Changing Behavior - Belief Systems Therapy

Life is made up of experiences and the conclusions we draw from them. Emotions attached to repeated and similar experiences forms beliefs. If the meaning we give these experiences is grounded in what is not true, then our behavior is driven by feelings based on these false beliefs instead of what is true about ourselves.  We form conclusions based on these experiences.  These false conclusions form beliefs we hold about ourselves which create negative emotions that impact our choices.

It is commonly thought that experiences determine how we feel or behave (Ridgeway, 2005).  Belief Systems Therapy (BST) theorizes that behavior is motivated by how we feel which flows from what we believe about ourselves.  In order to change our behavior we must discover what motivates that behavior.  Our actions are motived by our emotions (the power source) that flow from what we believe about ourselves.  These beliefs are the root of our behavior.

In the picture we see an apple tree which the apples represent our behavior.  Looking at the apple tree, we see that the apples are attached to branches which represent our thoughts and emotions.  Thus, our behavior is attached to what we think or feel at any given moment.  Buried are the roots of the tree.  If the roots of this tree are bad then the tree will be sick and eventually die.  The roots represent our core beliefs about ourselves and how we fit in the world.  It is our world view.  If a person wants to change their behavior, they must identify their feelings and discover what beliefs these feelings are attached too.  Change the root belief and everything including behavior changes.

Belief Systems Therapy Major Concept

The major concepts of the Belief Systems Therapy are a combination of several like therapeutic modalities.  The concepts of these therapies have been researched and proven to be effective therapies.

Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT)

  • Underlying beliefs and philosophies are the foundation for behavior.
  • Beliefs about yourself creates behavior that maintains, prevents, and allows recovery from emotional disturbance.
  • Biological and social factors along with cognitive factors are involved in the experiencing and acting process.
  • Psychological disturbances are influenced by biological tendencies, environmental and social conditions, created and sustained by a philosophy of dogmatic, rigid commands or demands and irrational conclusions” (Bendersky Sacks, 2004).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy's (CBT) central premise is that “behavior is maintained by its consequences” (Nichols, 2010, p. 245) and that thoughts or cognitions influence our thinking and feeling.

Intergenerational Family Therapy (Bowen)

  • Bowen’s Intergenerational Family Therapy believed that “human relationships are driven by two counterbalancing life forces:  individuality and togetherness” (Nichols, 2010, p. 113).  Self-differentiation (emotional separateness) allows individuals to be secure in themselves while relating to others without others defining us.

Integration of Ideas

  • REBT evolved from CBT with the distinction of the need to change attitude in order to promote and maintain behavioral modification (Nichols, 2010).
  • Bowen stressed that self-differentiation led to balance between separateness and togetherness.  He believed that the nuclear family was a significant contributor to behavior.
  • We begin with the concept that cognitions trigger and maintain behavior.  Changing thoughts requires changing beliefs about myself.
  • Beliefs and philosophies create, maintain, prevent, and assist recovery from emotional disturbance (Nichols, 2010.) .
  • Emotional fusion (enmeshment or entanglement) with others prevents us from identifying what we are feeling and discovering what we believe about ourselves.
  • Self-differentiation (emotional separateness) helps us find the balance between being separate from others while experiencing togetherness.
Basic Principles

BST suggests that through observing behavior we can identify what we are feeling.  Knowing what we feel and why, leads us to discovering what we believe about ourselves and whether that is based on something true or false.  Our beliefs about ourselves are formed based on experiences and perceptions from our lives and the conclusions we make about those experiences.  Thus, our past is relevant at the point of shaping what we believe about ourselves in the present.

  • Behaviors are motivated by what we feel.
  • Feelings are based on what we believe about ourselves.
  • Beliefs about ourselves are formed based on our experiences in life.
  • Change what you believe about yourself and you will change how you feel which will change what you do.

A Systemic Model Approach

Systemic theory addresses problems from a group or systems perspective.  The approach is less analytical and more practical in its interventions and conceptualizes therapy by looking at everyone in the system seeking to uncover problems with the system that contributes to the presenting problem (Becvar & Becvar, 1999).  From a systems perspective, the family therapist focuses on helping marriages, families and other social systems relate to one another in mutually satisfying ways (Becvar & Becvar, 1999).

The BST approach considers how individuals within the system experience one another and how their beliefs shape their feelings and behaviors.  What I believe about myself will impact how I relate to others in my system.  If those beliefs are based on false assumptions then my feelings will be fueled by defensiveness and emotional dysregulation.  This will motivate my behavior in my interactions.  Individuals in the system must be able to discover what they believe about themselves in order to introduce change within the system.

