Acquired vs. Learned Beliefs

I couldn’t have been much older than 8 or 9 years old, maybe even younger. It was one of those extended family reunions. We were all sitting around the table at my aunt’s house. I don’t even remember the occasion but clearly recall having quite a few of my cousins around or near me.

The question posed by my aunt to us, children, was, how will you react when your mother dies? I remember thinking about the question, truly wondering how I would react. Many thoughts crossed my mind while the aunt asked my cousins one by one.

‘Oh, I will weep and weep.’ the first one said.

Yes, me too. I will be so sad!’

I will feel terrible and lonely,‘ was the third response.

And then it was my turn. ‘I don’t know what I’ll do,’ I began. ‘I think I’ll wait to see what my mom does when her mother dies and that’s what I’ll do when her time comes.’

My answer shocked everyone. ‘How can you say that?‘ ‘That means you don’t truly love your mother!’ ‘What a cold answer! How can a daughter say something like that?’

I remember feeling terrible. It was as if I had committed a terrible sin. But I had said the truth, my truth. I couldn’t imagine such a situation and didn’t know how I should react. So I thought I’d do what I had always done until then when not knowing something; I would learn from my mother.

Everyone got really upset by my answer. The aunt who had interrogated us was outraged.

Then my father, who usually never got involved in that kind of conversation, calmly said: ‘I’m sorry but I don’t understand what this whole fuss is about. Jessica just said something very logical. When there’s something she doesn’t know, she looks at her mother to learn from her. Her answer only proves that she has her mother as her role model.’

Not even my father’s words could convince the others. To them, I was just an insensitive child who didn’t truly love her mother!

Today I obviously understand my own answer better. What it truly meant was that I had had no chance to learn and develop any beliefs about that issue yet. For whatever reason, I had not acquired any beliefs that could guide me and was waiting to learn new ones from experience. As human beings, we all see the world and interpret it based on the experiences and lessons we’ve had until that moment. Our interpretations can then be confirmed (or not) by more experiences or lessons. If they are confirmed enough times, they will in time turn into beliefs. If our interpretations are not confirmed, they will not crystallize into beliefs. They won’t have enough support. Once a belief is established, its mechanism becomes more and more subconscious until it fully integrates into our system.

Later, as we grow up, we learn how to choose some of our own beliefs. We do it a bit more consciously and from many other sources, thus turning the process into something more controlled. We reason more and start questioning our own interpretations. But as children, most of us lack the capacity to question our interpretations and even our sources. We just accept the lessons because the source they come from is solid enough for us.

There is one exception to this pattern. Both, as children and as adults, beliefs can also be created whenever a strong-enough emotion is felt. So, if we are profoundly affected by something, that feeling can lead to the immediate creation of new beliefs or to changing some previously established ones. In the example given above, had I ever experienced an important loss before that conversation, I might have already had some beliefs about death. As it hadn’t happened and there had been no repeated interpretations either, I had no previous beliefs to rely on.

This is the human process we all use to create and confirm our beliefs. As children, our first beliefs are created through repetition, by repeatedly confirming the interpretations we receive from a most trusted source: our elders. If the source is not that strong, like in cases of abuse, adoption, neglect or others, the child might not develop solid beliefs and feel insecure or traumatised. When beliefs are established in childhood and firmly anchored in our subconscious, they become less obvious, more firm and harder to identify and change. As a result, some of those acquired beliefs shape our lives without us being aware of their great impact.

Beliefs are, then, a bit like languages. Our native language is acquired. We learn it in childhood, investing many, many hours of our life to acquire it. We don’t study it. We don’t learn it as such. We don’t make the conscious effort to comprehend and apprehend it. It grows in us subconsciously. Second or third languages we usually learn. We study them. We consciously make the effort to understand their rules and how they work. We invest time and work hard to master them. In time, those other languages can be assimilated by us and become comfortable communication tools. Furthermore, beliefs are also like languages in another respect. Unless constantly used, languages are forgotten as fast as they were originally learned. If you acquire the language as you grow up, it will take you many, many hours of total immersion to master it and the same amount of time to forget. If you study a language later in life, you will invest a lot in classes and courses but never as many hours as you’d invest as a native speaker and you will forget it at the same pace you learned it. Yes, beliefs are a bit like that. We acquire the first ones in childhood and learn some more as we grow and the ones we confirm for the longest time are the ones harder to change. Thus, acquired beliefs tend to be more integrated and subconscious than others we learn as adults. Beliefs and languages are never-ending tasks.

One could therefore conclude that changing acquired beliefs is much harder than changing learned ones. Indeed, it usually is so. Although there could be some exceptions when emotions are involved, changing acquired beliefs usually needs much more work than changing learned ones. A good, systematic process helps with both, though.

Next time you question your own beliefs, don’t give up and remember that some of them might be a bit harder to change just because they took longer to learn.

Enjoy life, ALL of it,

Jessica J. Lockhart – humanology –

Jessica J. Lockhart is a humanologist, author of 4 books and renowned international speaker. Follow her here: