How To Prevent Your Beliefs From Ruining Your Life

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The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” describes a person who has developed extreme and unquestioned beliefs in an idea, cause, or purpose. But have you ever wondered where the phrase originated?

In 1955, Reverend Jim Jones founded a new religious organization most commonly known as the Peoples Temple. In the beginning, Jones preached about Christianity and racial equality. But, deep down, Jones had an ulterior motive.

Beneath the facade, Jones was an atheist and a communist. He believed being born in capitalist America was a sin and that the Peoples Temple was the path to forgiveness. Anyone enlightened by his socialist revolution would be saved.

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Jones used religion as a tool to legitimize his message and grow his audience. He hid communist and atheist messages in his sermons in an effort to convert thousands of members.

To generate income and increase the faith of his followers, Jones staged fake faith healings. While on stage, he claimed chicken livers were cancerous tumors removed from audience members.

In 1974, Jones sent 500 people to Guyana to begin the construction of Jonestown. Touted as a “socialist paradise,” devout followers viewed Jonestown as the promised land.

In time, people began to question Jones and the legitimacy of his sermons. As allegations of abuse, blackmail, and forced druggings surfaced, the police placed Jones under a watchful eye. By the summer of 1977, the threat of the investigation grew too strong. To escape, Jones and hundreds of his followers fled to Jonestown.

Once in Jonestown, things got worse. Jones, who studied Hitler and other cult leaders, continued brainwashing Temple members with Soviet propaganda films and documentaries on American social problems. Members were often prohibited from leaving Jonestown, and those who tried to escape were commonly punished.

Some of the people who were able to escape returned to the US and reported the human rights violations in Jonestown. These complaints led US Congressman Leo Ryan, the media, and concerned family members to visit Jonestown to investigate in November 1978.

During their visit, more than a dozen residents asked Ryan to help them leave Jonestown. Upon hearing the news, Jones became visibly upset. He was worried that defectors would tell the world what was really happening in his community.

As Ryan prepared to leave Jonestown, tensions rose. Under the alleged order of Jones, Temple security attacked Ryan with a knife. Ryan was able to escape uninjured, but the attack was a preview of what lay ahead.

Ryan and his group fled to a nearby airstrip to meet two planes scheduled to take them back to Georgetown. Before they were able to board, Temple security opened fire on the group. Ryan, one temple defector, and three members of the media were killed. Eleven more were injured.

Back in Jonestown, things had taken a tragic turn. Jones called a meeting for all Temple members. In audio recordings of the event, Jones is heard announcing that Congressman Ryan was dead.

Then, Jones urged Temple members to commit a “revolutionary suicide” to protest the conditions of an inhumane world. He believed choosing your own death was the only way to win.

When members argued that the children deserved to live, Jones pushed back, stating they also deserved peace. He believed the only way to give them peace was by killing them.

Jones had Temple members prepare vats of the flavored drink mix Flavor Aid and laced it with cyanide. Then, when Jones asked family members to kill the elderly and children first, supporters can be heard cheering on the recording of the event.

Adults used syringes to squirt the poisonous mixture into the mouths of children. Many willing adults drank from cups. And it appears that those who protested were either injected or shot.

In total, 918 people died in the Jonestown murder-suicide. Tragically, 304 were children.

The term “drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to what happened in Jonestown. It describes a person so blinded by their beliefs that they will harm themselves or others to uphold them.

I know the story of Jonestown is an extreme example. And I hope your beliefs are nowhere near as dangerous as the beliefs held by those in Jonestown.

That said, even mild irrational or misguided beliefs can have a dramatic effect on your life.

This article is all about beliefs. First, I’ll explain what beliefs are, why they are important, and how they can influence your behavior. Next, I’ll show you how to identify when you are drinking the Kool-Aid. And finally, I’ll show you how to develop beliefs that can improve your life.

What Are Beliefs?

A belief is a feeling that something is true. But, because something feels true, doesn’t mean it is true. For that reason, it’s best to define three types of beliefs.

Rational beliefs are true or most likely true and supported by fact and logic. The belief that one plus one equals two is an example of a rational belief.

Irrational beliefs are not true or most likely not true. They are typically based on false assumptions and are not supported by fact or logic. For example, flat-earthers believe the earth is flat. They think NASA and the government created the “round earth conspiracy” for profit.

Subjective beliefs are not true or false but instead based on personal opinion. For example, some people believe pineapple is a suitable pizza topping. Others do not.

