Have you ever caught yourself brushing off a sincere compliment and wondering, “Wait, why am I doing this?”
You spend a little extra time choosing a decent outfit, somebody notices, and comments on how nice you look, and you say, “Oh no, you look way better than me!”
Why do we do that?
Why do we invest time in constructing our appearance only to instinctively reject the mildest compliment on our effort?
It may have to do with our core beliefs.
The things we believe deep down about ourselves and the world around us inform everything.
When those thought patterns are focused on the bad things (negative core beliefs), it can lead to problems in our relationships, at work, and with our well-being.
Understanding Core Beliefs: What Are They?
Core beliefs are deeply ingrained beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us. These beliefs are consistent over time and are not easily changed.
They are part of us and shape how we think, feel, and act.
But these core beliefs aren’t necessarily truths. Such beliefs develop over time from our childhood, and with many factors at play that influence the beliefs we have about ourselves, the resulting core beliefs can sometimes be inconsistent with reality.
This can be a good or a bad thing.
Imagine you grow up always having everything your heart desires, not wanting for anything, and effectively being given everything in life on a silver platter. You’re told you are the best, most intelligent, and most beautiful person – so you grow up believing that you are simply the best.
The core belief that elevates you above others affects the way you interact with people around you. You may look down on ‘lesser’ people and treat them with disdain. You feel repulsed by people you deem poorer, less attractive, and less intelligent.
(It’s also going to rock your world when you find out that you are not, in fact, a special flower.)
Core beliefs are not all negative, however.
Change that scenario a little to your core beliefs being that you are kind and generous, loving and helpful. Imagine how that would change how you behave and relate to people around you. This is not just a prettier picture but a valuable one where you are a much healthier individual emotionally and psychologically.
Most of us don’t want to be in the first scenario, nor do we want to hold harsh beliefs that see us struggling psycho-emotionally.
So, where do negative core beliefs come from that affect us so intensely?
Where Do Negative Core Beliefs Come From?
Our experiences from birth shape how we see ourselves and the world, and some experiences predispose us to hold negative beliefs about ourselves.
Let’s talk about the different influences that shape our core beliefs, starting with the biggest one.
1. Childhood Experiences And Upbringing
First and foremost is the total experience of our childhood.
How we are raised is vital to forming thought patterns, beliefs, and ideals. It’s not just what we see modeled to us by our caregivers but also what we deduce from how we are cared for.
Children raised in a balanced household with consistent love and support are more likely to hold positive core beliefs about themselves and the world around them.
Those who experience dysfunction, inconsistent patterns of love, and insecure attachments won’t be as positive about themselves.
What could be seen as absent parenting can translate to a core belief of “I’m unworthy of time and attention,” for example. Or, being raised in a family where a caregiver is overtly hateful of a particular minority group can inform a core belief of “This group of people are inferior to me and don’t deserve my respect.”
2. Traumatic Events And Their Lasting Impact
When children are raised in households where trauma and stress are present, this will shape their thinking patterns, too.
Take a child who witnessed domestic violence growing up. Not only could they grow up mistrustful of any romantic partners, but they may view relationships as something to avoid.
Or they may view themselves as entitled to subject their partners to violence and aggression because the core value is that men can treat women however they want.
Any trauma experienced will also have a marked effect on core values.
Abuse or sexual assault will most likely leave you with a deep-seated belief about relationships, who you can trust, and your worth.
It can also inform important beliefs about love and physical intimacy, which can affect you when you enter into relationships as an adult.
3. Societal And Cultural Influences
Society and the world we live in also plays a significant role in how we think. Just as children can grow up believing in unicorns and monsters based on what popular culture tells them, so too can they grow up believing things about where people belong that aren’t rooted in fact.
The same applies to a culture that promotes wealth and fame as the be-all and end-all – consider the rise of ‘The Influencer’ on social media.
And, if all we see around us speaks badly about society, for example, the high crime rate on all news channels, we may hold a core belief that the world is dangerous or that we are constantly in danger.
4. Associated Mental Health Conditions
Negative core beliefs also play a role in many mental health conditions and can even be seen as being at the root of anxiety and depression.
Experts believe that negative core beliefs have a hand in mental health distress, with people who hold negative core beliefs often showing symptoms of various disorders.
Negative core beliefs feature heavily in:
- Major depression
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Substance abuse disorders like alcoholism
- Eating disorders
- Narcissistic personality disorder
While negative core beliefs are not directly and independently responsible for all of the above, they can contribute to them in a big way.
