How (And Why) To Change Your Beliefs

Beliefs have huge power to shape our lives, but most of ours are completely unconscious.

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Chekhov once famously said, "Man is what he believes."

It’s an idea you’ll hear repeated ad nauseam across the self-help world, "Your beliefs are holding you back! Changing your beliefs will change your life!"

But as cliché, as it is, it is irritatingly true. Our beliefs have tremendous power to shape our behavior, and our behavior influences other people’s behavior toward us.

If we believe someone hates us, we’re more likely to act toward them with defensiveness, hostility or a lack of interest. In turn, they’re more likely to treat us with disdain or judgment. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.


If we believe everything in the Universe is conspiring towards our highest good, we’re more likely to approach the world with openness and trust, more likely to see the positive aspects of what happens to us, and more likely to find joy and satisfaction even in difficult moments.

What we believe, we start to perceive.

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The power of belief is not necessarily that it can change what happens to us — though in influencing our behavior, it can — but that it changes how we feel about what happens. It is, theoretically at least, possible to come to a state of such intense and unshakeable positive focus that literally anything could happen and you would still experience perfect contentment. This state is commonly called "Enlightenment."


Most of us will likely not achieve, or even actively seek, Enlightenment. What remains important, for all of us, no matter what kind of relationship we want to have with our emotional experience is to remember that our emotions are responses to our thoughts and beliefs.

It is impossible for an emotion to arise directly in response to an event. Emotions happen when we interpret events and physiological responses to mean certain things. How we interpret is determined by what we believe.

Everything we experience is mediated by our beliefs. There is no escaping the power of belief. What we can learn, though, is to harness that power to our own (and others') benefit.

At the most basic level, a belief is a confirmation bias you think is true. It’s an ingrained mental habit, a pattern of thinking strong enough to condition your thoughts, your actions, and your life all on its own.

For most of us, throughout most of our lives, the vast majority of beliefs are unconscious. Some of our mental habits got ingrained before we even learned object permanence. Our beliefs are conditioned from infancy, by our families, our culture, our society, our circumstances, our friends, our media, our everything. Your unconscious beliefs can come from anywhere, but what makes them unconscious is that they come from somewhere other than you.


You can hold beliefs that help you to achieve your goals, live happier and healthier, feel more satisfied or loved or free or worthy, and you can hold ones that create cycles of suffering and frustration.

Because our beliefs are constantly mediating our experience and shaping our behavior, we might as well get choosy about what our beliefs are. We might as well practice the skill of picking and shedding beliefs at will.

If you want to change your beliefs, you have to first find out what your beliefs actually are.

There’s a simple way to do this: Call to mind a situation in your life, especially one in which you have negative feelings. What do you think about this situation?

Now, try thinking the opposite thought. How easy is it for you to accept that opposite thought as true? If it’s difficult or impossible, you have now found something you believe.


For example, let’s say I feel frustrated because I can’t support myself as a writer. I think: what I write isn’t that marketable, and I don’t have "a platform," so the publishing world isn’t interested in me. I can’t be a successful writer in this economy. I notice that I’m thinking this, so I try thinking the opposite: "I can be a successful writer in this economy." I find this hard to accept as true because I can’t just snap my fingers and change the publishing industry overnight.

The more I poke around, the more I come back with an inability to accept as true that I can be successful in this economy. I have now identified a belief.

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If you want to change your beliefs, the next question to ask is: How is the belief I want to change currently meeting my needs?

The tricky little thing here is that your beliefs are always serving your needs, in some way. Like any behavior, believing is an action we take in order to get our needs met.


Recognizing that our beliefs, even the most harmful ones, are meeting a need for us can be very uncomfortable because it forces us to recognize parts of ourselves we might rather not see. But, taking this step is also crucial. If you don’t figure out how your beliefs are serving you, the unconscious need the belief was meeting will crop up again like an ingrown hair.

