Robert C. Ciampi, LCSW -                                               Psychotherapist

Belief Systems

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. 

         Self-Congratulatory Beliefs


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.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

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 systemswe 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 systemsI 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


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. 

As Edmund J. Bourne wrote in the "Anxiety and Phobia Workbook" what we all need to understand is that "our self worth is inherent and cannot be found outside of ourselves." We all have value by virtue of being human. We can all strive for what we want just because we have the ability to do so. And we do not need the approval of others to succeed. Our self esteem need not be bound by how much money we have, how much education we have, what kind of car we drive, or what our social status may be. It is our inherent right to be able to strive for our goals even if no one else believes in us. The important thing to remember is "do I believe in myself" regardless of what others have to say?  


Historical Mistaken Beliefs

We have undoubtedly encountered endless mistaken beliefs during our childhood and adolescent years. They were formed by what we heard from our parents and caregivers, teachers, and friends thus rendering our beliefs unique to the environments we grew up in. This is why everyone has their own set of mistaken beliefs that my have been perpetuated over generations within our families or even based on political and societal norms. Back in the 1950's and early 1960's, school children practiced "air-raid drills" due to the political climate at the time. When the air-raid siren would blow, the school kids would either have to leave the classroom single file and go to another location or they were instructed to get under their desks and put their hands over their heads. The belief here was that there was a possibility that a bombing could occur by an "enemy" government and that this drill would act as protection against attack (looking back, it would not have provided any protection against a nuclear disaster in the slightest). An example of a generational belief at about the same time as the political/societal belief mentioned above that was passed along, involved racial discrimination. The belief was that anyone who was "different" from the majority was not to be trusted and that it wasn't safe to interact with them (I'm sure that based on this belief, minorities felt the same way). People at the time remained segregated with very little interaction between people of different race. With these two examples we can see how fears that we were taught soon became belief systems and can be carried on through generations. We can even see fear being injected into our society today as people are being discriminated against due to their religious affiliation. These messages are powerful and can change how we live our lives and interact with the world around us. In a more micro environment at home, we can develop, over many years, a negative mind set about ourselves with comments interpreted as "I'm worthless", My needs don't matter", or "I'm unlovable." The unfortunate aspect is that many will live out these mistaken beliefs to the point where they begin to act in ways that appear to confirm them. We can actually become "programmed" and the mistaken beliefs of childhood can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies later on. This can all happen without us even knowing the ramifications of our beliefs.

Historical Mistaken Beliefs

We have undoubtedly encountered endless mistaken beliefs during our childhood and adolescent years. They were formed by what we heard from our parents and caregivers, teachers, and friends thus rendering our beliefs unique to the environments we grew up in. This is why everyone has their own set of mistaken beliefs that my have been perpetuated over generations within our families or even based on political and societal norms. Back in the 1950's and early 1960's, school children practiced "air-raid drills" due to the political climate at the time. When the air-raid siren would blow, the school kids would either have to leave the classroom single file and go to another location or they were instructed to get under their desks and put their hands over their heads. The belief here was that there was a possibility that a bombing could occur by an "enemy" government and that this drill would act as protection against attack (looking back, it would not have provided any protection against a nuclear disaster in the slightest). An example of a generational belief at about the same time as the political/societal belief mentioned above that was passed along, involved racial discrimination. The belief was that anyone who was "different" from the majority was not to be trusted and that it wasn't safe to interact with them (I'm sure that based on this belief, minorities felt the same way). People at the time remained segregated with very little interaction between people of different race. With these two examples we can see how fears that we were taught soon became belief systems and can be carried on through generations. We can even see fear being injected into our society today as people are being discriminated against due to their religious affiliation. These messages are powerful and can change how we live our lives and interact with the world around us. In a more micro environment at home, we can develop, over many years, a negative mind set about ourselves with comments interpreted as "I'm worthless", My needs don't matter", or "I'm unlovable." The unfortunate aspect is that many will live out these mistaken beliefs to the point where they begin to act in ways that appear to confirm them. We can actually become "programmed" and the mistaken beliefs of childhood can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies later on. This can all happen without us even knowing the ramifications of our beliefs.

