Tending Your Mind's Garden: Cultivating the Right BeliefsOct 10, 2022
I like metaphors. They make complex concepts easy to understand and have a way of just making things click. One I'm chewing on right now is that your mind is a garden with thoughts and beliefs being the plants that grow there. That concept leads to questions like what gets planted and by whom? What flourishes and what gets weeded out? In other words, how do you tend your mental garden?
What Gets Planted and Why: How Beliefs Are Formed
Some people love the Southwestern part of the U.S., with its red rocks, desserts, and the cacti and other native vegetation that thrives in that dry climate. I can appreciate the beauty there, but I'm drawn to the tropics, plants with rich green shiny leaves and vibrant flowers, the ones that do best with lots of sun and lots of rain. One isn't inherently better than the other, but they are undeniably different.
We are all born into certain cultures and contexts. Think of it like being born in New Mexico v. Hawaii. The native plants are quite different. They're there naturally and are going to easily take root and grow in your garden. In fact, you may not even really have to create a garden. Without any effort on your part, those plants will be there.
So is the case with our minds. Many of our deeply rooted beliefs are native plants. They're there naturally as a function of where we are born and raised. We don't even question it. Of course there are cacti in the dessert and lush green leaves in the rain forest. That's just how it is.
So Where Do Beliefs Come From?
From day 1, our minds are busy processing all of the information coming through our five senses. They look for patterns so they can develop short cuts, which save energy, speed up processing, and, ultimately, help our minds do their number one job of keeping us alive.
Beliefs are things that our minds take to be facts. These are the conclusions they've drawn about what things mean, how to stay safe in a variety of contexts, how the world works, and our place in it. Beliefs are the lessons our minds learn, and there are two ways that this learning occurs.
Explicit learning is probably what you think of when you think about learning. This is intentional learning. When you sat down as a student to study history facts or learn science concepts, you were engaging in explicit learning.
Some of our beliefs are planted in this way. We are directly told that there is or isn't a God, that climate change is or isn't real, that people like us hold the door open for others, that big girls and boys don't cry, that exercise is good for you, that touching toilets is yucky, whatever. Other people directly instruct us. We read books, have conversations, watch videos, listen to lectures, mull over the information, and intentionally accept it or reject it. We plant beliefs in our garden, at least once we're old enough and our brains are formed enough to do that. Prior to that point, someone else does the planting, while we watch and trust that this is what is supposed to be in our garden.
This is a sneakier kind of learning. It happens behind the scenes, out of your awareness, in your subconscious. Whether you realize it or not, your mind is constantly learning and creating beliefs based on your experiences. These are sneaky because we're not even always aware of them.
For example, as an American woman born in the 80's, I was raised on television, magazines, and Barbie dolls that featured a certain beauty ideal - tanned white skin, blonde hair, thin waist, ample bosom. That image, combined with the myriad advertisements about weight loss supplements and programs, beauty enhancement products, and make up as well as whatever personal experiences I've had, gave my mind a clear message that there is one way to be beautiful and that most natural bodies aren't it. For women like me, our minds concluded that we are not enough in the looks department. Is it any wonder that the majority of American (and places that have American media) women do not feel good about their bodies? It's less to do with our actual bodies and more to do with what got planted in our mind's garden.
Beliefs related to body image are an easy one to highlight, as is race, gender, religion, and political standpoints. But we've got native plants, implicitly learned, about literally everything. About emotions - which ones are good and bad, which ones are ok to express, and how we are supposed to feel; people - setting boundaries or not, being vulnerable or not, how to connect or handle conflict; whether the world is safe or not; our abilities and worthiness. Every. Darn. Thing.
Every experience, particularly ones that are repeated or are very impactful (highly emotional) teaches our mind something. We're just not always aware of what's getting planted or being discriminant about whether we even want it in our garden or not.
Tending the Garden: How to Change Your Beliefs
We do not have to be passive bystanders when it comes to our mind gardens. We can actively shape and cultivate our belief systems, with the right knowledge and tools.
My friend Kayla stopped by today to get some cuttings from one of my house plants. "Is this a [insert some plant name I've never heard before]?" "I have no idea," I replied. It wasn't a plant I had picked out or purchased, and I really don't know what it is.
Most people are running around in much the same way, with no idea about the plants that are in their mental gardens. It takes a bit of self-reflection and introspection to really identify what's deeply rooted in our subconscious, to spell out the contents of our belief system, especially with regard to those beliefs that were formed implicitly. That's the first step when it comes to designing and creating the belief system that truly works for you. Once we recognize what plants are in our gardens, that is, what we truly believe, especially deep down on the core belief level (these are our foundational beliefs and rules and act as the lenses through which we view the world), we can start to make some changes. We can decide if each plant is one we want to keep. If so, we cultivate it, tend to it, nourish it, and let it grow.
