William Coleridge coined the phrase "suspension of disbelief" in 1817 to describe a state of mind in which readers would willingly ignore obvious untruths and fantastic elements in literature to allow themselves to enjoy the story. He called it a form of "poetic faith."
There's an alternative form of this mindset that applies not to works of fiction but to our own very real lives that I'd call the "suspension of belief." We believe to be true an enormous number of assumptions and mental models that exert a powerful influence on our self-image, on our sense of our own capabilities, on our perceived range of options, and ultimately on the lives we lead.
In some cases these beliefs are well-founded, but in others they're not. Or they were once accurate but are now long outdated and in need of revision. And what neuroscientists and social psychologists are discovering about the power of mindset even calls into question what we mean by "well-founded" and "accurate." What we believe to be true shapes our reality.
Much of my work as a coach involves helping clients and students let go of negative, self-limiting assumptions and mental models, and I've come to characterize this process as "suspension of belief." Efforts to actively disprove our beliefs often trigger defensiveness, causing us to dig in and cling to them all the harder. But if we sidestep the struggle over whether they're "True" or "False" and simply suspend our belief in them, a whole range of possibilities open up.
Without reaching any final conclusions regarding the validity of a given belief, we can temporarily suspend it, and "act as if" it we didn't hold it, or as if it had no hold on us. This can make it easier (and safer) for us to experiment with new behaviors that will test our assumptions and mental models and generate the data that's necessary to support any meaningful change. The key is suspending our belief in order to move from a conceptual debate over truth or falsehood into the realm of active, experiential learning.
Photo by sethoscope. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.