t working or feels incredibly, incredibly hard, that is the point to stop and ask yourself, “What are the beliefs that I am operating from right now? Am I making assumptions that are limiting me?” Usually, our limiting belief systems show up as our “shoulds” and “have to’s.” As in, “I should be making more money right now.” Or “I have to work incredibly hard to get myself out of this hole.” Meditate on that assumption for a moment – is that “have to” or “should” real? Or is it just a belief?
One common belief I see over and over again is, “I have to work very, very hard and feel like I’ve expended a tremendous amount of effort in order to have something I want. Burnout means I’m getting somewhere.” Generally, this comes from a belief system on self-reliance and a general lack of faith in things outside of the self. I see it often in cases when, as children, clients learned to care for much of their own survival needs and were withheld praise. The belief system becomes, “I’m the only one I can rely on. If I want something done, I have to do it myself and I have to work really, really hard (because I am a child with adult responsibilities). When I am done, I might receive praise. If I do it right.”
Let’s examine how this might look in real life. Daisy suffered nerve damage from a spinal surgery which affected everything from her energy levels to her ability to digest food. Suddenly, her physical energy levels plummeted. Her doctor was very clear that because of the extensive damage to her system, her body would take several years to heal and that progress would be slow, incremental and up and down. This information was very difficult for Daisy to process mentally. She had always been fit and athletic and fully capable of taking care of herself. Offhandedly, she commented that the purpose of life was to produce something and was torn up that because of her physical limitations, she believed she couldn’t fulfill her purpose.
Daisy had a limiting belief system. Her belief – that her purpose in life was tied to productivity and the production of something – had worked well for her during her career and most of her life, but it was causing undue suffering now because it was outdated. The belief itself, although Daisy believed it to be true, was simply a system she had created in order to orient her life. It was deeply rooted but changeable. As we worked on playing with and shifting her belief systems about her life purpose and change her old behaviors, her outlook changed tremendously. In fact, since then, she has reported several instances where her new sense of purpose was being filled. Each instance was without any effort – except an intention – on her part.
This is not to say that having the right belief systems in place will always make your life smooth sailing. In fact, changing our belief systems, our patterns (or, as yoga refers to them as, our samskaras) is difficult and can feel deeply uncomfortable. Changing our approach to problems can seem foreign; we might not be aware that another approach exists. New, liberating belief systems may continually push us to grow, bringing up fear and doubt along the way. This is part of a spiritual path – learning to know the difference between struggle that calls for change and struggle because of change.
Belief systems that liberate us from constrictive thought and action patterns while still adhering to our core values help us grow personally and spiritually. In a new section in my weekly newsletter and through social media, I’ve created a section called, “What if you believed. . .” In this section, I fill in the blank for you, suggesting belief systems that may or may not replace the ones you are currently operating under. In this exercise, I suggest that you “play” with your belief systems, noticing if what I suggest would feel limiting or liberating, and if it brings up fear or resistance for you (fear and resistance often alert us to areas in our life that require further examination).
Here are some of the pictures I’ve created so far.
For the beliefs above, notice which one resonates with you most. Which one are you resistant to? Choose one of those to work with, then sit quietly and take a few deep breaths. For the belief you chose, speak it to yourself as if it were your belief. For example, “I believe my struggles can make me stronger.” Notice what comes up for you? Do the little voices of fear and doubt argue with you? Does the statement resonate deeply at your core? Does it challenge another belief you are operating under? Does it bring one of your core values into question? Asking ourselves these deeper questions is a great step toward personal and spiritual freedom. Like all spiritual work, this is important, but it’s not serious. Use amusement in your approach to your beliefs, like a kindergarten student trying different colors of paint. The more fun you have, the better it’s probably working.
Our belief systems can suffocate us or set us free. The best part about belief systems is that they are changeable. When we can learn to recognize when we are up against a limiting belief system (when parts of our life feel constricted or extremely difficult), we can make space for ourselves to identify the assumptions we are operating under and start the process of finding a more liberating system to work from.