Want to understand more? I highly recommend this video:
Negative Core Beliefs Examples
Here are some of the most common negative core beliefs that people have about themselves, others, and the world around them:
Negative Core Beliefs About The Self
- I am unlovable
- I am unworthy
- I am not good enough
- I don’t deserve happiness/good things
- I am powerless to change things
Negative Core Beliefs About The World
- The world is evil/dangerous
- The world only cares about successful/beautiful/rich people
- The world (life) is unfair
- The world favors those who stick to the rules
- The world/society is against me
Negative Core Beliefs About Others
- People can’t be trusted
- People want to use me/take advantage of me
- People will hurt me
- People are only looking out for themselves
- People only care when it serves them
The Impact of Negative Core Beliefs
Imagine wearing glasses that tint everything in a shade of gray.
That’s what negative core beliefs do to our perception of the world. These deep-rooted convictions, often not even grounded in reality, shape our thoughts, actions, and emotions. They’re not just fleeting thoughts; they’re the lenses that color our entire worldview.
Core beliefs are generally “all or nothing” thoughts, and many of them aren’t even based in fact – they are simply a thought we’ve taken captive, and internalized.
Let’s talk about some of the ways negative core beliefs can affect you:
Impact on Mental Health
Negative core beliefs are like gazing into a mirror, but instead of reflecting your true self, it distorts your image based on your deepest fears and insecurities. That’s how powerful they can become. Our deeply held beliefs don’t just whisper in our ears; they shout, echoing and amplifying our darkest thoughts.
Think you’re not good enough? That belief might wrap you in anxiety and/or depression. In the extreme, it can even lead to self-harm.
Convinced you don’t fit society’s beauty standards? You might find yourself trapped in a vicious cycle of unhealthy eating habits, trying desperately to chase an elusive ideal that’s, frankly, unattainable.
And it’s not just about how we see ourselves. If you view the world as a treacherous place, you might constantly be on edge, plagued by paranoia, or driven to extreme measures just to feel safe.
It’s a ripple effect, where one negative belief can topple a series of mental health dominoes.
Impact on Relationships
Deeply held beliefs about ourselves and others will also undoubtedly affect our ability to maintain healthy relationships.
You can easily imagine how a core belief that suggests you can’t trust other people will lead you to be the type to accuse others of betrayal at every turn.
Similarly, if you believe other people will inevitably hurt you, you may withdraw from them entirely to protect yourself.
This happens a lot in BPD relationships and situations where people have avoidant attachment styles. It’s a defense mechanism rooted, in part, in painful core beliefs.
Romantic relationships, friendships, and even family bonds can be negatively affected if your core beliefs about yourself are bad.
Maybe you believe you are unlovable, so your self-sabotaging behavior ruins a relationship; what if your belief that you will always be taken advantage of makes you wrongly accuse your significant other of infidelity?
At a very base level, most people choose to spend time with others whom they enjoy spending time around.
Those caught up in negative core beliefs tend to speak negatively and behave in ways that echo this. And most people want to avoid hanging around people with that type of energy.
I say that as someone who used to be the negative energy others sought to avoid. It’s a horrible feeling because it’s not as if you can just turn off those core beliefs and be different. (More on what to do later…)
Impact on Career
Negative core beliefs can also impact your professional life. If you believe you’re not good enough, not smart enough, not capable – it’s going to impact your performance at work, your willingness to take risks, and the confidence you inspire in your coworkers.
Maybe your belief about the world is that you’re just a cog in a giant machine that won’t ever make a difference. What does your life look like in that situation? Would you even try at your job?
And I get it – quiet quitting (or something like that) is gaining steam and more people are pushing back against the idea that jobs even deserve all of our efforts. But I caution doing a complete 180 in the opposite direction.
If you’re interested in the psychology of this, I highly recommend reading the book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber.
Impact on Physical Health
We often compartmentalize our thoughts and our bodies, as if they operate in separate realms. But the truth is, they’re intricately connected.
Negative core beliefs don’t just cloud your mental landscape. They can also cast a shadow over your physical health.
Here are a few ways that happens:
- Ever think you’re “too busy” to take care of yourself? This belief can lead to neglecting regular exercise, skipping meals, or opting for fast food, setting the stage for long-term health issues like obesity or heart disease.
- Or maybe you believe that you’re inherently awkward and unathletic, so you avoid the gym and miss out on taking a gym class with friends because you think people will judge you.
- If you’re constantly anxious due to beliefs like “I must be perfect” or “I can’t make a mistake,” your digestive system might bear the brunt. Anxiety can exacerbate conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or lead to frequent stomach aches.
- Some people believe they should “tough it out” when they’re sick or in pain, thinking they’re “weak” if they seek help. This can result in delayed medical treatment and worsened conditions. I see this a lot with mental health, especially.
- The belief that “my worth is tied to my productivity” can lead to excessive work hours, lack of sleep, and reliance on stimulants like caffeine, all of which have detrimental effects on your physical health.
