8 Guidelines for Choosing Effective Beliefs

In the previous post on Installing Empowering Beliefs, you learned the importance of consciously selecting and deliberately installing your beliefs about reality instead of merely swallowing what you were taught growing up. Now I’ll go into more detail on how to determine whether or not a belief will be effective for you.

So here are 8 guidelines for choosing effective beliefs.

Effective beliefs are…

  1. Accurate. Effective beliefs must be consistent with your observations of reality. Your beliefs cannot contradict any facts you know to be true.
  2. All-inclusive. For your beliefs to be effective, they must collectively address your entire field of experience. If you experience things you cannot explain from within your belief system, then your belief system is incomplete. And an incomplete belief system can never be fully trusted.
  3. Flexible. Effective beliefs adapt well to new circumstances. They serve you well regardless of your career, income level, relationship situation, lifestyle, etc.
  4. Ethical. It is never effective to choose beliefs that lead you to harm yourself or others. Such beliefs are rooted in fear, and fear comes from ignorance. If your beliefs are true, then you can accept reality rather than fear it, which means there is no cause for violence or dishonesty.
  5. Congruent. Either your beliefs must be internally consistent with each other, or you must have a higher order meta-belief that tells you how to resolve lower level incongruencies.
  6. Consciously chosen. You inherit your initial set of beliefs from your upbringing and societal conditioning. But as a fully awake adult, those beliefs should be identified, examined, and then deliberately altered or integrated. This is an ongoing process that can take years, if not your entire lifetime.
  7. Pleasure-increasing and/or pain-reducing. Effective beliefs make you feel good, either by elevating your emotional state directly or as a side-effect of generating results you desire. Effective beliefs also reduce fear; when your beliefs are accurate, certainty replaces fear.
  8. Empowering. Your beliefs should allow you to experience whatever is technically possible; they should never mislabel the possible as impossible. Subject of course to ethical/moral considerations, your beliefs should not unduly limit your abilities. If you belief something is impossible for you, then it must truly be impossible regardless of your thinking. If a belief shift would change your abilities (like the placebo effect), then your belief is both disempowering and inaccurate.

Let’s consider a couple examples to illustrate these criteria.

Belief Example 1: Most people just want to be left alone.

Imagine a young man who believes most people just want to be left alone. Let’s call him Paul (not a real person). Paul’s belief dictates the terms by which he interacts socially. He has a few friends, and he’s fine socializing with people he already knows, but he has a hard time making new friends. He’s unlikely to take the initiative because it’s too big a risk with a high probability of rejection. Paul doesn’t want to annoy people who want to be left alone, so he mostly keeps to himself. His social circle remains small and stagnant, and most of his social connections come from his work. Paul has virtually no relationship prospects because he considers women to be unapproachable except under extremely rare circumstances. If he sees a woman he’d like to date, he remains silent and aloof. Paul feels that to ask her out would be a social faux pas because after all, she just wants to be left alone.

How does Paul’s belief perform against our criteria? Let’s take a look.

1. Is it accurate? I think most people would agree this belief is inaccurate and too pessimistic. The best way for Paul to find out would be to test alternative beliefs and note the results. The problem with this belief is that Paul would rarely ever test it, so he’ll gather little or no evidence either way. Perhaps he formed this belief by overgeneralizing after a bad experience. On those rare occasions when he does push himself socially, his belief will negatively affect his communication style, thus encouraging the rejection he expects.

2. Is it all-inclusive? This criterion doesn’t apply because we’re taking a single belief out of context here. But this single belief will influence Paul’s entire field of social interaction.

3. Is it flexible? No. Paul’s belief is unnecessarily rigid. A more accurate belief might be that some people are more friendly and approachable than others. And even the same person will be more or less approachable depending on the exact conditions. Paul’s belief is a worst-case scenario, and it will limit him socially even when conditions are excellent. It will also serve him poorly in people-oriented careers, such as sales or communication.

4. Is it ethical? You could make a case that this belief is somewhat immoral. If Paul sees a stranger in need, he’d likely avoid that person instead of offering help. Paul wouldn’t become a criminal, but he’d behave apathetically towards others. He might be internally motivated to act, but his belief will cause him to hold back.

5. Is it congruent? That would depend on Paul’s other beliefs. There are many popular beliefs that would be incongruent with this one though. For example, if Paul was a practicing Christian who strongly believed in loving service to others, Paul would be internally conflicted. His religion would urge him to help people, but his social resistance would cause him to hold back. At best he might donate money from the sidelines, but he wouldn’t feel free to give openly from his heart and express his generosity. If Paul were an atheist, however, there would be no inherent conflict with atheism itself, but there could certainly be conflicts with other parts of Paul’s social and moral code of conduct.

6. Is it consciously chosen? Not likely. This was probably a socially conditioned belief or one that developed as an unconscious reaction to social rejection. It’s doubtful Paul would have chosen to adopt this belief consciously. If he’s consciously aware of this belief at all, he probably wants to replace it, but he may be stuck if he also believes that he can’t change his beliefs.

