If you’ve ever found it difficult to shift your opinion in the face of contradictory evidence or noticed yourself self-sabotaging relationship after relationship, chances are you were battling with your core beliefs.
Core beliefs are deeply rooted and difficult to budge. And that’s often okay, as you might have many healthy and positive ones. But sometimes negative core beliefs stop you from being open-minded and welcoming other perspectives.
Identifying and shifting your more harmful core beliefs is challenging, but the hard work pays off when you feel empowered and free to pursue the future you want.
What are core beliefs?
Core beliefs (sometimes called “cognitive schemas”) are deeply-rooted assumptions about life. You embed these beliefs so far down in your psyche that you’re likely unaware of them — but they reveal themselves indirectly through your thought, emotional, and behavioral patterns.
There are three types of core beliefs:
- Beliefs about the self
- Beliefs about other people
- Beliefs about the world
The emotional quality of these assumptions might be positive (“I’m lovable”), negative (“I’m worthless”), or neutral (“life is unpredictable”).
Where do core beliefs come from?
Core beliefs form in childhood and adolescence as you try to make sense of the world based on your limited experiences. Your family dynamic, the media you consume, and your peers all affect the core beliefs you form at a young age.
If your parents often punished you for crying when you were young, you might develop the core assumption that it’s not safe to express your emotions. And if you had a warm, loving childhood, you might form the core thought that all people are loving and kind.
Core beliefs are tenacious. They persevere in the face of little or no evidence, and people can hold onto these patterns their entire lives. If you formed the core belief “It’s not safe to express emotions” when you were a child, you’ll likely have trouble dropping the assumption later on when in an emotionally safe space.
Even if your core beliefs constrict your thinking, they originally served an important function. A child who developed the negative core belief “I’m not lovable” likely stopped seeking love from others because continually being rebuffed is painful.
The belief shields the child against more pain. But these assumptions are often untrue — the child is lovable, even if their parents didn’t know how to show it — so assessing and redefining yours is worthwhile to live a more authentic and less restricted life.
How do core beliefs influence your thoughts and behavior?
According to the cognitive model of psychotherapy (which forms the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), there are four levels of cognition:
- Core beliefs
- Intermediate beliefs
- Cognitive distortions
- Automatic thoughts
Core beliefs are the deepest level, the kernel beliefs. Intermediate beliefs are the behavioral “rules” we follow to fulfill these core beliefs. If a core belief is “I’m not good enough,” that might translate into the intermediate belief “I have to excel at everything to prove I’m good enough.”
Cognitive distortions are problematic thinking patterns derived from core and intermediate beliefs. Common cognitive distortions are all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralizing, and blaming others.
So the intermediate belief “I have to excel at everything to prove I’m good enough” could lead you to feel devastated if you get second place in a competition (all-or-nothing thinking), believe your manager will fire you for a small mistake (catastrophizing), or unfairly blame your boss for a poor performance review.
Automatic thoughts spring to mind immediately when things happen, and they often reflect cognitive distortions. Someone who fears losing their job for a small mistake might realize they’ve messed something up and think, “I have to hide this at all costs.”
Your thoughts shape your behavior via your emotions. So the thought “I have to hide this at all costs” makes you feel fearful and ashamed, leading you to hide your mistake. And because you hide the error, nobody finds out, so you never learn that your manager wouldn’t have fired you — which affirms the behavior and perpetuates the core assumption.
Examples of core beliefs
Common core beliefs about the self are:
Common core beliefs about others are:
Common core beliefs about the world are:
Positive core beliefs can be just as dysfunctional as negative ones. “Nobody can take away what I have” might make you think you’re more entitled than others, and “Everyone is good deep down” could result in increased disappointment.
How to identify your core beliefs
A common way to access core assumptions is the “downward arrow technique,” which traces automatic thoughts back to their roots. When you apply the downward arrow technique, you use questions to uncover the layers underneath surface-level automatic thoughts.
To begin, pick an event that prompted a reactive behavior or thought you’d like to focus on. Then, use the following set of questions to probe deeper until you touch the foundational issue:
- What worries me about this situation?
