The heart of personal development

If you are reading this blog it stands to reason that you are interested in personal development on some level. Perhaps the interest is motivated by a desire to succeed, or to find purpose, or to achieve some other goal. Regardless of the motivation, it is unlikely that you can achieve your goals without improving some aspect of yourself, which is where personal development comes in.

But how do we go about improving ourselves?

There are many methods or techniques we can use to improve ourselves. Meditation, self-hypnosis, counseling, finding mentors, reading, modeling ourselves after others who have done what we desire to do, etc. While all of these are good practices and may assist us on our path of personal development, they are only techniques.

Real personal development requires fundamentally changing the way we think and act in a sustainable and lasting way. To make such changes we must be able to challenge our current view of reality. And to do that, we must be able to think objectively about our reality, and periodically challenge or modify our beliefs.

Changes in beliefs are the root of personal change

If you have not been reading this blog for a while, it may come as a surprise to you that your reality only exists within your own mind. Now, I am not talking about your physical reality – there are certain parts of reality that we cannot change, like the laws of physics. (Although those realities are challenged from time to time as well, such as Einstein’s challenging of traditional Newtonian physics with his Theory of Relativity). But when it comes to the rest of it, your reality is different from any other person’s reality on Earth.

Sound crazy? Consider the picture below. What do you see?

Old Hag or Young Lady?

Old Hag or Young Lady?

For most of us, we immediately see an old hag. Our interpretation of the picture reflects our perception and interpretation of the black and white areas of the picture, which can also be said to represent our conditioning. We see what we are conditioned to see. We interpret in the ways we are conditioned to interpret. We create our own reality.

But, when studied further, we can begin to see that our reality – the one in which the picture represents an old hag – is not the only reality possible. If we learn to look at the image in a different way we can see that the image is actually that of a young lady, looking away from the screen. The nose is not a nose, but a chin. The eye is not an eye, but an ear. The mouth is not a mouth, but a necklace. Look again. See the difference?

Old Hag or Young Lady?

Old Hag or Young Lady?

This exercise demonstrates how our reality is in fact based on our perceptions, not on any solid factual basis. For some, making the transition between seeing the old hag and the young lady may be easy. For others it may not be so easy. Arguably, those who make the transition the easiest have a less rigid world view and are more adaptable to differing paradigms, and therefore personal change.

The good news is that all of us can learn a high degree of adaptability through challenging our beliefs, and where appropriate, altering them to reflect a different reality. By doing so we open up the possibilities of different realities, and with them opportunities, by changing limiting beliefs. When we are able to accomplish this, we have developed flexibility of belief.

Flexibility of belief is the heart of personal development

In our society we are often taught from a very young age to hold our beliefs firm and to be unwavering in them. We respect people who uphold their beliefs and stand firm with them despite the consequences. We believe that our beliefs have value in and of themselves. Thus, the notion of being flexible with beliefs may seem foreign, undesirable or even immoral to some.

But consider the consequences of such rigidity of beliefs. We would have no scientific progress, no positive change in the way we live, or in our culture. Fundamentally, without some degree of flexibility in our beliefs we would never see progress.

For clarification, I am not arguing for tossing away our beliefs at a whim or as it suits us. What I am suggesting is that we periodically reassess the validity and value of our beliefs, and adjust them accordingly. Some of your beliefs may serve a greater purpose in certain situations, but may be limiting in others. For instance, as a very young child the belief (or awareness) that “I can’t cross a busy street safely” may be a very good thing. As a healthy adult it would be debilitating.

In the same way, if we never change our beliefs we can never make progress ourselves. We remain stuck in the same behavioral and thought patterns that have brought us to where we are and have set us down the path we are on. In order to change that path and progress we must have some flexibility in our beliefs. This is the only way to change our realities and our behaviors. This is why I say flexibility of belief is the hear of personal development… and rational thought.

Beliefs versus values

It is also important to distinguish between beliefs and values. Beliefs are the lenses through which we perceive the world and create our realities. They are not absolute and are open to interpretation and revision. Some are limiting, and others are enabling. I may believe that I can’t sing, which could be limiting. Whereas, if I believe I could sing if I practiced and received appropriate instruction, that could be enabling.

Values are typically more concrete than beliefs, but may also be changed under certain circumstances. They represent our judgments of right and wrong, good and bad, etc, and provide a hierarchy of precedence that help us make tradeoffs or compromises when we have conflicting values. For instance, I may believe it is wrong to kill another human being, but when my child is threatened and I have no other option I may kill regardless of my value because I have a higher value of protecting my family. Having done so does not change the value I place on human life, however.

When we talk about respecting those who are steadfast in their beliefs, I think we sometimes confuse beliefs and values. I think most people respect those who can take in new information and change their beliefs based on evidence, as opposed to those whose minds can never be changed regardless of evidence. Such changes are not a reflection of morality, but of intelligence.

On the other hand, a person who so easily changes his values based on convenience may not be viewed as moral or dependable. While values may be altered, they are typically more concrete than beliefs, and are only altered under extremely compelling situations.

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