Your belief system has a huge impact on your everyday life – from the way you react to people and situations to the way you make the smallest decision. If your behaviour is controlled by a fundamental belief you have about yourself, you will find it almost impossible to change the behaviour without first changing the belief. For example, Sara believed that she was destined to be a ‘big girl’. Her mother had often said during Sara’s childhood and adolescence ‘Sara will always be a big girl’, and Sara had incorporated this into the belief system she had about herself. Many of her behaviours were unconsciously designed to help her prove that this belief was true. For instance, she found it almost impossible to stick to a diet or exercise plan for longer than a few weeks. Things seemed to go all right until Sara began losing weight, and then, quite quickly, she would slip back into her old eating habits.

This article explores some of the ideas developed by Eric Berne, the originator of Transactional Analysis (usually known as TA), to help you trace the origins of your current belief system. TA is a theory for understanding human relationships and offers a practical approach to changing the way we think, feel and behave. Although this course concentrates mainly on the present and the future, in this module we are going to spend a little bit of time thinking about your past. This is because your past experiences helped to make you the person you are today.

There are several exercises below that ask you to remember your early childhood. Don’t worry if you can’t remember that far back. If you are interested in doing the exercises, you can use whatever knowledge you have about what things were like and make up what you think is most likely to have happened. If you are in contact with your parents, siblings or other important people who were around at that time, you can ask them for their memories too.

Defining Your Belief System

Eric Berne believed that we begin writing our own life story at birth. The main framework of the plot is established by the time we are four and most of the main details of the story completed by around seven. Berne was particularly concerned with the self-limiting decisions we make during childhood in the interests of our own survival. Such decisions culminate in an unconscious life plan or set of beliefs that govern the way we live our life. We call this our belief system. As adults we operate within the limits of our belief system. It provides a comfort zone in which we feel safe and secure, but it can also become a prison, limiting our options and the possibilities we think are open to us.

The degree to which our early history shapes our personality is open to question. It seems that our personality is the result of the combined effect of inherited traits and the environment in which we grow up. However, it is clear that much of the way we behave is the result of messages we took on board as children, and that often it is the way we behave that creates our problems. These may range from relationship difficulties to poor health or a lack of direction. Berne’s ideas about how these problems originate give us a workable way of identifying likely motives for the way we behave. This can be a crucial first step towards making important changes.

Like all stories, the formation of your belief system has a beginning, middle and end; heroes, heroines, villains and bit-part players; a main theme and subplots. You may not be able to remember the beginnings of your story, but here are a few ways to trace some of the early decisions that became part of it.

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Imagine that you have written the story that is your life. Write down the answers to the following questions, working quickly and accepting the first answers that come into your mind.

  • What is the title of your story?
  • What kind of story is it? Tragedy or comedy? Heroic or banal? Adventurous or boring?
  • Who are the main characters? Is there a hero/heroine? A villain?
  • How is the story likely to end?
  • Keep your answers, because you may want to refer to them later.
  • a means of survival

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To understand how your belief system was formed you need to think back for a moment to the tiny child you once were. If that seems too long ago, think back to a time when your children or grandchildren were babies.

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Lie down on the floor. Imagine what it would be like if you were dependent on another person in order to move around (just as a small baby is). How do you feel? What kind of control do you have over where you are and what you can see?

Now stand up and walk around the room. Have your feelings changed?

Is there a difference in the kind of control you have over what you can see and where you are?
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The world is a very confusing place for young babies. Think what it must be like, surrounded by giants who speak a language you can hardly understand. You are unable to make sense of what is happening because you cannot ask the right questions and have no experience to draw on. An unexpected noise, for instance, could signal danger. If you feel cold, you don’t know how to warm up. If you are hungry, you have no idea where your next meal is coming from – or whether it is coming at all.

As babies and young children, we cannot think in adult ways. We sense the world through our emotions – feelings of rage, helplessness, happiness, fear. You have only to watch a baby to realise how intensely these feelings are experienced. As we struggle to create predictability by making sense of what is happening, we make early decisions about the nature of the world. The way to make a hostile environment feel safer is to make it predictable – that way we can prepare for and protect ourselves from danger.

This extract from Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee gives us some sense of just how confusing an everyday event can be to a small child.

I was set down from the carrier’s cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began.

The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept. I had never been so close to grass before. It towered above me and all around me, each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight. It was knife-edged, dark, and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt through the air like monkeys.

I was lost and didn’t know where to move. A tropic heat oozed up from the ground, rank with sharp odours of roots and nettles. Snow-clouds of elder-blossom banked in the sky, showering upon me the fumes and flakes of their sweet and giddy suffocation. High overhead ran frenzied larks, screaming, as though the sky were tearing apart.

For the first time in my life I was out of sight of humans. For the first time in my life I was alone in a world whose behaviour I could neither predict nor fathom… I put back my head and howled, and the sun hit me smartly on the face like a bully.

Note that the young Laurie feels utterly abandoned – he speaks of ‘terror’. As far as he is concerned, his world is coming to an end. Fortunately for Laurie he is quickly rescued by his sisters. However, the ending might have been quite different if Laurie’s plight had not been noticed, perhaps because everyone was so busy settling into the new house. Laurie might then have responded in one of a variety of ways. He might feel sad that the predictable, comfortable life experienced up to now has gone and wonder, ‘Has it gone forever? Can I rely on anything lasting?’ Alternatively he may feel fear and worry, ‘What is going to happen? Will I ever survive?’ Another response could be rage that his parents have let this happen: ‘Aren’t they supposed to keep life safe?’ Laurie might even have experienced guilt: ‘Has this happened to me because I am bad?’

As children, we try to create some predictability, and draw general conclusions from single events. Decisions resulting from getting lost in the grass might therefore run along the lines of ‘You can’t depend on people’; ‘There’s something wrong with me’; ‘I’m not worth looking for.’ Other, more positive experiences might cause the child to revise these decisions and adopt new ones, but if her experience generally confirms these decisions they will become part of the child’s belief system.

The next exercise will help you identify some of the early decisions you made about yourself and your life.

[box type=”bio”]You can use a tape recorder for this exercise, or record your answers in your journal. Give your responses to the questions fairly quickly. Trust your first response even if you are not sure what it may mean.

  • What is your earliest memory?
  • Is there a family story about your birth?
  • What is the story about how you were named?
  • Describe your mother.
  • Describe your father.
  • Describe yourself.
  • What did your mother want you to be?
  • What did your father want you to be?
  • What do you like most about yourself?
  • Describe the good feeling that you most often have in your life.
  • What could you do to make your mother angry?
  • How did she express her anger? How did you respond?
  • What could you do to make your father angry?
  • How did he express his anger? How did you respond?
  • What do you like least about yourself?
  • Describe the negative feeling that you most often have in your life.
  • What would be ‘heaven on earth’ for you?
  • What do you wish your mother had done differently?
  • What do you wish your father had done differently?
  • If by magic you could change anything about yourself by just wishing, what would you wish for?
  • What do you want most out of life?
  • Do you think of yourself as a winner or a loser?

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This questionnaire will give you some important clues as to the nature of your belief system. You may be able to see clear connections between your present ways of thinking, feeling and behaving and the early decisions you made.