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Unpacking Negative Core Beliefs in Sobriety (Why It Helps)

At some point in your drinking, you find yourself sifting through the fog of your thousandth hangover and thinking, “Why do I keep doing this?”

You’re probably even mad at yourself. 

Another Sunday morning sacrificed to fitful sleep, nausea, and a blinding headache. Your mood is so tanked you can barely muster the effort to order takeout and turn on Netflix.

You want to curl up under a blanket and disappear. 

Disappear from what, exactly?

Well, there’s the moment you’re in, for sure. 

The hangover, the hangxiety, the blinding sun and traffic and cars and business of life that carries on all the same while you wither away on the couch. 

But there’s all the other stuff, too. 

I wanted to disappear from all of it. Not just the drinking, but whatever drew me to it. I wanted to detach from the part of my brain that repeated the same mistakes over and over. 

The day after drinking, I always woke up to what I considered to be the real me. The part of myself that knew better and wanted better. This is the part that made promises. 

Okay, I’m going to stop all this madness. I can’t keep carrying on like this. What am I doing with my life?

Not the part of myself that drank too much and found an excuse in everything to crack open a cold one. Not the part of myself who couldn’t stop drinking once she started

That was some abomination I was at war with (and losing to, frankly). 

I realized further into my sobriety that thinking of myself in such bifurcated terms was a cop-out. It created this weird dynamic within myself and, ultimately, led to a lot of struggle and self-loathing. 

Because the truth is, the part of myself that drank every day was also the real me. And the real me needed work. 

A man in sobriety stares out to the sea
unpacking negative core beliefs in sobriety

“How Did I Get Here?”

Years later when I finally got into therapy, I learned that I needed to tend to whatever drove me to drink in the first place.

Some of it is baked in. 

Alcohol is really good at capturing us at a chemical level. It reshapes our brain and neural circuitry in such a way that leads us to drink more. 

It also disrupts various bodily systems in ways that exacerbate mental health conditions like anxiety and depression and makes us more susceptible to stress – all things we tend to self-medicate with alcohol. 

Tough days, feeling bad about ourselves, and regrets. You name it. The promise of alcohol was that it could numb it all (at least for a little while). 

Of course that’s a lie. The reality is all that temporary relief came at a bigger cost. 

But what made us flirt with the idea of using alcohol as an emotional salve in the first place?

What Drives Us To Start Drinking Like This?

There’s no single answer to that question. 

It’s usually a combination of factors – mental health, life experiences, social pressure, past trauma, genetic predispositions. 

But I believe at the core of all of our drinking is a desire to escape.

From what exactly? 

Could be anything. Could be many things. 

I think there are far too many permission structures in place that make it seem perfectly acceptable (encouraged?) to drink after a hard day or experience. This is how so many of us start to dabble.

I used to be a middle school teacher in a community where kids faced a host of challenges (academic and otherwise). The work was grueling and on Fridays we unleashed a week’s worth of stress onto the bar two blocks away. 

And we went HARD. 

It wasn’t just work either. Somebody going through a bad breakup? Bring a bottle of wine

This is how it starts. 

We make the transition from getting drunk and partying (also not great) to emotional drinking

But when you stop drinking, all of those underlying causes remain. 

Except now you have to deal with them using a brain that is starved for dopamine and, in some cases, a terrible case of anhedonia that makes day-to-day life feel like a herculean task. 

At some point, that initial fog lifts and we enter the next phase of sobriety which is a heavier healing, and also where some people get stuck.  

Unpacking Your Negative Core Beliefs

Something that has helped me with that heavier healing work is identifying my negative core beliefs

If you don’t know what those are, here’s a little context. Skip ahead if you don’t need this part.

We all develop core beliefs that shape how we think, act, and feel. About what exactly? Well, everything – ourselves, other people, the world.

Our core beliefs can be positive or negative. 

We develop them from childhood experiences, cultural and societal influences, and other past experiences. Mental health conditions can also shape our core beliefs. 

