“Do not become so attached to any one belief that you cannot see past it to another possibility.” — Christopher Paolini, American Author
The image of Cheryl’s face below the surface of the water haunts my memory. The eyes filled with terror.
The hand reaching up — fingertips just breaking the surface of the water. The orange sundress billowing out around her body.
Bubbles of air coming from her mouth and nose as she screams silently for help. She seems, in that moment, suspended in time.
“We’re not supposed to cut through the old farm yard!”
“Why not,” I asked.
“Yeah, why not?” came the response from Charlene’s younger sister, Cheryl.
“You know darn well,” snapped Charlene. “The well!”
As kids, my brother and I often hung out with Charlene and Cheryl — neighbour kids who lived just a few miles down the road.
Our parents were friends, and on this day, the four of us were hiking around Charlene and Cheryl’s family farm while our parents enjoyed coffee and conversation back at the house.
Our meanderings had taken us to an overgrown garden plot near the grandparents’ original farm site.
There was little left but a dilapidated log house and a few rotting fence posts with page wire suggesting where the garden had once been.
It seemed to me that every parent at the time had a story of an old well lost somewhere in the tall grass: a gaping hole just waiting to swallow up unsuspecting children.
At the time, I wondered if it was just a story made up to keep curious children from exploring farms sites and abandoned houses — there were plenty of both around at the time.
Real or not, the story didn’t seem to dissuade Cheryl who ran on ahead of us singing and laughing.
“Come back here,” yelled Charlene. “It’s not safe!”
“Scaredy-cat,” Cheryl said as she darted off gleefully through the waist-high grass. A moment later, we heard a sound like breaking boards, followed by a short, terrified scream.
Self-limiting beliefs can be like an old well: a dangerous remnant from the past, hidden deep within the tall grass of early programming.
If left unresolved they can come back to assert themselves when we least expect or desire them. We may convince ourselves that we have overcome such beliefs but occasionally we stumble and fall into a deep well of despair.
If we have embraced a self-limiting belief, we have likely done so out of fear. If our past efforts have produced painful results, we may have learned to associate taking risks with pain.
If so, a powerful connection has been formed in our mind. When action represents pain and inaction represents safety, our built-in desire for security severely limits our ability to respond.
Have you suffered emotionally, financially or in some other way by clinging to negative beliefs? If you can identify ways that your old belief system caused you pain in the past and will likely cause you pain in the future, you will be motivated to move away from it.
The more your mind associates pain with your old way of thinking, the easier it will be to change.
Even though doubt and pain are negative emotions, by linking them directly to an unwanted belief system they can become useful tools driving you in the direction of positive change.
Create a new belief system by associating risk-taking with pleasure.
Imagine all the possibilities that well-considered risk represents. Risk can come to represent new friends, new experience and exciting new opportunities.
By deeply considering positive (as opposed to negative) outcomes, you can link risk-taking with pleasure and be drawn to change and away from pain.
We all share a tendency to follow our beliefs without questioning them, but asking questions about a belief system creates doubt.
In this case, doubt becomes a tool for positive change.
When we begin to doubt the validity of a particular belief it loses much of it emotional power and becomes subject to our reason.
This helps us to see the need to make adjustments and to re-evaluate our perceptions and approach to life.
We all moved quickly to the edge of the opening. It was indeed an old well. I could see that Cheryl was a couple feet below the surface of the water — which, fortunately — was only about three feet from the top of the well.
Her hand broke the surface of the water and then her head emerged and she started screaming. Charlene straddled the well and tried to reach her sister but she was still about a foot too far away. She reached out and grabbed my brother’s hand and with the added support, lowered herself down deeper into the well.
“Grab my hand,” she yelled.
At last, the two sisters connected hands and I held tight to my brother as he and Charlene lifted Cheryl out of the well. That afternoon, our two fathers hauled rocks from a pile in the field and filled the old well so it could no longer be a threat.
“The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working,” wrote William James, the American philosopher and psychologist.
“To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now and dissolve the fear in our minds.”
We were not born with our fearful belief systems in place. We develop them over time. And if we developed them, we can change them. We can fill the deep wells of fear.
How much time depends on how deep the belief system is and how much effort we choose to exert.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca