In this section we distinguish between three kinds of beliefs: rational, irrational, and emotional.
When a zebra foal is born its mother stands in front of it for the first three hours of its life. The foal instinctively learns the pattern of its mother’s stripes so that if mother and foal are separated in a stampede, the foal can later find its mother. It’s called ‘imprinting’.
If in a cruel experiment you were to place a billboard advertisement of say, a can of cola, in front the foal for the first three hours of its life, that foal would develop an emotional attachment to the billboard. Even though a zebra was giving it milk, that foal would have a strong emotional attachment to the billboard. It would feel that the billboard was its mother.
The foal would have an ’emotional belief’, and that belief would be disabling.
We humans also have emotional beliefs. Think of a horror film. Rationally you know that the victim being chased is an actor, and the monster, special effects. Yet you silently scream, ‘Run!’ because you emotionally believe that the person is in danger.
(A) Rational belief: ‘It’s not real. It’s actors and special effects.’
(B) Irrational belief: ‘This is real footage of people being killed by a monster.’
(C) Emotional belief: Don’t open that door! You’re in danger! Run!’
We believe both (A) and (C) simultaneously.
(You can see that emotional beliefs are different to irrational beliefs.)
If you’re a Westerner you probably believe in Santa Clause on an emotional level, which is why retailers use Santa in their advertisements. That’s fine: Santa is a good character to have around. He is generous of spirit, and loving.
(A) Rational belief: ‘Santa isn’t real.’
(B) Irrational belief: ‘Santa visits a billion kids in one night to deliver presents.’
(C) Emotional belief: ‘Santa is a warm and loving guy.’
Western kids believe (B) & (C) and their parents believe (A) & (C)
Like the zebra foal with its imprinted belief in the billboard, we can grow up with disabling imprinted beliefs. For example, some of us grow up imprinted with prejudices. Prejudices feel right and true, but lack substance.
Some of us have imprinted upon us other ugly emotional beliefs just as disabling. Some children grow up being called stupid, or ugly, and end up believing it no matter how smart or good looking they happen to be. Some people grow up believing they’re worthless, or wonderful. (That can be just as limiting. Someone believing he is wonderful might be unable to see his limitations, and be blind to his faults, and when people don’t like him he might be left feeling frustrated and bewildered.)
And some of us acquire disabling beliefs after becoming embittered about something, and dwelling on it.
Another example: Making a mistake:
(A) Rational belief: ‘Like everyone, I make mistakes that inconvenience people. Mistakes are part of the learning process.’
(B) Irrational belief: ‘I made a mistake. We are not supposed to make mistakes.’
(C) Emotional belief: ‘I keep making mistakes, so I’m stupid and worthless.’
Many of us believe (B) & (C). Some of us believe all three, despite the contradictions.
The zebra foal cannot feel comfortable having a misplaced emotional belief in a billboard. In the same way, we humans can’t feel comfortable with emotional beliefs disabling us. And, like the zebra foal, we cannot easily ditch our emotional beliefs, even if we are presented with plenty of evidence to suggest our beliefs aren’t true. We will ignore that evidence because our emotional beliefs feel so true. Beliefs are more potent than evidence.
However, when we become aware of the existence of our emotional beliefs we can make sharper decisions. Let’s say you are considering asking for a promotion (or for a date), but believe you’re not worthy. Although that belief feels right and true, you might accept that it’s an emotional belief that might be false. So, despite the voice in your head saying ‘Forget it, you’re not worthy!’ you will ask for that promotion, or for that date.
In 1997, thirty-nine people killed themselves because they believed their souls would fly up to a spaceship hiding behind a comet. Their emotional belief in their cult leader, Marshal Applewhite, was so strong they couldn’t question it. Instead, they succumbed to it. Had they been aware that their belief was an emotional one they might have made a sharper decision.
The following beliefs can be emotional beliefs. And not all of them are disabling.
▪ Beliefs about you: that you’re gorgeous or ugly, intelligent or dumb, fantastic or defective, that you’re better than some people, or aren’t as good as some people.
▪ Belief in astrology, numerology, psychic powers, and other New Age guff. Despite there being no evidence to support such views, and despite all the logical arguments that mock such views, nothing will change a believer’s mind. That’s because the irrational belief has become an emotional belief.
▪ Belief in a political party, despite what it might get up to.
▪ Beliefs on how things should be. If you believe that women should do this, or that men should do that, lawyers are this, greenies are that, one race is inferior to another, life is stressful . . . then you have an emotional belief.
▪ The words ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’ can indicate an emotional belief. This is so widespread there is a chapter on it. The Tyranny of the Should.
Q. ‘Mark, how do we acquire an emotional belief?’
1. By watching a film or reading a book. It can be that easy. Emotionally we come to believe the characters exist, and feel for them. And that’s fine. Not all emotional beliefs are disabling or long-lasting.
2. If we are traumatised and keep reliving the memory, it can become ingrained and disabling.
3. By being imprinted, by being told the same thing over and over. When we have a thought it connects in our brain neurons, along which a signal is transmitted. Have that thought often enough and we create a well-worn, comfortable pathway. Soon it becomes so easy to use that pathway it’s hard to form a new one. That’s when a thought seems real, and true.
That’s the theory, anyhow.
That’s why I believe no child should be purposely imprinted with a belief. No child should be imprinted with a religious belief or a prejudice. Each human being should have the freedom, and pleasure, of forming their own philosophies and attitudes. (That’s one of my ‘shoulds’!)
4. Sometimes we create an emotional belief, like a prejudice or a wacky idea, because it is comforting. It allows us to feel a little safer in the world, and a little better about ourselves. But if that involves judging people it can be a mistake, because when we judge people we also judge ourselves. We come under our own constant scrutiny with the ever-present possibility of failing.
Q.’ How badly can we be disabled by an emotional belief?’
How would a child feel if he were brought up to believe homosexuality is bad and unnatural, yet discovers he himself is gay? How does an overweight child feel brought up in a world in which ‘fat’ is considered bad? And how, in a world in which we prize intelligence and mock stupidity, would a child feel if she struggles in school?
Some emotional beliefs can be pretty disabling.
Q. ‘How often do emotional beliefs disable us?’
In minor ways, often. We can even have two pathways supporting contrary beliefs. That’s called cognitive dissonance. Jill believes stealing is wrong, but also believes it’s okay for her to steal. Both views have strong pathways so both views seem valid to her, though you and I might see her as a hypocrite.
‘If you believe that all salesmen are thieves or that all police are corrupt, it becomes impossible to see what is there. Instead you see a projection of your own ideals, beliefs and prejudices.’
David J. Lieberman in his book, ‘Never Be Lied To Again’.
Q. ‘You’re saying that imprinted beliefs feel comfortable to us. But how could someone be comfortable feeling stupid or ugly?’
The ‘pathways’ in our brain are so well worn they’re comfortable.
Q. ‘Are all emotional beliefs disabling?’
No. Fortunately, most of the pathways formed in our brain are helpful. They save us from having to learn the same task over and over, and we rely on them to make sense of the world. If each day we questioned everything we’d be in big trouble. It’s when irrational beliefs become emotional beliefs that we start to have problems.
‘So, we can have rational beliefs that are also emotional beliefs?’
Sure. We emotionally believe that there will be another day tomorrow, and it’s rational to believe that. Our lives are full of emotional beliefs; it’s the disabling ones we need to look out for. That’s what this section is about.