When they are able to identify how they feel, then they can be responsible for their own feelings instead of enmeshing with others.  From a systemic perspective, each individual must identify how they feel in relationship to each other and move towards the kind of differentiation that allows for a balance of separateness and togetherness.

How Problems Form & Change Occurs

Problems occur when people form false beliefs as a result of negative and traumatic experiences that are reinforced throughout their life.  From these beliefs, feelings flow that motivate behavior that is either adaptive or maladaptive.

Change occurs after recognizing negative behaviors that result from feelings that originate in what we believe about our self.  Identifying our feelings and discovering what we believe in that situation, helps us discover if what we believe is true or not.

Behavior can be observed and feelings identified that motivate our behavior.  Beliefs are unseen and discovered by knowing what and why we experience a certain feeling.  Change occurs after discovering what you believe about yourself, which changes how you feel, and impacts what you do.

An Illustration

A mother observing her five year old boy playing outside is worried that he will trip and fall.  She sticks her head out the window and yells "stop running."  Because he is five, he continues running but trips and falls blooding his nose.  He comes inside expecting comfort from his mother, but out of frustration she smacks him across the face yelling, “I told you to stop running!”  The five year old concludes from this experience that there must be something wrong with him since mothers love their children.  The false belief is formed.

Several years later when in grade school, he drops a book making a loud noise resulting in the teacher "yelling” at him and triggering the feeling he had with his mother.  He concludes, again, that there must be something wrong with him or he would not have dropped the book. The original false belief is reinforced.

At age ten while playing little league baseball a pop fly is hit and he drops it.  The coach on the sideline in frustration yells, “you idiot.” His false belief is triggered again.  In his senior year of high school and two days before prom, his girlfriend calls and breaks up with him.  The false belief that there is something wrong with him is triggered once again.

From this point forward the boy’s belief that there is something wrong with him has been reinforced throughout his lifetime.  Now as a 35 year old man in an argument with his wife, he reacts from this false belief.  He comes to therapy and asks for help because he believes there is something wrong with him.

The truth is that the mother had the problem not the boy.  And yet over his lifetime this false belief has been tied too and reinforced by painful experiences from which he draws the same conclusion – there must be something wrong with me. As an adult he finally recognizes this false belief and discovers that he can experience different emotions through choosing to believe the truth that there is nothing wrong with him.  This changes his behavior and how he responds to his wife.


Belief Check In

Using a worksheet called the Belief Check In, individuals learn to identify their feelings in a particular situation and what they are believing about themselves.  Once they have identified what is true, they have a choice to make.  Do I choose behavior based on what I feel, or do I make a decision based on what I know to be true?

  • Step 1 Event - Describe what happened.
  • Step 2 Feeling - What am I feeling?
  • Step 3 Triggers - Why am I feeling these emotions?
  • Step 4 Beliefs - What do I believe about myself?
  • Step 5 Truth - What is true about what I believe about myself?
  • Step 6 Needs - What am I needing surrounding this event and feelings?
  • Step 7 Action - How can I get these needs met legitimately?


  • Clients learn how to identify and communicate what they are feeling and what they need from the other partner.
  • Clients learn how to actively listen to the other and how to validate the feelings shared.
  • Clients learn to recognize when they are becoming emotionally dysregulated by asking themselves questions.  (Ex:  Why am I feeling defensive?)
  • Clients learn how to regain balance between what they are thinking and feeling.

Differentiation of Self

  • Self-differentiation is the ability to think and reflect without responding automatically to internal or external emotional pressures (Nichols, 2010).
  • Clients learn to distinguishing the difference of their own (Intrapsychic) thoughts from feelings (Gehart & Tuttle, 2003).  In other words, what is different between what I think about myself and what I feel about myself?
  • Clients learn to distinguishing the difference their (interpersonal) thoughts and feelings from others (Gehart & Tuttle, 2003).  In other words, what is different about my thoughts and feelings from others?

The Belief System Therapy model originates from my own recovery from depression and addiction.  Having been on a road towards a more stable and satisfying life, I have discovered what is true about myself versus the false conclusions I drew as a result of traumatic events in my past.  I have been empowered to make decisions from a place of strength and confidence free from the need for others approval.


Bendersky Sacks, S. (2004). Rational emotive behavior therapy. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 42(5), 22-31. Retrieved from
Gehart, D. R., & Tuttle, A. R. (2003). Theory-based treatment planning for marriage and family therapists: integrating theory and practice. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole/Thomson.
Nichols, M. P. (2010). Family therapy concepts and methods (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Ridgeway, I. R. (2007). Rational-emotive behaviour therapy. Paper presented at the Lenten Studies, Melbourne, Australia.