Every one of us has a belief system ingrained in their mind. Some beliefs, core beliefs, are formed earlier in life, usually in early childhood, while other we acquire later in life through external influences, such as political beliefs. For the purposes of this essay, we will focus mainly on our core beliefs, how they are formed, how they impact us, and what can be done to ensure that our core beliefs serve us in leading a positive and fruitful life.
What Are “Beliefs”
The literature on beliefs is aplenty. Clearly throughout the ages, the concept of beliefs was a primary concern for many. From philosophers like Socrates and Plato to psychologists to neuroscientists to political and religious scholars, many researched and wrote books and theories on Beliefs. And not for nothing; the combination of all our beliefs, which form our belief system, is basically who we are. We are the summation of how we think, feel, act and behave. And if these are guided by our deep-seated beliefs, then we really are our beliefs.
So, what are beliefs and when are they formed? In their article, “How Beliefs Are Formed and How to Change Them”i the writers at Skilled at Life define beliefs simply as “…something we consider to be a fact. It is anything that we assume to be true”. In that same article, the writers go on to explain how beliefs are formed; its either by our own experiences, or something we were told, and we accepted as true. Amy Morin explains in “3 Important Ways Your Childhood Shaped Who You Are” about the beliefs we acquire during our childhood, how the way we see ourselves, others and the world are given to us from our parents, peers, school when we were children… We start shaping our own self-image and beliefs even before our brain finishes developing. In Psychology Today, Ralph Lewis, M.D writes in his article, “What Actually Is a Belief? And Why Is It So Hard to Change?”iii about how, as children, and later as adults, we tend to form our beliefs “Children are strongly predisposed to believe their parents, and, as adults, we are inclined to believe authorities”.
Other beliefs we acquire as adults, later in life, following our individual experiences and how we perceive the world through our own senses. As we experience new situations, such as failures, death of loved ones, loss and love, we start developing new patterns of thoughts, and beliefs. We will look for evidence to support such thoughts and hence new beliefs are formed.
How Our Beliefs Impact us
Once a belief is formed, it becomes a reality for its “owner”. Beliefs get stored in the subconscious and “direct” us unconsciously. In “Belief Systems: what they are and how they affect you”iv, Tim Retig explains the role that our beliefs play in our lives :” Your belief system is the invisible force behind your behavior… your belief system is one of the strongest forces that affects any decision that you are making”. So, in reality, our beliefs dictate what we say, do, think, the choices we make in every aspect of our life and how we perceive everything that is going on around us. This can be a positive thing but can also leave a negative impact. Let’s look at both.
In its simplest form, our belief system helps us remain safe and fulfill the basic human need for survival; such as running away if attacked by an animal, or ensuring no cars are coming before crossing a road, or in our desires for marriage and procreation. These are simple actions based on basic beliefs we learned early on. More advanced beliefs can be quite empowering in life. If you believe you will do well on your exam because you prepared well, or if you believe that hard work will earn you that promotion, then most likely you will get both of those things. The subconscious mind is always looking for evidence to support our beliefs. And while faith and religious belief is far too complex to go into in this essay, a simple belief that God will take care of you always is a very powerful emotion that can help keep you sane and balanced during turbulent and testing times. In the article quoted above, Amy Morin explains how beliefs can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies “When you believe something to be true, you look for evidence that supports your idea. With each piece of evidence, the belief gets reinforced”. In these cases, and many more, your beliefs help you to grow, be happy and flourish.
The other side of the coin however is that these self-fulfilling prophecies can turn into a major hurdle or what is otherwise referred to as limiting belief. If you believe that you are incapable of doing something, that you are not smart enough to succeed, or not worthy of love, or too old to change, then you will look for the evidence that that is true and you will effectively be the reason of your own failed efforts, or failed relationships and stunted personal development. But while a limiting belief is usually described as a core belief that holds you back, what is really a limiting belief? Dunja Radosavljevic digs a bit deeper in her article “What are Limiting Beliefs and What Causes Them?”v and describes them as follows “The essence of a limiting belief is emotion… And that core emotion is still within you, stored, waiting for a time you will be able to feel it, while also rearing its ugly head through tension, anxiety or challenges at work”.
So, our beliefs work for us. A belief can be positive, can be negative, or can move from positive to negative if it no longer serves us. But can we control and change our beliefs?
Can Beliefs Be Changed
The good news is, yes, beliefs CAN be changed. Of course, the very first step of is identifying and acknowledging our limiting beliefs. It is equally important to recognize that our limiting beliefs might have worked for us at a certain point in our lives, but as we go through life, develop and grow, these beliefs might move to the limiting side of the spectrum. The brain and the subconscious will naturally resist a change of belief. Ralph D. Lewis continues in his article “Radically restructuring our belief system and creating a new worldview engages parts of the brain involved in higher reasoning processes and computation, and is consequently more effortful, time- and energy-consuming. The brain often cannot afford such an investment… Another important factor accounting for resistance to changing our beliefs is the way our beliefs are so often intertwined with how we define ourselves as people— our self-concept…We want to feel that we are consistent, with our behavior aligning with our beliefs. …. It’s embarrassingand quite often costly in a variety of ways to admit that we are fundamentally wrong.”
Changing one’s belief is not easy and it does not come naturally, but once the decision has been made, there are multitudes of way to abolish old beliefs and create new ones. For the benefit of this essay, we will not go into details of the coaching processes that would wield lasting and positive change; what is important to mention though is that adopting new beliefs that are befitting to us in our current stage of life, and shedding old limiting beliefs is not only doable, but required if we want to fulfill our full potential in life. It requires hard work, commitment, follow through and most importantly the will to change.
“Man is what he believes” wrote Anton Chekovvi. And we are really the sum of our beliefs. Formed before the age of 7, our belief system will guide everything we do later in life. Some of this guidance will be positive, some will be negative. The most important thing we can do is understand our beliefs and those of the one around us if we chose to understand their behaviors. And the best news is, we actually have the power to change the beliefs we chose, to grow, develop and live to our full potential.