Honestly, there are a myriad of ways that negative core beliefs can impact our physical health. These are just a few examples.
How To Identify Your Own Negative Core Beliefs
Identifying negative core beliefs allows you to try to challenge them. But how do you that?
Experts suggest that spending time journalling is an ideal way to recognize negative thought patterns. If you regularly express yourself in a journal, you should read over your past entries and try to identify patterns and themes that crop up.
Here are a few exercises to help you get started.
1. Thought Record Exercise
How to Do It:
- Write down the situation where you felt a negative emotion.
- Identify the emotion you felt and rate its intensity on a scale of 1-10.
- Write down the automatic thought that came to your mind.
- Challenge this thought: Is it based on facts or assumptions?
- Write down a more balanced thought.
This exercise helps you become aware of the automatic thoughts that occur in specific situations and allows you to consciously challenge and reframe them. It’s a great tool for helping you put some distance between what you feel in response to a situation and what the facts of the situation truly are. Sometimes they align, but often they don’t.
2. The ABCDE Model
How to Do It:
A: Describe the Activating event.
B: Write down your Belief about the event.
C: Identify the Consequence (emotional and behavioral) of this belief.
D: Dispute the belief. Is it rational? Is it helpful?
E: Write down the new Effect; how do you feel after disputing the belief?
This exercise is based on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and helps you understand how your beliefs about events affect your emotional responses.
3. Gratitude Journaling
How to Do It:
Every day, write down three things you are grateful for.
While this may not directly identify negative thought patterns, focusing on gratitude can help shift your mindset and make you more aware of positive aspects of your life, thereby reducing the frequency of negative thoughts. It might seem a little cheesy, and there will definitely be days you feel like you’re forcing yourself to come up with ideas, but it does help when done consistently.
4. Worst-Case, Best-Case, Most Likely Scenario
How to Do It:
- Write down a situation that is causing you anxiety or stress.
- Describe the worst-case scenario.
- Describe the best-case scenario.
- Describe the most likely scenario.
This exercise helps you put things in perspective and realize that the worst-case scenario is often not as likely as your mind makes it out to be.
5. Daily Reflection
How to Do It:
At the end of the day, write down three things that went well and three things that didn’t go well.
For the things that didn’t go well, identify the thoughts that contributed to the negative outcome. It might also be helpful to use your insights from this activity to work through the ABDE model or Worst-Case, Best-Case, Most-Likely Case exercise.
This exercise helps you reflect on your day and identify specific instances where negative thought patterns may have influenced your actions or emotions.
Remember, the key to these exercises is consistent practice. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at recognizing and challenging your negative thought patterns.
There are loads of free resources on the internet that help you work through thought processes to see what your core beliefs are. Some of these worksheets and diagrams make it easy to peel away our thinking patterns to the assumptions underlying them.
How To Challenge and Change Negative Core Beliefs
First, it’s worth noting that changing negative core beliefs is a big endeavor. It’s not as simple as we’d like it to be and often requires the help of a trained professional.
That being said, let’s look at a few of the ways you might start tackling these things in a coaching or therapy session.
Finding the Root Causes
So you’ve pinpointed your negative core beliefs—now what? The journey to change starts with understanding their origins. This isn’t about laying blame, but about gaining insights that can empower you to rewrite your mental scripts.
We already discussed the origins for core beliefs:
- Childhood influences
- Social conditioning
- Past trauma
- Past relationships
- Personal experiences
Use journaling exercises or a practice like shadow work to uncover the root causes of your negative core beliefs and put them to paper.
Using CBT To Challenge Your Core Beliefs
Cognitive reframing is a technique that requires us to acknowledge a cognitive distortion, such as a negative core belief, and try to push it in a different direction.
The idea is to shift your perspective to see a situation or set of circumstances in a different, often more positive or constructive, light.
For example, if someone has the core belief that they are “worthless,” cognitive reframing would involve identifying situations where this belief is activated and then challenging its validity.
They might be encouraged to consider alternative explanations or viewpoints that are more balanced and based on evidence, rather than on emotional reasoning or cognitive distortions.
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Books To Help You Deal With Negative Core Beliefs
- MindWorks: A Practical Guide for Changing Thoughts, Beliefs, and Emotional Reactions by Gary Van Warmerdan. This book
- Embracing Your Inner Critic: Turning Self-Criticism into a Creative Asset by Hal Stone. This book
- Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Why Your Thinking Is The Beginning & End Of Suffering by Joseph Nguyen
- Stop Overthinking: 23 Techniques to Relieve Stress, Stop Negative Spirals, Declutter Your Mind, and Focus on the Present by Nick Trenton