The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts

Belief Change Cycle

People often consider the process of changing beliefs to be difficult and effortful. And yet, the fact remains that people naturally and spontaneously change dozens if not hundreds of beliefs during their life. Perhaps the difficulty is that when we consciously attempt to change our beliefs, we do so in a way that does not respect the natural cycle of belief change. We try to change our beliefs by "repressing" them or fighting with them. According to the theory of self organization, beliefs would change through a natural cycle in which the parts of a person's system which hold the existing belief in place become destabilized. A belief could be considered a type of high level attractor around which the system organizes. When the system is destabilized, the new belief may be brought in without conflict or violence. The system may then be allowed to restabilize around a new point of balance or homeostasis.

Organic systems often change through processes that take the form of cycles. While the content of these cycles shift and vary, the deep structure of the cycle stays constant. From the view of systems theory, therapeutic methods involve a structure in which an existing pattern in the 'landscape' is reaccessed and then 'destabilized' by bringing in new insights and perspectives. When new 'attractors' are introduced into this destabilized state, in the form of new understandings and resources, the system naturally and spontaneously reorganizes itself through "associative correction" into a new stable pattern.

This natural cycle of change might be likened to the changing of the seasons. A new belief is like a seed that becomes planted in the Spring. The seed grows into the Summer where it matures, becomes strong and takes root. In the Autumn the belief begins to become outdated and wither, its purpose served. The fruits of the belief, however, (the positive intentions and purposes behind it) are retained or 'harvested', and separated from the parts that are no longer necessary. Finally, in the Winter, the parts of the belief which are no longer needed are let go of and fade away, allowing the cycle to begin again.

As we prepare for the different stages in our lives or careers, for instance, we 'want to believe' that we will be able to manage them successfully and resourcefully. As we enter that stage of life and learn the lessons that we need in order to manage, we become 'open to believe' that we may, in fact, have the capabilities to be successful and resourceful. As our capabilities become confirmed, we become confident in our 'belief' that we are successful and resourceful and that what we are doing is right for us for now. As we begin to pass that stage of life or work, we begin to become 'open to doubt' that the success and activities associated with that stage are really what is most important, priorital or 'true' for us anymore. When we are past that stage, we are able to look back and see that what used to be important and true for us is no longer the case. We can recognize that we 'used to believe' that we were a certain way and that certain things were important; and we can retain the beliefs and capabilities that will help us in our current phase, but we realize that our values, priorities and beliefs are now different.

All one needs to do is to look over the cycles of change that one has gone through since childhood, adolescence, and the stages of adulthood to find many examples of this cycle. As we enter and pass through relationships, jobs, friendships, partnerships, etc., we develop beliefs and values which serve us, and let them go again as we transition to a new part of our life's path.

In the terms of self organization theory, we can summarize this cycle as a 'landscape' that looks something like the following diagram.

'Landscape' of Natural Belief Change Cycle

What we 'want to believe', what we 'currently believe' and what we 'used to believe', are like three 'basins' in the landscape. The experiences and ideas, both perceived and imagined, which make up our lives can collect or rest in the bottoms of these basins. If one visualizes a particular experience or idea as ball or pebble that can pass over the landscape, then in order to move from wanting to believe something to actually believing it, we must first pass over the part of the landscape in which we become 'open to believe' it. The part of the landscape in which one is 'open to believe' something new is less stable than those at the bottoms of the basins on either side of it; and it it sometimes requires and investment of effort to reach this part of the landscape. The 'currently believe' basin is represented as deeper than the others because the ideas that we do currently believe are generally held more strongly and are more stable than what we 'want to believe' or 'used to believe'. It also sometimes takes more effort to move one of our current beliefs to the less stable part of our landscape in which we can become 'open to doubt' it. Once we have made that transition, certain aspects of that belief may fall back into the basin of our current beliefs, while other come to rest in the part of the landscape that holds those beliefs that we are aware that we 'used to believe' but no longer believe.

When something is changing or unstable on one level, it is helpful to establish stability at the next highest level of 'deep structure'. If, instead of changing behaviors, people are learning a new mental skill or capability, for instance, it is useful for them to have stable beliefs and values in relation to that skill. In other words, even though people be uncertain about their new skill they can be certain in their belief that they will eventually learn the skill and that it is valuable. Likewise, if a person is in a situation where he or she is changing a belief or needing to establish a new belief, it will make it easier if that person has a stable sense of identity. So that even if the person does not know what to believe anymore, the person still knows who he or she is. Similarly, if a person's identity is changing or unstable, it would be important for that person to find a point of stability on a 'spiritual' level in terms of his or her position within the larger system of which he or she is a part.

The experience in 'trusting' in something that is beyond one's beliefs, or trusting in a larger system than oneself, can help to make the process of belief change more smooth, comfortable and ecological. In guiding people through the process of changing their beliefs it is important to have them create a space or location for the experience of 'trusting' in something beyond their beliefs, which serves as a kind of 'meta position' to the rest of the process.

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