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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.

We all know what it’s like to feel fat.  Let’s try to change that for our next generation.

We all know what it’s like to feel fat. Let’s try to change that for our next generation.

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I could feed you the statistics saying that obesity, eating disorders and body dissatisfaction are serious problems in our society*, but I think you already know it. Why? Because most of us know exactly how terrible it feels to feel bad about our body, to feel fat compared to others, to feel judged, obsessed, and anxious about everything we eat and everyone we see. Most of us at one point or another in our lives have tried some sort of unhealthy weight control behaviour, gotten stuck in a dieting-binge eating cycle, or found ourselves feeling depressed and ashamed because of how we look. We might not admit it openly, but we know.

Why do so many of us know this? Because we live in a “toxic environment”1 for body image and weight-related problems. We are constantly receiving cues to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods on TV, in the grocery store, while driving down the street and we are enabled to be as sedentary as possible with our cars, our escalators, and our ball throwers for our dogs. And yet, within this same environment that facilitates weight gain, we are bombarded with messages that we should be unrealistically thin and fit and everywhere we look we are surrounded with images of thinness that are associated with success, love, popularity, and happiness.

“It is difficult to imagine an environment more effective than ours for producing nearly universal body dissatisfaction, preoccupation with eating and weight, clinical cases of eating disorders, and obesity.” Dr. Kelly Brownell1

But again you already know all of this, why? Because we experience it everyday when we go on Facebook or Instagram. Before we clicked we felt fine but now we feel that sinking feeling in our gut and start thinking “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not fit enough”, etc. We experience it when we’re waiting in line at the supermarket and we read the headlines of the magazines stating how this actress is now battling anorexia and how fat the other one’s butt looks in her bikini and how to lose our own belly fat in just 30 days! And what is all this obsessiveness for? So we can all continue to make the beauty & dieting & fast food industries prosper? So we can all spend inordinate amounts of time on our appearance and thinking about food? So we can all try to look the same? So we can all feel terrible about ourselves? I guess not, but we’re so used to it that many of us don’t even see that our environment is a problem, we blame ourselves instead for not being thin enough, tall enough, fit enough… we think we’ll feel better if we just “fit in”.

Maybe you want to change all of this for yourself. I hope so, because you deserve it. But, one thing that I’m pretty sure of is that you don’t want your kids or kids you care about to feel the same way that you have. You want them to feel healthy and strong. You want them to feel confident about themselves, about their bodies, about their food choices, and about their uniqueness. You want them to take care of themselves, to trust themselves and to be free to be themselves, right?

So, what can we do to mitigate this toxic social environment that we live in so that our children can make healthy choices and feel good about themselves?

Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor, researcher and advocate in the field of obesity and eating disorder prevention has written a great book called “I’m, like, So fat!”2 on how to help our teens navigate eating and body image in this weight-obsessed world. It’s a super helpful read! Here are just a few pointers from the book:

1. Model healthy behaviours and healthy body talk.

a. Model healthy eating patterns, which means eating regularly and not skipping meals. Model healthy food choices, which means incorporating a wide variety of healthy foods. If you have trouble adhering to these guidelines due to your own eating preoccupations try to model healthy behaviours in front of your children. What they see you doing is what matters most for them.

b. Show your kids how to enjoy pleasurable foods in moderation; this is a skill they need to have in this environment! When you have a piece of cake try to show them you appreciate it. Don’t say something like “oh, I really shouldn’t be eating this”. And if you choose not to opt for cake on an occasion, say something like “tonight my body feels like something more refreshing for dessert”, rather than “I’d love to but I can’t, I’m on a diet”.

c. Model healthy body acceptance. Try to show your kids a positive attitude towards your own body. Tell them something you’re grateful for about your body, for example “I’m so thankful that my legs are so strong, they helped me walk all the way to my meeting today”. Help them see that changes in our bodies over time are normal. For example find something positive to say about your wrinkles like how these lines show all the expressions your face has worn over the years. Seeing you accept your body changes will help them think more positively about their own body changes, especially during puberty.

d. Avoid making weight-related comments as much as possible about yourself or others and don’t make weight-related comments directed at your children.

2. Create a healthy environment at home.

a. Make access to healthy foods readily available. Have fresh fruits and vegetables on hand and, if possible, cut up and ready to go.

b. Prioritize family meals. Participation in family meals is related to a number of positive outcomes, including healthier diet, less unhealthy weight-control behaviours, less unhealthy behaviours like smoking, alcohol and drugs and less depressive symptoms in teenagers.

c. Don’t just encourage your children to do physical activity, do it with them. Walking, biking, skiing, going to the park… Make physical activity part of family time together. Start wherever you can and try to make it fun!

