Ever since the 2016 election, however, I've seen some of my most staunchly Republican relatives defend actions from the administration that are far from kind or compassionate, despite the fact that I know these actions aren't fully in line with their values. Whenever this happens, I'm confused. Yes, changing your mind is a complicated process, especially when it's about something as deeply connected to your identity as your political beliefs. But why would someone insist on standing up for something they don't believe in deep down, simply because they want to remain loyal to a party, a social group, or a label?
If you've also noticed that those around you are more divided than ever—and standing stronger in their convictions—it turns out there's an explanation for it. Experts agree that our beliefs give us something solid to hold on to in the midst of uncertainty, like the kind we're experiencing on the political, social, and environmental fronts right now.
"We all naturally gravitate towards certain identities or labels because they offer a sense of security and belonging in an otherwise overwhelming world," says Rosie Barton, LMSW, a member of the Alma mental health co-practice community. Strong In Therapy founder and clinical psychologist Marianna Strongin, PsyD, agrees that having a solid belief system is often a positive thing. "Our beliefs help us navigate the world," she says, adding that these core beliefs originate from several different sources—our upbringing, our life experiences, and even traumas that we've experienced.
But there's a fine line between subscribing to an idea because it resonates with your core essence and clinging to an outdated one because you're not sure who you'd be without it. "If there are restrictions, rigidity, or dissatisfaction [related to] your beliefs, then we have to look at where [those feelings] came from and why [the belief] is not serving you anymore," says Dr. Strongin.
We run into problems when our our beliefs and our emotions don't line up, and yet we're afraid to disagree with ourselves. This often happens in politics. In a recent New York Times article, a psychologist told the author that many Republicans defend President Donald J. Trump not because they agree with his decisions—in fact, they may even feel the same sadness, anger, or frustration as their liberal counterparts when they look at the news headlines—but because calling Trump out would essentially mean calling themselves out. (And, most likely, being judged for it.)
Changing your mind isn't just difficult when it comes to politics, either. Dr. Strongin recalls speaking with a high-achieving patient who insisted on going to bed early every night at the expense of their social life, simply because they were conditioned to believe that's what ultra-successful people do. Though that person strongly defended this approach and refused to waver from it, their rigid schedule was leaving them dissatisfied. "Their belief system was [telling them] Don’t go, you’re not like [people who go out late], but their emotional system was lonely," she says.
So how do you begin changing your mind about your beliefs when it feels like your entire identity is at stake? If a belief is no longer making you feel good—but you're not sure whether you want to drop it—Barton says it can help to get clear on what your values are. "Changing your mind takes willingness to look beyond the external aspects that you have aligned yourself with and get curious about your internal core values, such as acting with compassion or speaking with integrity," she says. "For example, if you identify with a core value of compassion, you might come to realize that calling out Trump aligns you more with your internal sense of self, even if it challenges a [Republican] label you previously identified with."
Next, she says, it's crucial to find gratitude for the ways that your belief served you in the past. "As with any behavior that becomes harmful, at one point in time it served a function," says Barton. After that, Dr. Strongin suggests "dipping a toe" into a different belief that feels more aligned with your current values. Her early-rising patient, for example, decided to try going out with their friends for one night to see how it felt—the person ended up having a blast, staying out until dawn, and is now open to the idea that it's possible to achieve great things and let loose on occasion. "Begin spending more time thinking about it and eventually acting on it, but in really small increments," she advises. "A lot of times, people feel that if they change their mind [in a big way] they’re a hypocrite, and people are afraid to be labeled as that. But as humans, we really should aim to be flexible. We can have a variety of beliefs and our beliefs can change in different life stages."
Of course, the fear of being judged for changing your mind is incredibly real, especially because our social networks are often made up of likeminded people who validate our beliefs. This has evolutionary roots—for our ancestors, being rejected and cast out from the group was often a matter of life and death. "These thought patterns can be paralyzing and you might need the help of friends, family, or a therapist to challenge them and take the action you need," says Barton. But she insists that, for most of us, there will always be a core group of friends and family who will stand by us no matter what, and we must focus on those people and pay less attention to the rest. "It’s destructive to well-being and self-esteem when you wipe out your authentic needs or beliefs in order to gain acceptance from others. No matter how scary it is to be honest, it’s ultimately empowering when you no longer have to hide yourself and can be seen in your truth," Barton says.
You also don't have to completely abandon all aspects of your former belief as you adjust to a new way of thinking. For instance, let's say you've been vegan for years, but it's not working for your body and you've decided to start incorporating a few select animal products into your diet again. "You can still adhere to many of the values of the vegan community—participate in animal activism, reduce food waste, or choose ethically sourced food," Barton points out.
It can also be difficult to watch a relationship with a loved one deteriorate because they have an outdated belief they won't back down from. But Dr. Strongin insists that trying to change their mind will always be a losing battle. Instead, she says, you can come to terms with your conflicting viewpoints by finding compassion for their feelings. "I would take some time to understand why their inability to be flexible is the way it is," she says. "It usually comes from an emotionally challenging place. Put yourself in their shoes for a bit—maybe it will give you better respect for their need to hold on to that belief system."
Ultimately, although changing your mind about something major may be hard, Dr. Strongin insists it can be a rewarding process. For example, she says, working moms who switch to staying at home often undergo major pivots in their old belief systems around parenting and career, and come out the other side with more understanding and respect for both sides. "In life, we're often faced with having to change roles and shift beliefs," she says. "It gives us a greater sense of flexibility—and also a greater empathy for others."
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