Does it really matter what you believe? Can something as insubstantial as a thought pattern, an expectation or an inner judgment actually influence your ability, and your success in real life?
Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan are two psychologists who are probing the relationship between our beliefs and our abilities. In a series of controlled tests they intentionally influenced expectations, and then got subjects to answer a couple of general knowledge questions.
The results, published in Scientific American, were illuminating.
One group was told that the answers to the questions would be flashed on the screen too quickly to see, but long enough for their subconscious minds to observe it. Another group was told a different story: the flashes were simply cues that a question was coming. It was a deliberate trick.
The first group believed they somehow knew the answers, while the second group was the control – they had no specific expectations. In fact the answers were never provided – the flashes were merely strings of random text. But the first group performed significantly better than the second. Their beliefs and expectations actually made them smarter.
But it goes even deeper than test scores on general knowledge. Our beliefs influence more than just our brainpower – they influence our bodies too.
In a related experiment, researcher Ellen Langer put people into the mindset of an Air Force pilot by bringing them into a flight simulator. The underlying belief that pilots have exceptional vision influenced test subjects, and their eyesight test scores improved by 40%.
“There is accumulating evidence that suggests that our thoughts are often capable of extending our cognitive and physical limits.” – Ozgun Atasoy, Scientific American
More than a Placebo
The placebo effect has often been cited as the cause for things that doctors and scientists can’t otherwise explain.
A patient complains of a mysterious pain, but the doctor can’t find any cause. He prescribes a placebo – and somehow the pain goes away.
Why? Because the patient believes the doctor knows what he’s doing, and expects to be cured.
But the placebo effect hides a deeper truth about our minds. The fact is, we tend to experience what we expect to experience. We tend to bend reality to fit our preconceptions.
We all have a voice in our head – it’s an inner dialogue that runs day and night. That dialogue is how we make sense of things, and how we assign meaning to the experiences in our lives.
The way we manage that conversation (or mismanage it) has a huge impact on what we’re capable of. Your self-speak can be either negative or positive – it can either support you, or severely limit you.
Every choice you make and every interaction you have with the outside world is colored by your expectations, and your beliefs. That’s why, given an equal chance at success, some will excel while others lag behind. Some believe they can, while others don’t.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a student, a sportsman or a provider – whatever challenge you’re facing – your success depends largely on one factor: Your beliefs about the world and about yourself.
So how can we learn to manage that process?
Identify Your Limiting Beliefs
The first step is investigation, study and observation. When negative self-speak takes place, it usually happens without awareness. It happens in the background – we just don’t notice.
So the place to start is to flush those beliefs out and bring them into the light of conscious observation.
Limiting beliefs sound like this:
- I just can’t lose weight – no matter how much I exercise, no matter what I eat. It’s impossible.
- I’m just not as naturally smart as the other students in my class. They don’t need to work half as hard as I do.
- I don’t have what it takes to become successful. I will never be comfortable – let alone rich.
- She will never notice me – I’m just not in the same league, and I’m not rich / interesting / attractive enough.
- Why doesn’t anything ever work out for me? There must be something wrong with me.
This kind of thinking turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because you don’t expect success, it never comes. When opportunities do come, instead of embracing them and running with them, you never even try because you believe it will turn out badly.
But if you’re alert enough to catch yourself thinking negatively, you can decide to hold that thought (or even that feeling) in your awareness for a moment in order to investigate it.
The trick is to become aware of these beliefs the moment they arise. They operate on a very deep level of the psyche, and they resist being found out, so it will take some practice and perseverance.
Make it a habit to question your own beliefs whenever something makes you feel unworthy, incompetent or small. Pay attention to the conversation you’re holding in your head. Try to get at the root of it.
Remember – the problem is never the situation or the circumstance – the real problem lies in your beliefs about the situation. The quality of your consciousness is the biggest determining factor in any situation.
How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself
Weger and Loughnan came to the following conclusion with their research into the power of expectations:
“People have significant psychological resources to improve their well-being and performance, but these resources often go unused and could be better harnessed.”
What they are telling us is that we’re often our own worst enemies when we should be our own best friends. Where we could be programming our subconscious minds with positive, affirming beliefs, we’re undermining ourselves instead.
That is called self-sabotage.
But take courage, because every time you become aware of the fact that you’re sabotaging yourself it’s actually a small victory. You’ve just given yourself the opportunity to turn things around. At the same time you’re training your mind to go beyond those self-imposed limits.
Instead of clinging to that limiting belief (“It’s too hard”, “I’m not good enough”) you can consciously and deliberately decide to change the way you’re looking at things. You can allow for at least the possibility that it’s not too hard, that you are capable, and that things might very well end in a positive way.
So gradually, one decision at a time, you’re moving away from self-sabotage and towards self-support.
Cultivating Self-Speak for Growth and Happiness
Redesigning your inner world is going to take some time and patience, but the rewards are well worth it. It begins with a clear, unequivocal decision:
“I’m taking charge of my thinking, my beliefs and my expectations.”
Now it’s time to start replacing that negative inner conversation with a more useful one. To do this you need to take small but decisive steps, one at a time. For example, when you wake up in the morning, it’s the perfect time to prime your day with positivity, gratefulness and energy.
There are lots of ways to build your ability as an inner manager.
Mantras, meditation, vision boards, or journaling are some examples. How you do it is up to you – so long as you consistently and regularly practice the habit of infusing your inner world with positive thoughts and feelings.
Your personal development hinges on the development of your consciousness. The more often you’re aware of the thoughts and feelings you’re mulling over, the more free you become to choose what you’re going to believe.