3. Focus less on appearance, more on health.

a. Encourage your children to develop healthy habits for the purpose of taking care of their bodies, not for the purpose of losing weight.

b. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for weight teasing or negative weight talk in your home. Help your children realize that weight teasing is not acceptable.

c. Help your children develop an identity much larger than physical appearance. Focus your positive feedback on other aspects of their identity like skills, traits, hobbies, and interests.

4. Talk to them, and listen even more.

a. Be there to listen and support when your child wants to talk about their weight concerns. Empathize with them, you can even tell them you know how difficult it is to feel “fat” or less attractive than your peers for one reason or another. We all feel like this sometimes.

b. When your child talks about feeling fat, find out what’s really going on. Are they being teased at school? Are their friends making comments about being fat that are rubbing off on them? Are they feeling insecure and so they think losing weight would make them feel better? Listen before trying to fix. Often in listening we can help them come to their own solutions. Let them know that you’re always there to listen.

c. Let your child know that you love them no matter what their size, shape, and appearance. That you love them just as they are. Although we think that as our kids reach adolescence they don’t care about what we think anymore, they do. We do have the power to be a positive force for them!

Come to our workshop in March if you want to talk more about how you can try your best to be a positive influence for your children in our toxic environment. And follow our campaign on Instagram @connectepsychology if you want to join the conversation before that!


Jodie Richardson 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

1Dr. Kelly Brownell is Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he is also Robert L. Flowers Professor of Public Policy, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Director of the World Food Policy Center

2I’m, like, SO fat! Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD. Guilford Press. 2005.

World Health Organization, Obesity and Overweight Fact Sheet, Updated October 2017

Project EAT studies can be found here: http://www.sphresearch.umn.edu/epi/project-eat/#EAT1

Becker A.E et al., Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls, The British Journal of Psychiatry Jun 2002, 180 (6) 509-514.

*If you’d like statistics here are a few from the World Health Organization as well as studies by Dr. Anne Becker in Fiji and Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer in Project EAT:

Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.

Globally rates of childhood overweight and obesity have risen from 4% in 1975 to just over 18% in 2016.

Project EAT, a large multi-site study of 4700 adolescents in the United States, found that:

  • Almost half of girls and one fourth of boys were highly dissatisfied with their bodies and that body dissatisfaction contributed to a plethora of problems like unhealthy dieting, binge eating, depression, and weight gain over time.
  • Girls who read magazine articles about dieting/weight loss were six times more likely to engage in extremely unhealthy weight-control behaviours (like vomiting, diet pills). Boys who read the articles were four times as likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviours.
  • Adolescents with a bedroom television reported more television viewing time, less physical activity, poorer dietary habits, fewer family meals, and poorer school performance. 

When Fiji got television in 1995, vomiting for weight control purposes went from 0-11% among girls over a three-year period, eating pathology more than doubled and girls living in households with a television were more than three times as likely to have high eating pathology.

Avoid Avoiding and Embrace Living!

Avoid Avoiding and Embrace Living!

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Have you ever had the thought, “I never want to feel this way again.” Maybe you did something that you felt was embarrassing, maybe you experienced something traumatic, maybe you ended a significant relationship and felt broken-hearted. Maybe someone made fun of you and made you feel small. Maybe you had a panic attack and you felt like you were losing control. 

After experiences like these, we understandably want to protect ourselves from the difficult thoughts and feelings that come along with them. Why wouldn’t we? So we change our behaviours, a lot or a little, to get ourselves as far away from these painful thoughts and feeling as possible. Sometimes though in our efforts to avoid feeling this sort of pain again, we end up avoiding some of the good things life has to offer. After all, most of the awesome, magical, fulfilling things that happen in life often entail tolerating difficult thoughts and feelings – like running a marathon, writing a difficult entrance exam, or asking someone out on a date. Moreover, the things that we do to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings are sometimes unhealthy – like drinking too much, sleeping a lot, overeating or under-eating, obsessively reading the news, etc.

