One of the most effective ways to take this journey to a more integrated, authentic understanding of ourselves is to explore our personal belief systems. Few psychological dynamics are as fundamental as our beliefs. Beliefs literally create our reality; they are the lenses or filters through which we interpret the world. Some of these lenses focus on new horizons; others dim our view and limit possibilities. Beliefs are transformational. Every belief we have transforms our life in either an enriching or limiting way. As Bruce Lipton wrote in The Biology of Belief, “Our beliefs control our bodies, our minds and our lives.” In a sense, beliefs are the software of leadership, our deeply personal operating system that runs the show on the surface.
Related: 6 Steps to Discover Your True Self
One of the most dramatic examples of the transformational power of beliefs comes from heavyweight fighter George Foreman. In the 1970s, Foreman was renowned for being one of the toughest, nastiest human beings on the planet. Angry and antisocial, he often came across as a mean, uncommunicative person—not at all the person you see today. He was not known for social graces, self-awareness or his big smile. However, immediately following his surprising loss to Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico, George went to his dressing room, laid down on the training table, and reportedly had an overwhelming spiritual experience. After that experience, George changed. He changed his entire life, everything: his personality, his relationships and his life purpose. He transformed them.
George peeled the onion of his personality, and the delightful, humorous, self-effacing George came forward. The important thing to note here is not whether George Foreman actually had a spiritual revelation. Many medical professionals say he suffered from severe heat exhaustion, and that’s what caused his experience. That’s not the point. The key principle is that George Foreman believed that he had a spiritual transformation, and that belief changed his life. What we believe, we become.
Through years of coaching people, we have consistently observed two distinct types of belief systems operating in people: Conscious Beliefs and Shadow Beliefs. Conscious Beliefs are the explicit, known beliefs we have. When asked what our beliefs are about ourselves, about other people or about life in general, we can articulate many of them. Although it might take some effort to access and clarify some of these beliefs, they are accessible to us on an everyday level.
Related: Your Thoughts Create Your Beliefs
Examples of Conscious Beliefs someone might have:
- I believe in treating people with respect.
- I fear trying new things.
- I am creative and resilient.
- Many people are untrustworthy.
- Hard work brings results.
Although we can access these beliefs on a conscious level, this does not mean we are always aware of them. We can, however, more easily enhance awareness of Conscious Beliefs and of whether we are living in accordance with them.
Elena was an executive in a global service firm in the U.K. Her intelligence, energetic work ethic, results orientation and excellent relationship skills had supported her pattern of success. She prided herself on how connected the people on her team were, with both her and each other. However, team members conducted themselves carefully and they rarely engaged in conflict.
One day, during a one-on-one with her boss, Elena was taken aback when her boss said, “Elena, you’ve been on the team for a while now, and you never disagree with me. I don’t really know if you are really invested in all these new changes we’re making, or if you are just going along with them. You’re too nice. I need you to step forward more powerfully and challenge me.”
Ingrained in Elena from a young age was the fear of rejection, which was fueled by the belief that being liked and accepted was the only way to really get the acknowledgment and respect that she craved. Elena’s boss encouraged her to see that speaking up—being more open—is not only more respectful but also more authentic. After working with Elena for a while, we were able to help her break free of Shadow Beliefs around rejection and to see that fostering more open discussions, even constructive conflict, surfaces unspoken issues and produces more trust, respect, innovation and acknowledgment.
Although we access Conscious Beliefs somewhat easily, Shadow Beliefs are subtler and much more challenging to uncover. Doing so, however, is crucial to high performance. Taken from the Jungian concept of shadow, Shadow Beliefs are manifestations of hidden, unexplored or unresolved personality dynamics. A Shadow Belief is cast when we are unable to deal with something. When a deep-seated fear, loss or trauma is ignored or hidden, a Shadow Belief is operating beneath the surface.
We all have Shadow Beliefs. If we don’t think we do, then a shadow is probably operating at precisely that moment by obscuring some aspect of ourselves. Jeff Patnaude, in his book, Leading from the Maze, writes, “The leader must be awake and fully alert. Like a nighttime traveler attuned to every sound in the forest, the leader must be aware of all possibilities lurking in the shadows. For we can neither challenge nor transform what we cannot see.”
When a deep-seated fear, loss or trauma is ignored or hidden, a Shadow Belief is operating beneath the surface.
On a personal level, some of my Shadow Beliefs have to do with exceptionally high standards for others and myself. From a young age, I evaluated myself by this external—often critical—yardstick. As a result, I developed a series of Shadow Beliefs: I’m never quite good enough; I have to work twice as hard to be valued; if something is not exceptional, it is not worthwhile; I am afraid to fail. As you can see, these beliefs have some value. They have fueled a drive to achieve. On the other hand, some of these same beliefs cast a shadow on my behavior and relationships at times. However, when I am actively committed to fostering my awareness of these shadows, I’ve been able to shed some light on them and hopefully minimize their limiting influence on others and me, particularly in stressful times.
Transforming Shadow Beliefs to Conscious Beliefs is crucial to personal mastery. This is not to say we don’t struggle continually with them. We do. The difference is that we consciously and courageously engage them rather than unconsciously being driven by them. What happens to us if we don’t deal with Shadow Beliefs? We pay a high price. Addictive behaviors, difficulty in relationships, achievement overdrive, a domineering or weak leadership voice, imbalanced lifestyles, and health problems can be some of the costs. Shadow Beliefs are not scary; not dealing with them is.
7 Clues That Bring Shadow Beliefs to Light
How often have you heard the expression that “an overdeveloped strength can become a weakness”? Although there is some truth to this statement, there is also a deeper underlying dynamic. Why do some strengths turn into weaknesses? Usually because some Shadow Belief is operating in parallel with the strength. Leaders either shed light or cast a shadow on everything they do. The more conscious their self-awareness, the more light leaders bring. The more limited their self-understanding, the bigger the shadow a leader casts.
Let’s say we have a Shadow Belief that “we only have value if we are doing and achieving.” If we are unaware of this Shadow Belief, our drive and determination will soon turn into workaholism and lack of intimacy, with profound negative implications for our health and relationships. Let’s say we have intelligence and self-confidence as strengths, combined with a Shadow Belief that “we always have to be right.” Without sufficient awareness, our self-confidence will turn into arrogance, abrasiveness and self-righteousness. Here are some other examples of how shadows can potentially turn strengths into weaknesses:
- Strength + Shadow Belief = weakness
- Energy + I can never give up. = hyperactive
- Charm + I must succeed no matter what. = manipulative
- Conscientiousness + I can always do better. = compulsive
- Focus + I must know every detail. = micro-managing
- Courage + I must always achieve more. = foolhardiness
- Influence + I must always be seen as exceptional. = self-focused
Because our shadows are often hidden from our own view, how can we bring them to light? Over the years, we’ve developed seven clues to indicate when a shadow might be operating.
Shadow Clue 1
If other people often give us feedback inconsistent with how we see ourselves, a shadow is likely present.
Shadow Clue 2
When we feel stuck, blocked or at a real loss as to what to do next, a shadow might be holding us back.
Shadow Clue 3
As strengths become counterproductive, some hidden dynamics need to surface.
Shadow Clue 4
When we are not open to new information, new learning or other people’s views, a shadow might be limiting us.
Shadow Clue 5
If we react to circumstances with emotional responses disproportionate to the situation, we are likely operating under a Shadow Belief.
Shadow Clue 6
When we find ourselves forcefully reacting to the limitations or differences of others in a critical, judgmental way, our shadow is likely projecting our limitations or fears onto others.
Shadow Clue 7
If we often experience pain, trauma or discomfort in our body, a shadow might be attempting to rise to the surface to seek reconciliation. Listen to the wisdom of your body as you look to uncover Shadow Beliefs.
Excerpted from Leadership From the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life, Third Edition by Kevin Cashman. Reprinted with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.