“there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so.”
- Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2, 250-251
Limiting Beliefs: The Dream-Stoppers
Of all the obstacles that beset us on our journey to living our dreams (and you can be sure there will be obstacles along the way – that’s part of the deal) the ones which seem best equipped to stop us in our tracks are our own limiting thoughts.
Or rather, our own limiting beliefs – those thoughts of lack and inadequacy which we become attached to, because we consider them to be true.
Thoughts and beliefs – it’s an important distinction. It is estimated that we each think up to 60,000 thoughts a day (I don’t know who estimated it, or even if it’s verifiable. What I do know is that on some days, I feel like I’m thinking at least that many!). Obviously, not all of those thoughts will have a significant bearing on how we live our lives. Some will pass almost as soon as they arise, like clouds boiling up and dissipating in a summer sky.
Others, however, have more staying power. Those are the thoughts that we particulary notice, and are most likely to act upon: “I love chocolate”; “He seems nice”; “I’m feeling nervous in this crowd”; “I think she just lied to me”; “I’m so stupid”. They tend to be either verified or discounted, usually by experience. If they’re verified, they turn from mere thoughts into beliefs, and will go on to generate further thoughts and beliefs: “I’m going to make myself some cocoa”; “I’ll ask him out for a drink”; “I couldn’t possibly speak in public!”; “I can’t trust her anymore”; “I’ll never pass this exam”.
Some beliefs cause us no problems, but others can have a profoundly stifling effect on our lives. Limiting beliefs – “I’m no good”; “I can’t do it”; “It won’t work”; “I’ll always be poor”; “There isn’t enough to go around”; “I’m unlucky”; “I can’t” – have a habit of sitting on us and stopping us from moving forward, whether they’ve been verified as true or not (and we often think they have been verified, on the strength of a very few, albeit intense, experiences). In addition to keeping us from doing what we love, they can also generate feelings of sadness and depression. Eventually, we begin to believe certain negative thoughts even without any real proof – we just consider them to be self-evidently true.
If we’re lucky enough to realise that our thoughts are causing us stress, it’s not an uncommon practice for many of us to rail against them, and to try – often strenuously – to supplant them with thoughts of cheer and positivity. As I’ve previously discussed, this approach can bring its own problems.
Some thoughts of limitation are, of course, necessary. It’s good that we have thoughts like “I’ll hurt myself if I jump out of a plane without a parachute”. Thoughts like that keep us safe. But some thoughts which are designed to keep us safe, actually keep us back. “I can’t, I’ll get hurt” is a useful thought for a cave-person who needs to steer clear of a crouching tiger, but less useful for someone about to embark on an important but scary journey towards fulfilling their dreams – like applying for a new job, or travelling to a new, far-off place.
If you want to live a life you love, you have to come to terms with – or “get over” – the stressful thoughts that keep you from being all you can be. But how? Off-the-shelf affirmations don’t always work. And what if life really does hand you a stinker – or at least enough lemons to make your eyes water? Real barriers do appear, and real reasons to feel blue do happen.
If you had the opportunity to deal with limiting beliefs in a way which felt natural – rather than adversarial – would you take it?
There is remarkable woman who took that very path – by accident, rather than design – and now teaches others how to find their own way through their stressful thoughts to the peace that lies on the other side. I had the privilege of meeting her a couple of years ago. Her name is Byron Katie.
In 1986, Byron Kathleen Reid, a 43-year-old woman from a small town in the high desert of southern California, was at the end of both her tether, and a decade-long spiral into suicidal depression. In the midst of what had been a fairly ordinary life in her early thirties – two marriages, three children, a successful career in real estate – Katie became so clinically depressed that she was eventually unable to leave her house, crippled by agoraphobia. Her family would avoid her, fearing her outbursts of rage and paranoia, and she would spend days – even weeks – in bed, only rising rarely to bathe or brush her teeth. Finally, her despair became so acute, and her thoughts of suicide so persistent, that she checked into a halfway house for women with eating disorders – the only mental health facility that her insurance company would pay for.
One morning, as she lay sleeping on the floor of her room in the halfway house (she felt too worthless to sleep in a bed), Katie awoke with no concept of who, or what, she was.
I’ll let her pick up the story from there:
“A cockroach crawled over my foot. I opened my eyes, and in the place of all that darkness was a joy that I can’t describe to you. There was no me. All my rage, all the thoughts that had been troubling me, my whole world – the whole world – was gone. Everything was unrecognizable. It was as if something else had woken up. It opened its eyes. It was looking through Katie’s eyes. And it was so delighted! It was intoxicated with joy. There was nothing separate, nothing unacceptable to it; everything was its very own self…”
Katie goes on to describe how that moment of “waking up to reality” – as she calls it - brought with it a startlingly simple realisation:
“Basically, I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but when I questioned them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always.”
That may seem very unlikely to anyone who hasn’t experienced an epiphany of the type described by Katie. However, what sets this story apart is that Katie went on to develop a method which others could use to reach this same place of inner peace. Known as The Work, Katie’s method of enquiring into the thoughts which cause our stress consists of four simple but penetrating questions, and what Katie calls a “turnaround” – an opportunity to fully consider the opposite of the stressful thought, and whether it could be as true or truer than the original belief.
The Work involves identifying the thoughts that are causing us stress and limitation, writing them down, and putting them up against the four questions and turnaround. The four questions are:
1. Is it true?
2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
3. What happens when you believe the thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
Then comes the invitation to turn the thought around to its opposite (each thought often has several opposites), and to find at least three genuine examples of how the turned-around thought could be as true, or even truer, than the original. It’s as simple as that, yet the results can be profound.
Since 1993, Katie has been almost constantly on the road, demonstrating The Work in church basements, community centres, prisons, corporations, hospitals and hotel meeting rooms, in front of audiences large and small.
I studied with Katie at her nine-day School for the Work in 2007, and after meeting her, and learning first-hand how to facilitate The Work for myself and others, was left in absolutely no doubt that she’s the real deal.
Perhaps the best way to understand and appreciate The Work is to see it in action. Here, Katie helps a woman question her stressful thoughts about her body, and the way it has stopped her fulfilling her goals:
Doing The Work
A comprehensive guide to doing The Work can be downloaded for free at Katie’s website, along with a variety of other resources to assist your enquiry. In fact, everything you’ll ever need to do The Work is freely available through the site. It’s also well worth checking out one of Katie’s books. Loving What Is provides an accessible and often entertaining guide to doing The Work, and an abridged version (in .pdf format) can be downloaded at no cost here.
Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of The Work is that it can be applied to any thought that’s causing you stress. Below is another example, and I’ll be posting some more (on the subjects of money and relationships) in my next couple of blogs.
If you’re ready to craft a life you love, and you’ve reached a point where your own beliefs seem to be the main obstacle that keeps you from moving forward, you may find The Work of Byron Katie a useful tool for liberating your mind from its stuck place, and for helping it find its way to its own solutions.
“An uncomfortable feeling is not an enemy. It’s a gift that says, “Get honest; inquire.” We reach out for alcohol, or television, or credit cards, so we can focus out there and not have to look at the feeling. And that’s as it should be, because in our innocence we haven’t known how. So now what we can do is reach out for a paper and a pencil, write thought down, and investigate.”
- Byron Katie
This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Marvin Morley.
© Brian Cormack Carr, 2009