Have you ever wondered what fuels your motivations and drives your attitudes 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.
Beliefs are the things we hold true, regardless of whether we have any proof of their objective truth. Beliefs are developed and inherited. 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 might 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; man has evolved from primates. As you may notice, some of these beliefs have science behind them, while others clearly do 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.
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. As a matter of fact, 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 us on them. Of course, that is impossible, and this is precisely what fuels most of the world’s conflicts.
There are three main types of beliefs that all of us as humans have. Let’s look at each one.
Beliefs About Ourselves
Things such as I am smart; I am stupid; I am unlucky; I am beautiful; I am strong. 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…), or they could be empowering (I can, I do).
Beliefs about ourselves grow in us from childhood, and they are very much related to the environment in which we grew up. Individuals who grew up in 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, too, on their personalities. 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 on what they are told about themselves. Instead, they will develop their own self-image by analyzing their own strengths and weaknesses.
What we believe to be true about us is, in fact, our self-image. These are the stories we tell ourselves, and, over time, we become those stories. The beliefs are ingrained into our character, and we begin to filter everything through them. Our speech, body language, and showing of emotion 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. Instead of learning how to spell, it’s much easier to label yourself as a lousy speller. Instead of learning how to manage time, saying you are a procrastinator gives you a convenient carte blanche to maintain your existing behavior.
Interestingly enough, an objectively true fact 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 being damning or empowering.
Beliefs About Others
These beliefs are usually indoctrinated into our heads by our mentors and parents (such as that group of people is evil, unlike we who are all saints). In contrast, others are instilled inside us by 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.
You don’t have to look far to see the effects our beliefs about others have upon the world. Think about politics and religion, where the polarization of ideas generates powerful opinions about the “other” side. More often than not, those ideas morph into actions, oftentimes 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 easy you might morph the thing that you believe you don’t have into an opinion about those who “have” it. Action, then, is only a few steps behind.
Beliefs About Life And The World
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) all the way 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 own situation and context.
People in high socio-economic environments might think that people in 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 there is a possibility for these thoughts to be objectively true, they are mostly not. We develop these biases toward the world because of an innate need to justify our place in it.
While beliefs about others and the world generate our stereotypes and can lead to xenophobia, racism, and sexism, or the literal opposite of all of those, beliefs about ourselves drive our self-image. Together, they set the boundaries of what and with whom we feel comfortable to speak, act, help, or ask for help. The gap between our beliefs about others and ourselves creates our attitude and, eventually, shapes our belief about our world in general.
Think: I am always unlucky, but 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 direction you take. Your beliefs do not control you, so long as you become self-aware and take the helm of your life.
If beliefs are things that we believe to be true, values are the compass in life that tell us what is right and what is wrong. Our values are often derived from our beliefs, but not always. Values set our standard for what we would and would not be prepared to do. In other words, what we think is important. However, note that values do not drive our actions; they simply tell us what the right and wrong things to do are.
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.
In fact, an entire system of values is like a living organism, and the importance you place on each of them affects the others around you. For instance, a person who values honesty and success might not sacrifice honesty for success if they hold honesty higher in their hierarchy. But what if things were reversed? At which point would the value of success push you to override the value of 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 might do things toward your fitness that could damage your health. For that, see professional athletes who sacrifice their health for accolades.
In any country’s political system, you can see the set of values at play in the candidates’ platforms. An individual who values equality and human rights will have a different platform than a person who values 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. For example, Hitler and Stalin had values, but the application of their value system resulted in genocide.
If values are our personal compass, then morals are the positive compass of society. This means that if you strip away the negative values and only keep the positive ones, and a group of people ratifies them, you get moral values or the values of a society.
Unlike morals created by groups of people to maintain the sanctity of society, ethics take it one step further. Ethics are rules or norms that must be established to expressly state what a person must abide by if they want to be accepted. Codes of ethics are the best examples of these rules. Professions, companies, and countries create these ethical codes to maintain minimum standards that apply to everyone.
