Beliefs, whose are yours anyway?

What we believe is often influenced by many sources. These influences start from the day we are born, perhaps even while in the womb.  As we grow biologically we also evolve as human beings, molded and shaped by the forces in our life.  These forces are sometimes obvious, like school or family. Other times less obvious, such as a random conversation with fellow passenger on the train, movie, a book or holiday to another country. Each moment in our life we are shaped by what we engage in or not.

In context though there is a combination of both what we as unique individuals bring into the mix and what the mix does to affect that which we bring in.

Photo © Jenn Shallvey

Is it me or you?

Somewhere inside of you there is this part that is uniquely you.  You just know this.  You never have nor ever will meet anyone just like you. That is a fact. Despite the fact that with a few exceptions you and I share exactly the same number of genes, the same basic elements, we are actually completely different from each other.

Yet, on another level we start to cross paths. We start to merge, mix, integrate and share. Soon there are common ways we experience life with people.  It might be something simple like you and I both like a good cup of espresso or prefer shiraz over merlot.  Then on another level it might be more complicated like a belief or value that is core to the way we operate in our daily lives.

I'll have a side of beliefs with that

What is interesting about whether we like or don’t like espresso or wine is that this difference usually does not cause strife. In fact it may just be an observation at dinner or in a restaurant while we delve further into our belief based conversation.  The matter of fact way we go about ordering a beverage would certainly not do for us in our way we choose beliefs.

Yet for many of us our beliefs are as unconscious and matter of fact as our choice of beverage. We just assume and act according to how we are programmed, unconsciously going along in life.    As we started out this life unprogrammed, unique human beings it is interesting to see what beliefs we acquire, adapt to, discard, change, fight for, not care for.  On our life journey a lot of what makes meaning in it is how we come to believe what we believe.

Seeing is believing

Socially we gravitate to groups and shared experiences with ‘like minded’ people. The perception we create in such groupings is that what we think everyone else must think too.  Our understanding of belief formation goes underground. Our consciousness about our view in the bigger picture loses context.  We are living in the bubble, the world we create.  We let in what we want, the filter being our beliefs.

Based on my experience and the observation of others, I believe (for now) that the more conscious and aware we are of our beliefs the stronger and more empowered we can be as people in the world.  I also see that those willing to open up to the process of exploring and challenging their beliefs are able to adapt to change better, handle uncertainty and get along with others. 

Sounds crazy but the clearer we are about who we are the easier it is to actually accept others for who they are without fear or threat.  The starting point of acceptance then opens us up to whole relationships and more authentic interactions.  The less self aware you are in life the more likely you become an unconscious follower of others. The more self aware you are of beliefs the more you can consciously direct your actions, make choices and express you in this world.

A suggested approach

If I were sitting with you over a period of time I would take you down a path of exploration.  There would be many more questions than the following three. Yet this approach essentially is about asking questions to yourself, reflecting and increasing awareness. 

I am also assuming that you actually believe something and that you can go within and reflect enough to consider your own perspective rather than rely only on what others to tell you.

So let’s start with the basic challenge.

1.  Know what you believe

Do you know what you believe?

Can you consciously articulate in words what you believe and don’t 

This apparently simple request is in fact extremely difficult for most people.  To simply ask your self, you will likely produce an egoic response without much emotion.  In fact you might even filter your words and share only what you think sounds right.  It takes a bit more commitment and depth to discover what it is you actually believe.  For me this means being undistracted, taking some time out by yourself or 
with someone who can hold the space.  Then you keep asking the question and let the answers flow.  Letting them flow is like shaking a basket of wheat to get the chaff off. Eventually what comes up will 
be the truth of what you believe, the real kernels.

The state you are in helps too.  Being relaxed, connected and aware of your breath and focused helps.

2.  Assess how strong you believe what you believe

Once you are able to articulate your beliefs, or at least the ones you are aware of in life, I would then take you down another path. 

With these beliefs you say you have how wedded to them are you?

In other words which ones are non negotiable, worth fighting for, placed on a pedestal above all else?

Here our journey takes us closer to emotional experiences.  You might encounter fear, anger, joyful passion.  The whole gamut of emotions is possibly on display.  To see what comes up with your key beliefs is an indicator of what matters and to what you attribute meaning.  It is useful to know rather than wait for your buttons to be pushed and evoke the unexpected reaction.

