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The Beliefs That Run Our Lives

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What are the forces running your life? Is it your clients, or customers? Your spouse? The economy? The weather? I want to explore this question with you today and to introduce you to a powerful force in your life–the little voice in your head! I want to talk about beliefs: what they are, why they’re so powerful, and what to do about them.

Stories about Beliefs

Let me begin with 3 stories to illustrate 3 ways in which beliefs run our lives.

? How conflicting beliefs can produce stress: The story of Bob and his 13-year-old son who was wearing the same clothes for 5 days in a row. Bob was upset because he believed “you should change your clothes every day.”

? How negative beliefs about ourselves can undermine us and influence our success or failure: The story about my running the half mile in high school and believing I could never beat Joe, one of my teammates, until something happened to change that belief.

? How beliefs affect our behavior and lead to overload: The story about a woman in her 50s who was taught by her mother that “you have to make your bed every day.”

These 3 stories illustrate how beliefs affect our interaction with other people, our self-confidence and self-esteem, and the ways we put pressure on ourselves and add to our own stress.

What are beliefs? Beliefs are the premises and assumptions that we hold about how the world works, how we should behave, what we’re capable of, among other points. They are very powerful for 2 main reasons: one is that we hold our beliefs to be “The Truth,” and so they become “The Truth” for us, leading to self-fulfilling prophesies. The other reason is that most of our beliefs are subconscious. We don’t even know that we have them until we start exploring our behaviors, thoughts and feelings.

Let’s look at some common beliefs, their consequences and some alternatives.

People who are overloaded (especially Type A individuals) are often driven by beliefs such as “you have to work long hours to be successful,” “you have to be busy all the time,” and “you always have to give 110%.” One question to ask is, “Where do these beliefs come from?”

Here’s a story about a man who grew up in the Great Depression. When he was 5 years old, working on the family farm, everyone was expected to do everything fast in order to be more productive and make more money. At age 10, he was selling newspapers and again felt that he had to hurry because the faster he worked, the more money he made.

However, when I saw him as a patient, he was a middle-aged multimillionaire. He didn’t have to hustle anymore, but he was still living his life in overdrive. He did everything quickly, even playing golf. What at one time served him well and delivered a payoff was now unnecessary–even harmful. When he finally started to slow down, he not only felt calmer, but he took 5 strokes off his golf game!

Challenging Your Beliefs

Let’s explore and challenge some of these beliefs that are driving Type A and other busy, overloaded, high-striving people. Here are 3 diagrams that offer some interesting perspectives:

(1) The human function curve shows that performance and productivity increase as stress and arousal increase–but only to a point. Beyond that point, performance and productivity actually start to decline. The message is that when you’re past the peak on the curve, working longer and/or harder is not only unproductive, it’s counterproductive.

(2) The inefficiency cycle shows that when you are tired, you’re less efficient. When you are less efficient, you need more time to get your work done. When you work longer hours, you have less time for sleep, exercise, leisure, hobbies, time with friends and family, which keeps you tired, less efficient, working long hours–a vicious cycle.

The irony is that the things we cut back on when we’re overloaded are the very things that would actually reduce our stress, increase our energy, and improve our productivity. And yet those are the things that we jettison first when we get too busy.

Sometimes the secret of improving productivity is to work fewer hours and to give yourself the time you save for rest, relaxation, sleep, exercise, socializing, entertainment and hobbies. When you’re overloaded and overstressed, sometimes less is more!

(3) The problem-solving model shows that sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to get away from it. Certain kinds of timely time-outs engage your conscious mind and allow your subconscious mind to work on the problem.

Another belief running many people’s lives is, “I don’t have time for leisure,” “leisure is a luxury,” or even “leisure is selfish.” Let’s explore this belief with the story of Bill, who was working 6 days a week and spending Sundays with his family.

One day he told me that he really missed playing golf. When I gave him permission to play the next weekend, he resisted. But finally he agreed to try it. Not only did he enjoy the game, but he learned a valuable lesson: that work-life balance is not a zero-sum game (where doing something for yourself takes something away from others). In fact, when you meet your own needs, you have more to give to other people.

A lot of people think that “sleep is a waste of time,” “sleep is expendable,” or “I only need 5 hours of sleep a night.” Actually the average adult needs 8 or 9 hours sleep per night–and most of them aren’t getting it. There are serious consequences when we don’t get the sleep we need. One of the most important effects is that sleep deprivation actually shows up in your body as stress.

Another belief is that “caffeine doesn’t bother me!” People don’t realize what caffeine is doing to them because the effects are often subtle and because we develop a tolerance to it. Caffeine not only generates stress, but also interferes with the quality of our sleep.

Summing Up

In conclusion, beliefs are the premises and assumptions we hold about how the world works, how people should behave and about ourselves, especially about what we think we can and cannot do. Beliefs are powerful because we hold them to be “the truth,” and because most of them are subconscious. They inform our behavior, influence the things we find stressful, and can undermine our self-confidence and interfere with our ability to reach our full potential.

The key to dealing with beliefs is to identify them. Start looking at your behavior and tap into your inner thoughts. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” “Why do I feel I have to get all of this done?” “Why do I feel I have to do things in this order?” Begin listening to your inner dialogue when you’re feeling stressed. Ask, “Why am I upset by this situation or that person’s behavior?” Explore where these beliefs came from. Ask yourself questions like “where did I first hear that?” or “who says that is true?”

Then start to challenge your beliefs. Be willing to try different behaviors and to modify your thinking, perhaps even discarding beliefs that are outdated or self-defeating. Then be willing to revise your beliefs and to come up with new ones that will serve you better and help to reduce your stress.

We all live with rules and regulations regarding almost every aspect of our lives. Many people have begun to feel that their lives are out of control, their work-life balance is poor, and there’s nothing they can do about it. But these patterns are not your destiny.

In other cases we get upset with other people who don’t meet our expectations. Or we undermine ourselves with negative and limiting thoughts about what we are capable of. Start tapping into the voice that’s running your life. Identify your underlying beliefs, challenge them and experiment with new ideas. Discard the beliefs that are not serving you well, or at least modify them. You have more control than you think!

David B. Posen, M.D., is an Oakville, Ontario-based author, speaker and physician specializing in stress management and lifestyle counseling. You may e-mail him at . This is an unabridged version of a presentation he gave at the MDRT annual meeting in Toronto.


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