Have you ever wondered what fuels your motivations and drives your attitude and behavior? You’d like to think it’s all a conscious decision and the result of in-depth rationalization on your part. There’s truth to that, but there are many other levers inside of you that act subconsciously.
Among those, two fundamental concepts live at the root of everything. If you understand what these are, you can not only understand yourself and what is holding you back in life but even scratch the surface of understanding the world and its behavior, at least since the rise of consciousness.
So, what drives our attitude and behavior at the most basic level?
It’s our beliefs and values.
These two concepts drive the way we think, behave, and our attitude toward ourselves and the world around us. Understanding those beliefs and values and realizing that they are not fixed and can be altered is a critical prerequisite to your personal growth and self-improvement.
“Peace of mind produces right values; right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions.” - Mark Richardson
Beliefs are the things we hold as true, regardless of whether we have any proof of their objective truth. We either inherit or develop our beliefs throughout our lives. As we grow up, we learn and take on the views of those around us, especially those whom we look up to.
Parents, teachers, mentors, colleagues - they all pass their beliefs on to us, and we have the leeway to accept them or not. In time, we can decide to turn them into our own beliefs or reject them. We also develop beliefs resulting from personal experiences and the feelings that we associate with them in those moments.
More so, we develop beliefs through our repeated actions. If you are consistently late, you start to believe that you are terrible at time management when, in fact, a better alarm clock and sleep habits could change that label. In time, beliefs shape our identity, and we become them to some extent.
Some examples of beliefs that you might recognize are:
- God has created the world;
- If a black cat crosses in front of you, something horrific will happen;
- Life is a simulation.
As you may notice, some of these beliefs have been proven by science, while others have not.
Scientific research has constantly changed people’s opinions over time by providing proof to the contrary. Think about ideas such as the Earth being flat and the Sun revolving around the Earth. At some point, people believed that. Later on, science proved that they were not true, and (most) people stopped believing them.
In other cases, science eventually withheld the belief and provided proof that made it a universal truth.
Regardless of the level of scientific or empirical proof, most people have difficulty justifying their beliefs, and frankly, most of us don’t even like to. We all would be a lot happier if everyone else around us had the same beliefs as we do, or at least that they would not challenge our views.
Of course, that is impossible, and it’s one of the reasons our world seems to be in constant turmoil - the clash of beliefs.
To understand this further, let’s look at the three types of beliefs we all have.
1. Beliefs About Ourselves
“Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.” - Gandhi
- I am smart
- I am stupid
- I am unlucky
- I am beautiful
- I am strong
- I can’t
- I can
The beliefs about ourselves are the ones that drive or stifle our motivation.
They could be limiting beliefs (“I can’t,” “I’m not good at,” “I just don’t have X”), or they could be empowering (“I can,” “I do,” “I am willing”). Beliefs about ourselves seed and fester inside us from childhood, and they are intimately related to the environment in which we grew up.
Individuals who benefited from a close, supportive family who regularly encouraged them will probably grow with a sense of self-confidence, although that is not a rule. The way that different people absorb these environment-driven beliefs, or reject them, depends, in part, too, on their personality and outlook on life.
People who have a naturally questioning mind and curiosity about the world will not accept the beliefs of those around them blindly. Similarly, people with a strong sense of self will not simply take and accept what others have to say about them.
Instead, they will develop their own self-image by analyzing their strengths and weaknesses and exposing themselves to richer experiences.
What we believe to be true about us translates into our self-image. These are the stories we tell ourselves, and, over time, we become those stories.
The beliefs ingrain deeply into our character, and we begin to filter everything through their prism. Our mannerism and body language, our capacity to love or disposition to hate are all driven one way or another by those beliefs.
“I’m a procrastinator.”
“I’m just a bad speller.”
You see, in time, beliefs become labels.
We plaster them on our foreheads and use them to justify our action or inaction. They serve as a mental pacifier to allow us to keep the status quo without shame.
Instead of learning how to spell, it’s much easier to label yourself as a lousy speller. Instead of learning how to manage your time, saying you are a procrastinator gives you a convenient carte blanche to be late constantly.
Interestingly enough, an objectively true circumstance might turn into a positive or negative belief depending on the person. For instance, you might be the shortest kid in your class - that would be a fact - but you can think of that as an advantage or a disadvantage. That belief will then drive how you behave as you interpret it as a damning or empowering predicament.
2. Beliefs About Others
“In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true either is true or becomes true.” - John Lilly
Our beliefs about others are usually indoctrinated into our heads by our mentors and parents, at least initially. Think, “that group of people over there is evil, unlike us - we’re all saints.”
In addition, we create new ones through our own experiences.
For example, if a police officer mistreated you one time, you might develop a belief that all police are unfair. More extreme experiences can even create phobias.
These beliefs drive our attitude and behavior toward others, and you don’t have to look far to see it. Think about politics and religion, where the polarization of ideas generates some of the strongest and long-lasting opinions about the “other” side.
More often than not, those ideas morph into actions, often intolerant or even aggressive.
Of course, the assumptions about others are also a result and a projection of our beliefs about ourselves. If you think of yourself as unlucky because you haven’t had success in your career, you might conclude that anyone else who is successful is, in fact, lucky.
Replace “lucky” with any other adjective, and you can see how a belief that you have creates a gap of unfairness between you and the rest of the world.
Action, then, is only a few steps behind.
3. Beliefs About Life And The World
“Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.” - William James
Things like “life sucks,” “everything is terrible,” or, just the opposite, “the world is full of possibilities” are all beliefs we develop about the outside world.
