Levels of Belief: The Benefits of True Belief and How To Build It

May 03, 2018

By Shannon Thompson 


All things were suddenly possible; then what was possible became necessary.”

~ Victor Price

The first time that I noticed the power of true belief was in 1999. I was a working student for Pippa Funnell, a professional equestrian athlete in Great Britain. Up until this point, Pippa had certainly experienced her share of success. Highly competitive at some of the biggest competitions in the world, she was admired and well respected by her peers. Her stable was full of quality horses provided by confident sponsors. She ran a well-oiled and professional organization, and was by all definitions highly accomplished. There was a calm confidence about her stable. I don’t think anyone felt a pressing need for significant improvement or change.

But, change there was. In the fall of 1999, Pippa became the European Champion. This was her first major win on the world stage, and the joy that it brought was palpable. In the weeks to follow the energy in our stable improved sharply. Pippa spent longer hours in the barn, rode more horses, and paid greater attention to her students. Most striking to me was the increased brightness about her, a sharpened focus in training, and a new playfulness. It was like a promise had been answered, her faith renewed, her purpose re-found. She had finally won something significant. The system she had built had worked. Now she truly believed in herself, when previously, and likely unknown to her, perhaps she hadn’t.

Years later, in 2005 when I won my first major equestrian competition, I experienced this for myself. Finally, I was not exempt from real achievement, even though I hadn’t realized that I’d ever believed that I was. My work too, could produce results. I could play this game; the promise of effort rewarded applied to me too. The world would respond to me. The world would respond.

Have you ever experienced this shift in your life? The revelation of true believing? Have you known the beautiful clarity that comes with this moment, and the sweet, sweet gratitude? Perhaps you felt it in yourself following graduation? Or you saw it in your spouse after being awarded that big promotion? Or you felt it from your child when she finally aced that test? If so, you’ll understand that the feeling that comes from this new level of belief is not conceit – it is joy, and it is relief. I’ve seen it make a person warmer, more generous, harder working, and more open to change. I’ve seen it sharply increase the frequency of further victories, even though arguably the competitor is still operating with the same level of skill. However, now their work is infused with a new magic – that of true belief. But clearly, it’s not magic that is responsible for the boost provided by belief. What is it then? What tangible (possibly measurable) changes occur from this shift?

The purpose of this article is to explore the beneficial elements of true belief, and to discuss how these benefits can be accessed with or without a transformative victory. We’ll begin by investigating how belief accelerates performance in four important ways: trust in oneself, joy in one’s craft, tolerance of errors, and willingness to change. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Trust in Oneself

True belief feels like validation from life that you belong in the world of your craft. The attainment of this is like being welcomed to add your particular harmony to the symphony of your field. It is like finally understanding that your notes are necessary for the music to flow with full beauty, and so you play without hesitation, and with elaboration, and with freedom – and so you play. I think the difference that true belief makes to your efforts is that now you play your notes without hesitation. You don’t pause to consider the worthiness of the chords, or what others will think about them, you just play. And you do so with sensitivity, you do so focused forward – your ear tuned for nuance – you respond with your melody, with your contribution, in balance with the notes of others, in unison with the song of the moment. Sin prisa, y sin pausa, no haste, no hesitation.

Science would call this form of engagement “flow state.” Termed as such by eminent psychologist, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, flow is described as an optimal experience. Frequently, the state of flow is credited with excellent performance in any field. Although the experience of flow is comprised by many characteristics, one can define it concisely as full attention on the task at hand. One important feature of flow state is the minimization of fear. When one’s attention is fully directed on the task at hand, there is less room in consciousness for fear thoughts. Therefore, flow is an effective performance state because it enables all of a person’s attention to be utilized for the performance itself.

Here’s a more detailed explanation of how I view the relationship between true belief and fear: true belief is a revelation at the deepest level of one’s capability. From this place true belief interacts with fears also held at the deepest level, and sometimes outside of conscious awareness. In my experience working with athletes, when something goes wrong (typically a poor performance or injury), their deepest fears about their ultimate potential are stirred. It’s not that one rough practice or disappointing race that is really upsetting to them. It’s what that practice or race suggests about their ultimate potential.

I’m confident that many of you understand what it’s like to fear that one mistake predicts worse consequences. Perhaps a weak presentation at work caused you to fear that your boss no longer respects you. Maybe losing your temper at your child once caused you to fear for your competency as a parent. The attainment of true belief can soothe these concerns and ease deep fears like few others can. Thus, when true belief is experienced, a person can feel free to focus forward, and take on greater challenges – because their ultimate fear, that they are not capable, has been slain.

It’s easy to generalize this explanation across numerous domains. Perhaps you’ve experienced the ease of deep fears at work when the strategy you designed finally achieves results. Or, perhaps you’ve felt a comforting affirmation of your competency as a parent when you’ve witnessed your child’s kindness toward another child. These moments are often accompanied by the joy and relief of, I am capable, and I can succeed at this task that is meaningful for me.

