Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘We often become what we believe ourselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. When I believe I can, I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn’t have it in the beginning.’

Empowering beliefs are essential for success in any area of life. Imagine: you crave a loving relationship, but you believe you’re not very attractive and no-one likes you all that much. If that is truly your belief and you speak and act upon it (that is, give it energy), it helps shape your reality.

Many of our beliefs are never questioned, yet form the basis of how we go about our lives.

Negative beliefs form a vicious cycle. First you are exposed to them. Then you buy into them. Then they become part of you, you argue for them and reinforce them, only acknowledging evidence that supports them and ignoring any evidence – however strong – to the contrary. Criticise a person’s beliefs, and they feel under attack.

Hanging on to dis-empowering beliefs is like trying to go forward with the car in reverse gear. No matter how much you want something, if you don’t believe you can have it or you feel unworthy, you’ll settle for less than you could have had, and less than you deserve.

Get your beliefs working for you

Beliefs don’t have to be true to impact on our lives – in fact, the most damaging beliefs are rarely true. That’s because we see the world through a ‘screen’ made up of our perceptions and our understandings of reality rather than ‘reality’ itself. We base our decisions on our perceptions, which are heavily influenced by our beliefs.

In a very real sense, when we change our beliefs, we change some aspect of our lives. The bigger the belief, the bigger the change. On reflection, you’ll discover that the main power drains are your fears and other limiting beliefs. If you believe life is too difficult and you are not cut out for success, you’re right – it is, and you’re not!

What are beliefs?

A belief is any set of thoughts or ideas that you accept as true.

Our strongest beliefs usually concern ‘the way it is’. They include religious ideas, moral values and ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ such as respect for law and order, family responsibilities and loyalty to one’s country or community.

All beliefs are learned, some in childhood and some as we develop and mature, for instance, from conversations we have with friends and people we trust, plus teachers, role models and the media.

Childhood programming and conditioning plays a major part. But beliefs also arise from:

  1. How we interpreted our juvenile experiences;
  2. New knowledge we acquired as we matured; and
  3. The results of anything we attempted or achieved when we branched out on your own.

There is, however, another way that beliefs can be formed: We can consciously and deliberately create them. We can also change unhelpful beliefs, including restricting beliefs about ourselves.

Did you used to believe in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy? Do you still? Probably not. These are among the many beliefs you changed when they no longer seemed appropriate.

Once a belief takes root:

  • The mind continually searches for the evidence to prove that it is right, whether the belief is demonstrably true or false or impossible to prove either way.
  • We behave in accordance with the belief. So, for instance, every time we try to outperform what we believe we’re capable of, we encounter resistance from within. When this happens, only by changing our inner beliefs will our most challenging goals be achieved.

As an adult, you, and you alone, decide what to believe or continue to believe. Other people have their opinions, but they only affect your belief system if you allow them.

Great Expectations

To succeed at anything, you first have to believe that you can do it. Low expectations bring mediocre results and high expectations bring outstanding results. But, on the other hand, expecting to fail is like entering a boxing ring with your hands tied behind your back.

Many studies have shown that raising young people’s expectations of themselves undoubtedly raises their level of achievement. That’s why young people with high achieving parents are likely to follow suit, because they take on the positive expectations of their parents. Positive expectations create confidence, commitment and better performance.

Expectations are powerful messages sent to the unconscious mind. When we expect the best and act accordingly (that is, input energy), we usually get it!

Disputing unhelpful beliefs

After exhaustive research, Dr Albert Ellis (one of the founders of cognitive behavioural psychology) demonstrated that irrational beliefs are the main causes of emotional disorders such as panic attacks, phobias, anxiety and low self-esteem. In other words, these crippling emotions are not caused by the events and circumstances of our lives, but by our beliefs– in other words, what we tell ourselves about them.

In his ‘ABC’ model:

  • ‘A’ is any ‘Activating Event’ which leads to an emotional or behavioural response;
  • ‘C’ the ‘Consequence’, i.e. the emotion itself.

However, ‘C’ is not caused directly by ‘A’. ‘C’ is caused by:

  • ‘B’ – our beliefs (attitudes or thoughts) about ‘A’.

Here’s an actual example. One morning a friend spotted her neighbour pegging out her washing.  She shouted ‘hello’, but there was no response. She was baffled, then hurt, then angry. No-one likes to be ignored.  How could she treat her like this?

In order to feel this way, she would have to (1) believe certain things about her neighbour’s behaviour, and (2) judge that behaviour good or bad Had she unknowingly upset her, perhaps? But there are other possible explanations. She may have not heard her and been preoccupied with other matters. She may have had no intention of causing offence.

My friend’s emotional response depended on her beliefs about her neighbour,  whether she thought she was deliberately ignoring her, and how serious being ignored was to her.  This is where ‘disputing’ comes in. Disputing is examining one’s beliefs about a situation that triggers negative feelings and challenging them. Are they true? Where’s the evidence that she deliberately snubbed her? Are there alternative explanations which cast a different light on the incident?

Disputing an unhelpful belief involves asking yourself:

  • What else could this (situation, memory, behaviour etc.) mean?
  • How else could it be described?
  • Did I miss something?
  • What positive value could it have?
  • What have I learned from it that will benefit me in future?

Disputing enables you to find alternative explanations and perhaps realise that you needlessly undersold yourself or took offence for no good reason. Keep challenging the negative belief until the unwanted feeling subsides. Deeply entrenched beliefs do not usually dissolve in an instant, but they will in time if you persevere.

(PS: The following day my friend discovered that her neighbour’s mother had died during the night and she was about to rush off to make the funeral arrangements. How do you think she felt given this new information?)

Disputing is not intended as a method for suppressing emotion (which is unwise), but for examining the belief about an incident that triggered an emotion, taking a different attitude to it, and finding better ways of responding. It can be used in current situations or to work through situations which have set off uncomfortable emotions in the past.


A second way of challenging a redundant belief is to use Byron Katie’s technique, ‘Inquiry’ or ‘The Work’. Her book, ‘Loving What Is’, is essential reading for anyone intending to move forward in their lives but finding themselves held back by restrictive beliefs.

Byron Katie argues that the main source of unhappiness is allowing our thoughts to argue with reality. Wanting the world to be different to how it is, she points out, is like trying to teach a cat to bark!

As we have seen in a previous blog, thoughts which argue with reality are often characterised by words like ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’.

The Inquiry method involves:

1. Asking yourself four questions:

  • Is it true?
  • Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  • How do you react when you think that thought?
  • Who would you be without the thought?

2. Turning it around.

  • If your belief involves another person, put your own name instead of theirs.
  • Or try the extreme opposite – e.g. turn should into shouldn’t.

The Inquiry method takes practice, and is well worth mastering. For full details, visit

Now you! Reflect:

  • Do you believe in yourself?
  • Are you influenced or controlled by any beliefs that you know are not true? Where do you think they came from?
  • Do you believe you create your own circumstances? Or that life is something that happens to you?
  • Do you believe that there is always a way to achieve your goals?

How different would your life be if you really believed in yourself? It’s time to find out!


©David Lawrence Preston, 19.5.2016

Facebook and Twitter

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter

Life Coach book cover

How To Books, 2004