Negative core beliefs are exactly what they sound like – negative beliefs we have about ourselves, other people, and/or the world around us.

Even though negative core beliefs are often rooted in actual experiences, the problem lies in how they color our view of the world from that point forward. 

We start to see things through the lens of our negative core beliefs, and not as they actually are. The more deeply ingrained these beliefs, the harder it is to change our perspective. 

What Negative Core Beliefs Look Like

Let’s say you grew up in a high-pressure home. Grades and achievement were held in the highest esteem. If you brought home a B+ on a report, even if you tried really hard to get that grade, it was treated as a failure. Came in third at the track meet? Disappointment. 

You might develop a negative core belief that your hardest effort is never good enough. In fact, you can never be good enough. Imagine what it looks like to carry that into adulthood and how it plays out in your professional and personal life. 

Or maybe you grew up in a house where your parents were inconsistent with their affection. There was a lot of shouting. Your dad would leave for long periods of time. 

You might develop a negative core belief that people are unreliable and the best way to protect yourself is to not need anyone or ever allow yourself to get too attached. 

Mom and Dad couldn’t give you love and support. Why would anyone else? This must be how the world works. People will always disappoint you and never meet your needs. 

In recent times, we’ve seen the impact of social media on shaping young people’s core beliefs about themselves. This is particularly true for teenage girls on Instagram. They are bombarded with filtered images of happy, skinny peers wearing flawless makeup and expensive clothes, leading exciting lives. 

That, in turn, shapes how they see themselves. Never mind that it’s all smoke and mirrors. The message they receive is “this is the standard you have to meet.” 

Sadly, we see more young girls getting crushed under the weight of trying. It’s literally driving a mental health crisis among teens

And you can see how, in all of these cases, a person might start flirting with drinking as a way to escape the pain and pressure of “not good enough”, unloved, and imperfect.

Negative Core Beliefs and Drinking Triggers

One thing I’ve realized is just how interconnected our deeply held beliefs are with cravings to drink. 

Maybe you’ve experienced this, too. 

You could be perfectly fine one moment, and then something happens. It could be small, but nevertheless, the emotionally reactive part of your brain starts firing and you get hit with an intense urge to drink. 

Sometimes it’s instantaneous. Other times, we build things up in our brain to get there.

You might even know intellectually that nothing serious has happened, but you can still feel the craving and now you have to expel an exorbitant amount of energy on not drinking.   

I’ll give an example. 

Let’s say you’re in a meeting at work and stumble a little through a meeting with your boss’s boss. You don’t feel like you explained yourself well and wish you could go back and redo some parts of the conversation to drive a few key points home.

If you wrestle with negative core beliefs about your self-worth and whether you’re good enough to advance in your career, this meeting might trigger some deep-seated feelings within you. 

You start telling yourself that you royally screwed up and ruined your chance of getting the promotion you’re aiming for. 

The magnitude of what that interaction will mean for your career grows (inside your mind anyway), and by the end of the day, you’ve convinced yourself you’re about to get sacked. (This is called catastrophizing and it’s a common cognitive distortion.)

Panic ensues. Now you want to drink. 

But what if you learn to stop that snowball effect before it can start? To recognize that a core belief was triggered, and then utilize skills to refute your thoughts and bring the temperature back down in your brain?

Identifying and Healing Our Negative Core Beliefs in Sobriety

A thriving sobriety requires us to unpack the core beliefs and past experiences that contributed to our drinking. 

It’s not enough to just not drink – though that’s a big part of it. 

We have to heal and nurture the parts of ourselves that resorted to numbing and escapism. There could be a number of reasons why, and those are things I highly encourage you to work through with a therapist or coach. 

But how?  

This is where I make a plea to work with a trained professional. Yes, you can learn about CBT principles on your own, but therapy is not a DIY endeavor. If nothing else, it’s helpful to have an outside perspective. 

That being said, I also get it if you’re curious about the process of refuting negative core beliefs. 

What does that look like in practice? 

