How Beliefs Are Formed and How to Change Them

All of us have our own set of beliefs that shape our lives. This set of beliefs affects what we think about ourselves, others, and the world at large. It also greatly influences our emotions and actions. Consequently, it also affects how successful and happy we are. That is why beliefs are so important and worth examining and understanding.

What Is a Belief?

A belief is something we consider to be a fact. It is anything that we assume to be true. We use our beliefs to understand and navigate this world. We also use our beliefs to keep us safe. That is why we generally try to preserve our beliefs after they are formed and guard them carefully.

Our beliefs serve to function as our subconscious autopilot. Once formed, these beliefs become ingrained in us. We take them for granted, and we also assume our beliefs to be factual, whether they actually are true or not. Our beliefs determine if we consider something or someone to be good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, desirable or undesirable, safe or dangerous, worthy or unworthy, or acceptable or unacceptable. Our beliefs also dictate what we consider to be possible or achievable.

How Beliefs Are Formed

Beliefs are generally formed in two ways: by our experiences, inferences and deductions, or by accepting what others tell us to be true. Most of our core beliefs are formed when we are children.

When we are born, we enter this world with a clean slate and without preconceived beliefs. We are impressionable and look for meaning in almost everything because we are naturally inquisitive. Our parents and environment play a big part in molding our beliefs from a very young age. Our school environment and our friends also play an important part.

Because we are unable to discern between truth and falsehood when we are really young, we often accept what we are told as truth. We are also greatly influenced by what we experience.

For example, let’s say that you do not finish your lunch because you are not hungry. Your parents might scold you for leaving food on your plate and tell you that good children finish all their food. They also might tell you that you are being ungrateful for not finishing your food because there are starving children in other parts of the world who are not as fortunate as you. If you take what your parents say to be true, you now have planted a seed of belief. You start to believe that good children should eat all the food that is served to them no matter what. You might also start to believe that not complying means that you are being ungrateful. Each time you do not finish your food and are chastised by your parents for it, the more firmly ingrained the beliefs become.

Remember when your parents told you about the existence of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? I certainly do. I assumed what my parents told me was fact and I believed in both Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. That is how beliefs are formed when we are young and impressionable.

When we get older and start to attend school and meet new friends, our beliefs start to get influenced by a whole new environment and set of people. Our teachers tell us things that we accept as fact. For example, let’s say that we do poorly in math class. Our teacher might tell us that we are not very good at math or that we are lazy. We then start believing what we are told, especially if the experience is repeated more than once. Before long, we start believing that we truly are bad at math or that we are inherently lazy.

We are also greatly influenced by our classmates in school. Let’s assume you are bullied by other kids (I experienced this). They might continually tell you that you are fat, ugly or uncool. After a while, you might start believing this to be fact and start perceiving yourself as fat, ugly and uncool. Or the kids at school may be physically abusive to you. Consequently, you may start to infer from this that you are weak because of your inability to defend yourself and start believing it to be fact.

When we accept something to be fact and form a belief, it is stored in our subconscious mind. Our subconscious mind does not know or care if the belief is true or false. It simply stores it as fact for later use. Our subconscious mind acts as our autopilot to make our life easier and to keep us safe. It serves to help automate our actions and responses to certain situations.

How Our Beliefs Affect Our Behavior, Thoughts and Emotions

Think about how you act automatically when crossing a busy street. Because you have been taught and hold the belief that the situation can be dangerous, you automatically look both ways to make sure the street is clear before you cross. It is an automatic response. Similarly, we have hundreds, even thousands of other beliefs that create automatic thoughts and responses. Many of these beliefs are true and serve us well. But there are even more that are not based on fact and only serve to hold us back in a negative way.

When we have deeply-rooted beliefs that we cling to subconsciously, our minds will constantly look for proof to validate and bolster them. How we think, act, and feel is based upon these beliefs. For example, if we believe that all dogs are dangerous (perhaps because our parents told us so when we were younger or we were bitten by the neighbour’s dog), we will do everything possible to avoid contact with dogs. We might even take special notice every time we notice a dog growl and view it as evidence of how dogs are dangerous animals, and we feel afraid. Conversely, we might even neglect to notice when a friendly dog wags its tail and approaches us in a docile manner. It is as if we are experiencing the world through filtered lenses because of our beliefs.

Beliefs can be empowering or limiting in nature. Limiting or negative beliefs prevent us from fulfilling our true potential, hold us back, and give rise to negative thoughts and emotions. Empowering or positive beliefs, on the other hand, allow us to act resiliently, believe in ourselves, and invoke positive thoughts and emotions. In a sense, our beliefs create our sense of reality. Yet, most people are not aware of their own beliefs because they have never taken the time to analyze them carefully. This explains why some people thrive and succeed despite the most difficult circumstances while others fail. It all boils down to our beliefs.