3.  Ask why you believe what you believe

Then once you can identify how strong, moderate and weak your current beliefs are I would go further. 

I would ask where do you think you got this belief? 

Who or what in your life were the major influences of these beliefs?

In other words why do you at this point in time believe what you believe?

Now here it gets tricky.  In a psychological sense you could distract yourself on your journey and go off into stories about your life. Unlike the previous questions where emotions play here is where you challenge the fundamentals. Here is where you take the risk to open up and accept alternative views.  You may realize that a belief you held for years no longer has any merit, foundation or relevance in today's society.  Without challenging on an objective level you may keep going with it.

Likewise this stage is similar to proving your hypothesis. You have a belief. You feel really strong about it. Here is your justification, your reasoning, your own sense of self behind the belief.

Growth in changing times is worth it

This last question is the most challenging of all. Why? Because most of us don’t want to rock our own boats. We don’t want to risk being the creator of instability in our life.  In times of change and what seems to be an increasingly unstable, unpredictable world,  it is easier to hold onto what we know.  Yet in order for our world to work together and figure out how to handle change and get along we must be willing to continually open our minds and seek to understand the alternatives.  Rather than staunchly defending our own status quo or sticking to the status quo of the main it is important to stop, check in and go where we truly mean to go.

So now what? If you follow the above line of questions you will know what you believe, which beliefs are solid, which are on shaky ground and why you believe what you believe. To have an awareness of this state gives you enormous room to grow and evolve. You have the ability to open up to possibilty, experiment.  You also have the ability to stand for what you believe in and set an example for others.

To share or not to share

Beliefs in the context above are so far personal. I have yet to mention collective beliefs. However it is important for me to mention that once you get past this point you will find a series of beliefs that you share with others. Even more importantly once you know which ones you stand for then you may find others willing to stand for them with you.  In fact it is the exploration of your connection with others that helps further shape your beliefs.  We join groups on the assumption we have a similar belief only to find later that we actually don’t. Or we join groups that validate our beliefs and empower us further to engage in the world and keep these beliefs alive.

Yet what if what you believe is actually not in the best interests of all. How do you know?  What if your beliefs, no matter how strong you feel about them, no matter how much you are prepared to stand up for them, actually hurt others.  What if the belief you have is not in the interest of your fellow human beings or even yourself.  Do you still believe what you believe?

Consider history and world affairs today as an example. There are many situations where a strong belief and conviction lead people in a cruel and inhumane direction. Not saying you will go that way.  On a lesser scale though our beliefs require vetting in order for us to ensure that they are ultimately beliefs that support rather than hurt ourselves or our fellow human beings.  

Beliefs with use by dates

This belief conflict actually happens to everyone.  At various times in each person’s life we discard beliefs. We learn that what we thought might be right actually is not right, at least in terms of our evolving worldview. For example, as a child you are born into a soup of beliefs and ideas that weren’t yours to start with.  To begin you are not the one who has these beliefs, your family does. In the beginning you do what you do and believe what you believe because your family does. Then as you get older you are exposed to other kids, other beliefs.  In your learning and exploration of life you will see that your home base still sets the parameters.  There is a lot riding on the beliefs of your family being the same as yours.  For one thing you live together. It makes life easier doesn’t it.

Then inevitably as you begin to own and connect with your identify as a individual in this world you realize you don’t share everything your family believes. Different generations, different values some say.  You go from being one who is similar to others to realizing you are one that is unique. Awareness, insight and explosions of ideas abound.  Who are you really?  The more you expose yourself to other ideas and ways of being the more you challenge your beliefs.  Just because you are open does not mean you change. What it does mean is that you constantly choose what you believe - whether on a conscious or more likely subconscious level.

A journey to who we really are

In our journey of beliefs we end up traveling in many directions. Each direction is simply another experience to explore and discover who we are and in terms of expressing who we are finding out what we believe.

Beliefs are not yours to start with but you choose to make them yours. Since what you believe is in fact ultimately up to you then I say choose consciously, choose wisely and choose well.  Then once you choose remain forever vigilant that what you believe still is what you believe yet be open to new beliefs.

Once you start to practice belief awareness you will be ready to explore the part of you that determines what you believe. Yes there is another deeper aspect of you that helps you make the choices you make.

For now consider the following as you go about your day.

To believe in something, anything is your choice, within your power.


To start though it helps to know what you believe and why. Do you?



Jenn Shallvey