7. Is it pleasure-increasing and/or pain-reducing? On balance, no. This belief may reduce the amount of rejection Paul experiences by causing him to avoiding risky social situations. However, by avoiding a 10-second rejection, Paul kills off the possibility of a long-term relationship as well as abundant new friendships. This belief also keeps Paul focused on his fears, which will likely cause him to experience far more pain in the long run, including the pain of regret. This belief will almost certainly drive Paul’s emotional state in a negative direction, possibly for his entire life.

8. Is it empowering? Definitely not. This belief causes Paul to unnecessarily limit himself. Paul will miss opportunity after opportunity. But if he could get himself to take action, some of those opportunities would pay off. He won’t ask for the date, for the promotion, for the raise, for help, etc. Technically all of these things lie easily within Paul’s power, but this belief will prevent him from tapping that power. Consequently, Paul will lead a far more stagnant life than necessary. His belief effectively makes the possible impossible.

Clearly Paul’s belief that most people just want to be left alone doesn’t perform too well according to our criteria.

Let’s consider a second example.

Belief Example 2: People are usually friendly and approachable.

Consider another young man named Chris who believes that people are usually friendly and approachable. Like Paul’s belief, Chris’ dictates the terms of his social interaction. Whenever and wherever he sees people, Chris is open to interacting with them because he expects they’ll be open to it. While standing in line, he’ll strike up a conversation with the person behind him. Chris has an abundance of friends and contacts because he’s constantly meeting new people. He enjoys a rich social life and goes on dates often because he’s always asking. Sure he gets a cold response on occasion, but he knows that everyone has an off day now and then. Because Chris openly interacts with people on friendly terms, people usually respond to him in kind. Consequently, Chris’ enjoys an ever-expanding social circle.

How does Chris’ belief measure up?

1. Is it accurate? Partially. Like Paul’s belief, Chris’ is also something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even when the people around him are socially neutral, Chris’ openness often draws them out. So while Chris’ belief may not be totally accurate from a purely objective sense, it is accurate from a subjective one.

2. Is it all-inclusive? This criterion doesn’t apply because we’re taking a single belief out of context here. But this single belief will influence Chris’ entire field of social interaction.

3. Is it flexible? Yes. This belief can adapt well to a variety of social circumstances. The word “usually” gives Chris an out whenever he encounters people who react coldly to him. To him it’s just a fluke but not the norm. This belief should serve Chris well across a variety of careers. He could succeed in sales, engineering, or other disciplines. This belief doesn’t make Chris an automatic extrovert — it simply opens social doors for him.

4. Is it ethical? Yes. This belief is at least ethically neutral. It enables Chris to freely interact with others in need, but it doesn’t compel him to do so, nor does it push him to pester anyone who’d rather be left alone. This belief won’t get in the way of Chris’ moral code, and it would likely help him wherever service to others is concerned.

5. Is it congruent? That would depend on Chris’ other beliefs. But overall it meshes well with popular belief systems. It doesn’t create conflicts with Christianity, Buddhism, atheism, or other major philosophies.

6. Is it consciously chosen? Maybe. Typical Western conditioning encourages isolation and social cocooning, but Chris could have been raised within a family and cultural structure that installed this belief. It’s also possible that Chris started with a belief like Paul’s, realized it was limiting him unnecessarily, and consciously reconditioned himself to adopt this new belief.

7. Is it pleasure-increasing and/or pain-reducing? Yes. While Chris may encounter some rejection as a result of his openness, overall this belief should help him attract abundant positive social interaction. This belief will help steer Chris away from fear and isolation and towards rewarding relationships. It’s been said that 80% of our happiness in life comes from our relationships, and Chris will be able to tap into that.

8. Is it empowering? Yes. First, this belief will allow Chris to benefit from open social interaction with others. Secondly, by taking action Chris will gain experience, which will help him make new distinctions and continuously refine his social skills, thus increasing his success rate and reducing the amount of rejection he experiences. For example, if Chris works in sales, he’ll become better at pre-screening prospects so that he doesn’t waste as much time presenting to people who aren’t ready to buy. And in terms of relationships, Chris will become more adept at interpreting subtle signals, allowing him to solve problems before they devolve into resentment.

Overall Chris’ belief appears very effective according to our criteria. Such a belief should serve him well for a lifetime.

In reality Paul and Chris would each have their own unique web of thousands of individual beliefs with countless interdependencies. Considering a single belief in isolation has its limitations, but it’s a good place to start. Simply becoming conscious of a limiting belief you’d like to change is the first step towards replacing it with a more empowering one.

Your homework

Take a moment to write down some of the beliefs you have about reality. What do you believe to be true about your health, career, relationships, finances, spirituality, etc? Then go over the eight criteria above to see how they measure up. If you don’t like what you see, craft more effective beliefs to replace the old ones. Remember that your beliefs are not mere observations of reality — they shape and create your reality as well. Many of the thoughts you hold most sacred may reveal their hidden falsehoods once you take the opportunity to test one or two alternatives.