I would like to write about a topic that I have been interested in for some time - how belief systems are formed and how they run our lives. Since this topic is so vast, I will divide the material into two parts, with part 2 completing in the next newsletter.
Belief systems are formed when we are very young, some say as early as infancy. Sensory input (sights, sounds, feelings, etc) is recorded and used to help make sense of the world around us. Every waking moment, information is streaming into the human brain. As a child, we cannot discern rational from irrational "data" we collect so everything we experience is recorded. It has been written that our belief system is basically a collection of memories that have been encoded and embedded in our brains. A belief system has also been regarded as a 'filter" through which incoming information passes through that subsequently alters all other future information. However if there is a "flaw" in the filter, the flaw will be imbued on all other information thus tainting what we perceive as true or factual.
Most researchers agree that by age six, a persons belief system is well formed and youngsters have a pretty solid idea of what they believe to be good and bad and right and wrong. Amazingly, these belief systems that are formed so early in life are not likely to change much throughout ones lifetime. What we believe early in life will ultimately become the "norm" and we will go through life based on what we believe is the way we are supposed to see the world. Again, any misinformation that we take in will also be embedded and, like an erroneous premise to a story, the misinformation will cloud the entire story. We as humans are proverbial creatures of habit. Once we believe something is the way it should be, we operate religiously guided by this principal.
Ultimately our behaviors and the decisions we make throughout our lives are the result of the core beliefs we have formed. For example, someone who heard repeatedly from a caregiver as a child the message that they were not "good enough" at something, may grow up believing "why should I even try?" and fall way below their actual potential. Conversely, someone may feel the need to be a perfectionist at everything they do. They may not even be aware of why everything has to be "perfect" but the embedded belief is if everything is not perfect then I must be a "bad" person. The underlying thought my be if an authority figure like a parent or caregiver said I wasn't "good enough" there must, in fact, be something wrong with me (we automatically assume that the caregiver is right at everything they say to us). At work, ones boss may be seen as an authority figure and that same belief pattern that was learned so long ago can apply in the work place as well. Unfortunately, some people may never live up to their full potential based on their belief that they are not good enough. Others may believe that they have to get everything done perfectly at work and may actually overcompensate as they struggle to prove the belief wrong. This behavior may eventually lead to burn out with the thought that "I must be a 'perfect' employee" no matter what.
An interesting phenomena regarding beliefs is how we can maintain them or perpetuate erroneous thinking and how we can actually create a "self-fulfilling prophecy" concerning our beliefs.
According to Fredric Neuman, M.D. there are a number of reasons why we may maintain erroneous beliefs:
Cultures and Families
Belief systems vary from culture to culture and from family to family. Different cultures practice different customs based on their own set of belief systems. In the United States, for example, the belief that a strong military promotes strength and freedom is a belief that has been a part of our country since its inception. In another country, access to affordable healthcare or low infant mortality rate may take precedence over might. Families pass down traditions from generation to generation which are actually belief systems. A police officers father and grandfather may have been in law enforcement thus passing down through the generations the belief that work as a police officer is a good job that solidifies neighborhoods and keeps people safe.
Justifying Belief Systems
Changing our attitudes and ideas is likely to imply that we should change our behavior. Behaving differently is not so easy to do and changing our belief systems is almost impossible to do. It is easier to justify to ourselves to continue to do whatever we are accustomed to doing because we feel that certain beliefs have served us well for so long. However, by having our beliefs fixed and unwavering, we may miss the chance to learn something new which may challenge an old belief system.
When it comes to holding on to old beliefs, seeing is not believing. In the business of belief systems, believing is seeing. New information may not be helpful if it goes through a "filter" created by our beliefs which tends to guide it toward what we already believe.
Many fixed ideas or beliefs are self-congratulatory. We feel "morally superior" as we tell ourselves that we know the "truth." That is a comforting idea but it colors our reaction to anything that seems contrary to what we believe. It is embarrassing to be wrong about important matters, especially when we have expressed our opinions strongly about them.