We formulate such beliefs about our closest world (like our home or street) up to humanity as a whole. Although we are not proud to share it, we secretly slice and dice the world into little boxes, and we have beliefs about each one of them.
Of course, our opinion about a group of people is relative to our situation and context. People with a high socio-economic status might think that people with low socio-economic backgrounds do not work hard enough. The latter group might think that the former had everything handed to them on a platter.
Although these thoughts can be objectively true, they are mostly not when we generalize. We develop these biases toward the world because of an innate need to justify our place in it.
The beliefs about others and the world generate our stereotypes and lead to xenophobia, racism, sexism, or the literal opposite of all of those. Our beliefs about ourselves drive our self-image. Together, they set the boundaries of what and with whom we feel comfortable speaking, interacting, helping, or sharing our thoughts.
The gap between our beliefs about others and those about ourselves creates our attitude and, eventually, shapes our assumptions about the world in general.
Think: I am always unlucky, while everyone else around me is always lucky. I am a decent person; however, I am surrounded by people with hidden agendas.
You can see how those thoughts combined might shape different types of attitudes in our minds. These thoughts could lead to cynicism and misanthropy or kindness and charity.
It all depends on the direction in which those beliefs take you. And here comes the kicker: you can decide the path you take. Your beliefs do not control you, so long as you become self-aware and take the helm of your life.
“Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.” - Dalai Lama
If beliefs are things that we believe to be true, values represent the compass in life that tells us what is right and what is wrong.
Our values often map to our beliefs, but not always. Values set our standard for what we would and would not do or what we deem as important.
However, note that values do not always push us to action; they merely tell us the right and wrong things to do. We might know the right thing but still do the bad thing.
Some very root-level values are easy to understand by their name - honesty, health, and curiosity. Although different people might define them differently, those definitions will be somewhat close.
Other values are more difficult to define objectively because they mean vastly different things to different people. For instance, think about the value of success.
The entire system of values is like a living organism, and the importance you place on each of them affects you and others around you.
For instance, a person who values honesty higher than success will not do a dishonest act to ensure success. But what if things were reversed? At which point would the value of success push you to override honesty? Look into politics and business, and you’ll find an answer.
Similarly, if you hold the value of fitness higher than the value of health, you will do things for your fitness that might damage your health. For that, see professional athletes who sacrifice their long-term health for short-term accolades.
You can see the set of values at play in the political candidates’ platforms in any country’s political system. An individual who values equality and human rights will have a vastly different platform than a person who embraces a social hierarchy based exclusively on financial meritocracy.
Note that values don’t always have to be positive. In fact, many of them are clearly negative, but you need self-awareness to realize whether you live by them. Think of anger, blame, and dishonesty, just to name a few.
Realize that even Hitler and Stalin had values, but their value system’s application resulted in the killing of millions of people.
Your Values and Beliefs Can Change
“Define your priorities, know your values, and believe in your purpose. Only then can you effectively share yourself with others.” - Les Brown
Here is the great news about beliefs and values: they are not inscribed into your DNA.
They are learned and have developed and grown in you since your birth. They bubbled to where they are today because of your environment, experiences, events, and decisions in your life.
Today, with high self-awareness, you can decide to change those beliefs and values and replace them with a new system that empowers and supports your goals and vision for life and for who you want to be.
By digging deep into your character and understanding these concepts, you can determine why you act a certain way.
But the best part is, you can go the other way as well. If you don’t like how you act in a specific context, you can identify the root beliefs and values and shift them to allow for different actions.
That means that you must first decide what you want to do, which implies creating a vision for yourself or setting up goals to achieve in the future. Then, break those goals into their constituent parts and identify if your current set of values and beliefs is supportive of them.
If they aren’t, you cannot achieve that vision. That’s because your decisions and attitudes will not drive the proper behavior that would lead to those goals’ accomplishments.
Only when your beliefs and values align with your goals can you be successful. As I emphasized above, beliefs and values are learned; they are not hard-coded into our bodies in any way. We learn to love or hate others just like we learn to love or hate ourselves.
All are driven by your life experiences and by merely being human. You’ve listened to those thoughts for so long, and you’ve lived by them, perhaps unconsciously, that some have morphed into habits and rituals.
When you take a more thoughtful approach to decide what your beliefs and values should be, based on your life vision, things change - your attitude shifts, and with it, your behavior, and, ultimately, your outcome.
That’s powerful stuff because it’s an actual lever we have at our disposal for changing our lives. The problem is, both beliefs and values have strong momentum and seem glued to our character.
We almost feel as if they make us who we are, interwoven into the fabric of our being. But once you realize that this is simply not accurate, you can begin the process of changing them.
But be aware! Shifting those massive internal frameworks is a long and painful process. But it’s not impossible. You have to accept the truth about your ability to change and embrace the pain of going through the process.
To begin, ask yourself:
- What do I believe about myself?
- How has that prevented me from taking action in the past?
- What do I want to become, and what do I want to accomplish in the future?
- To get there, how do I have to change my beliefs?
- What is important to me?
- Have I created a vision for myself? What are my goals?
- What must be important to me so that I can get there?
By doing this exercise, you can begin to change your beliefs and values and shift them to a new system that supports your goals and vision.
I wish you the best of luck on this journey. It’s a heavy road, riddled with hurdles, but at the end awaits a better version of you.
Go and find that YOU, or, even better, go and create that YOU.
This article was originally published on iulianionescu.com.
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