What are belief systems – and why do they affect us so much?

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

What are belief systems - Tikvah Lake Recovery

A belief system is a series of concepts and principles that help people interpret and navigate the world around them. They are the stories we say to ourselves in an attempt to define our personal reality.

Your own personal belief system plays a huge defining part in your life and who you are. It will tell you how you feel about your life, others, and the community, society, nation, and world you live in.

Without most people knowing it, their belief system tells them what kind of person they aim to be and what sort of world they want around them. Someone’s belief system is the basis for their mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing – and subsequently most often their physical health too.

The term “belief system” can sometimes be confusing though. This is because psychologists, anthropologists, politicians, and religious leaders can use it in different ways.

There is always a degree of interconnection though. In mental health and emotional wellbeing terms, belief systems that are looked at most often are those that are formed during our childhoods that we inherit from our families.

How does a belief system develop?

How does a belief system develop - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Belief systems form from family, ideology, religion, community, nation, experience, media, philosophy, politics – or frequently a composition of these. Everyone has some form of belief system, but some people have a stronger one that has a greater impact on them, their behaviors, and those around them – and this can be for better or worse. 

For most people though, childhood is key to their belief system. This is even though they most likely will remain unaware of it throughout their lifetime.

During our entire childhood but perhaps especially the first seven or eight years, we are really being shaped. As the Greek philosopher, Aristotle put it so aptly: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”

So with our families, it can be thought of as being handed the “family blueprint”. It’s as if – through what we are told and what we see as we grow up – we are given a list of rules.

These include what is right and wrong; how one should respond in certain different situations; how to have relationships with others; and what the family’s place is in the world. Extremely important in mental health terms, we are also taught what to believe about this world in general.

That is, this is a loving, positive, and abundant world that can be trusted. Or a place not to be trusted that is hostile and full of negatives and lack.

What is the “family blueprint”?

This is the blueprint of how to live a life that we’re handed by our parents or key caregivers.

If we think of our brain as the hard drive, then the software is put on in the first seven or eight years.

Whatever our parents say we will believe. The power of their example is life-changing.

It’s what we are taught, what we see, what we believe – and so it really shapes our personality. We get a belief system of what we believe about ourselves and what we believe about the world.

That will act itself out because how we are on the inside is revealed on the outside. It can be extremely limiting.

People think they are making their own choices – but this family blueprint, the belief system, will tell us what to do, who we can marry, how much money we can have, and how far we can go in life. For the majority of people, it will tell them this for the rest of their life.

This belief system might well contain trauma and that means a lot of negative emotion and self-limiting beliefs. It is passed down from generation to generation.

Even if someone becomes aware of all of this, it’s not easy to change as there is often a moral obligation that goes with these emotions. That’s because we’ve been taught what is right or wrong, according to that family blueprint, throughout childhood as our brain is still growing and we are being formed.

To believe or not to believe

These beliefs about the world can be influenced to a degree by the economic wealth of a family. But there is certainly more to it than that.

It is more of a deep-seated feeling and way of thinking. Any thought pattern we regularly practice will become a belief – and beliefs we continue over time develop into our belief systems. 

Any negative self-limiting belief that’s part of our belief system is damaging to our emotional wellbeing and mental health. We may, for instance, believe that we are never good enough. 

This is most likely compounded by how our parents and/or key caregivers are towards us. Our belief systems impact not only how we think and what we believe about ourselves but also how we are in our lives – and what we believe about the world we are in.

Bestselling self-help author and motivational speaker Dr. Wayne Dyer was talking about this when he said:  “Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.”

In a similar way what we believe about ourselves internally will greatly affect and shape our lives. If we believe we do not deserve a happy meaningful life, then we are unlikely to get a happy and meaningful life.

What is an example of a belief system?

Two young people of the same sex, age, and work experience are in a job where they are both asked by their boss to work a few evenings to meet extra demands. Although the young people are very similar and the request is made at the same time, the inner response is vastly different due to their belief systems.

The first one thinks: this is great, it must be because I’ve been working so well. My boss trusts me and perhaps this is something on the way to getting the promotion and pay rise that I believe I am due.

This person does the extra work well and with enthusiasm. It is noted by the boss.

The other young person immediately believes: this is because they think I’m not very good, that I’m already above where I should be.

They think the boss is asking them to do this extra work as a form of punishment because they no longer want to employ them. They do the extra work poorly and without enthusiasm. It is noted by the boss.

In the meantime, the boss has been thinking that in the months ahead they might have to let go of some staff. On the other hand, they also need someone who shows initiative and enthusiasm to step into a new role, one that will pay well.

A few months later the first young person gets a promotion and pay rise. But the other one is told there’s no more work for them there.

With this sense of rejection, this young person falls into anxiety and depression and starts to drink too much alcohol. This is an example of how our belief systems shape us and our entire lives.

A therapist with expertise in these matters can help someone change their belief system if it is not serving them well. It involves examining all of the beliefs that are contributing to that person’s problems.

It means looking at themselves and life in a different manner. It means living in a new way that’s both positive and beneficial – and that gives meaning and happiness.

Our experienced professional team has treated people with all emotional issues and types of mental health problems. Call us today to speak about how we can help you or someone you know.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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