What are core beliefs, and why do they matter?
Core beliefs are our most deeply held assumptions about ourselves, the world, and others.
They are firmly embedded in our thinking and significantly shape our reality and behaviors.
In fact, nothing matters more than our core beliefs. They are the root causes of many of our problems, including our automatic negative thoughts.
Yet, as the name suggests, core beliefs are precisely that – beliefs rather than facts. Based on childhood assessments, they are often untrue. They are also self-perpetuating. Like magnets, they attract evidence that makes them stronger, and they repel anything that might challenge them. But the good news is that it is possible to change them.
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Common Examples of Core Beliefs
Core beliefs were first theorized in the context of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). They are also known as schemas, which shape how we process and interpret new information (see Beck, A. T. 1979; Beck, A. T., Freeman, A. & Davis, D. 2015; Beck. J.S. 2005; Beck, J.S. 2011).
Aaron Beck (1979) outlined three interrelated levels of cognition:
- core beliefs,
- dysfunctional assumptions, and
- negative automatic thoughts.
We can think of our automatic negative thoughts as the situational expressions of our dysfunctional assumptions and negative core beliefs.
Core beliefs are formed early in life and shaped by our upbringing and our experiences. Because they are so deep-seated and embedded, they are very difficult to change. Their original function is to help us make sense of our formative experiences, but they can become unproductive or even harmful later in life. (Osmo et al. 2018)
Harmful common core beliefs usually come in the form of absolutist “I am …,” “People are …,” and “The world is …” statements.
- We may think that we are bad, evil, losers, not good enough, incompetent, ugly, stupid, rotten at our core, unworthy, undeserving, abnormal, boring, existentially flawed, or unlovable.
- We may believe that people are bad, not to be trusted, exploitative, or manipulative.
- Finally, we may deem the world a dangerous place – unsafe, or hostile enemy territory that has only bad things in store for us.
Judith Beck (Beck, J.S, 2005 & 2011) proposes there are three main categories of negative core beliefs about the self:
- unlovability, and
The beliefs that fall into the helplessness category are related to personal incompetence, vulnerability, and inferiority. Unlovability-related core beliefs include the fear that we are not likable and incapable of intimacy, while worthlessness-themed core beliefs include the belief that we are insignificant and a burden to others.
If we have negative views of others, we may think of them as untrustworthy, as wishing to hurt us, or as demeaning, uncaring, or manipulative. All of these beliefs may make us very anxious to avoid rejection and overly keen to seek validation from others. (Osmo et al. 2018)
If our core beliefs are positive and helpful, we need to take no further action. If they are not, we must seek to transform them, for limiting core beliefs are the root causes of low self-esteem. They shape how we treat ourselves, others, and even how others may treat us. They set the rules by which we live and the tone of our self-talk.
When our experiences do not align with our core beliefs, our minds – always set on avoiding cognitive dissonance – will twist them until they do.
Top 2 Core Beliefs Worksheets
A good starting point for exploring your clients’ core beliefs is this Core Beliefs CBT Formulation. It follows standard CBT methods and steps, asking us to analyze a situation, a thought, and a resulting feeling, and then to identify the underlying themes behind our recurring thoughts and feelings.
If we can detect patterns in our recurring negative thoughts, they may lead us to the core beliefs that are producing them. As a third step, we are invited to outline core strategies for dealing with these beliefs. The final part of this process involves some existential detective work to determine which significant childhood events may have shaped our core beliefs.
This Core Beliefs Worksheet is another useful starting point for core belief work with clients. A simple and accessible awareness-raising tool, the worksheet prompts us to complete three statements: “I am …” “Other people are ….,” and “The world is …”.
Clients are invited to explore when they first became aware of these beliefs, which experiences contributed to shaping them, and who in their family may hold similar opinions. Next, clients are asked to reflect on whether these beliefs still serve them. If the answer is no, we can begin to help them formulate and cultivate alternative views.
