"Our core beliefs are at the very center of who we are, what we believe about ourselves, what we think of others and how we feel about life as a whole." - Alethera Luna
Aaron Beck, who is widely considered the Father of Cognitive and Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, believed that identifying, understanding and, eventually, learning to challenge our core beliefs is a key to good mental health. But what are these "Core Beliefs"? Where do they come from? Most importantly, what can we do about them? These are all questions I hope to answer with this entry.
Core Beliefs Explained:
We start out in this world as infants with very little knowledge about ourselves and how the world works. In infancy, the only real concerns we have are feeling safe, secure, and nurtured. As we develop, our little brains are like sponges, taking in information from our surroundings and processing it accordingly. We make inferences about ourselves, the people around us, and our society at large. There are many factors that determine how these schemas take shape. Our culture, family life, socio-economic status, religion, social influences such as school, day-care, church, friends and extended relatives, etc. These all help to shape this idea of the self and the social environment.
Infancy and Attachment:
For infants, the absence of a secure and nurturing attachment (see attachment theory) often results in the development of emotional and behavioral issues such as poor social skills, limited coping ability, compromised problem solving skills, aggressive behavior, temper tantrums, and becoming emotionally and/or socially withdrawn. These become automated behaviors that lead to further emotional distancing, or even abuse/neglect, from the parents which then develops into negative core beliefs for the child such as "I am unlovable, I am worthless, my life is hopeless,", among many others. These beliefs would then obviously have a negative impact of the mental health of the child and this becomes cyclical in nature.
Repetition and Rehearsal:
As this cycle replicates, the core belief(s) is/are being continually rehearsed, reinforced, and automated. If I’m a child who is beginning to see myself as unlovable, for instance, and then I throw a baseball through a window by accident and my father screams and says, “what is wrong with you?” I obviously would feel even more unlovable. The more unlovable I feel, the more likely I am to act out, especially since children aren’t very skilled at discussing how they feel and why. The more likely I am to act out, the more negative messages I receive as a result, and so on and so on.
The process of automation can best be simplified by comparing to something many of us do every day; our drive to work. I personally have driven the same route to work for 17 years and after all those repetitions of doing the same behavior, I can now drive it without having to put too much thought into it. The brain seeks to automate as much as possible in our lives because it takes a great deal more mental effort and energy to maintain our focus all the time on any one particular thing. As it pertains to our thinking, Beck referred to this as automatic negative thoughts. These thoughts play a constant chatter in our head and are always playing in the background, often without our conscious awareness; much like the drive to work. Information we receive from the outside gets processed against this running store of information and then interpretations about how we should proceed are made and behavioral choices result.
One of your negative core beliefs, or automated thoughts, is that you are incompetent. Your boss approaches you and asks if you would like to take the management position that opened up at your place of work and you decline simply based on the belief that you wouldn’t be able to do it. Why? Because the background information subconsciously told you that you’re incompetent. The main issue with these core beliefs is that this chain reaction often happens below the surface of conscious awareness and, because the negative thoughts have been repeated so frequently, they are now your truth.
What All Can This Effect?
This process plays out, literally, hundreds of times per day and, in most cases, without our awareness. These thoughts will impact just about every decision we make in life. If I believe I am unlovable, then the corresponding behavior may be to latch on to anyone who might actually show me love without setting healthy boundaries and the relationship becoming toxic. I may also simply avoid relationships altogether. If my belief is that I am incompetent, I may not pursue that degree, job position, volunteer opportunity, that would make my life more fulfilling. I may also interpret someone’s constructive criticism negatively because I am fiercely protecting against anyone being aware that I am incompetent. If I believe I am less than others, I may allow bullies to control me through their hurtful words because I don’t feel good enough about myself to simply not care. If my core belief is that I am worthless, I may overcompensate by being a workaholic and never allowing myself any down time which is harmful as well. As you read this, try to become aware of some of the negative core beliefs that you may be carrying with you.
So….What Can Be Done About Them?
Bringing Awareness to the Negative Thoughts:
This is the first major step that must be completed before anything can be done about them. How can we hope to overcome something that we don’t even allow ourselves to recognize? This first step is often the hardest because the brain tries to protect us from harmful things, including thoughts. This results in repression of negative thoughts and, at times, they get so deeply buried, it’s challenging to even get them “out in the open.” We also will naturally resist identifying these thoughts because many times they are painful and we seek to avoid such pain. Upon uncovering them, we can then begin the next few steps to find them either untrue or capable of being resolved.