The basic principles are simple (but not easy). You have to identify your core beliefs and then actively work to refute them until you change them.

I’ll explore some common tactics from CBT, provide a few resources, and then encourage you to connect with someone who can work one-on-one with you. 

1. Identify Core Beliefs

The first step is to identify your core beliefs. You’re probably aware of some already. Others may be so ingrained, they barely register with you. In either case, here are a couple of things you can do to get familiar with them.


Whenever you have a negative thought, take time to write down the activating event. 

  • What was the feeling you had at this moment?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how intense was the feeling? 
  • What was the automatic thought you had? 
  • Challenge it. Is it based on fact or feeling? 
  • Write down a more balanced thought.

If you’re into journaling, I do have sobriety journals with 100+ guided prompts that can walk you through activities like this one. Visit my sobriety journals page to learn more!

Sneak Peek photos of Early Sobriety Journal by Soberish

Talk Therapy

A therapist is a good resource for identifying negative core beliefs. They’ll have a range of activities and guided exercises to help you uncover your core beliefs and their origins without judgment. 

When I first started therapy, I thought I knew exactly what my problems were, but my therapist helped me dig even deeper and uncover things I wasn’t consciously thinking about. With her guidance, I was able to piece some things together that hadn’t clicked before.

You don’t have to figure this out on your own.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a qualified therapist who gets you, try BetterHelp. Get 10% off your first month when you click the link below.

2. Challenge Core Beliefs

Once you identify your negative core beliefs, you can begin doing the work of challenging them. Here are two strategies that therapists often use.

  • Cognitive Restructuring: This involves identifying irrational thoughts and beliefs, challenging them, and replacing them with more rational and realistic thoughts. This can be done as part of your journaling practice (see above).
  • Socratic Questioning: Ask yourself a series of questions to challenge your core beliefs, like “Is this belief based on facts?” or “Has this belief always been true?” Here’s a good resource on using Socratic Questioning in therapy if you want to delve deeper. 

You might also find this video helpful:

3. Get External Input

In addition to working with a therapist or coach, you can also enlist the help of your peer group or loved ones. They can offer outside perspectives on what you’re feeling.

Of course, you have to be open to hearing it.

If you’re sensitive to feedback, it may be best to stick to one-to-one counseling at first. (That’s how I was for a long time, and that’s okay! It was something I had to work on.)

Enlisting people you trust can be helpful if you’re struggling to see things from a different point of view.

Do you have a blind spot? Is there another way to interpret what happened that you’re not considering? 

External input can help with that. 

4. Experiment with New Beliefs

Another CBT tool worth trying is a behavioral experiment. There are several ways to do them. Here’s one:

  • Act as if: When you’re unlearning negative core beliefs, you have to adopt new, healthier beliefs. That’s really hard! You feel like you’re faking it at first. “Act as if” is an experiment where you act as if the healthier core belief is true. If you think “I’m not worthy of love,” act as if you are and observe the outcomes.  

If this method sounds interesting to you and you’d like to learn more, here’s a video that explains it further:

Give Yourself Time.

The path to sobriety isn’t a straight line. You’ll need patience as these things often take longer than we’d like.

Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques, and a supportive community can all be invaluable resources on this journey.

It’s not just about coping mechanisms, but learning a framework for understanding the ‘why’ behind the ‘what.’ Why did we start drinking excessively? Why did we continue despite the negative consequences? And most importantly, how can we change the narrative moving forward?

It’s about challenging the internal dialogues that have held us captive for so long. And it’s about replacing those dialogues with healthier, more constructive thoughts that serve our well-being.

So, as you move forward, don’t just aim to be ‘sober.’ 

Aim to be whole. 

Curious About Your Drinking Habits?

The following quiz is called the AUDIT, which is short for Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. It’s used by medical professionals to assess your risk for alcohol dependence. Curious about how your drinking habits stack up? Take the assessment.

This is not an official medical diagnosis nor is it medical advice. Rather this is for informational purposes only. If you have any questions or concerns, share your results with your doctor.

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

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