We Trust What We Know
Most of the time what we learn from others is reliable. Think of the weatherman or the doctor. Skepticism is less useful than the willingness to be instructed by people in whom we trust. But sometimes we can be led astray. There is an advantage in holding to ideas that have formed over a long period of time. Instead of being pulled in different directions all the time, staying true to our beliefs is less anxiety-provoking then to make changes to what we feel already serves us well.
Humans as Social Beings
As humans we are pack animals. We have evolved to live and work in groups, and we are inclined to share ideas and ideologies intrinsic to those groups, including among them religious and political beliefs. There is a survival advantage to belonging. We feel comfortable with others who think the same way we do. Sometimes reality is shunted aside and personal growth is halted just for the sake of feeling akin to others who share the same beliefs.
Concerning self-fulfilling prophecies, we can sometimes try to make events "fit" our long-maintained belief systems. According to Dr. Neuman, people do not learn new things easily especially if they contradict what we think we already know. We hear and read selectively. It is important for us to maintain our long-held beliefs then to admit to ourselves and others that we may be wrong. Think of wanting to buy something on Amazon.com that you really want. Do you look at the negative reviews on a product or only the positive reviews? Most people will only look at the positive reviews that will support their own belief even if the negative reviews are equal to or greater than the positive reviews. Beliefs are so important to the extent that they can change our lives. We may even create a self-fulfilling prophecy to support a false belief that we have about ourselves. For example, suppose you think that you are not good at math. Most probably won't be motivated to study math because you will think that whatever the effort you put into it you won't get good grades and the result will be a poor performance in an exam which will in turn reinforce the belief.
As we can see, beliefs not only rule our lives, but are very difficult to change.In part two of belief systems, we will look at mistaken beliefs and how we can challenge those mistaken beliefs in order to form new, and more reliable belief systems that can help guide our way in a more realistic fashion.
In part 1 of my article on belief systems, I looked at how belief systems are formed in families, society, and cultures, how we justify our belief systems, self-congratulatory beliefs, how we trust what we know, and how beliefs can actually turn into self-fulfilling prophecies (to read part 1, please go to www.rciampi.com). In part 2 of my article on belief systems I will look at what are referred to as mistaken beliefs, examples of mistaken beliefs, how they develop and are perpetuated, and how to challenge erroneous belief systems. Mistaken beliefs have also been referred to as "life scripts", "life decisions", "core beliefs", and 'fallacious beliefs". Whatever term used, these belief structures can control our lives and are so imperceptible that we do not even think of them as a process that guides our life. Let's begin take a look at mistaken beliefs
As written in the "Anxiety and Phobia Workbook" by Edmund J. Bourne, mistaken beliefs are deeply embedded "memories" that control our lives and are the root cause of negative self-talk which can lead to low self esteem, anxiety, and depression. We not only learned mistaken beliefs from our parents, teachers, and peers, but from the larger society around us. Oftentimes these beliefs are so negligible we take them for granted and assume they reflect reality. We can actually talk ourselves into anxiety by anticipating the worst with "what if" thinking, putting ourselves down through self-critical thinking, and pushing ourselves to unreasonable demands with perfectionist thinking patterns. Underlying these destructive patterns of self-talk are some basic false assumptions about ourselves and "the way life is." If we would like a less anxious way of life, we can work on changing the basic erroneous assumptions that can perpetuate anxiety and other ailments. The main problem with mistaken beliefs is that they can keep us from achieving our most important goals in life.
Let's say that we haven't achieved certain goals in life such as graduating from college, how can mistaken beliefs interfere with this process? Could it be that our beliefs and assumptions are holding us back? If our thinking patterns were made up with beliefs such as "I'm not good enough" or maybe we were told as adolescents that "You're not smart enough", these words, recalled from our memory, could be enough for us to "believe" the words and we would not move on to a successful college career. But are our beliefs and assumptions accurate? At a more unconscious level, we may believe, "I don't really deserve to have what I want in life?" Where would one have learned this?
Influences on Mistaken Beliefs
Mistaken beliefs often set limits on our self esteem and self worth and may be driven by something outside of ourselves such as social status, wealth, degrees, and material possessions. The belief may be, "My worth is based on what I have accomplished" and anything less would have us believe that we are not "worthy" to succeed because we are not driving the upscale car or dress in the latest trendy clothing.