Here is a letter one of our facilitators who has been with TLS from the beginning, my good friend Kristie Hayes. Really good insight and advice here. Thanks Kristie!
Here it is:
I define beliefs as “thoughts we give a lot of power to that can ultimately affect our attitudes and behavior”. They are important to us because they give us structure, but they can also limit us, leading to hate and fear when they are challenged.
I believe almost everyone in TLS looks back with embarrassment on some of the things we used to strongly believe in. We look back and realize that many of our beliefs were racist, sexist, classist, etc., and we have worked hard to shed them. But that shedding process is very difficult. This is because we have to unlearn something that we may have been taught from a very young age or it was a very important part of our value system at one time. Have you ever been taught something at work, for example, only to find out you were taught completely wrong and now have to learn the right way? It does a number on the brain.
Leaving Old Beliefs Behind
Leaving behind old belief systems can seem like an impossible task, and no matter what, it will always be tucked somewhere in your brain. And we likely learned them from someone we loved and respected, and may still love and respect. Coming to terms with the idea that someone you admired has taught you something wrong can be devastating. Because the belief itself is abstract, we may end up hating that person for teaching us a particular belief. We also may hate ourselves for accepting it.
So we overcompensate by lashing out at those who believed what we once did. And this makes sense. We want to get as far away from the belief system as possible. But if we let this attitude dictate our interactions with others, it can be very destructive. In the process of rejecting the beliefs you now believe to be harmful, you can end up harming others. You end up angry and bitter at everyone and everything that represents that belief, and that much anger over a long period of time will not make things better.
Coping with Leaving Old Beliefs Behind
I have a few strategies for working towards healing and moving beyond the old beliefs.
Understand that the person you taught you to believe what you used to most likely had good intentions. The world is rapidly changing, and what we believe today is different from yesterday’s belief, and more knowledge and understanding may lead to different beliefs tomorrow.
Understand that you accepted a belief because at the time, you trusted that the person teaching you had the best intentions. It is hard when we realize that parents, mentors, and even pastors were wrong. How could we have believed any differently when we were younger and dependent upon those who we trusted to look out for us?
Understand that even if a belief is still in your head, it does not have to dictate your behavior. I was a conference on diversity, and we were discussing racial stereotypes. The speaker presented himself in such a way that he fit all the stereotypes we have of individuals of his race. After he obliterated each one, he said to us “You already know the stereotypes, right?”, and he was correct. The world is full of ideas and beliefs, and knowing they exist does not make them true.
Understanding Others’ Beliefs
If possible, allow people who believe like you used to believe the space to work things out. This can be very difficult, especially if you are in the process of rejecting them yourself and see the harm they cause. But change is as much a process for them as it was for you. And if someone joins a community like TLS, it shows they are open to listening to people whose views have changed and likely open to changing themselves.
One of my concerns with the current social justice movement is that there seems to be no desire to build bridges or listen to the opposing side. We will never learn or be able to effectively reach out to people if dismissal and attacking are our only strategies. The goal should be to share with others so they can understand the issue and why change is important. It may take years for them to be open to why a belief they have held onto for so long is harmful, and to ultimately discard it. Remember, it was a process for you and it will be a process for them. We seem to forget that change does not often happen overnight. And in a rapidly changing world, often the response is to hold on tighter to a belief system out of a desire of stability and comfort.
If someone expresses a belief that seems out of step with the values of TLS, there are a few things you can do.
First, before responding, take a deep breath. Social media has made all of us, including me, so much more reactive. But taking a deep breath can help us calm down and think.
Second, ask the poster to clarify. People are limited in language and word choice, they may have forgotten to put the word “not” when they should have, or they may have been sleepy (this one always gets me in trouble!), or they may come from a culture where certain words don’t have the same impact as they do in another culture. They are many reasons that we can’t possible know. Questions like “what do you mean?” and “Are you saying…” are helpful. Remember, too, that we as the reader can be limited in our understanding.
Finally, if beliefs are religious in nature (Gods, Goddesses, rituals, beliefs like reincarnation, etc.), understand that these are especially precious to a person. Even if you don’t like them, be careful not to stomp on them. I would be most of us hold beliefs that would scare some people away.
I hope this letter was helpful and I hope some of these things help all of us understand each other better.