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CORE BELIEFS - A WAY TO BETTER UNDERSTAND AND EMPOWER OURSELVES

CORE BELIEFS - A WAY TO BETTER UNDERSTAND AND EMPOWER OURSELVES

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.

Those times when “being healthy”…. isn’t. How to integrate self-care into our exercise goals

Those times when “being healthy”…. isn’t. How to integrate self-care into our exercise goals

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Lucy is a 25-year old working in her first job post-university. She’s always been an active person, but has never been confident with the way she looks. She considers herself to be pretty healthy, though. In the past year, she has gotten into more intense forms of cardio work-outs, and she makes sure to exercise most days, as well as to do yoga a few times a week. That’s good for body and mind, right…?  When she doesn’t have time to fit in exercise into her day, she gets antsy and feels irritable and guilty. Doesn’t that happen to everyone?

As a psychologist working with individuals aiming to improve their mental health, the topic of exercise often comes up in session. We have all heard that we “should” do some form of physical activity in our week (I’m going to come back to that word later). Indeed, the benefits of exercise on physical and mental health are well established (e.g., Penedo & Dahn, 2005, Anchor, 2010); better mood, reduced stress, increased motivation, better physical health across a range of measures, and an overall better quality of life.

But how can we approach exercise with an attitude of self-care, rather than obligation? And how can we notice when we’re taking it too far? Some clients describe moments when focusing on fitness and health can feel like a compulsion. It can be something that we feel we have to do (otherwise we might feel guilty, for example) - rather than something that feels good. It can feel obsessive and rigid, rather than a way of caring for our bodies and minds. The messages that we get from social media and general culture can be confusing, too. The rise of extreme fitness trends and Instagram-style fitness celebrities and workshops put forward the notion that fitness is about intensity, and pushing your body to its limit. And hidden in there too (often not so subtly) is a focus on body image - we “should” be strong, muscular, and intense in our dedication to physical fitness. As described in this recent article in the Walrus, messages about fitness have changed, but the focus on body image remains. For many adherents of extreme fitness, the message remains that, “we would be happier if our bodies were different”.

So how to pursue exercise in a way that is caring towards both your mind and body?

1. ADOPT AN ATTITUDE OF SELF-CARE

To quote this lovely blog, which discusses focusing on health in a mindful and balanced way: “Try paying attention to how you feel, the signals your body is sending you, and what would truly serve the needs you have.”

Self-care is a simple concept, but one that is often difficult to prioritise, given all the competing demands in our day. But the basic idea is that there are certain core needs that should be met in order for us to feel both mentally and physically healthy. Namely:

  • Stay hydrated - drink water
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Be physically active
  • Go outside
  • Take a shower
  • Sleep
  • Spend time with friends and family

In essence, self-care has some basic ingredients, but the “fine tuning” is unique to every person. It basically means taking some time to make sure that you are taking care of you (check out this link for some examples shared by individuals).

2. ALLOW YOURSELF TO CHOOSE

Identifying our self-care needs involves tuning in with our bodies and allowing ourselves to think about what would truly be in our best interest. Importantly, this involves allowing yourself to choose what you need in that particular moment. Sounds easy, but think about how often you end up feeling that you “should” do something else instead (is it just me…?)

For instance, if you’re feeling tired and stressed after a long day at work, what would serve your needs best? Would exercise help you get rid of some of that pent-up energy, and boost your mood? Or, some days, do you feel that what you really need is to sleep? This may mean choosing to go to bed early, and cancelling some of your plans (not always easy!). When you notice that your knee is hurting (a personal example of mine, following a knee surgery), does it need rest? Or, on the contrary, do I need to get to the gym and do my knee exercises? When you notice that you’re feeling under pressure and irritable at work, can you say no to a few requests and allow yourself to complete your existing tasks as best you can? And could you do some activity that will allow you to feel good and direct your focus back to you and your health (some laps in the pool, a dance class, a jog)?

The key is to become familiar with your body’s signals and needs, and allow yourself to choose what self-care would look like for you at that time - be that going for a jog, taking some time to read, spending time with loved ones, or simply going to bed. Being honest and flexible with oneself is key here. Feeling that you “should” do something is a warning sign to ask yourself if it is truly in your best interests. (Note: It’s worth pointing out here that self-care does not mean being selfish, or considering only your needs. It’s not “me first”, but rather “me too”, and ensuring that you maximise your own resources in order to be able to engage with what’s important to you - check out Andrea’s blog for more on this topic).

For those who have difficulties identifying their self-care needs, check out this fun, interactive guide).

3. IDENTIFY WHY EXERCISE IS IMPORTANT TO YOU

Read Jodie’s awesome 3-part blog posts which discuss identifying and connecting to your values, and figuring out how they can be pursued on a daily basis. Pay special attention to self-criticism (“you need to lose weight”) or “shoulds” that leave you feeling coerced (i.e., the stick, rather than the carrot). Jodie breaks this down into figuring out your WHYS, WHATS, and HOWS. This includes the most challenging part - how to keep your self-care habits going!

Follow us on Instagram @connectepsychology for your daily connect to self-care.


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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business: New York.

Penedo F. J., & Dahn, J. R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Curr Opin Psychiatry;18(2):189-93.

Rupert, P. A., & Kent, J. S. (2007). Gender and work setting differences in career-sustaining behaviors and burnout among professional psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38(1), 88-96. 