4 Ways to Identify Core Beliefs
Our negative core beliefs drive our dysfunctional immediate beliefs in the forms of attitudes and rules.
If we believe we are unloveable, for example, this could translate into rules such as “I must be thin, because if only I were thin, I would become loveable.”
Or we may think we have to be rich, or always agreeable, or overly helpful, or constantly self-deprecating, or that we must never say no to anyone, to be worthy of other people’s love.
- Because our automatic negative thoughts (ANT) are the spawns of our core beliefs, we can use them as guides to trace our underlying core beliefs. The best way to identify negative core beliefs is, therefore, to look at our recurring ANTs and to try to detect patterns and themes. We can begin by looking for patterns in our experiences and also in our interpretations of these experiences.
- “Vertical Arrow/Downward Arrow/Vertical Descent” techniques are a mode of Socratic questioning which helps us to uncover our clients’ intermediate-level and core beliefs. Their purpose is to uncover the deeper origins of our surface cognitions. The idea is very much to follow our thoughts down to the underlying assumptions that produce them, like peeling away the layers of an onion.
- The Core Beliefs Worksheet 2 hones in on negative core beliefs about ourselves. These beliefs tend to revolve around the themes of helplessness, unlovability, and worthlessness. It lists the most common beliefs in each category and asks clients to identify the ones that apply to them.
- Finally, we can also have a closer look at our rules (or common beliefs). The Identifying Personal Rules worksheet is a handy tool. It encourages us to identify and challenge harmful rules, and to think about alternative rules going forward.
Dealing With Negative Beliefs: 4 Sheets
There are various strategies for dealing with negative beliefs.
The first is merely becoming more aware of our negative cognitions.
The second is understanding from where they came. When did we first think about ourselves, or the world, or others, in a particular way? Which experiences contributed to shaping these beliefs? Which people in our families may hold similar opinions?
The third step entails challenging these beliefs. This includes a deliberate attempt at cognitive restructuring, identifying the cognitive distortions that are at work in our ANTs, and patiently amassing evidence that contradicts our beliefs until we can accept they no longer serve us and let them go. (Burns, 1980)
ANTs have been graced with much empirical and clinical attention, significantly more so than negative core beliefs – despite their crucial importance. (David, Lynn, & Ellis, 2010) But given that ANTs can be the guides that lead us to our negative core beliefs, it is a great idea to use them as a starting point for identifying and then dealing with our more deep-seated negative beliefs.
This article on “Challenging Automatic Thoughts” is a rich resource for worksheets on ANT.
The following four worksheets are particularly helpful tools for challenging negative beliefs:
- Increasing Awareness of Cognitive Distortions encourages us to become more aware of our negative thoughts and unproductive beliefs and to identify common patterns of bias in our cognitions. It includes a helpful list of classic cognitive distortions (Burns, 1980; & David, Lynn, & Ellis, 2010).
- Identifying False Beliefs About Emotions is also very valid in our context. It hones in on false core beliefs about emotions with which we may struggle and which we might be afraid to express, asking us to challenge our underlying assumptions about what may happen if we expressed certain emotions.
- Identifying Limiting Beliefs about Strengths asks us to re-examine how we think about our strengths. This approach might seem counterintuitive, but we may not be making the most of our natural talents, or even feel ashamed or guilty about embracing some of our strengths. This exercise helps us to uncover what we believe about our strengths – what they mean to us, how we express them, or why we might hide or even suppress them.
- Addressing Unhelpful Beliefs about Relationships, finally, asks us to explore the conscious or unconscious beliefs we may be holding about relationships. It is designed to emancipate ourselves from common myths, to grant us more agency about our feelings, and to enhance our wellbeing in intimate relationships.
Comprehensive List of Core Beliefs
This Table of Common Core Beliefs presents a reasonably comprehensive list of negative core beliefs. It is particularly useful because it presents these as specific rather than abstract beliefs, and can also be used as a check-list.
