Beliefs #2: The Meta-Levels of Beliefs

The Meta-Levels of Beliefs

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

You have a lot more thoughts, ideas, and representations than you do beliefs. You can think lots of things without believing them. When we believe–we trust our thoughts, validate our ideas, and say “Yes” to those representations as right, true, reflective of reality, and something we can hang-on to.

Getting the Feel of a “Belief”

What does a belief feel like? Recall the earlier mental experiments that you did (“Changing Beliefs at Meta-Levels,” in Belief 1 of this series). What did it feel like to “have” or “experience” a belief?

Interesting enough a belief tends to feel so “normal” and “real,” and “matter of fact,” that we usually don’t have much feeling attached to it. If we pick out a “strong belief” then we experience certain “strong” or intense emotions of like or dislike about the idea. Here we may have cranked up your convictions about the idea until we feel passionate, excited, motivated, etc. about it.

Yet more typically, the feel of a belief involves a “sense” that the idea simply represents reality. “Of course, the sun will rise tomorrow.” The belief state gives us a feeling of “reality,” a solid sense of “matter of fact.” Thus we feel certain … sure, categorical, definite, etc. Matter-of-factness seems, more than anything else, to qualify most beliefs.

Of course, these “feelings” exist more as meta-level feelings rather than primary level feelings. They also indicate our “Reality Strategy.” Challenge, dispute, or violate someone’s belief and they will feel sure and categorical about their belief, because, after all, “it’s reality!” “Silly thing, he just doesn’t know better!”

The Power of Beliefs

Does it now surprise you that the mental constructs of “beliefs” operate so powerfully in our lives, bodies, neurology? Bandler (1982) wrote,

“Behaviors are organized around some very durable things called beliefs. A belief tends to be much more universal and categorical than an understanding. Existing beliefs can even prevent a person from considering new evidence or a new belief.”

Via our beliefs, we send commands to our neurology. This mind-body connection explains how our beliefs have the power to make us sick or healthy. Our beliefs inevitably effect our biochemistry, perceptions, digestion, glands, immune system, etc. Because we exist most essentially as neuro-semantic beings–we cannot not but act out our beliefs and live out from them as our conceptual center. This should alert us to “ecology check” our beliefs to make sure we have healthy and empowering beliefs, not toxic and limiting ones.

This also separates beliefs from thoughts. We can “merely think” about neat and wonderful and powerful things with very little effect in our emotions and body. It takes confirmation of the thought to turn it into a belief.

Because beliefs operate as self-validating constructs, this explains their power and danger. Once installed, a belief functions as part of our perceptual system and therefore filters out everything that does not fit with it. In this way, beliefs blind. As a meta-level construction, beliefs function as a canopy of consciousness above and beyond our everyday thinking and perceiving–controlling, monitoring, modulating, and organizing our thinking and perceiving. We see the world in terms of our beliefs.

Because beliefs command our neurology and filter our perceptions, they organize us psycho-logically. Over time we tend to actualize (or “become”) our beliefs. Not only do our beliefs govern our behaviors (if you believe you can’t take criticism well–then you won’t), but it also motivates us to start to identify with our belief-behaviors: “I am the kind of person who… (doesn’t take criticism well, who does take criticism effectively, etc.).”

In NLP, beliefs correspond to our “programs” (and frames) for thinking, feeling, functioning, being, relating, etc. Whatever you believe functions, so to speak, as your “mental” neuro-linguistic software that runs your system. So, accordingly, our beliefs create our “sense of reality.” It governs and manages our “Reality” strategy. This explains why every “belief” once accepted and validated seems “real,” “solid,” “factual,” etc.

Levels of Beliefs

Dilts (1990) has created a list of beliefs existing on different levels. These levels of beliefs answers to the indexing questions: what, where, how, why, who, etc. In his excellent work, Changing Belief Systems with NLP, Robert has insightfully indicated how beliefs operate “on a different level than behaviors or capacities” and so “they don’t change according to the same rules” (p. 8). Processes of change, transformation, and communication operate in different ways and according to different “logics” when it comes to different logical levels. This plays a crucial role in belief change.

Further, because beliefs exist at a higher logical level than the environment, our abilities, and behaviors, they do not describe reality.

“A belief isn’t about reality. You have a belief in the place of knowledge about reality. Beliefs are about things that nobody can know in reality.” (9)

This means that our beliefs function as our high level maps of conceptual constructions and evaluative conclusions (generalizations) rather than empirical representation and description of things that occur on the primary level of sights, sounds, sensations, smells, etc.

