Therapy is an opportunity to take the time to get to know ourselves better, and to work on goals that are meaningful to us. An important part of this process can be to acknowledge the parts of us that drive our feelings and actions, that can operate beneath the surface. For April, these are the parts that she struggles with- sometimes she feels that she doesn’t quite understand herself, or know what she wants.
Let me introduce you to core beliefs. For those who are familiar with cognitive behavioural therapy, this may be a concept you have heard of (see here for a description of CBT).
So first of all, what are core beliefs?
These are the beliefs that we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us. Core beliefs are deep-seated, and act as a lens through which we see ourselves and the world. These beliefs often go unrecognised, and yet they constantly affect our lives. They are fashioned by our experiences, our upbringing, and significant figures in our lives.
How to identify our core beliefs
A helpful exercise is to practice completing thought records to better understand the automatic thoughts that influence your emotions and reactions. Over time, you can start to identify themes from your thought records. You may notice that certain situations seem to be particularly sensitive for you, or that particular thoughts may re-occur. You can ask yourself questions like “What does this thought mean about me as a person?” “What is it about this thought that bothers me so much?” “If this thought is true, what does it imply? About me? My future? Other people? The world?” You may have particular memories associated with these thoughts or experiences, and have a sense of what makes them poignant to you (think back to significant people and experiences in your life).
How to challenge core beliefs that are unhelpful: a three-step process
1) Gather evidence against your unhelpful core belief (to identify a more balanced core belief. Questions to consider are “What are the experiences that show me that this belief is not true all the time?” “When have I observed something that goes against my core belief?”
The key thing to remember here is that core beliefs are rigid, and typically provide a “one-size-fits-all” answer. The goal of asking questions and gathering evidence is to allow yourself to be more flexible in your thinking style.
2) Behavioural experiments. This is your opportunity to test your core beliefs, by allowing yourself to take risks that your core beliefs would usually prohibit. An important thing to remember is that core beliefs are self-fulfilling, and that we can often avoid putting ourselves in situations that trigger them. This reinforces our belief that they are true, and can feel like a vicious cycle.
The key thing here is: taking action is important. Allowing yourself to test out some of your fears gradually and to experience the outcome is a great learning experience, and can help you make a more realistic appraisal of your core beliefs.
3) Give yourself time!!! Remember that your core beliefs have been entrenched for a long time, and that they may even have been helpful for you at some point (even if they are not any more). Over time, you can make note of the results of your behavioural experiments, and see how much evidence you can accumulate that allows you to nuance (or even contradict!) your core beliefs. You may also find it helpful to discuss your core beliefs with people you trust, in order to have some more input into the process- and even see how their beliefs differ from yours!
Maeve O'Leary-Barrett is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.
Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind over mood: A cognitive therapy treatment manual for clients. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
Riso, L. P., du Toit, P. L., Stein, D. J., & Young, J. E. (Eds.). (2007). Cognitive schemas and core beliefs in psychological problems: A scientist-practitioner guide. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Wearden, A., Peters, I., Berry, K., Barrowclough, C., Liversidge, T. (2008). Adult attachment, parenting experiences, and core beliefs about self and others. Personality and Individual Differences, 44 (5), 1246-1257.