For the context of this article, we will focus on rational and irrational beliefs.

Where Do Beliefs Come From?

You are born a blank slate without beliefs. In time, you develop your beliefs through influence and experience.

For example, your parents might influence you to believe that being polite is necessary, money is stressful, and a college education is important. And your friends might influence you the believe that rap music is cool, soccer is fun, and breaking curfew is a good idea.

On the other hand, experience may cause you to believe that exercise is enjoyable, romantic relationships lead to heartbreak, and entrepreneurship is not for you.

Why Are Beliefs Important?

Beliefs are important because they influence behavior. Here’s how.

Every behavior is based on a prediction that is influenced by your beliefs. For example, you might believe the police watch a particular stretch of highway. As a result, you predict speeding will lead to a ticket, so you slow down.

When you have rational beliefs, this belief-prediction-behavior pattern works in your favor. That’s because rational beliefs lead to helpful predictions and behaviors.

But, when you have irrational beliefs, this belief-prediction-behavior pattern works against you. That’s because irrational beliefs lead to unhelpful predictions and behaviors.

Let me add some clarity with an example.

Assume a young girl is falling behind in math class and has the rational belief that hard work pays off. As a result, she predicts she can improve her grade if she applies herself, which influences her to study.

In contrast, assume she has the irrational belief that girls are bad at math. In that case, she’ll predict there is nothing she can do, which influences her to give up.

Behavior vs. Rationality Graph
Behavior vs. Rationality Graph

Given this information, it’s clear that rational beliefs are beneficial. And thankfully, it’s possible to change your beliefs. But before you do that, you must fulfill two prerequisites.

Prerequisites For Changing Your Beliefs

If you want to improve your life by changing your beliefs, you need two things. Those are commitment and the ability to be realistic.

1. Commitment

When I was in my early twenties, I became a licensed personal trainer. I didn’t want to make a career out of personal training. I just loved working out and wanted to learn more about it.

I was also excited that I could help others get in shape. I assumed most people didn’t exercise because they didn’t know how. So, I offered to make anyone a training plan for free.

I was shocked when most people refused my offer. I couldn’t understand why someone would not want to get in shape, especially when I offered to help them.

In the end, I learned an important lesson. That is, you can’t help someone if they don’t want to help themselves. It didn’t matter how much free advice I offered. If a particular person did not commit to getting in shape, they wouldn’t.

The same lesson applies to changing your beliefs. Nobody can change your beliefs for you. If you want to improve your life by changing your beliefs, you have to be committed to helping yourself.

Commitment is important because changing your beliefs is hard work. If you aren’t fully committed to the process, it’s doubtful that you’ll be able to see it through.

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2. Being Realistic

Unrealistic people have a hard time developing rational beliefs. That’s because they bounce from one irrational belief to another.

In contrast, realistic people might start with an irrational belief. However, their ability to be realistic allows them to settle on a rational belief eventually. Here’s an example to illustrate this point.

Assume a person wants to lose weight, but they have the irrational belief that they can’t because they don’t know how. If they are realistic, their new belief might become “I currently don’t know how to lose weight, but I can learn about diet and exercise.”

By comparison, if they are unrealistic, “I don’t know how to lose weight” becomes “I’m not smart enough to learn about diet and exercise,” which becomes “I don’t have the courage to ask for help,” which becomes “it’s no use, I’ll never lose weight.”

If you want to change your beliefs, you have to have faith in yourself at some point. If not, you’ll get swallowed up by an endless list of excuses.

Psychologist Carol Dweck refers to these two states of mind as a fixed or growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset are unrealistic about their abilities, don’t believe in effort, and make excuses for failing. In contrast, those with a growth mindset are realistic about their abilities, recognize that effort and hard work pay off, and take responsibility for their failures.

Ultimately, changing your beliefs begins with courage. Nothing in life is certain or guaranteed. The difference between success and failure is often the courage to try.

How To Change Your Beliefs

Here are five ideas that can help you change your beliefs.

1. Gain Some Awareness

Beliefs are essentially mental habits. Similar to the way physical habits promote habitual behaviors, beliefs promote habitual patterns of thought.

For example, if you are single and believe that “all the good ones are taken,” seeing couples in public might promote the habitual thought of being lonely.

The problem with habits is they occur primarily on a subconscious level. If you’ve learned to drive a car, you are familiar with this process.

At first, driving takes immense focus and concentration. But in time, you can drive almost mindlessly. This explains why you can drive somewhere familiar and not remember the details of the trip.

Your ability to do things without thought is problematic when trying to change your behavior. That’s because it’s hard to stop doing something if you don’t realize you are doing it.

Knowing this, the first step in changing your beliefs is becoming aware of them. The following two ideas can help.

1. Take note of what you’re doing. A few times per day, take note of what you are doing. Then ask what belief led to that behavior.

For example, you may discover that you play with your kids because you believe quality time is important. Or, you might realize that you reluctantly went to a party because you believe good friends shouldn’t say no.

2. Practice meditation. Meditation is an excellent tool for increasing self-awareness. Thankfully, meditation doesn’t require a lot of time. In just 10 minutes per day, you can reap the rewards of meditation.

2. Be Realistic

Rational beliefs exist in a sweet spot between irrationally negative and irrationally positive beliefs.

Irrationally negative beliefs are delusionally pessimistic. “I’m unlovable,” “people are evil,” and “I will never be successful” are examples of irrationally negative beliefs.

When you have irrationally negative beliefs, you take yourself out of the race. You don’t try to improve your life because you don’t believe there’s a point.

Irrationally positive beliefs are delusionally optimistic. “I can do anything I set my mind to,” “I can make everyone like me,” and “I create my own reality with my mind” are examples of irrationally positive beliefs.

When you have irrationally positive beliefs, you lose the ability to learn from feedback and failure. You prevent yourself from improving your life because you avoid the truth, lose the ability to be accountable, and believe you can do no wrong.

Rational beliefs are positive enough to keep you in the game but not so positive that you lose your sense of reality.

Let me explain the three types of beliefs with an example.

Assume a 65-year-old wants to take up competitive swimming for the first time. With irrationally negative beliefs, this person might believe that “they are too old to learn anything new,” “people over 60 shouldn’t exercise,” or “no team wants a 65-year-old swimmer.”

If this person has irrationally positive beliefs, they might believe that “they will naturally have a perfect swim stroke,” “they will be the fastest swimmer on the team in six months, ” or “they will swim in the Olympics in 3 years.”

With rational beliefs, this person might believe that “exercise is good for people of all ages,” “many swim programs welcome seniors,” or “they are too old to swim in the Olympics, but with enough dedication, they might become a competitive age-group swimmer.”

Beliefs—Improvement Potential vs. Outlook Graph
Improvement Potential vs. Outlook Graph

Here are two tips for keeping your beliefs rational and realistic.

1. Ask yourself if your current beliefs are supported by fact or logic. If no facts or logic support your beliefs, chances are they are irrational, and you’d benefit from better beliefs.

2. Keep positive self-talk simple. Effective self-talk helps you stay positive without making you delusionally optimistic. Studies show that successful athletes use simple, believable statements like “you got this,” “keep going,” and “shake it off” to motivate themselves. 1

So, forget about reciting unbelievable affirmations like “I am a money magnet. Money flows to me effortlessly and in abundance.” Instead, remember to keep it simple.

3. Ask If Your Beliefs Are Helpful

Sometimes irrational beliefs disguise themselves as rational beliefs. For example, maybe your spouse has given up on your marriage and has been having an affair for over a year. Yet, because you believe in “til death do us part” and that divorce will ruin your children, you decide to remain unhappily married.

While these beliefs appear to be commendable on the surface, deep down, they’re harmful.

Remaining in a loveless, argumentative marriage does not improve the quality of your life or your spouse’s life. Raising your children in that type of environment also affects the quality of their lives.

To avoid this problem, ask yourself the following question. Are my beliefs improving my life or the lives of those around me? If the answer to this question is no, your beliefs are likely irrational.

4. Focus On Better Things

You can only give your full attention to one thing at a time. So, one way to adopt better beliefs is to stop focusing on irrational beliefs.

For example, you can spend your time looking for reasons why you are inferior and unworthy. Or, you can focus on working hard while looking for opportunities. The choice is yours.

To break the habit of focusing on irrational beliefs, use the belief itself as a cue to refocus your attention. Here’s how that might work in practice.

Suppose you catch yourself focusing on the belief that “you are not smart enough.” In that case, immediately focus on a rational belief like “if I work hard, I can solve problems.”

With enough repetition, you’ll weaken the habit of focusing on the irrational belief and strengthen the habit of refocusing on the rational belief.

There’s one thing to be cautious of when following this advice.

In some cases, negative beliefs can be helpful when they are rational. For example, suppose your final exam is tomorrow, and you haven’t studied. In that case, believing that you’re unprepared is helpful because it motivates you to study.

