The beliefs that we hold about how things should be or people should behave can actually create more stress and rob us from daily enjoyment. When we go through our days with preconceived notions, we might become frustrated and/or angry when things don’t go as expected. For example, if we hold the common belief that vacations are supposed to be fun and stress-free, when we run into the inevitable vacation snag it can be disappointing. But, if we challenge that belief and tell ourselves “it will be what it will be and I will make the best of the situation”, chances are when that inevitable snag occurs we will feel less stressed and ultimately enjoy our vacation that much more. When we are open to what is without expectation or judgment life is less stressful and probably more enjoyable.
But, how do we challenge our beliefs? After all, they have a tendency to just pop up and they are very hard to shake. Byron Katie has developed “One-Belief-at-a-Time Worksheet” (please see www.the work.com) to help us challenge our unhelpful automatic beliefs.
He suggests that when we are experiencing a stressful situation we should:
1) Ask ourselves what we expected, or what our belief is,
2) Ask ourselves if this belief is true, and then absolutely true,
3) Notice how we react when we adhere to this belief (i.e., does this belief bring peace into our life or stress? how do we treat the person we are involved with?), and
4) Think about who we would be without this belief.
Using the example of the stress-free vacation above, let’s go through these four points. Suppose we have planned a Spring Break Getaway and after this difficult winter we were expecting our vacation spot to be warm and sunny for the week. As the rain begins, we feel our stress and disappointment levels begin to rise and our hopes for a wonderful vacation begin to fade.
Trying to salvage the week and with the knowledge that our automatic belief is that ‘vacations are supposed to have good weather’, we ask ourselves if this belief is true, absolutely true. We can see that, “No, vacations don’t have to have good weather”, and this thought provides some relief. We notice that when we do expect vacations to have nice weather and it actually rains, we become irritable and pick fights with our family members, and this irritability ensures a bad vacation. We think about who we would be without this belief and realize that we might be more pleasant and open to the enjoyment of having uninterrupted family time even if it is at the movies and bowling alley. The image of Gene Kelly singing in the rain might even pop into our head.
Katie also suggests that we can turn the thought around or think the opposite in order to challenge an automatic belief. So for example, if we have just had a difficult interaction with someone and we feel hurt by that person, instead of thinking: “she hurt me”, we could think: “I hurt me, I hurt her, or She didn’t hurt me, she helped me”. To illustrate this strategy, suppose we just had a difficult interaction with a neighbor and we feel slighted and hurt. We may be stewing over the situation and continually reminding ourselves how much she hurt us. If we turn the thought around we may recognize something that we did that could have hurt her, or we might realize that we are hurting ourselves by ruminating about this. Turning the belief around opens up our perspective and has the potential for lowering our felt stress.
We all have beliefs that color our interpretation of life events. Many of these beliefs actually bring more stress and disappointment to our lives. If we are able to recognize and challenge these beliefs, be more open and accepting of what is, not what we think should be, we are more apt to live more enjoyable lives while experiencing less stress.
Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist