Drilling down to core beliefs

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

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?

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 including being defective in some way, being unlovable or unworthy, believing that abandonment is inevitable, being powerless, and needing to self-sacrifice.  There is a longer list available from psychologist Dr. Henry Grayson.

Some of my problematic core beliefs 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 bullying.  One of the things that I struggle with is that most of the examples that would tend to disprove the core 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 is 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 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 the bullying, 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 Centre for Clinical Interventions has a core beliefs module available online if you’d like to explore this further.

You can find the rest of my What Is series here.

 

Mental Health @ Home Store: CBT Fundamentals

 

The Mental Health @ Home Store has a mini e-book on CBT Fundamentals.  It’s also available as part of the Therapy Mini-Ebook Collection.

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15 thoughts on “Drilling down to core beliefs

  1. Revenge of Eve says:

    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.

      • Revenge of Eve says:

        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. Meg says:

    Oh no! I know what you mean about thinking your previous beliefs were naive. I spent years fighting my way back from seeing everyone as dark and dangerous. I definitely don’t think the solution is to try to force yourself into being naive again, but maybe to look for exceptions and cherish them. Like, if one person is meaningful enough to be there for you in the darkness, then that one person can be a beacon of light until you see others, too, who want to shine lights in the world.

    And then it’s not naivete, but a true blessing that such people are out there on the other side of darkness. Like, I had a lot of friends when I was younger. Many of them at church. But they weren’t good friends, and I just couldn’t see it. They gossipped about me and secretly thought I was weird, and that sort of thing. I naively adored them all. But when you come through that darkness and see people as they are, you can find friends who appreciate you and won’t do that.

    You’ve got loads of friends on your blog here who would never want to hurt you!! You need a new core belief: “People who truly understand don’t want to hurt me–they want to support me! I’m blessed to know several such people on my blog!”

    Sorry! I didn’t mean to write a book! 😀

    • ashleyleia says:

      Interestingly enough a lot of my core beliefs don’t apply to people I know online. I think I conceptualize people I know online in a very different way in my head than people I know in person.

  3. Megan says:

    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.

  4. Melanie B Cee says:

    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

  5. Alex Sarll says:

    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!

    • ashleyleia says:

      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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