Meet April. She is a young woman who is content at her job but struggles in relationships. She feels quite down and disconnected from others at times. She has good friends that she has fun with, but she doesn’t feel comfortable opening up to them when she is having a hard time. She finds romantic relationships to be very challenging, and notices that she can get quite anxious when she starts to feel vulnerable with someone. Sometimes she wonders whether she is better off alone, but at other times she feels lonely and wishes she could feel closer to people. She has been to therapy on and off over the years to work on improving her relationships.

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).  

Through using thought records, April realises that one of her core beliefs is that others cannot be trusted. April has had several life experiences that she realises may have fed into this core belief (e.g., having witnessed her parents’ separation and her father’s feeling of betrayal, and having felt judged by her peers growing up when she spoke to them about feeling down). April has developed the belief that others will reject her if she is too open or vulnerable, and has got into the habit of being selective with the personal information that she shares. She keeps people at arms’ length, especially in romantic relationships.

 

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?”

In April’s case, this involves asking herself questions like: “When are the times people have been there for me?” “Is it possible that some people might be understanding if I allow myself to share some more vulnerable parts of myself?” She could talk to other people about their experiences in relationships, and how much of themselves they allow themselves to share.

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.

For example, in April’s case, she does not allow herself to express her more personal feelings to other people. This means that she never gets to experience what happens when she does. She continues to feel distanced from others and have the impression that they are not dependable. Behavioural experiments for April would involve gradually testing out some of her fears. She could choose someone with whom she feels comfortable, and test out what happens when she allows herself to divulge something personal. This can allow her to compare what happens in real life compared to her fears.

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!

Happy experimenting!


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 blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

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.