by Olive Hickmott and Andrew Bendefy

The role of beliefs

Your beliefs are what you ‘know’ is true, and the way you live your life is based on your beliefs. You have beliefs about everything: about the world and how it works, about society, about friends and family, and about yourself.

What you believe about yourself – that is, who you think you are – shapes your identity, and this has a profound impact on how you experience life.


Consider the following two statements:

  • I am dyslexic
  • I have dyslexia.

Say each one in turn and notice that not only do the statements actually feel different to say, they generate different feelings within you as you say them.

What did you notice?

The statement ‘I am dyslexic’ feels quite stuck and static. It feels like part of who you are and thus not at all easy to change. The statement ‘I have dyslexia’ is more transient, like a passing condition. You would say ‘I have a cold’, rather than ‘I am a cold’. If dyslexia is something you have, this opens up the possibility that you can lose it.

This may seem like playing with semantics, but it is a very important step in working with any condition, dyslexia included. If you have dyslexia, note how you habitually describe this to yourself and others; if you are using the ‘I am’ construction, seek to change this. Correct yourself every time you notice yourself saying it the stuck way, so you start to open up to the possibility of change.

As you correct yourself, keep your inner ear open for anything you then hear starting with ‘but’. Whatever follows the ‘but’ in your internal dialogue is likely to be your real underlying belief. It may be ‘but that’s what the teachers told me’ or ‘but if I am not dyslexic, who am I?’

Secondary gain

Something we always need to consider whenever we set out to change anything is the benefits of the status quo. What benefits do we believe we get from the current behaviour or way of being? These benefits are called secondary gain.

If you really want to get rid of your dyslexia, this may at first seem like a silly or even patronising question. But if you dig deep, there may well be things that you believe that you gain by being dyslexic. For example

  • It gives me an excuse when I screw up or underperform
  • I’m allowed extra time in tests
  • It makes me feel significant and different, special somehow
  • It gets me sympathy and caring from others.

How valuable are these secondary benefits to you? If they are at all valuable, they will tend to inhibit any attempt to change things. So you will need to look at each one in turn and decide if you still need it and, if so, how you can get the same benefit some way other than by being dyslexic.

You will then find it increasingly easy to talk about ‘having dyslexia’ as opposed to ‘being dyslexic’. This in turn will make it easier for you to contemplate that there might be a process or something to learn that will correct the difficulties that dyslexia brings.

Authority figures

Common sources of the beliefs we have about ourselves are the authority figures that we have or have had in our lives. In our early years, which are when we form many of our beliefs, these are usually our parents and teachers. If something was said about you by a person in authority, you were more likely to believe it and let it stick, especially if it was said consistently. Over time we incorporate these beliefs about ourselves into our identity. Imagine the difference that would result if a child was brought up with ‘You are really stupid’ compared with ‘You are really clever’.

Unfortunately, many people with dyslexia were labelled as stupid when they were children, if not by others, then often by themselves. This is really most unfair as not only are all the dyslexics we meet at average intelligence or well above, but reading and spelling are only a small part of the huge amount that people learn.

If a child came to you and said ‘I don’t know how to tie my shoe laces’, would you say ‘You are an idiot’? No, you would show them how to do it, how to succeed; it is simply a skill to learn after all.

In fact, you didn’t always accept what others said about you. Do you remember being told that how you dressed as a teenager was ridiculous – maybe your hair was dreadful, your skirt was too short, your school tie was a shambles or your shoes were a state? You may have ignored these comments because you believed it was ‘cool’ and you didn’t worry about older people’s opinions.

Simply becoming aware of the origins of some of our beliefs begins to change them. If the origins are suspect, this starts to disempower the belief. Maybe it is not so ‘true’ anymore. Maybe it never was.

One of the intriguing things about beliefs is that we tend to notice things around us that support our beliefs and overlook things that are contrary to those beliefs. Be more aware and begin to notice things that support the belief you want. For example, rather than focus on what went wrong about something, you might think ‘I actually did most of that task quite well. Maybe I am not so stupid after all.’

Another example might be ‘Now I know that reading is about some simple visualisation skills that I haven’t learnt yet, maybe I am not really dyslexic after all.’