by Ros Kitson
Right from when we are very small, our belief system is forming. It’s a way for us to keep safe in the world and a way for us to learn how to fit in.
It is, however, highly selective. Our belief system is a kind of memory, but it doesn’t hold everything that ever happened – only those things it believes will be useful to us. If we’ve burnt ourselves, we will learn that fire or extreme heat is dangerous to us. We may or may not remember the exact details of the first time we were ever burnt, but we will remember the pain. If we had joyous birthday parties as a kid, we may learn that birthdays are fun, even if we can’t recount the details of every party we had. If our birthdays were largely ignored, we might dislike them as adults. Our belief systems tend to hold the emotional memories of a situation.
Some of our belief system is formed by our experiences or life; some is formed by what we learn from those around us. Our parents will usually be the greatest influence here, but we will also learn from school and our society in general. This will be where we learn how to behave in order to fit in – manners, etiquette, our social code. It’s where we learn the rules we have to follow at school. Usually, failure to follow these leads to a telling off or some kind of social ostracism, which presses our emotional buttons. Hence we remember and learn.
Some things are less obvious. By living with people, we tend to pick up their beliefs about many other things. When we’re young, we look to the adults around us to teach us how life is. Many things are learnt this way, including what is “normal” in a family environment, how relationships “should be”, our attitudes to money.
Money is a particularly interesting area. If your parents believed that work was hard and tedious and barely brought in enough money to put food on the table, you might struggle to bring in enough money, despite getting qualifications and a desire to become more affluent. This is the kind of belief system which is probably not serving you well. On the other hand, children who are born into affluence can grow up with a belief that money is easy to come by. This may help them attract the opportunities to bring in financial abundance, but could also bring them an over-inflated sense of entitlement.
I had a belief that working meant sitting at a desk in an office. Both of my parents had desk based jobs and I had a desk in my room so I could do my homework. I struggled when I first became self-employed and needed to spend meaningful time out networking and publicising myself as I felt I should be sitting at my desk “working”.
Often, our beliefs are things we take for granted so deeply that we rarely even question them. Our brains are designed to do that, so we can react to dangerous situations without having to stop and think. If you are in a burning building, you don’t want to be analysing whether the fire is hot enough or near enough to burn you; you want the fear of being burnt to get you out of the building as fast as possible.
So, we carry on with our lives, running the same script in our brains and responding to it the same way. And we wonder why we can’t make changes in our lives.
The answer is to find them and challenge them, but this is not as easy as it sounds. Our beliefs are designed to keep us safe, so we don’t normally even look at them. It’s the same as not challenging the belief that the sky is blue and the grass is green.
A way to identify where beliefs aren’t serving you is to spot where you say or think the word “should”. We tend to use this word when we feel we are supposed to do something but we’re not really wanting to. Now, this is not an excuse to avoid any job you dislike, but it is a guide to where you might delve a little deeper.
For example, maybe you grew up in a house that was always immaculate and you are constantly “should-ing” yourself about housework when you’d really like to chill out after a long day at work. You may be subconsciously comparing your standards to those of your parents, but there may well be differences you are not seeing. Did your mother stay at home to keep house whereas you are working at a full time job? Did you grow up in an environment where it was one person’s responsibility to work and the other to do the housework, whereas you would prefer an environment where the work chores are shared? Did your parents have higher “tidiness standards” that you have? I’m not advocating living in a pigsty, but not everyone needs to live in a show home either.
This is just one example of an inherited belief system. You may also be “should-ing” yourself around areas such as type of job you do, the way you bring up your children, the type of lifestyle you aspire to, the way you run your life day to day. The list is endless. Now remember that, if you live with a partner, you are probably trying to balance your belief systems with those of your partner and neither may be what either of you really wants. And then when we start to assume what the other person wants or believes, the minefield gets even harder to navigate.
It is not to say that everything we’ve inherited by way of our beliefs is wrong for us. As a teenager, I rebelled against a lot of my parents’ beliefs, only to come back to some of them later in life. It’s just important to check in with them from time to time.
Tags: beliefs, emotional challenges, emotional health, self awareness