These are explicit rules that let us know what is good and what is bad. Moreover, ethical standards may result in punishments when they are disregarded.
If you see a sign that says, “Do not litter,” that is an ethical rule. To behave ethically, you would not throw your garbage on the ground. If you do, you might be fined.
On the other hand, if you pass by the trashcan and see a candy wrapper that somebody else has thrown on the ground, you have no ethical obligation to pick it up. However, you do have a moral obligation to do so. If your own set of values aligns with your society’s moral values, you will pick up that wrapper and throw it in the garbage.
Defining Your Belief and Value Systems
So, herein lies the persistent conflict of our society: Our beliefs and values drive our personal attitude and behavior toward the world, yet society’s moral values and the ethical rules in place limit our actions accordingly. We decide to behave according to the morals and ethics of the society in which we live. Even if our personal values clash with those of the community, we might still abide by societal rules because we are afraid of repercussions.
Although most people in the world do not murder other people, a big part of that is because if they were, police would catch them, and they might go to jail for life. Of course, there’s a subset of people who would never murder anyone no matter what, but the number of those who’d kill would definitely not be zero, hence the need for laws and a justice system.
Your values and beliefs are not fixed
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 elevated 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.
Your beliefs are ideas that you hold to be true. Many of these beliefs and your life circumstances define your values or what is important to you in life. Your values and beliefs will determine your attitude, meaning how you treat others and yourself and how you approach any situation. Lastly, all three determine your behavior or how you act.
Your Attitudes and Behaviors
Therefore, in the end, your beliefs and values directly influence your attitudes and behaviors. By digging deep into your character and understanding these concepts, you can determine why you act a certain way. And 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.Your actions, everything you do, are directly influenced by the values and beliefs that shape your attitudes. Click To Tweet
This 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 simply cannot achieve them. That’s because your decisions and attitudes will not drive the right behavior that would lead to those goals’ accomplishments. Only when your beliefs and values are aligned 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. We learn to love or hate ourselves. All are driven by our life experiences and by merely being human. You’ve lived some of these for so long, and you’ve practiced them, perhaps unconsciously, so much that some of them have formed into habits and drive your 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.
This is 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. But once you realize that this idea is simply not true, you can begin the process of changing them. Soon, you will realize that 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 is my biggest vision for life?
- 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.
Good luck on your journey. It’s a heavy road, riddled with hurdles, but at the end of the path awaits a better version of you. Go and find that you, or, even better, go and create that you.
Other Values and Beliefs Resources
- James Clear’s Core Values List
- Scott Jeffrey’s The Ultimate List of Core Values
- Personal Values: A Guide to Figuring Out Who You Are
- Personal Values and Beliefs
- Values vs. Beliefs
- Defining Your List of Values and Beliefs (with 102 examples)
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Have you ever analyzed your own values, and if so, what are your top three?
- Have you identified any limiting beliefs?
- What are some situations in which your limiting beliefs curbed your progress in life?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!
An excellent article. You write simply and powerfully. Congratulations. I hope you do not mind me making reference to some of these ideas ( acknowledging you ) in a hand book for young persons I am working on. I am from Kenya
Iulian, what an amazingly written piece! You explained this so well. Thank you very much! I’ll bookmark this to come back to.
Belief and Faith in God are important in understanding our Behaviour.
“How Our Beliefs and Values Shape Our Behavior: ”
But, before we get to the above part of living, we have to wonder about this:
The most important thing that shapes your life, your birth, before you even get here is; you cannot pick, your parents, your race/ethnicity, or your country.
Thank you! You are absolutely right. Those will powerfully influence who you become. Later in life, you gain the ability to make choices about how and where you live and who you allow in your life. But your point is great… The starting point is always a gamble and the trick is to switch to defining your own values and beliefs as quickly as possible.
I wish tonight that I weren’t so tired as I love stuff like this.