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Re-Engineer your Beliefs to Fly

Information that isn’t continuously useful gets forgotten” said the neuroscientist.

This got me thinking, in my typical fashion of pondering ways to apply neuroscientific understanding to our real life.

Whilst the neuroscientist’s statement is nothing new to me, in terms of cellar atrophy and neuroplasticity, nor even novel in terms of behaviour (“use it or lose it”), it somehow never occurred to me that this concept applies equally, of course, to our pattern of thoughts—our belief systems. And then, knowing this, we can use it to improve belief systems.

Beliefs, helping and hindering

To clarify for those new to my blog, “beliefs” here are thoughts that unconsciously steer both our perception of situations, and our decision makings, but which are not wholly premised on logic and fact. They are the mindset version of a habit, a repeated pattern of thinking about yourself and the world, that continue through your life.

Some beliefs are very useful:
—”I can probably get pretty good at tennis if I don’t give up on training today”
—”I can reduce my impact on the environment, I just need to making ethical choices in what and where I buy”
—”I’m still a good person even after breaking up with my abusive ex”

Some beliefs are not-useful, or even damaging:
—”I’m not worthy of my colleague’s respect unless this impossible project is flawless completed”
—”I will never get good at clarinet, so I’ll just give up now, on day 3″
—”Yes I smoke. I smoke 2 packs a day”

These latter sort of beliefs should be addressed. They can and, as I’ve shown, regularly are changed, and replacing crummy belief systems with useful ones has absolutely enormous impact on one’s life and general well-being.

Waiting for islands to sink into the sea… but almost no belief is an island?

Beliefs and mindsets that no longer hold their ground against the facts, or at least against a better alternative, will disappear with time. A belief that no longer serves a purpose, that gives you nothing, is destined to decay and be lost to history. There is no need to actively eradicate it, or stamp it out. In fact, such efforts are probably in vain. To let-go of a damaging or un-useful belief, you simply have to supply yourself with a better alternative.

An un-ignorable flip-side is that beliefs rarely lose their relevance in isolation. When I mention “belief”, a lot of people first think of religion. Very rarely to do people lose their religion with no other alternative influence involved, be it another religion, a “Dark Night of the Soul”, or an extremely challenging and ostensibly meaningless personal event. Almost always, it is one belief (or mindset) that shunts another to the side.

Replacement. Just like in habits—stopping one habit and leaving a gaping void is just an invitation to begin something else instead, and the most likely candidate to fill that void is the one most familiar, most habituated and automated—the old habit steps back in.

How to expensively (not) change your beliefs

You defeat a consciously-undesired habit with offering a better alternative. And this is the same with our purely internal operations—belief systems, self-statements, mindsets, prejudices. A lot of other mindsets coaches follow a very passive, hands-off approach, toward belief-shifting. The idea goes that you:

  1. first complain about something crap in your life, you then
  2. look at a few other things peripheral to that crap, then
  3. “introspect”, i.e. look in on yourself, ‘search your mind’
  4. you then observe and label the non-useful self-belief, sometimes creatively (“my inner Darth Vader”), sometimes pragmatically (“my inner critic keeps saying ‘I can’t do this’).
  5. Done! Give me $2500 and go out and promote my service.

The thing is, step 4 is just a starting point, albeit invaluable starting point. Being able to shift out from the self statement, from thinking and believing “I can’t do this”, and then into another set of eye and ears that notices a voice saying “I can’t do this” and wondering what that’s about, this step is in itself can be very useful.

But, if that belief is complex, if it’s embedded in your life since forever, if it’s permeated with thousands of little tendrils seething into the pores of multiple aspects of your life
—if it’s so entrenched that it’s part of your identity, then the solution will not spontaneously precipitate by merely by observing and labelling it.

Don’t stop flying; start engineering

Simulations, prototypes, and hypotheses. Although murky internal things like self-statements, mindsets, and beliefs seem to be resigned to an ethereal other-world that we cannot reach, they are in fact entirely steerable and open to manipulation. If a long-running belief is holding you down, pull it out of the clouds and get tinkering!

I suppose it was because I was cloud-gazing when I wrote this, and saw a plane way up high (there seems more of them, now that lock-down is easing), that I use this analogy. Let’s think of our beliefs—powerful, complex things that propel us through life’s decision—think of it as an airplane’s engine.

Aircraft engine technology is constantly evolving. But noticing that your plane’s engine is old, inefficient, not so good at getting you from A to B, this is no reason to stop flying, nor is it any reason to fear suddenly crashing and burning. Emirates or Qantas won’t ground its entire fleet of aircraft just because engines are obsolete, nor should you stay stuck because of a belief system. You cannot ground it anyway—beliefs fly not at your command, nor to your schedule.

Don’t just look; go touch it

You won’t get a new engine just by looking at and contemplating an old one. Instead, you need to out and test a new, improved engine. Find one that is faster, better, happier, stronger, productiver, generouser, effortlesser.

Brainstorm an improved engine in the “lab” of your creative imagination. Run it through the simulations to see any glaring failures or risks.

Take the blueprint of the most promising replacement out of your simulations runs, and try it out with the test-pilot, first under ideal flying conditions, then putting it through more rigorous spins and stalls of more challenging real-world contexts in which this belief (err, I mean, engine) would still be used. You want your tests to constantly close in on how you’d use it in your normal everyday life—the intended application.

If necessary, you may need to scrap the test-model. That’s all part of the testing lifecycle. Either take blueprint number two through simulations, go back to the drawing room to develop a whole new engine, or perhaps find a hybrid design that takes on useful features from the first test model, and expands on it.

The goal of shifting belief-states is not to eradicate a belief. You do not stamp it out. Working on beliefs involves prototyping a new one, and allowing the old to fall away in obsolescence.

Engineering expertise

If you have a long-standing belief that’s holding you down, a self-sabotaging streak, a self-defeating outlook, you maybe could benefit from an experienced mindset engineer. This is something I offer in my online coaching business. You can contact me for more information, or go to


Published by WanderingMindfulness

The peripatetic psychologist - old wisdom, new perspectives 🐾️

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