What are core beliefs ?
Core beliefs are firm and deep rooted perspectives about ourselves and the world that we have built over a lifetime. Core beliefs begin to form early in life in response to significant life events. These beliefs can be adaptive or mal-adaptive. As we grow older we naturally begin to look for evidence that supports our core beliefs and disregard anything that does not. Core beliefs will translate into rules and assumptions. These rules often interpret situations, emotions and thoughts to lead to automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts often guide our emotions and behavior.
“Rakesh is a 29 year old professional. He is doing well in life right now. Despite doing well he is in a state of constant anxiety. This anxiety is often exacerbated by performance situations. He is asked to present an important project to a client, let’s explore his thoughts, rules and beliefs.
His automatic thoughts – I may screw this up, if I do they are going to think I am an idiot. Idiots often get fired. This is terrible.
Underlying rules – If you fail, people will judge you.
Core belief – I am unworthy.
He may respond in any of the following ways
He declines the presentation – “Problem averted, I’m safe for now. What if they ask me to do this again ?” Though Rakesh has avoided the situation for now, his anxiety is going to come back when a situation triggers his core belief again.
He aces the presentation – That went well, I’m awesome. These guys are so happy with me. This confidence is often short lived and the next presentation may lead to similar anxiety. “I must make sure that I keep doing well.” In this situation, Rakesh has done well, however considering that his core belief still exists, even success can lead to further pressure and anxiety.
He screws it up – I’m done for. These guys must think I am dumb. Failure also causes anxiety, considering the core belief of “being unworthy” persists.
Rakesh himself may not be aware that his core belief exists. Rakesh is quite competent factually. However, the core belief of unworthiness leads to rules that try to overcome the problematic belief (Thus the emphasis on success and the fear of failure). His rule appears to compensate for the core belief, and may even seem “motivational” but ends up propagating it. Even if Rakesh is successful, his anxiety will not ease as long as his core belief exists. Problematic core beliefs are often the source of distress. Working on core beliefs can help you understand and better deal with recurrent states of discomfort.
How do core beliefs develop ?
Like all other beliefs we hold, core beliefs are formed through experience, observation and/or education. Significant life events, parenting styles, values that are emphasized at home and in school, peer relationships and the general cultural milieu play an important role in the development of core beliefs. Core beliefs can be helpful (I am lovable, I am worthy, I am competent) or problematic (I am incompetent, I am unlovable etc).
When Rakesh was younger, he did pretty well in school. He was topping the class effortlessly. His parents were proud of him and would often tell people how smart he was. He noticed that his teachers treated the children who weren’t doing well in school differently. On one occasion that his scores dropped, his mom almost broke into tears claiming his whole life may be ruined.
When we are younger, we believe that everything that happens to us, is because of us. Rakesh figured that the only way for people to value him was to score well. As he grew up, this pressure on performance triggered constant anxiety and a fear of judgement. Even in times of great success, he was constantly worried that he would lose his worth if his performance dropped. This was the birth of his core belief “I am unworthy”.
Common problematic core beliefs?
Core beliefs can take any shape or form, these are three common categories of negative core beliefs about self and others.
Helplessness – Beliefs relating to personal incompetence, vulnerability, and inferiority.
Unlovability – Incapacity of obtaining desired intimacy.
Worthlessness – Beliefs relating insignificance, being a burden to others, and worthlessness.
Negative core beliefs about others – “The world is a scary place”, “People cannot be trusted” or “People will hurt me”.
How do I identify core beliefs ?
The best way to identify core beliefs is to work backward from automatic thoughts. Once we get fairly good at identifying automatic thoughts, try figuring out our rules and assumptions. Very often these rules will cluster up into achievement, acceptance or control categories. This will give us a fair idea on where your dysfunctional core beliefs lie, these rules usually try to compensate for or propagate faulty core beliefs. A good question would be, if my rules dictate ways to be perceived as competent/worthy/loved, does that mean that I doubt myself in these areas?
There are other means such as worksheets and checklists as well. Here is an example from positivepsychology.com.
How do I deal with faulty core beliefs ?
Most therapists suggest a deliberate attempt at cognitive restructuring, much like you would dispute automatic thoughts and rules. I have noticed that this is ineffective in most cases. I would suggest going with the techniques that your therapist is most comfortable with. You will most likely have to take a deeper dive, understand origins and maybe even utilize other schools of psychotherapy to effectively reformulate core beliefs. Considering that this requires a shift in perspective, books and podcasts are helpful in finding alternate beliefs.
For example for those who have core beliefs related to self worth, I suggest reading and practicing techniques in “Living with your heart wide open” by Bob Stahl. It covers unworthiness from a mindfulness perspective.
For unlovability related core beliefs – The Attachment Theory Workbook: Powerful Tools to Promote Understanding, Increase Stability, and Build Lasting Relationships
An example of the worksheet approach – https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/-/media/CCI/Consumer-Modules/Back-from-The-Bluez/Back-from-the-Bluez—08—Core-Beliefs.pdf