Beliefs and Why They are Important

Beliefs are the Lens through which we see the World

Beliefs are the Lens through which we see the WorldMy full-time job is supervising a substance use program for inmates at a local jail. The main focus of my colleagues’ and my work is to help inmates who struggle with substance use disorders learn about addiction and re-orient their lives on the life-long journey of recovery.

As the supervisor, I don’t provide the bulk of direct services. I do, however, provide a once-a-week group therapy session on trauma. There is abundant evidence showing a connection between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) or other traumatizing events and later negative health outcomes, including high rates of addiction. Working specifically with men, I use a men-centered curriculum that focuses on men and trauma. One module of the curriculum that is always a challenge looks at the ways in which our Belief Systems impact our lives.  

Here’s the challenge:  Many group members have difficulty understanding what a “Belief System” is, let alone engage in thoughtful discussion about it. The level of education and literacy in America’s jails and prisons is shockingly low. The Literacy Project Foundation reports that “3 out of 5 people in American prisons can’t read” and that “85% of juvenile offenders have problems reading.” Older data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report on the very low rates of high school completion among America’s incarcerated compared with the general population. 

Imagine you are such an inmate. Imagine you have difficulty reading, you don’t have a high school diploma, and the last time you stepped into a formal classroom was when you were 10 or 12 or 14 years old. How prepared do you think you might be to talk about “Belief Systems”? How well developed might your critical-thinking skills be in order to engage in a discussion about:

  • what you believe
  • where those beliefs came from
  • why you believe them, and
  • whether or not those beliefs should be reinforced or modified based on life experience and new information? 

Beliefs Drive Behavior

Why is this discussion critical for those whose life choices have lead to substance use and landed them in jail?  Because, whether we can identify them or not, beliefs drive behavior. The beliefs I embrace are invariably linked to the actions I undertake. 

When I ask the guys in my groups to share a belief they have, I’m usually met with silence. “What do you mean?” they ask. I share an example from my own belief system, offering that “I generally believe that most people are basically good.” At this point, a few eyes might brighten as a light of understanding turns on, with some then stating they believe in “family” or “respect” or “honesty.” When I press them for more detail, asking “can you say more about what you mean by ‘family’?” again there is silence. 

Why is it so difficult for these men to identify their beliefs? The answer, I think, lies partly in the fact that so many of them have only the most basic of critical thinking skills. Consistent with many who struggle with substance use disorders, they tend to be impulsive, reactionary, and do whatever it takes to avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings. The thoughts behind those feelings are even further removed from their awareness. 

In the curriculum I use, this section on Belief Systems is designed to take about thirty minutes or less. With my groups, I usually take two or three hours, over the course of two or three separate sessions. Helping these men – many of whom have had their childhoods robbed from them by poverty, violence, abuse, or other traumas – identify and challenge their systems of belief is critical if they are to begin to make life-changing choices that lead them away from a life of serial incarceration and become healthier, productive members of society. 

So what are some of those critical thinking skills we all need in life? Stay tuned for another post!

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