Feeling Is Believing

Your emotional past biases your present beliefs.

Posted Oct 31, 2012

Your beliefs will guide you whether or not they are in your best interest. Maybe you believe that you are incapable of having a healthy intimate relationship, or that you aren’t attractive to others, or think you will not live a long life. Or perhaps you have a strong conviction that you are very lucky, or that people in general are basically good and trustworthy. Whatever the belief may be, you hold it as a truth and perceive that those who disagree with you are thinking irrationally since, when it comes to beliefs, there is often no common evidence upon which agreement can be reached.  Nevertheless, your beliefs, whether they are within your conscious awareness or not, direct and influence your life.

It’s only in recent decades that we’ve recognized and validated that emotions are a powerful attention directing system—an amplification device—in our brain. They are responsible for creating the visceral responses regarded as feelings, that in turn are transformed into thoughts and the formation of beliefs to help us make sense of what we experience at the moment and to use for future reference. Even the most simple beliefs have emotional memory at their core, such as a certain food, person, or place that may no longer appeal to you following an experience that resulted in you having a disgust response.

Logic may inform you that life experiences dictate the conclusions we draw and form the cognitive constructions that lead us to believe what we do. However, it is not simply that past experiences determine how we view and approach the present based on beliefs we’ve created and hold. Instead, our present beliefs are governed by past experiences that are linked to unconscious emotional memories. In his book, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self, Donald Nathanson (1992) writes, “Whatever resides in our memory is stored with its accompanying emotion; thus each of us has a highly personal ‘information bank’ of emotion-related data. This storehouse provides the coloration of an event—that which is personal for each of us” (p. 48).  Thus, as far as our beliefs are concerned, emotional memories provide an unconscious lens through which we view our world. In addition, our unconscious affects are subject to various influences as they become the emotions we consciously experience. J. Samuel Bois reminds us that, “Apart from inherited variability, affects are made different in their manifestations and in their expected satisfactions by the culture in which we are brought up” (p. 260).

As noted in a previous blog, your emotional memory has accumulated a great amount of data that it uses to inform and protect you in the event that you encounter a similar situation in the future. How fortunate it is that the next time you encounter a situation—one that is similar to a previous event where an emotion was activated—your emotional memory will be able to recall what you experienced and respond accordingly.  The ability of the human brain to compare current experiences to the stored representations of previous experience is referred to as “pattern matching” (Nathanson, 1992). But, at times, emotional memories that are based on your previous experiences may lead you to develop cognitive beliefs that may be contrary to your goals or interfere with them.  For example, what you may want most is an intimate and loving relationship, but you believe that you are unlovable or flawed and so you avoid closeness with others. However, experiencing oneself as unlovable or flawed does not necessarily translate directly to emotional memories where one was made to believe so. Instead, the emotional foundation of such beliefs often has to do with experiences related to shame—perhaps a subject for a future blog. The point is that emotional memories, and their impact on our beliefs, are complex.

Since conscious and unconscious beliefs are closely connected to your affects they can play out in your present life in many maladaptive ways.  The psychoanalyst, Joseph Weiss (1997), refers to such beliefs as “pathogenic” and developed his theory of psychopathology through empirical studies of guilt and shame—emotions that are central to the formation of the self and to one’s functioning in interpersonal relationships. Where Weiss refers to pathogenic beliefs, Silvan Tomkins (cited by Kelly, 2012), a psychologist and personality theorist, considers the formation of “scripts” as the learning or knowledge structure (belief-formation) that results from the experience of emotion.  It is likely that many, if not most, theories of psychopathology and treatment have as their basis, overtly or not, an interface between emotions and beliefs.

Given that the muscle of emotion forms the foundation of a belief, it is no wonder why humans adhere to their adaptive as well as maladaptive ones.  Whether the belief has to do with food preferences, intimacy, religion, politics, or this blog, the beliefs that you “feel” can interfere with your relationships with others and your ability to learn about yourself. Testing what you believe can only be accomplished in relation to an other, preferably an other with whom you have a trusting relationship. Thus, here I must call upon the wisdom of J. Samuel Bois (1968/2003), a psychologist, semanticist, and epistemologist, who wrote in Communication As Creative Experience, "Do not evaluate critically the other person's views against your own as the standard of truth and wisdom, but take his views as a tentative standard against which you re-examine and re-evaluate your own opinions and feelings"(p. 24).


For information regarding my books about emotions: http://www.marylamia.com

This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.



Bois, J. S. (1966/1996).   The Art of Awareness.  Philosphere Publishers.

Bois, J.S. (1968/2003).  Communication As Creative Experience. Philosphere Publishers.

Kelly, V. (2012).  The Art of Intimacy and the Hidden Challenge of Shame. Tomkins Press.

Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.

Weiss, J. (1997). The role of pathogenic beliefs in psychic reality. Psychoanalytic Psychology. 14, 427-434.