The value of thinking (!) in self improvement
Thinking gets a bad rap in self improvement, and often for good reason. The focus is always on action and “doing” to balance out the tendency for people to be up in their heads way too much and stuck in “analysis paralysis”. For the most part, I think this is a good thing and generally one should trend towards action over thinking.
However, there are cases where clear and directed thinking can actually be extremely valuable and directly improve your life. One example that’s become very apparent to me is the process of picking apart your own beliefs—with logical thinking—to get to the root of why you believe the things you do.
The Socratic Method
The most effective way I’ve found to examine your beliefs is to use one of the oldest philosophical techniques in existence: the Socratic Method. All the Socratic Method really is is just asking and answering questions.
Socrates became known for this method through Plato’s writing and that’s why it’s named after him. Essentially it’s about getting to the root of what is being examined by stripping away the assumptions, fallacies or biases that underlie beliefs or commonly held “truths”.
In Socratic dialogues there are two or more interlocutors (characters) having a discussion. But here since we’re going to be using the Socratic Method on ourselves, we get to play all the parts and do both the questioning and the answering.
The process as described below is aimed specifically at getting deep into your own mind and sense of self through rigorous questioning. This will help you discover exactly why you believe the things you do and expose fallacies in thinking that lead to harmful beliefs.
Is there any practical benefit to this? Isn’t it just more mental masturbation?
Now you might be thinking…
Isn’t this exactly the type of useless thinking we’re trying to avoid? Shouldn’t I be out doing things in real life rather than more mental gymnastics?
Most of the time I would say yes. But I do believe that in this case there is real practical benefit to this kind of self examination.
Getting to the core of your beliefs will allow you to better understand yourself and bring to light biases or gaps in thinking that you didn’t even know you had. In this way it will liberate you from ingrained beliefs and thought patterns that negatively impact your life.
But until you sit down and examine them, you may not realize that these beliefs lack any logical basis—and you may not realize you have them at all.
Your beliefs are not your own
I wrote before that when I examined my beliefs about money, I found that most of them weren’t mine at all, they were my Dad’s (or at least what I imagined my Dad’s beliefs to be).
I hadn’t formed these beliefs based on my observations or experience of the world. They had been given to me by someone else, and I had accepted them unconsciously as being both correct and my own.
When you rigorously question your own beliefs, I think you’ll find that this is the case for many of yours as well. Early in life we accept “truths” about incredibly important topics—often the most important topics—without questioning them at all.
We are “given” beliefs about:
- The nature of existence and reality
- Human nature
- The composition of our own character
- The ultimate philosophical question “How should I live?”
These and many others are often predetermined for us by our circumstances and we don’t even realize it.
Without examining your own beliefs you are living unconsciously—and allowing the way you relate to the most important elements of life to be decided for you by someone else.
When you think about it this way, it actually seems completely absurd. The answers to the most fundamental questions, those that determine how we approach our entire existence, are often predetermined for us and we go through our entire lives without reacting against it or even realizing it at all.
“Why am I always afraid?”
Here’s another example from my own life.
One night when I was about 16, I was lying in bed and thinking about anxiety, apprehension, and general fear. I thought about all the things that I avoided doing because I was too afraid.
Many of these were social fears. At the time I had such bad social anxiety that I couldn’t even look people in the eyes when I was talking to them.
Lying in bed turning this over in my mind, I started asking myself, “Why am I so afraid all the time?”
It felt like I was getting at something so I just kept saying out loud, “Why am I always afraid? Why am I always afraid?”
I kept asking this question and then I went ‘down the rabbit hole’ of my belief so to speak with more questions. Eventually I came to realize—surprise surprise—that there was no real reason to be afraid all the time.
Something “clicked” in my head that night and the dialogue I had with myself permanently changed the way I viewed myself in relation to the outside world. It felt very profound at the time and I even wrote about it afterwards.
Now obviously this didn’t solve the entire problem—far from it. But it did help. It changed my mindset for good and allowed me, whenever I felt fear, to realize on some level that there was no reason to feel it at all.
It helped me to understand that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with me, that there was no deep or impossible problem that I needed to solve. There was just a feeling—something that arose sometimes for a reason I didn’t fully understand—with nothing substantial to back it up.
Questions to ask yourself
So where do you start? Maybe a certain belief jumps out at you (like mine did about fear), but if not, here are some examples of things to ask yourself. These will start you off on a questioning trail that will eventually lead you to the root of your belief.
What do I believe about myself? (make a list)
What do I fear more than anything? Why?
What do I think I can’t do? Why do I think I can’t do it?
What do I believe about money?
What do I believe about sex?
What do I believe about the opposite sex?
How will I feel on my deathbed? How do I want to feel?
What do I believe about my place in the world?
What do I believe about the nature of existence and God?
What do I believe about my own capacity to succeed?
What do I believe about human nature? Are humans inherently good or evil?
Once you think you’ve answered the question, keep going deeper. Keep asking “Why do I believe this?” and “Should I believe this?” all the way down until you really get to the bottom of your belief.
If you have a dialogue with yourself on even one of these topics, I guarantee you will get something valuable out of it and learn about yourself in the process.
Here’s what it looks like in practice
Here’s what this thought process might look like (for me), using the example of “Why am I always afraid?” from above.
The initial question that came into my head was: Why am I always afraid?
Already we need a clarification to get to an answer.
The clarification would be: I’m not always afraid, I’m afraid when I’m around other people.
So then the question is: Why am I afraid when I’m around other people?
Answer: I am afraid of their opinions of me.
Q: Why am I afraid of their opinions of me?
A: Because I think it can hurt me, or because it seems like it can hurt me.
Now I would split into two lines of questioning:
Q1: Why do I think it can hurt me?
A1: I don’t know why. That doesn’t really make any sense. (Realization that there is no reason for this belief)
Q2: Can it hurt me?
A2: Hmm… no. People’s thoughts about me don’t actually affect how I act or what I do.
The conclusion is that there is no real reason to be afraid all the time. There is no reason for the feelings of fear.
This example is a bit simplistic but hopefully you get the idea. And if it seems complicated or confusing, just try it for yourself and I think you’ll see that it is actually quite intuitive.
Just keep asking “Why?” “Why?” and don’t take anything for granted. Keep questioning, keep going deeper and deeper until there are no more layers and no more assumptions to strip away.
Ask yourself if your own experience backs up your beliefs. More often than not, and especially for harmful beliefs, it won’t. And for each question you answer, you may just find that more questions arise. This is good—continue to answer them and continue down the rabbit hole of your psyche.
You can’t really be free until you form your own beliefs
Freedom—real freedom—is the freedom to create your own reality. But how can you create reality if you don’t even decide what you believe about reality?
A belief is a choice a person makes, and a choice that they continue to make as long as they keep believing it. This is the case for every person and every belief—whether they realize it or not.
When you get to the bottom of your beliefs, discover why they’re there, and discover if they’re even yours at all, you will have a choice to make as well. You can choose to keep the belief, or you can choose to throw it away.
The choice is yours, it’s always up to you—and that’s real freedom.
What do you think? Did you try the exercise? Have you examined your own beliefs before, with a method like this or a different one? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.