For example, let’s say my belief is, "I can’t be successful in this economy." This belief may seem unhelpful, contributing to potential feelings of failure, frustration, sadness, anger or worthlessness. It’s keeping me from accomplishing what I want to in my career.

But — the belief is serving me, in some way, or I could not keep it. The way it serves me might be that it takes the pressure off of me to be successful. It might keep me feeling safe in a roundabout way, protected from the risks of pursuing my dreams. It might give me a built-in excuse for not being successful that stops me from feeling shame.

All beliefs serve our needs in some ways, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep every belief we currently have.


Holding onto a negative belief doesn’t have to be the only way you get those needs met. You can find other ways to meet your needs and find different beliefs to have.

To change what you believe, come up with a new belief to have about the situation. I’m serious, you can literally just make one up.

This is easier if you choose a belief that you already think is plausible. Don’t expect yourself to fully believe this new belief just yet, but notice if you’re willing to entertain the idea of it. You could try picking a belief that seems completely outlandish to you, but doing so makes this process harder on yourself.

For example, rather than "I will never be successful in this economy," I could come up with the belief: "Success is committing myself to what I love."


A belief is a confirmation bias you think is true. In order to believe it, you must get to the point of having experiences in which the belief seems true.

So, start coming up with justifications for your belief. What are some thoughts you can have that make the belief seem true? Remember, you’re not looking to assess the objective validity of the belief. All you are doing is justifying it, validating it, supporting it, confirming it. The point is to be one-sided.

For example, to prove the belief "Success is committing myself to what I love," I could start listing justifications like, "Successful people are committed to what they love, even if it takes time for the success to come," or, "I think the capitalist economy is evil so 'winning at it' isn’t exactly an accomplishment, and therefore, I have a different definition of success."

Then, commit to proving this new belief to yourself.


Go into the world as if your new belief were true, and act with your new belief in mind. Like quitting an addiction, you have to commit. It may feel clunky or silly at first. That’s okay. Again, we are not objectively testing a hypothesis here to see if it’s true. We are confirming a bias. Confirmation bias is your goal.

Remind yourself about your new belief as often as you can. Write it on your mirror, on your hand. Set it as your desktop or phone background. Set little alarms to repeat your new belief. Tell your friends and family about it.

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Make living by this new belief a priority.

Seek support to keep going. Reward yourself for your progress. If you have people in your life who make it harder to commit to your new belief, try to take space from them, at least for now.


Take action as if your belief were true, in little ways at first; the big ways can come in time. For example, a friend might invite me out for drinks, and I might decline, choosing instead to stay in and write. I remind myself, "Success is committing myself to what I love." Then, after writing, I might reward myself with a yummy salt bath to congratulate myself for prioritizing my new belief.

Then, keep practicing. A belief is an ingrained mental habit, and conscious habits don’t ingrain themselves. That’s what makes them conscious.

You are carving a new mental river through your experience of life. This means you have to actively push your thinking and behavior in directions they are not used to going, and you have to do so again and again and again until they create lasting grooves in the bedrock of your reality.

For example, a year from the night I stayed in to write rather than go out for drinks, I might find myself choosing between a high-paying finance job (ha!) and a book deal. But by then, the thought, "Success is committing myself to what I love" might be a real belief of mine. It might be ingrained. Still, I don’t expect myself to start with something that big. It takes time to build up a new belief, like strengthening a muscle.


This is a practice, which means: it takes time and repetition.

It takes screwing up, falling off the wagon, and getting back on. The process will not happen overnight. If it does, your new belief is probably extremely flimsy, a shallow floodplain rather than a deep river. Keep going. Slip up, dust yourself off, and get back to it. Be patient and kind to yourself.

If we commit to this process of consciously reshaping our beliefs, we have the power to radically change our experience and our lives. We are, as Chekhov says, what we believe. With practice, we can develop autonomy over what we think, what we feel, and who we are.

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Anna Mercury is a writer and community organizer, originally from California.