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.