Sit With Your Thoughts:
So, maybe you’ve uncovered these negative thoughts but are struggling with resisting the painful feelings they bring. It is imperative to get more familiar with these thoughts because they are often broad statements about our character and not specific. For instance, I may yell too loudly at my child over his resistance to doing his homework. I recognize that my emotion after is guilt and sadness. The thought triggering these feelings might be “I am a bad Father.” This is a generic statement made about a specific event. If I simply leave my thought process as “I am a bad Father” the feeling doesn’t change either and then I look to find a way to suppress that thought. This might be distraction on my phone, investing in a project, or drinking it away. The thought is painful, but you can see how hiding from it is counterproductive. Instead, “sit with” the thought to understand what it is really trying to tell me. The specifics are that I yelled at my kid and I feel bad about hurting him. By looking at the specific behavior, I’ve allowed myself a plan of action to correct this. I will use softer tones and approach, I will be more mindful of my emotions going into these often-challenging situations, and I will try to create a reward system for him to feel something positive from doing the work. The general statement gives no possible answer and breeds hopelessness, whereas, the specific thought allowed for improvement but to get there I had to get through the awful thought of being a bad Father first. Meditation is a great way of spending time in these thoughts and doing so with a mindset of non-judgment will make this process much easier.
Challenging Through Thought:
Many times, I find that when I can get clients to engage the negative belief by examining evidence to refute the thought, they derive much benefit. For instance, if I believe I am incompetent, I may compose a list of actual accomplishments I have made in my life. These do not have to be major accomplishments to be meaningful. Reflecting on things like maintaining my home, completing a project, growing a plant, etc. are all accomplishments that defy being incompetent. Of course, big accomplishments help as well such as getting or maintaining a job, starting a family, getting a degree, etc. All of these can be helpful reminders that refute the negative belief. In the “bad Father” example, one might recognize very quickly that, if they were a bad Father, they wouldn’t be critiquing their parenting at all.
Challenging Through Behavior:
What actions we take as a result of uncovering these thoughts can often be much harder. If I feel like I should be a better spouse and I’ve identified that, part of this, is owning my role in the issues in a relationship, I may struggle some with that. The simple answer to this is to apologize and to make an effort to be more mindful of needed behavior change as well. Just because it’s simple, doesn’t make it easy. We may get hung up on focusing on what the partner did wrong, we may be too fragile to admit mistakes, we may feel that we cannot change so why bother trying, amongst other psychological barriers.
If I believe I am a bad student I can recognize that the “D” I got on that paper was only a set back and I can study harder. If I feel like I’m not in good enough shape I can learn to appreciate self-love while starting an exercise routine. If I feel uncared for and understand it’s because I am alone, I can make efforts to reach out to friends, attend social events, and even go on dating sites. This behavioral activation is often difficult because of internal resistance that tells us “I’ll still fail” or “I won’t reach my goals” or “no one would want to hear from me anyway.” It takes stepping out of these fears to be able to challenge them.
When we evaluate thoughts as “bad”, the brain’s instinctive drive to protect us from hurt tries to take over and stuff away these thoughts. In the short-term, this may seem like it is helping but, in the long term, we are limiting our ability to truly uncover them as well as do something about them. By exploring our thoughts purely, without judgment, we begin to open ourselves up to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our perceived shortcomings. We invite curiosity, as opposed to simply being harsh to ourselves. This will open up a lot of paths to change vs. stuffing it down and never really dealing with these beliefs.
Just like our negative core beliefs become automated with repetition, so do more positive, factual beliefs. If you make a habit out of routinely exploring these negative beliefs, you’ll soon find that many of them are not grounded in fact or are “umbrella” terms. These are generalizations we make about ourselves in response to a singular event. By learning to look for the facts, not the biased, negative opinion of our inner dialogue routinely, this practice becomes habit. This then lends itself to rehearsal of behavioral changes, which again, can become automated. We live in the “fast-food” culture.; in an age where we have instant access to movies, TV shows, social media, and other forms of entertainment. This has led us to feel that we should just feel better instantly. Unfortunately, good mental health is not so simple and does require a mindful effort every day to improve.
Practice Radical Acceptance:
Acceptance is the opposite of resistance. By accepting things as they are and not labeling things as they “should” be, we open up possibilities for growth and self-discovery. When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross promoted her theory on stages of grief, she broke them down into 5 separate stages: Denial (resistance), Bargaining (resistance), Anger (resistance), depression (beginning of acceptance), and acceptance. The beginning almost always starts with a denial and ends with acceptance. This same model can hold true for almost all of the unpleasant events, and thoughts, that we have throughout our life spans. The sooner we reach acceptance the sooner we can begin recovering. This model also holds true with addictions as the first step in recovery is admitting/accepting that there is a problem. This applies to thoughts by allowing ourselves to accept the factual statements we make about ourselves and the world around us and to discover areas we are unsatisfied and make meaningful change.
Acceptance does NOT mean “liking” and it also does NOT mean “giving up.” It is a self-compassionate means of recognizing things are not the way you want them and you are simply accepting what is, in the moment…again, without judgment. Using the above examples.
In conclusion, it is obvious that this is just a sampling of what is done in therapy to uncover and challenge core beliefs. My hope is that it will at least make people more aware that the negative messages we carry about ourselves are very often not grounded in fact and only serve to limit us. I also hope that it may inspire some to seek help through a professional if they feel that they have their own self-sabotaging negative core beliefs.
Feedback is welcome in the comments section below.