Belief, Instinct, Social Norms, And The Mess Of Personal Psychology

Go with your gut. Trust your instincts. Both wonderful lessons. Often, though, I believe we confuse belief or cultural understanding with instinct. Don’t believe me?

Name five differences between men and women off the top of your head. Feel free to write them down.
Now…how many of them involve learned behavior? 😉 I bet you won’t be able to figure it out, and that’s okay. None of us know everything. Most of us know, in fact, very little.

What I do know, from a good deal of study and personal experience, is that so often what we call instinct is actually—to use a term I generally dislike—social programming. And no, it doesn’t matter what society you come from or choose to embrace, you have social programming so deeply ingrained we act as though it is instinct and never stop to think if it truly is.

So what’s the difference?

Instinct is basically an innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals in response to certain stimuli. At least if you Google the definition.

Instinctive belief is a pattern of behavior, usually reactionary, built around a subconscious belief.

As an example, for many years, I believed if people didn’t talk to me, they hated me or I had done something wrong. I didn’t see these beliefs initially, but they shaped my behavior. I spent my life trying to be all things to all people, just so no one would hate me and I wouldn’t do anything wrong.

I ran by what I perceived to be instinct.

Except it was hijacked instinct, the need to survive bent to a specific set of reactions by long exposure to less than ideal circumstances. Fortunately, I have a mind, and the ability to keep from acting on such beliefs, or to change them entirely.

The trick is to find them.

I’ve found two routes. One typically involves a therapist and cognitive behavioral therapy.

The other, and far less expensive, is the study of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. I’ve written about this philosophy in the past, and I’ll write more as the mood strikes me. Suffice it to say, this was the founding philosophy of cognitive behavioral therapy in most of its forms.focus for both is not to study so much the specific causes of behavior in the psychoanalytic sense, but to find those thoughts that aren’t useful to us and replace them with thoughts that are useful. Let’s go back to my example a moment.

My core belief driving the other two: If people don’t talk to me, they think I’m bad.

Not a fun way to live, and I anxiety inducing to a mad degree. So, once I discovered that belief, I replaced it. The mind dislikes empty spaces, so a void must be filled. Better to be filled by a conscious choice than random chance.

Replacement belief: If a person doesn’t talk to me, their reason matters not to me.

Yes, that one was a good deal tougher to ingrain in myself. The old belief still raises its head now and then. Such is the way with rewiring the mind. It takes time, patience, and effort. Essentially a good deal of will.

No, I’m not saying willpower fixes everything. However, it can help change a core belief. The key is to find the belief first. So this week, beliefs, instincts, and social norms are the focus of my blog. If you’re looking forward to it, raise your hand! Or, you know, comment because I can’t actually see you raising your hand. 😀

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