Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies, 3rd Edition
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If you are beginning thinking about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), you need to examine openly whether your past experiences have led you to develop core beliefs that may be causing your current emotional difficulties.

People are sometimes surprised to find out that CBT considers the past an important aspect of understanding one’s problems. Unlike traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, which focuses intensively on childhood relationships and experiences, CBT specifically investigates past experiences in order to see how these early events may still be affecting people in their present lives.

What are core beliefs?

Your core beliefs are ideas or philosophies that you hold very strongly and very deeply. These ideas are usually developed in childhood or early in adult life. Core beliefs aren’t always negative. Good experiences of life and of other people generally lead to the development of healthy ideas about yourself, other people and the world. Here, we deal with negative core beliefs because these are the types of belief that cause people’s emotional problems.

Sometimes, the negative core beliefs that are formed during childhood can be reinforced by later experiences, which seem to confirm their validity.

For example, one of Beth’s core beliefs is "I’m bad." She develops this belief to make sense of her father beating her for no real or obvious reason. Later, Beth has a few experiences of being punished unreasonably by teachers at school, which reinforce her belief in her "badness."

Core beliefs are characteristically global and absolute, like Beth’s "I’m bad." People hold core beliefs to be 100 percent true under all conditions. You often form your core beliefs when you’re a child to help you make sense of your childhood experiences, and so you may never evaluate whether your core beliefs are the best way to make sense of your adult experiences. As an adult, you may continue to act, think, and feel as though the core beliefs of your childhood are still 100 percent true.

Your core beliefs are called "core" because they’re your deeply held ideas and they’re at the very center of your belief system. Core beliefs give rise to rules, demands, or assumptions, which in turn, produce automatic thoughts (thoughts that seem to just pop into your head when you’re confronted with a situation). You can think of these three layers of beliefs as a dartboard with core beliefs as the bullseye. The following figure shows the interrelationship between the three layers and shows the assumptions and automatic thoughts that surround Beth’s core belief that she’s bad.

core beliefs

The core beliefs dartboard and Beth’s dartboard, showing the three layers of beliefs

Another way of describing a core belief is as a lens or filter through which you interpret all of the information you receive from other people and the world around you.

Introducing the three camps of core beliefs

Core beliefs fall into three main camps:
  • Beliefs about yourself. Unhelpful negative core beliefs about yourself often have their roots in damaging early experiences. Being bullied or ostracized at school, or experiencing neglect, abuse or harsh criticism from caregivers, teachers or siblings can inform the way in which you understand yourself. For example, Beth’s experiences of physical abuse led her to form the core belief "I’m bad."
  • Beliefs about other people. Negative core beliefs about others often develop as a result of traumatic incidents involving other people. A traumatic incident can mean personal harm inflicted on you by another person or witnessing harm being done to others. Negative core beliefs can also develop from repeated negative experiences with other people, such as teachers and parents. For example, because Beth’s father was violent and abusive towards her but also could be funny when he wanted to be, she developed a core belief that "people are dangerous and unpredictable."
  • Beliefs about the world. People who’ve experienced trauma, lived with severe deprivation, or survived in harmful, insecure, unpredictable environments are prone to forming negative core beliefs about life and the world. Beth holds a core belief – that "the world is full of bad things" – which she developed as a result of her early home situation and events at school later on.

Sometimes, core beliefs from all three camps are taught to you explicitly as a child. Your parents or caregivers may have given you their core beliefs. For example, you may have been taught that "life’s cruel and unfair" before you had any experiences that led you to form such a belief yourself.

Seeing how your core beliefs interact

Identifying core beliefs about yourself can help you to understand why you keep having the same problems. However, if you can also get to know your fundamental beliefs about other people and the world, you can build a fuller picture of why some situations distress you. For example, Beth may find being yelled at by her boss depressing because it fits with her core belief "I’m bad," but the experience also seems to confirm her belief that people are unpredictable and aggressive.

Like many people, you may hold core beliefs that you’re unlovable, unworthy or inadequate — these beliefs are about your basic worth, goodness, or value. Or perhaps you hold beliefs about your capability to look after yourself or to cope with adversity — these beliefs are about how helpless or powerful you are in relation to other people and the world.

Mahesh, for example, may believe "I’m helpless" because he’s experienced tragedy and a lot of bad luck. He may also hold beliefs that "the world is against me" and "other people are uncaring." Looking at these three beliefs together, you can see why Mahesh is feeling depressed.

Detecting your core beliefs

Because core beliefs are held deeply, you may not think of them or "hear" them as clear statements in your head. You’re probably much more aware of your negative automatic thoughts or your rules than you are of your core beliefs.

Following, are methods you can use to really get to the root of your belief system.

Following a downward arrow

One technique to help you pinpoint your problematic core beliefs is the downward arrow method, which involves you identifying a situation that causes you to have an unhealthy negative emotion, such as depression or guilt.

After you’ve identified a situation that brings up negative emotions, ask yourself what the situation means or says about you. Your first answer is probably your negative automatic thought (NAT). Keep asking yourself what your previous answer means or says about you until you reach a global, absolute statement, such as "other people are dangerous," or "I’m bad," in Beth’s case.

For example, when Rashid uses the downward arrow method to work out why he feels so ashamed about failing a university entrance exam, he has this negative automatic thought:

NAT: "I won’t get into any of the good universities."

What does this NAT mean about me?

"I’ve disappointed my parents again."

What does disappointing my parents mean about me?

"When I try to make my parents proud, I fail."

What does failing mean about me?

"I’m a failure." (Rashid’s core belief)

You can use the same downward arrow technique to get to your core beliefs about other people and the world. Just keep asking yourself what your NAT means about others or the world. Ultimately, you can end up with a conclusive statement that is your core belief. The following is an example of how to do this, using the situation of being fired or laid off from a job:
NAT: "None of my friends have been laid off; why has this happened to me?"