We develop beliefs as conceptual constructions about classes, categories, and abstractions: “time,” “purpose,” “destiny,” “self,” “mankind,” etc. Yet we can’t see, hear, feel, taste or touch any of these things. Try to taste “time.” What does “cause” smell like? Picture “purpose.” These do not exist on the level of empirical reality where we encounter specifics, but at higher logical levels where we create classes, categories, generalizations, etc.

Figure 1

Meta-level:                       Beliefs

@ (about)


@ (about)

Meta-level:             Environment              Abilities

@ (about) @ (about)

Primary Level:      Learning/Condition     The Person T-F      — The World


Because beliefs operate as generalizations about non-empirical realities, this puts beliefs up two logical levels and explains how they can generate self-fulfilling prophecies. In identifying some toxic beliefs that create personal limitations, Dilts noted that toxic beliefs about outcomes (hopelessness, “It won’t work.”), ability (helplessness, “I can’t get over this.”) and identity (worthlessness, “I don’t deserve it.”) represent three really sick beliefs (meta-level knowledges) that we need to address (pages 22-23).

Without getting into meta-levels, Dilts (1990) yet presupposed meta-levels in his explanations of beliefs.

“‘The clearer I see it the more it makes me feel I probably won’t be able to do it.’ This is an example of how beliefs can affect visualization. Ability to visualize is a function of one’s capabilities, but what gives the visualization meaning is the belief.” (26)

Here the person has brought his thoughts-feelings (T-F) involved in the languaged meaning (the cause-effect statement, “the clearer…the more”) to bear upon his “ability.” Thus his belief refers to, and stands as, a concept about another conceptualization (ability) and these over-arching constructions drive and organize his primary level experiences.

The meaning we give to concepts (ability, identity, purpose, etc.) functions as a “belief.” We bring a generalization to classify other generalizations. Our “beliefs” then function as our classification categories. In Dilts’ list of levels of belief we find the following distinctions:

Figure 2

Levels of Beliefs

6. Why? (big) Spiritual God/ Universe Transmission
5. Who? Mission Identity Mission
4. Why? (little) Motivation/Meaning Beliefs/Values Permission
3. How? Process/Strategy/Plan Capabilities Direction
2. What? Actions/Reactions Behaviors Actions
1. Where?  When Opportunities Environment External context

With regard to these levels, Dilts identifies how belief statements will differ depending upon the level at which a person processes his or her belief (Figure 3). Dilts provided another example (Figure 4). “The following statements indicate the different levels in someone who is working toward a health goal.” (211).

Figure 3

5. Identity “I am a cancer victim.”
4. Belief “It is false hope not to accept the inevitable.”
3. Capability “I am not capable of keeping well.”
2. Behavior “I have a tumor.”
1. Environment “The cancer is attacking me.”

Figure 4

5. Identity “I am a healthy person.”
4. Belief “If I am healthy I can help others.”
3. Capability “I know how to influence my health.”
2. Behavior “I can act healthy sometimes.”
1. Environment “The medicine healed me.”

This provides insight into the nature of beliefs as meta-frames (frames about our frames). Robert described beliefs as setting “a frame that determines how everything afterwards gets interpreted” (1990: 133), hence a meta-level construct. Beliefs function as thoughts-about-thoughts at a higher logical level and therefore “is not about reality” but about our ideas–ideas of meaning, cause, ability, self, mission, time, etc.–in other words, about various categories, including Kantian categories.

Beliefs At Unconscious Levels

We create meaning as we move through experiences by constructing meanings in the form of “beliefs.” Eventually, these beliefs become so much a part of our reality strategy, that they move to a meta-level as our frame-of-reference. Then we always use them in thinking, feeling, perceiving, behaving, etc. Through this habituation process, our beliefs more “above” and out of consciousness as we assume them as “the way things are.”

We work with beliefs whenever we identify a frame of reference, deframe that construction, or reframe it. “Frames” and “framing” simply provide another metaphor for talking about beliefs. With regard to our perceptual frames–whenever we put a piece of meaning (a neuro-semantic frame) around an event, we thereby create our neuro-semantic world.


Understanding this structure of beliefs now enable us to pick and choose our beliefs. This empowers us to choose the commands that we want to send to our nervous system. It gives us the ability to outframe our beliefs at a meta-level so that we “have” our beliefs rather than letting them “have” us.