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How To Question General Beliefs

If you want to learn about all of the stars, pick one to study deeply.

Humans Love to Make Generalizations

This is what we call understanding.

We collect several points of data, and generalize from there to come up with a theory of how things are. Once we have come to our conclusion, we pretty much take it for granted until something seriously challenges that theory.

This is how my beliefs are formed and maintained. And I often become blind to new data because it’s easier to just stick with the theory I have. After all, I already understand.

Theories, or Beliefs, Are Fine until they Stop Working

In my personal life, beliefs stop working when they cause me stress. Stress, or emotional pain, is the sign that my belief is not working for me. I’m missing something, and I need to look again at what I’m believing.

This looking again is done in The Work of Byron Katie by identifying a stressful thought and questioning it. This process of questioning a belief, and finding evidence for the turnarounds (opposites), is the process of deconstructing that belief.

It Is the Same Process of Making a Generalization, But in Reverse

In generalizing, or coming up with a belief, I start with a few specific experiences and construct a theory based on those data points.

In The Work, which is the deconstruction of a belief, I go back to each point of data upholding my general theory and question it. If the original data points are not true, the whole theory falls.

That’s why The Work deals with specifics so much. If you want to question a general theory, question a specific instance of it. Specifics are what hold up general theories.

It Doesn’t Matter How You’re Working It

You could be using the Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet or the One-Belief-at-a-Time Worksheet to identify the thoughts you want to question.

The principle is the same: If you try to work it in general, it may be difficult. But if you can find a specific situation as a reference point for your work, chances are you’ll be pulling the rug out from under your general theory with little effort.

So How Do You Do This?

There are two main ways to get specific:

  1. Let life show you.
  2. Look for a specific instance.

In the first approach, life will inevitably bring you a situation that is stressful. You don’t have to plan for it at all. No need to sleuth it out. No need to strategize. Just show up, and let life find the specific situations for you to work. Life is an endless supply of specific situations.

I’ve come to really trust this approach. It keeps me always working within specific situations. And I find that without any planning or extra work my biggest theories come falling down.

The Second Approach Is Different

In this approach, I start with a larger Issue, a theory, and work backwards to find specifics.

Maybe I want to work on money. That’s a broad topic. Maybe I know I have money issues. Maybe I have a general belief that money is bad. I can work the general belief that money is bad, but I often find that doing this is too vague.

I don’t even know what I mean by “money is bad.” It’s too general to get very far with it.

Instead, I look for a specific instance when I had the thought that money is bad. For example, I can remember working for a big hotel one summer as a groundskeeper making $7/hour where guests were paying $500-2000/night to stay there.

And I Can Get More Specific

I can remember my boss telling me that someone sued the hotel because they tripped on a slight bump in the sidewalk. I can still feel my nearly three-decade-old rage against the person who sued rather than take responsibility for looking where they walked.

That’s a great Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet for me about “money” in a really specific situation. That incident, that image, has been a reference point for me for all of my life. It upholds my general theory that money is bad. And when I work it, chances are my theory will start to weaken.

That is how I zoom in to study just one reference point. And I can continue finding other specific situations related to money and question the stressful thoughts contained in them as well. If I work more data points like this, the whole story that “money is bad” may have nothing left to hold it up.

That is the value of using specifics to gain leverage in working any general theory.

If you want to get a lot of practice doing this, start The Work 101 course today.

“Often beneath the judgments we’ve written lie other thoughts. These may be thoughts that we’ve believed for years and that we use as our fundamental judgments of life. In most cases, we haven’t ever questioned them. I call these thoughts “underlying beliefs.” These beliefs are broader or more general versions of our stories. Some underlying beliefs may expand a judgment of an individual to include an entire group of people. Some are judgments about life that may not sound like judgments at all. But if you notice that you feel stress when you become aware of these beliefs, they may be worth investigating.”