Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


You Are What You Believe

Understanding Early Programming

The greatest revolution in our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.

William James

Recent research has shown that you are what you believe. This way of looking at how we evolve as individuals is quite compelling theoretically. As a young psychiatrist, I was classically trained in traditional methods of psychotherapy. The often asked “emblematic” therapeutic question to the patient was, “How do you feel about that?” It didn’t occur to me until many years into the process that feelings and emotions were actually different things, related but very different. Emotions are states of being, while feelings are your individual, very personal expressions of these emotions. Still it didn’t occur to me to ask why feelings ran the gamut, from neutral to highly charged, from one person to the next.

What was it that determined someone’s personal feelings? It took a question posed to me years later to identify what seemed to be missing. “Do patients talk about what they believe?” I realized that in most instances, they don’t. In fact, most people are not sure what they really believe beyond that which they have been taught, that is, what they are programmed to believe.

What you perceive is what you believe. Your personal perception of reality is determined by the beliefs you hold. This does not necessarily make them real, except for the fact that you believe they are. Your beliefs create and dictate what your attitudes are. Your attitudes create and dictate how you respond—in other words, they dictate your feelings. And your feelings largely determine how you behave.

Research has demonstrated that most emotional conditioning and habitual behaviors were set in place, in fact were programmed, very early in life by parents, peers, teachers, and the like. Basic core beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes held by these significant others are often simply accepted as “fact” and become the “truth.” Children do not develop the capacity for critical conscious scrutiny until much later in life. Once “hard-wired” within our subconscious mind, these beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes become firmly entrenched and the individual largely operates from the programs installed in early life. As adults, these old programs are still running our lives, even though they make no sense, limit our expectations, and may even be detrimental to our well-being.

In a child’s brain the subconscious programs develop progressively—one skill building upon the necessary previous one. Astonishingly, a window of opportunity exists for each developmental program to be established. The window of opportunity for emotions is established very early in life—roughly from birth to two years of age. The way we express our emotions—our feelings—may be very satisfactory to us, or may reflect negative programming from way back when.

Trying to “talk” the subconscious into changing its mind may have some benefit, but often, traditional therapies leave something to be desired. We may gain some success through behaviorally bypassing these old programs and adapting new behaviors, but without accessing old programs, we never get to our core beliefs. Many of you who have been in therapy would probably say that your experience helped you gain insights, acquire tools, and develop skills to help you cope better. But many would also have to say that being in therapy, as well as reading self-help/self-improvement books, and attending seminars, while often interesting and inspirational, did not provide the long-term benefits that can only come from real change. And that means changing your core beliefs. Without that, it’s simply on to the next therapy and on to the next self-help book.

Returning to the Source

From your birth, you started on a journey. As a new being, you were pure, not yet aware of what was all around you. But eventually, your culture and the socialization process enveloped you in its language, customs, and beliefs. Over time, layer upon layer of these social and cultural artifacts surrounded your core self. And eventually your individual consciousness assumed the identity, the persona, of who you became.

The archaeological “dig” allows for removal of layer upon layer of debris to discover significant artifacts that define a culture/society. The same concept applies to you as an individual. For a moment, let’s go on a “dig” to find the core “artifacts” of your own persona. Once you’ve discovered buried pieces of yourself, you can then reincorporate these pieces back into your life.

Imagine yourself as you are today, at seventy or twenty, or anywhere in between. Describe yourself as you are now. Are you satisfied with who you are, or do you feel as if something is missing? If you feel that something is missing, start digging.

What are the “artifacts,” the identifying characteristics and traits that most clearly describe you through your life? Are these essentially the same throughout your life, or are certain “artifacts” more prominent during a certain period(s) of your life?

Are there pieces of yourself that you neglected to pay attention to and/or didn’t nurture?

Are there parts of yourself that you discarded along the way?

Were there life events that got in the way, preventing you from accomplishing what you wanted to do, or from adequately expressing a specific side of yourself?

What specific activities, opportunities, or challenges were you not given a chance to do?

What essential things do you feel you lacked developmentally?

What do you feel you most needed but didn’t get?

What special skills or gifts were not acknowledged or encouraged?

It’s never too late to “discover” lost pieces of yourself. The more you learn about yourself, the more capable you are of changing your perspectives and, by doing so, broadening your own horizons.

More from Abigail Brenner M.D.
More from Psychology Today