Now imagine how we will think, feel and act based on the examples of the following limiting and empowering beliefs:

Limiting belief: I need to be wealthy to be happy
Empowering belief: I can choose to be happy no matter what the circumstances

Limiting belief: My body type is such that I cannot lose weight no matter what I do
Empowering belief: I can be slim and healthy if I exercise and eat right

Limiting belief: I will never be successful unless I have a Master’s Degree
Empowering belief: My success is determined by how hard I work rather than my education level

Limiting belief: My family background limits what I can become in life
Empowering belief: I can become anything I want to with the proper training and effort

Limiting belief: I cannot start a business because I do not have the capital
Empowering belief: I can start a business by meeting the right people and getting an investor

Limiting belief: I am ugly and unappealing
Empowering belief: I am attractive and desirable

Limiting belief: I am too old to do something
Empowering belief: My age means that I have the experience and wisdom to do anything

Limiting belief: I will never find the right person for me and get married
Empowering belief: The right person for me is out there. I simply need to get out and meet people

Limiting belief: Most people are dishonest and out to cheat me
Empowering belief: The majority of people are honest and kind

Limiting belief: I am not a good public speaker and will embarrass myself if I speak on stage
Empowering belief: I can speak about any subject if I research and prepare myself

Those are just a few examples. Remember, we tend to do everything possible to validate and reinforce our beliefs. We will think, feel and act accordingly. It is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is how powerful our beliefs are.

Now you understand why it is so important to examine our beliefs, something that most people have never done. It is also very important to identify our limiting beliefs so that we can start replacing them with empowering ones. After all, why would we want to live with these limiting and constraining beliefs that hold us back, make us unhappy, and prevent us from exploiting our full potential?

How to Identify Limiting or Negative Beliefs

In order to find out what your limiting beliefs are, you have to spend some time asking yourself some questions. While this part requires some soul-searching and effort, it is worth it because it can be life changing. This exercise is most effective when you write it down with no distractions.

  1. In what areas of your life are you not getting what you want?
  2. What areas of your life have you tried to improve but did not get the results you wanted?
  3. What aspects of your life make you unhappy and discontented?
  4. In what areas of your life do you feel weak, powerless, incompetent, or held back?

Take your time and write down the answers to these questions. These very well might be some of the most difficult questions you have ever asked yourself, and that is the way it should be. Be honest with yourself and take your time. Just keep in mind that the rewards are immensely gratifying and worth it.

How to Replace Limiting Beliefs with Empowering Ones

Once you have identified your limiting beliefs, it is time to replace them with empowering ones. This is a simple task that requires repetition and effort. This is because we have spent years and years subscribing to and reinforcing our limiting beliefs so they have become ingrained. But the great news is that these beliefs can be undone and substituted with ones that will empower us.

1. Pick a limiting belief and think about how that belief has held you back and worked against you. For example, let’s say that your limiting belief is that most people are dishonest and not to be trusted. Perhaps that has led you to distrust the people you are dating and that leads to arguments and, eventually, a sour break up. You might realize that you do not believe your kids even when they are telling the truth, which leads to you constantly checking up on and annoying them. Or maybe you have no close friends because you are afraid to get close to someone for fear that they might hurt you by being dishonest.

2. Pick a limiting belief that you have and think of some evidence that proves that the belief is false. Using our previous example of distrust of others, you might think of the time that the person you were dating told you the truth about something even though you know it was difficult for him or her to do so. Or you might think about all the times your kids did the right thing despite you not being around. Or you may think about a past friendship where your friend never lied to you or let you down. Let the evidence sink in until you know in your heart and mind that your limiting belief was false. Really spend some time thinking about this until you know that your limiting belief was not based on reality.

3. The third step is to replace your limiting or negative belief with an empowering and positive one. Staying with the distrust example above again, you could tell yourself that most people are honest and have integrity. You use the evidence to bolster this belief. You let go of your old limiting belief, admit that it was false and limiting you, and you start believing in your heart and in your mind that people are generally honest by nature.

4. The fourth and final step is to remind yourself of your new beliefs every day. Remember, most people have spent close to a lifetime clinging to their limiting beliefs so it takes a little bit of time to rewire and replace them with the empowering ones. The more you consciously remind yourself of your new beliefs, think and feel them in your core, the faster you will be able to replace the old ones. I like to remind myself of my new empowering beliefs when I first wake up, numerous times during the day (set an alarm if you have to), and before I go to sleep at night. This is not superfluous because what I am doing is reminding myself of what is true and empowering. The more you practice this, the sooner your subconscious mind will start inducing corresponding empowering thoughts, feelings and actions.

Our belief systems are powerful and affect almost everything we think, feel and do. When we make the time and effort to closely examine them, we are able to single out the ones that prevent us from living the life we deserve to live. We can then replace them with ones that will empower us in ways that we never imagined. Now ask yourself, “what do I believe?”

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