How to recognise if substance use is a problem for you:  the role of personality and coping

How to recognise if substance use is a problem for you: the role of personality and coping

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Have you ever wondered whether alcohol or drug use is a problem for you? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. Take some of characters we have come to know and love (or hate) in TV shows. In The Mindy Project and Grey’s Anatomy, the main characters deal with break-ups and fights by downing wine and tequila. However, no-one bats an eyelid and they then return to work the next day- no worse for wear. At times, Don Draper’s drinking is considered macho and even romantic in Mad Men- at least not out of the ordinary compared to those around him (although we do start to realise that he is having problems with alcohol use in later seasons). For others like Jesse Pinkman (Breaking Bad­) and Frank Gallagher (Shameless), it can seem clearer that substance use is getting in the way of them leading fulfilling lives- to say the least. But it’s not always that cut and dry. The upcoming legislation to legalise cannabis use across Canada this spring provides a good example of how public attitudes towards drug use can change over time. So how can we tell when substance use is problematic?

Some questions clients have asked me include: “What if I only smoke weed to relax in the evening?” “What if I only drink alcohol at parties to help me feel more confident?” “What if I only take cocaine if it’s a special occasion?... is there something wrong with that?”

What about you?

One of the main questions you may want to consider is: “Am I using alcohol or drugs to cope?” In other words: “Do I feel able to socialise/ have fun / relax/ feel sad/ be mad/ feel anxious/feel lonely without using alcohol or drugs?”

Some other questions to consider:

Has alcohol or drug use got in the way of my responsibilities, my relationships or my interests?

Do I feel bad or guilty about my alcohol or drug use?

Do people around me feel that my alcohol or drug use is a problem?

If the answer to some of these questions is yes, you may want to consider completing a self-assessment questionnaire regarding your level of substance use. 

Thinking about your personality- a way to understand substance use problems

Addiction is a complex and multi-faceted problem, and research has identified numerous factors that can increase an individual’s likelihood of having problems with substances. Interestingly, one of these factors is our personality. Four personality traits (sensation seeking, impulsivity, anxiety sensitivity and hopelessness) can be measured from as young as 12 years old using a measure called the Substance Use Risk Profile Scale, and a high level of any of these personality profiles is associated with a greater risk of experiencing substance use and mental health problems. Just to be clear: we all have a certain level of these personality traits. But high levels can be difficult to manage at times (e.g., think Mickey from Love, who experiences multiple difficulties related to impulsivity, including substance use). Our personalities are associated with the reasons in which we may choose to seek out alcohol or drugs. In other words, substance use can be a way that we cope with difficulties that may be related to our personalities. Individuals with high levels of anxiety sensitivity, for example, are particularly sensitive to the physical effects of anxiety (e.g., racing heart beat, muscular tension, restlessness, sweaty palms) and experience these physical sensations as unpleasant and worrying. Alcohol or drugs can be used to dampen those physical sensations and to feel less anxious in the moment. Somebody with high levels of sensation seeking, on the other hand, is prone to risk-taking behaviours in general, and may seek out the “high” or adrenaline rush associated with substances (e.g. to get a buzz in social situations). These individuals can have a lot of difficulty tolerating boredom, and substance use can become problematic when social situations do not feel interesting or fun enough without using alcohol or drugs. Several studies have shown that personality-targeted interventions can help to prevent and treat substance use problems, both with adolescents and adults.

Recognising barriers to treatment

If you are concerned about your substance use, my final point to you is: be compassionate towards yourself. Individuals with alcohol or drug use problems are known to have difficulty accessing treatment due to multiple factors, such as perceived stigma, concerns about what treatment might entail, feeling ambivalent about whether or not to deal with the problem and not feeling sufficiently supported to address the issue. Unfortunately, this means that many people lack the support that they need, and can spend many years struggling with substance use problems before seeking help. This may perpetuate the problem- check out this great TED talk discussing the fact that feeling disconnected from others and from society can drive addiction problems

Remember that help is available, and treatment does work. Multiple studies have shown that cognitive or dialectical behaviour therapy (CBT and DBT) are effective in addressing substance use problems, and provide individuals with a wider range of coping skills to manage difficult situations or emotions. You can read more about these approaches in Andrea, Michelle, Lisa and Natsumi’s blog posts.

So be kind to yourself, and do what’s best for you. If you are concerned about your substance use or mental health, please consult a mental health professional to discuss your treatment options.                                                         

Some addiction resources

Online alcohol help centre: http://camh.alcoholhelpcenter.net/

Centre de Readaptation en Dependance de Montreal (CRDM- previous known as the Centre Dollard Cormier): www.ciusss-centresudmtl.gouv.qc.ca/nos-installations/centre-de-readaptation-en-dependance

The Foster Addiction Rehabilitation Centre (CRD Foster): www.crdfoster.org


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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Conrod, Stewart, Pihl, Cote, Fontaine & Dongier (2000). Efficacy of brief coping skills interventions that match different personality profiles of female substance abusers. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 14(3), 231-242.

Pearson, Caryn, Teresa Janz and Jennifer Ali. 2013. “Mental and substance use disorders in Canada” Health at a Glance. September. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-624-X. Retrieved from: www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-624-x/2013001/article/11855-eng.htm 

Rapp, Xu, Carr, Lane, Wang & Carlson (2006). Treatment barriers identified by substance abusers assessed at a centralized intake unit. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 30 (3): 227–235.