So, before refocusing on a positive belief, make sure your negative belief isn’t telling you something important. If it is, fix the problem, then refocus on something helpful.

5. Get Some Experience

Many people form beliefs by making snap judgments because it’s easier than getting first-hand experience. But snap judgments are problematic because they force you to make assumptions. Here are some examples of beliefs based on snap judgments.

You believe a client is difficult because your co-worker said so. Or, you believe you are too old to start a business because your friends started 20 years ago.

Thankfully, you can challenge your snap judgments by getting some experience. For example, you might meet the client and form your own opinion. Or, you could attempt to start a business even though you think you’re too old.

Once you gain experience, you might discover that your original beliefs were wrong. The client might actually be a good person. And you might be able to build a successful business despite getting a late start.

How To Overcome Problems When Following This Advice

Here are two problems you might encounter when following this advice.

1. Don’t use your beliefs as an excuse.

Do you know what’s a lot easier than working long hours, delaying gratification, and risking failure? Adopting the belief that rich people are greedy and giving up.

Too many people use their beliefs as an excuse. How often have you heard “I can’t go to the gym because I don’t have time” or “I’m not happy in this relationship, but it’s as good as I’m going to get.”

People use their beliefs as excuses because facing the truth is hard. If you let go of the belief that you don’t have time to work out, that means you have to get up an hour earlier to exercise. And, when you admit that you’re in the wrong relationship, you have to go through the pain of a breakup and finding someone new.

Difficulty vs. Responsibility Graph
Difficulty vs. Responsibility Graph

If you find yourself in this situation, think long-term. Ask yourself if your belief helps you build the life you want. If not, let it go.

2. Don’t fall victim to confirmation bias.

Once you form a belief, your brain looks for evidence to support it and ignores evidence that doesn’t. This thinking error is known as confirmation bias. Here’s how it works.

Suppose you believe rich people are greedy. In that case, your brain notices greedy rich people and ignores examples of generous rich people.

Confirmation bias is particularly dangerous when you have irrational beliefs. Here’s how you can prevent this problem.

Try on the opposite belief. How would the world look if you believed the opposite was true? If you spent a week believing that rich people are generous, could you find supporting examples? If so, it’s time to redefine a new belief about rich people.

How To Know When You’ve Taken These Ideas Too Far

One problem with self-improvement advice is that it often places too much emphasis on your beliefs.

The movie The Secret and the Theory of Infinite Intelligence suggests that your beliefs are responsible for everything in your life. According to these sources, your beliefs vibrate at specific frequencies and attract things with similar frequencies into your life. So, if you believe that you are rich, you will attract money into your life. But, if you believe you are poor, you will attract poverty into your life.

The first problem with this idea is that it’s not scientifically proven. The second problem with this idea is that it forces you to focus on your beliefs instead of fixing real problems.

People who fail while following these theories are told that doubt or subconscious beliefs are blocking them. As a result, they double down on their positive thinking and try to uncover subconscious beliefs that likely don’t exist. Then, when they fail again, they blame themselves.

This approach to problem-solving is completely irrational.

If you’ve spent five years pouring your heart and soul into a business that didn’t work, it’s unlikely that your beliefs are the problem. It’s more likely that your product or service doesn’t provide value or you don’t know how to market.

Remember, rational beliefs are positive enough to keep you in the game without causing you to lose your sense of reality. So, if you believe in yourself enough to keep trying, your beliefs are fine. Stop blaming your beliefs for every problem you have. Instead, focus on identifying and solving the real problems that are holding you back.

In A Nutshell

Here are the key takeaways from this article:

  • Irrational and misguided beliefs can harm your life.
  • A belief is a feeling that something is true.
  • Because something feels true does not mean it is true.
  • There are three types of beliefs. They are rational, irrational, and subjective beliefs.
  • We are born a blank slate without beliefs.
  • Beliefs are formed through influence and experience.
  • Beliefs are important because they influence our behavior.
  • If you want to change your beliefs, you have to help yourself.
  • To change your beliefs, (1) gain some experience, (2) be realistic, (3) ask if your beliefs are helpful, (4) focus on better things, and (5) get some experience.
  • To avoid common problems, (1) don’t use your beliefs as an excuse, and (2) don’t fall victim to confirmation bias.
  • To avoid taking these ideas too far, remember that your beliefs aren’t always the problem.

Books That Influenced This Article

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