More About Mistaken Beliefs

Although there are numerous types of mistaken beliefs, let's look at some of the more common examples here:

  • "I feel that I don't deserve to be successful or happy"
  • "It's important that I always please other people"
  • "I have to always get everything right - I cannot allow myself to make a mistake"
  • "My self worth is not a given. It's something that has to be earned"
  • "When things are going well watch out...the 'other shoe' is bound to drop"
  • "I feel personally threatened when criticized"
  • "I should always look good and act nice no matter how I feel"
  • "Unless you worry about a problem it just gets worse"       

The question again is, "Where did we learn these beliefs about ourselves?" Earlier we saw how our parents or caregivers, teachers, coaches, other authority figures, our peers, and society at large can give us information that can form belief patterns. But are these people always right? We tend to believe authority figures because we assume they are right especially when we are young, vulnerable, and naive about the world. Interestingly though, belief systems are so deeply entrenched that even as we grow up, we can still hold onto beliefs that were formed when we were children. And as we look at ourselves now as grown adults, we know we are not always right with everything we have to process, but children looking up to adults see them as omniscient. Interesting how perspective changes over time. Let's now look at ways that we can start to challenge our old, out-dated belief systems which is something I ask my clients to do in and out of session.

Challenging Belief Systems

We have looked at how belief systems are formed, how entrenched they can become, and how they can hold us back from living up to our true potential. The first place to start to begin challenging our faulty beliefs would be to ask ourselves, "Where is the evidence for this?" If we ask ourselves this question in relation to any of the beliefs listed above, what would our answer be? Is there documented "proof" somewhere that answers those statements? Have the negative statements we believe about ourselves been proven to be true or, more likely the case, have they been told to us when we were young (don't forget that as adults and parents now, we know we don't know everything about everything although our children may think we do)? Another question to ask ourselves may be, "Does this belief promote my well-being?  If the answer is "no" then why do we continue to think that way? Nothing is 100% and there may be times that we may have a negative thought about something. But when it becomes chronic and we keep going back to our false beliefs we may need to ask ourselves some of the questions noted above. 

Affirmations

Affirmations are positive comments we say to ourselves or thoughts we can have about ourselves. So when we find that we are coming down hard on ourselves or eliciting a mistaken belief, a positive affirmation can counter the negative thought. For example, let's take a look at the first mistaken belief above, "I feel that I don't deserve to be successful or happy." If we use a positive affirmation, we may say to ourselves, "I feel I deserve to be successful and happy just like everyone else." The affirmation can turn our negative thinking into positive thinking. Let's do another, "It's important that I always please other people." Although it is nice to be nice to others, we do not have to please everyone we encounter (and it would be impossible to do so). A positive affirmation here may be, "It is not my job to please everyone I meet. It is important that I am happy with myself in my decision-making and behaviors." There is a big difference between the former belief and the challenging affirmation that was used. One more, "I feel personally threatened when criticized." That belief can be challenged with the affirmation, " Someone may not have liked what I said or did, but that has nothing to do with my value as a person." We can challenge mistaken beliefs and negative thinking by turning a negative into a positive to begin to supplant old worn-out beliefs with new positive beliefs. This may take some practice, but in time, we can work toward feeling better about ourselves and our place in the world.
 
Challenging Old Belief Systems, cont.

Listed below are five questions to remember for challenging mistaken beliefs:


  1. What/where is the evidence for this belief to be true?
  2. Does this belief always hold true for me?
  3. Does the belief look at the whole picture? Does it take into account both positive and negative aspects of how it guides my life?
  4. Does the belief promote my well-being and/or peace of mind?
  5. Did I chose this belief on my own or did it develop out of my experience growing up in my family?                                       


The above questions can be applied to our belief systems in helping to determine if they support our growth or are detrimental to current and future success in our lives. In summation, beliefs can guide us in both positive and negative directions. We mostly focused on how mistaken beliefs, old worn-out beliefs, and erroneous beliefs can negatively impact our well-being throughout our lives. I hope this two-part newsletter provided a better understanding into how powerful belief systems affect our view of the world around us.  

 









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