Creating New Beliefs
With plants, tending means giving it the right amount of sunlight and water and clearing away weeds that might strangle it. When it comes to beliefs, this tending comes in the form of giving it attention. The more we focus on a thought and the more credibility we give it, the more we will have it. But even more so, we cultivate a belief through our behavior. We must act as though that belief is a fact that we are 100% certain about.
If we're dealing with a delicate seedling that we've just intentionally planted - for example, that my body is beautiful as is and deserves to be cared for - then we have to intentionally act on that belief. To do that, I might stop complaining about feeling fat, say "thank you" rather than making a self-disparaging or dismissive comment when someone gives me a compliment, or wear something that feels like it draws attention to the parts of my body I feel self-conscious about. It might mean making a point to intentionally focus on the parts of my appearance that I like when I look in a mirror rather than the barrage of negativity that comes for many people. All of these actions will help this new belief take root, grow, and blossom.
Weeding the Garden: Eliminating Unhelpful Beliefs
In contrast, when you identify a belief that does not serve you, that you want to pluck from your garden, you must either cut it down or let it wither away.
Cutting down a belief is something that psychologists call thought challenging. You'll also hear it called logical or rational thinking or, if we're being really technical, cognitive restructuring. This process involves taking a critical look at the evidence that supports the belief (you'll likely have a ready supply here) AND evidence that refutes or challenges the belief. This part is a little harder. But if you really try, you're likely to find evidence or reasons not to buy into that belief that anymore. You can find alternative conclusions to draw, then tend those new beliefs until they take root and become strong on their own.
You can also let mental weeds wither away by not tending to them. It's the equivalent of keeping a plant in the dark with no water. It'll eventually shrivel up and die. With beliefs, we have to stop giving them attention. First, recognize it for what it is: a belief, a mental weed. It is not an absolute fact or an unalterable aspect of reality. Then, simply label it, "There's that old belief" or "there's a worry" then pay attention to something else. Let the mental weed starve for attention.
You really speed up the withering process when you no longer let that belief dictate your actions or the choices you make. It's the exact opposite of cultivating a new belief. When we're trying to wither a weed, you have to stop letting it boss you around. You have to break that mental rule. If I believe deep down that others will judge the real me if they get to know me AND I don't want that in my garden anymore, then I have to stop acting on it. That means stop hiding or masking. Stop trying to control what others think of me. I have to be brave enough to show the real me and see what happens. By not letting that old belief dictate my actions anymore, it'll start to wither away.
Sorting Weeds from Desired Plants: Which Beliefs Are Right?
This year has been the first time in my adult life that I've been solely responsible for the state of my yard and flower beds. While some people find gardening and yard enjoyable, I decidedly find it to be a chore. Having an enviable yard with pristine landscaping is so low on my list of priorities that I do the bare minimum. That meant that I let some weeds grow, completely unchecked. These guys are now several feet tall...and starting to bloom with flowers! I was talking to a friend about it, and they made a comment to the effect of "Well, who decides if it's a weed or not anyways?"
I guess I do. If I like it, if I find beauty in it, why can't I let it be in my flower bed? Who says my beds have to conform to whatever was here before or whatever people around me say?
The same is true for our beliefs. You may find that as you intentionally cultivate your mind's garden that some things you were taught were natural or beautiful or necessary are actually not a requirement. You can get rid of those. And, you can tend to and grow some things that others might call weeds.
It's up to each of us to not only become aware of the intricacies of our belief systems, which will give us a deeper understanding of how we tick and why we do the things we do, but it is on each of us to take responsibility for becoming the master gardener, intentionally, thoughtfully shaping our mental landscape so that we can live the lives we want.
Doing the Real Work of Changing Beliefs
Changing belief systems isn't easy, but what a difference it makes to be surrounded by the plants that you want, the ones that are essential to your life, the ones that fit for you and work for your life. Identifying and adjusting your belief system to ensure that you are operating by helpful and accurate rules is a key element of psychological strength. That's why we do a lot of work in this area at Peak Mind.
Join us for our next live Quarterly Psych Strength Workshop, Beyond Belief: The Psychology of How Beliefs Are Formed and Why They're So Hard to Change, on Tues. October 18, 2022. We'll do a deep dive into this topic, and you'll walk away with actionable information, ready to tend your own garden.
"Your mind is the garden, your thoughts are the seeds, the harvest can either be flowers or weeds."
- William Wordsworth
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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