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- What would that mean?
- So what?
- Why does that bother me?
- What would that say about me?
- If that were true, what would it mean?
- Why would that be so bad?
Let’s say you’re experiencing anxiety about next week’s work presentation and your negative self-talk is getting the better of you. You’d go through a sequence like this:
Q: What worries me about this situation?
A: I might forget something or say something stupid.
Q: What’s the worst that could happen?
A: I’ll lose credibility with my colleagues.
Q: What would that mean?
A: Everyone would discover I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Q: So what?
A: They’ll realize I’m not good enough to work here.
Once you realize that your core belief is “I’m not good enough,” you can address why you think this and use information like your accomplishments or praise your manager’s given you to reject this core belief.
Practice this technique as many times as you like to build a list of beliefs. Then, evaluate each one, choosing which to work on first. You could pick the one you feel is holding you back most or start gently with the one that feels most open to change.
And if you’re happy with some of the assumptions and don’t want to change them, that’s perfectly fine, too.
How to change your core beliefs
Identifying a core belief is a big first step in shifting it. Making a belief conscious takes away a lot of its power to pull strings behind the scenes.
People usually work with a cognitive behavioral therapist to shift core assumptions, but you can experiment by following the steps below. Each step addresses the example core belief “I don’t deserve happiness.”
1. Map out its reach
Core beliefs usually affect several areas of your life. Take some time to reflect and write down several ways the belief limits you at work, in your relationships, and in your general approach to life. Record the kinds of automatic negative thoughts it causes, which negative emotions it brings up, and how it affects your behavior.
You could also write down some of the intermediate beliefs (behavioral “rules”) you follow because of this assumption. If you’re working with the core belief “I don’t deserve happiness,” the rules might look like this:
- I shouldn’t do the things that I know make me deeply happy
- I should focus on the negative in any situation where I have mixed emotions
- I must stay in relationships with people who don’t treat me well
- I should accept jobs because of the salary, not because I find them intrinsically rewarding
2. Track down its origin
If you can, trace your core belief back to its origin. Perhaps it originated in family dynamics, a specific traumatic event, or a combination of the two. The core belief “I don’t deserve happiness” might have roots in something you did in the past.
Or it might come from a competitive friend tearing you down when they saw you happy.
3. Acknowledge its function
Even the most dysfunctional core beliefs originally fulfilled a purpose: protecting a vulnerability.
Even if a core assumption is making your life miserable right now, realizing that it stems from a place of self-preservation helps you be more compassionate with yourself and take a more objective, less reactionary perspective.
Send validation and love to your inner child for creating the old belief. You could even carry out a ritual or write in your journal to thank the assumption for protecting you, assimilate its wisdom, and let it go.
4. Design a new core belief
Formulating a new belief involves more than reversing the old one. Instead of replacing one simplistic belief system with another, you want to reframe the belief in a way that allows for subtlety and complexity.
Reversing “I don’t deserve happiness” would give you “I deserve happiness.” That’s an improvement, but it’s too general. Believing you deserve happiness all the time might lead to you prioritizing your feelings over others’ or behaving in an entitled way.
Instead, choose a more realistic thought, like “I’m open to happiness” or “Happiness is available to everyone.”
5. Collect evidence
Collect evidence against the old belief, for the new belief, or both. To challenge the old assumption, return to the list of “rules” you wrote in step one and pick one to experiment with. Then, challenge the belief by deliberately breaking one of the rules and noting what happens.
To collect evidence in favor of the new assumption, start by temporarily adopting it. If you’re working with the new core belief “I’m open to happiness,” you might notice yourself becoming more receptive to happy people and paying more attention to the subtle gradations of your own positive emotions.
As the evidence for your new belief accumulates, it becomes easier and easier to maintain.
Shift your core beliefs to change your life
At their worst, core beliefs can lead people to self-sabotage, stay in miserable situations, and feel trapped in vicious thought patterns. At their best, they limit the way you understand and interact with yourself and the world.
But with hard work and self-awareness, you can stop negative thinking in its tracks and build a robust foundation that’ll support your mental health and well-being well into the future.