Here are some examples:

Beatrice played and loved sports ever since her early days of elementary school. During her first year of high school, her swimming coach commented that if she could just lose her “baby fat”, she’d really have a competitive edge. Although you would not have been able to tell by the look on her face, in that moment, Beatrice felt deep shame. She started dieting as a way to lose weight and feel in control, and in an effort to avoid ever feeling bad about her weight again. Eventually Beatrice developed an eating disorder, and much of her time was spent thinking about food, counting calories, and exercising. She would avoid social events that involved food, as she preferred to have full control of what and when she ate. Also, because she was underweight, she felt more tired and had difficulty concentrating, so school became more difficult and her grades were negatively affected.

Rahim had a panic attack in the middle of a crowd at an outdoor concert. It was the most awful feeling he’d ever had. He felt trapped and like he was going to die. The next time his friends asked if he wanted to go to a concert, he made up an excuse about why he couldn’t go. Similarly, he started to avoid going anywhere where there might be big crowds, like sports games. When he was in a crowded environment, like a house party, he would use alcohol to ease his anxiety. Eventually, he avoided going anywhere far from home in case he had a panic attack, meaning he stopped travelling, which was something he loved to do.

Daniella had been in a long-term relationship for 3 years. She had never opened up to a person and been as vulnerable as she had been in that relationship, which ended a year ago when she found out her then boyfriend had been cheating on her. Daniella understandably never wanted to feel those feelings of hurt and betrayal again. She tried going on dates to meet someone new, but had trouble opening up and connecting with people. Eventually, she decided that dating was pointless and spent most of her free time working.

Beatrice, Rahim, and Daniella all changed their behaviours to avoid feeling emotional pain. In doing so, however, other important aspects of their lives were neglected. Their relationships suffered (or in Daniella’s case, the potential for a romantic relationship), as well as opportunities for growth and positive experiences. Beatrice wasn’t able to fully engage in school, and Rahim was no longer doing something that once brought him joy, travelling.

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Additionally, some of the methods they used to avoid were harmful. In Beatrice’s case, she restricted her food intake so much that she became significantly underweight and her health was negatively affected. To ease the worry about having a panic attack, Rahim became dependent on alcohol to feel okay in these situations. For Daniella, it is less clear. Being devoted to work and working hard is something most of us see as a good thing. In some cases though, positive or healthy behaviours or activities, such as sleeping, exercising, or seeing friends, could also be ways of avoiding. We may procrastinate reading that difficult email by reading the news, or working on that paper by cleaning our apartments. We may also avoid our feelings by getting caught up in our thoughts. For example, instead of accepting that a relationship is over and processing the feelings of loss and sadness, we might obsess over what went wrong and what we could’ve done differently.

So what should we do if we think we’re avoiding painful thoughts and emotions at the expense of other important things?

1. Take some time to get to know your negative thoughts and emotions. The more familiar you are with the negative thoughts and emotions that tend to come up for you, the better you'll be at managing them before they lead to avoidance. To get started on identifying your thoughts and feelings, check out these helpful worksheets.

2. Make it a point in your day-to-day life to notice what you might be doing to avoid. Ask yourself if there are behaviours or activities that are hard for you to give up, and why. For example, is it hard to give up a night of seeing friends because you would miss their company, or because being alone with your thoughts causes anxiety? Is it difficult to give up exercise because you would miss the mood-enhancing benefits, or would missing a day of your work-out make you feel like a bad person and cause significant distress?

3. Once you’ve become familiar with the thoughts and emotions you might be avoiding, and the potentially problematic behaviour you might be engaging in to avoid, take some time to identify your values. What are the things that are important to you? Is it growth, relationships, hard work, or fitness, for example? When we are clear on what our values are, we are better able to move toward them even when it’s hard. 

No dress rehearsal, this is our life.
- Gord Downie -

4. Practice moving towards your values even when you’re experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. To help in this process, break down your “moving toward” behaviour into small, manageable steps, and use strategies to self-soothe and manage difficult emotions, such as mindfulness and deep breathing (or “power” breathing!). For example, if Rahim wanted to start going to places with more crowds because he values new experiences, he could break down this goal into small steps, and maybe start by going to a crowded restaurant, close to home, with a friend. To help him reduce his anxiety in this process, he could use the techniques outlined here, such as the 3-minute breathing space.

5. Be nice to yourself! We are hard-wired to avoid things that make us feel bad. Most of us have those days when we want to hide under the covers instead of facing the world. Instead of judging yourself for avoiding, try approaching these difficulties with curiosity and kindness. This compassionate mindset will be more helpful in moving toward your values when the going gets tough :)


Lisa Linardatos 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.