Drilling Down to Core Beliefs in CBT

Drilling down to core beliefs in CBT - forms they may take, and questions to uncover them

Core beliefs are the underlying beliefs that we have about the self, others, and the world, as well as the future. They arise as a result of the experiences we’ve been through, including trauma. 

Forms that core beliefs take

They are held as absolutes, and tend to be expressed using words like “always” or “never”. They can take the form of statements such as:

  • I am…
  • Others are…
  • The world is…
  • The future is…

Uncovering core beliefs

Core beliefs can be identified by peeling apart the layers of things that we experience to identify what is underpinning them. This can be done by asking questions such as:

  • What does that mean?
  • What is bad about that?
  • If that were true/false, what would that say about me?

The downward arrow technique involves starting with with an automatic negative thought and then asking questions like the ones above to dig deeper, one layer at a time. As an example, let’s consider the scenario that a friend didn’t respond to a text message I sent.

I conclude that she must be mad at me. -> She’s not going to want to be my friend anymore. -> I’m too much for people to handle. -> No one would want to be in my life if they knew what I’m really like. -> I’m unlovable.

Looking for evidence to evaluate beliefs

One of the goals of CBT is to introduce more balanced information that challenges the absolutes of core beliefs. This includes identifying exceptions when the way things happened was either inconsistent or not wholly consistent with those core beliefs. Challenging core beliefs is important because they often give rise to the cognitive distortions and negative automatic thoughts that we may experience on a day-to-day basis.

Common themes for negative core beliefs include being defective in some way, being unlovable or unworthy, believing that abandonment is inevitable, being powerless, and needing to self-sacrifice.

My own beliefs

Some of my problematic core beliefs, at least those that have been pretty entrenched recently, are:

  • The world is… unsafe.
  • Others are… going to hurt me.
  • The future is… frightening/hopeless.
  • I am… not going to get better.
  • I am… not in control of what happens to me.

None of these beliefs were present, or at least not prominently, as I moved out of adolescence. They have all developed during adulthood, affected by things like my illness, the effects of stigma, and events that proved the world was less safe than I thought it was. One of the things that I struggle with is that most of the examples that would tend to disprove the beliefs are more remote than the instances that are consistent with the beliefs. I tend to fall into the trap of thinking that I was naïve before, and now I’m seeing what the world is really like. There’s also the problem that a fairly large body of evidence has accumulated that does support these beliefs, and there just doesn’t seem to be as large of a body of evidence to contradict them.

I suppose this was one of the reasons why it didn’t work out the last time I tried seeing a CBT therapist. At that point in time, it hadn’t been that long since the aftermath of some trauma I had experienced, and I felt quite strongly that a cognition wasn’t distorted if it was based on facts. I think these beliefs have softened to the point that I’m not convinced they’re true in all cases and I’m able to see more shades of grey, but I still have a pretty high index of suspicion.

Have you identified any core beliefs that are holding you back?


The post Psychotherapy Alphabet Soup: CBT, DBT, ACT, and More provides an overview of a variety of different therapeutic approaches.


14 thoughts on “Drilling Down to Core Beliefs in CBT”

  1. If only I could list them all 🙁 I will list those the most paralyzing. I am inherently bad, ugly, and not worthy. Everything I touch, breaks. It’s my fault..whatever fails in my presence. My afflictions are my identity. Rejection means you can make them love you. Love doesn’t exist, it is a fairytale… I believe those are the ones that have the most impact.

      1. That is exactly what I am discovering Ashley!! It’s crazy you say that because I was going to comment on how they blanket my life, in decisions I make, chance I take and everything in between.

  2. I very much have a similar core belief as you in regard to the world being unsafe, people are going to hurt me and the future is bleak.

  3. For much of my life, I never thought I had any core beliefs (they were there, I just didn’t recognize them as such) because I had no identity. I was always too busy being what this or that person seemed to expect me to be. It was only after hubby died that I began my search to find ME. Because there was nobody left to ‘be something’ for. Or so I thought. I moved and thought it would be a fresh start. I still am playing parts though, I don’t fully understand how to be an individual without expectations placed as to what I’m supposed to be.

    But your list (the negative one) has made me think of some core beliefs that I do have (apparently):
    The world is…Ugly
    Being alive is… going to ALWAYS hurt
    The future is… frightening/hopeless.
    I am… not going to get better.

    I’m going to share these with my own therapist this week and see what the discussion brings. Thanks Ashleyleia

  4. Hi.. CBT is great for this because I think we all unconsciously do this so much- like feed into though negative core beliefs with other negatives. I thought they were called faulty thoughts though, or distorted thoughts- because you’re buying into thoughts which aren’t true. I know what you mean about there seeming to be a wealth of evidence for the negative stuff but not so much for the positive- can be so hard overturning the negatives!

    1. Core beliefs are the fundamental beliefs that give rise to cognitive distortions. I find core beliefs are even harder to challenge than distorted automatic thoughts, since they’re held so deeply.

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