Joy in One’s Craft

With one’s deepest fears eased, any craft is more fun. This is another benefit of the presence of true belief. When something is fun we are likely to do more of it. So, the joy that comes with true belief can lead to the acceleration of progress due to an enhanced desire to complete more work in one’s field. Also, the presence of positive emotion carries a neuro-chemical cocktail that promotes learning. The neurotransmitter dopamine – a key ingredient of motivation - increases the plasticity (the adaptability) of the brain, therefore enhancing the rate of learning when a person is presented with a challenge. Additionally, positive emotions broaden our perspective, literally enhance the sensitivity of our senses, and help us consider more options. Therefore, new ideas and solutions to problems come more easily in the presence of true belief, allowing optimal growth and creativity.

Tolerance of Errors

One of the most common qualities I’ve noticed among high achievers is a tolerance of errors. Specifically, these individuals are able to objectively evaluate a mistake without letting it derail their progress. In the presence of true belief in one’s capabilities, error tolerance is enhanced. Someone who has achieved true belief has probably already overcome obstacles that at one time appeared insurmountable. Through perseverance and experience, these people have learned that with persistence, few barriers cannot be overcome. They have learned to have faith in their ability to grow (they have a growth mindset), and even to recognize struggle as the means through which they improve. Thus, people with true belief are more likely to embrace errors constructively, rapidly learning the lessons they bring, and progressing quickly in response to them.

Willingness to Change

Complimentary to the tolerance of errors is a willingness to change. Interestingly, psychology researchers have found that, paradoxically, when we feel capable we are the most open to the input of others and new ways of doing things. True belief can increase our feeling of belonging to the group, and cause us to be less defensive in the face of criticism . When a person feels safe regarding her belonging, she is open to ideas for growth. Thus, she remains focused on the path of improvement, which increases the likelihood that she will achieve further success.

How Do I Find True Belief?

I paused for quite a while to think before beginning this paragraph. There is no easy answer to this question – no guaranteed formula for eliciting true belief. Honestly, successful outcomes are the most prevalent means through which to gain it. From this state, the improved actions made easier from this belief lead to more successful outcomes. But, we must remember, successful outcomes are not the result of the magic dust of belief – no; successful outcomes are the result of quality actions over time. So, the path to the revelation is (and surely was in advance of any success) laid with the right behavior. Therefore, the most reliable path to true belief is to consistently carry out the right actions to create a successful outcome. But here’s one thought exercise that can help:

Perhaps the closest I have ever come to deriving true belief is by pretending I already have it. My best friend, a PhD and altogether wise woman, once told me the story of a discussion she had with a counselor that changed her life. My friend was in her late twenties, and recently divorced. Although extremely academically and athletically accomplished, one of her greatest dreams was to marry happily, and have children. She shared with me a memory of when she expressed her fear to her counselor that this dream would never come true for her. During this time my friend admitted to behaving in erratic ways, like obsessively pursuing relationships, and relentlessly scrutinizing her physical appearance. She was behaving anxiously due to her fear that her dream would not come true, and in all likelihood was acting in a way that would further prevent its fruition.

After hearing my friend’s concerns, her counselor asked her to take a deep breath, and looked her calmly in the eye: “Michelle,” said the counselor, “I want you to believe for a second that I am all-knowing…”  The counselor continued: “I want to tell you that I know for a fact that you will have everything that you dream of.”

Michelle told me that upon hearing those words a great calm came over her. “When I chose to believe that my counselor’s words were true my anxiety disappeared,” she said. “And what’s more, I stopped my obsessive behavior. I focused on my work, I gave my relationships space; in fact I behaved in a way that was far more conducive to helping my dream come true.” Essentially, by hearing a message of true belief come unexpectedly from someone she trusts (despite the fact both Michelle and her counselor were well aware that the counselor was not all-knowing), Michelle experienced confidence, peace, and fearlessness. This revelation resulted in such a clear change in her actions that she was able to maintain them even when some fear returned. On these occasions she would simply recall the calmness in her counselor’s voice, and the insistence in her eyes. She would repeat the phrase that her counselor had said to herself, and she would feel less fear.

Try this for yourself. What if I told you that I know that whatever you dream of is sure to come true? What would you do now? Who would you be?  In all likelihood you will go forward with actions that will increase the chances your dream will come true, thus taking steps toward bringing it into reality. By the way, Michelle is now happily married, and has a two-year-old son.

Finally, and anecdotally, I want to share with you what I have seen: I have watched normal, flawed, fearful human beings accomplish the extraordinary. For all of us, attaining what we hope for will require effort, discipline, focus, courage, joy, tolerance of errors, and a willingness to change. But, it does not require perfection. As long as our hearts are captured by dreams we should chase them. So, ask yourself, what would I do now if I knew that my dream would come true? Perhaps you just felt a breath of true belief. Breathe another, and begin.

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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