What does this mean about the world?

"Hard work and dedication don’t pay off."

What does this mean about the world?

"The world is unfair and cruel." (Core belief)

Picking up clues from your dreaming and screaming

Imagine your worst nightmare. Think of dream scenarios that wake you up screaming. Somewhere in these terrifying scenarios may be one or more of your core beliefs. Some examples of core beliefs that can show themselves in dreams and nightmares include the following:
  • Drying up while speaking publicly
  • Being rejected by your partner for another person
  • Being criticized in front of work colleagues
  • Getting lost in a foreign country
  • Hurting someone’s feelings
  • Doing something thoughtless and being confronted about it
  • Letting down someone important in your life
  • Being controlled by another person
  • Being at someone else’s mercy

Look for the similarities between your nightmare scenarios and situations that upset you in real life. Ask yourself what a dreaded dream situation may mean about yourself, about other people, or about the world. Keep considering what each of your answers means about yourself, others, or the world until you reach a core belief.

Filling in the blanks

Another method of eliciting your core beliefs is simply to fill in the blanks. Take a piece of paper, write the following, and fill in the blanks:
I am ______________________________________________

Other people are ____________________________________

The world is ________________________________________

This method requires you to take almost a wild guess about what your core beliefs are. Ultimately, you’re in a better position than anyone else to take a guess, so the exercise is worth a shot.

You can also review written work that you’ve done, which is a good technique for discovering your core beliefs. Going over what you’ve recorded enables you to refine, tweak, or alter your beliefs. Be sure to use language that represents how you truly speak to yourself.

Core beliefs are very idiosyncratic. However you choose to articulate them is entirely up to you. The same is true of the healthy alternative beliefs you develop. Make sure that you put alternative beliefs into language that reflects your own unique way of speaking to yourself.

The impact of core beliefs

Core beliefs are your fundamental and enduring ways of perceiving and making sense of yourself, the world, and other people. Your core beliefs have been around since early in your life. These core beliefs are so typically ingrained and unconscious that you’re probably not aware of their impact on your emotions and behaviors.

Spotting when you are acting according to old rules and beliefs

People tend to behave according to the beliefs they hold about themselves, others and the world. To evaluate whether your core beliefs are unhealthy, you need to pay attention to your corresponding behaviors. Unhealthy core beliefs typically lead to problematic behaviors.

For example, Milo believes that he’s unlovable and that other people cannot be trusted. Therefore, he tends to be passive with his girlfriends, to seek reassurance that they’re not about to leave him, and to become suspicious and jealous of their interactions with other men. Often, Milo’s girlfriends get fed up with his jealousy and insecurity and end the relationship.

Because Milo operates according to his core belief about being unlovable, he behaves in ways that actually tend to drive his partners away from him. Milo doesn’t yet see that his core belief and corresponding insecurity is what causes problems in his relationships. Instead, Milo views each time a partner leaves him for someone else as further evidence that his core belief of "I’m unlovable" is true.

Sybil believes that she mustn’t draw attention to herself because one of her core beliefs is "other people are aggressive." Therefore, she’s quiet in social situations and is reluctant to assert herself. Her avoidant, self-effacing behavior means that she doesn’t often get what she wants, which feeds her core belief "I’m unimportant."

Sybil acts in accordance with her core belief that other people are aggressive and likely to turn on her and, subsequently, deprives herself of the opportunity to see that this is not always going to happen. If Sybil and Milo identify their negative core beliefs, they can begin to develop healthier new beliefs and behaviors that can yield better results.

Understanding that unhealthy core beliefs make you prejudiced

When you begin to examine your core beliefs, it may seem to you that everything in your life is conspiring to make your unhealthy core belief ring true. But more than likely, what's actually happening is your core belief is leading you to take a prejudiced view of all your experiences.

Unhealthy beliefs, such as "I’m unlovable" and "other people are dangerous," distort the way in which you process information. Negative information that supports your unhealthy belief is let in. Positive information that contradicts the negative stuff is either rejected, or twisted to mean something negative in keeping with your unhealthy belief.

The prejudice model in the following figure shows you how your unhealthy core beliefs can reject positive events that may contradict them. At the same time, your core beliefs can collect negative events that may support their validity. Your unhealthy core beliefs can also lead you to distort positive events into negative events so that they continue to make your beliefs seem true.

core beliefs prejudice model

The prejudice model illustrates how you sometimes distort positive information to fit in with your negative core beliefs.

For example, here’s how Beth’s core belief "I’m bad" causes her to prejudice her experiences:

  • Negative experience: Beth’s boss is angry about a missed deadline, affirming her belief that "I’m bad."
  • Positive experience: Beth’s boss is happy about the quality of her report, which Beth distorts as "he’s only happy about this report because he's so used to all my other work being awful," further affirming her belief that "I’m bad."
Beth also ignores smaller positive events that don’t support her belief that she’s bad, such as these:
  • People seem to like her at work.
  • Co-workers tell her that she’s conscientious at work.
  • Her friends text her and invite her out.
However, Beth is quick to take notice of smaller negative events that do seem to match up with her belief that she’s bad:
  • Someone pushes her rudely on a busy train.
  • Her boyfriend shouts at her during an argument.
  • A work colleague doesn’t smile at her when she enters the office.
Beth’s core belief of "I’m bad" acts as a filter through which all her experiences are interpreted. It basically stops her from re-evaluating herself as anything other than bad; it makes her prejudiced against herself. This is why identifying negative core beliefs and targeting them for change is so important!

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Rob Willson, PhD, is a cognitive behavioral therapist with more than 25 years of experience. He teaches and supervises internationally on cognitive behavioral therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder.

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