- I need to ‘earn’ happiness
- I need to control my environment to manage my feelings
- The world is a dangerous place
- Even my best efforts are not good enough, and
- Once someone knows me, they’ll lose interest.
It is a great accompaniment to our Negative Thoughts Checklist if you or a client are looking to tackle recurring negative thoughts.
Meaning and Valued Living Tools
A different approach to the mainly CBT-based methods discussed above are interventions that focus on positive counterpoints to negative core beliefs.
As Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning:
“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
(Frankl, 2004, p. 84)
At the heart of Frankl’s logotherapy approach lies the idea that we need to break with our “typical self-centeredness” and re-orientate ourselves towards the meaning of our lives. (Frankl, 2004. p. 104) A focus on meaning that is located outside ourselves – be that in the form of creativity, service, or relationships – will help us more powerfully to overcome our psychological struggles, than problem-focused methods.
The true meaning of life, Frankl writes, is to be discovered in the world rather than within our own psyches.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), too, focuses not so much on changing our negative cognitions and beliefs but recommends instead we accept them and then try to let them go. (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) Here is a resource filled with ACT worksheets and exercises.
Russ Harris, the author of The Happiness Trapp (2007), argues that we have far less control over our thoughts and feelings than we like to think. He challenges CBT’s assertion that we must reason ourselves out of unwanted states of mind.
Willpower, he argues, is a limited resource. It is, therefore, better to manage our condition than to expend all our energy on trying to avoid or change bad thoughts. Instead, we should simply observe and accept them and then try to let them go.
Harris suggests that our counterproductive control strategies are our core problem. Our attempts to curb negative thinking or change unproductive core beliefs take up vast amounts of time and energy and are usually ineffective in the long run. He proposes we completely stop trying to control our thoughts and beliefs, refrain from labeling them as good or bad, and aim for a value-led and action-driven approach to life.
How could such an approach look like in practice? We may, for example, practice thinking “Thank you, mind” whenever it bombards us with unhelpful thoughts, and not take the content of these thoughts too seriously.
We may want to remind ourselves that our thoughts are just words and opinions and that our beliefs are just that – beliefs, not facts. They are nothing more than the noise of our endlessly chattering minds. You can access the complete worksheets from Harris’ The Happiness Trapp.
The history, theory, and practice of value- and meaning-based interventions are explained in Hugo Albers’ hugely inspiring Meaning and Valued Living Masterclass. Various exercises in the PositivePsychology.com Toolkit encourage us to hone value-based living and seeking meaning that is located outside the self.
The Self-Eulogy exercise, for example, helps us to clarify our values and how we can use them as guides that shape our behaviors and decisions. Knowing our values helps us to live more fulfilling and more prosperous lives.
Imagining our own funeral service and what we would like people to say about us can be a powerfully clarifying exercise. It also demonstrates how much we are already living in accordance with our values, or which steps we might have to take to live more fully in line with them.
The Top 5 Values Worksheet helps us to choose directions in our lives that are in line with our core values. It is designed to increase awareness of our values and helps us reflect on the importance of these values and their meanings. It includes an extensive list of values and asks us to identify five, to rank them, and to specify their significance and importance in our lives.
Finally, the Values Diagram seeks to create awareness of a possible gap between our behavior and our values. It uses visual tools to illustrate this discrepancy and is a very effective intervention that steers us to more value-driven behavior.
It asks us to divide a circle into slices that represent the time we spend on different elements and areas of our lives. In a second step, we are invited to create a circle that is sliced up in an ideal way – showing how and with whom we would actually like to spend our time.
A Take-Home Message
Nothing, then, seems more urgent than working on our core beliefs if they prevent us from thriving in our lives. They are the root cause of most of our psychological problems, determining our self-image, our cognitions, our beliefs about the world and others, and our personal rules. They make us see everything through a glass darkly. They also generate and shape our automatic negative thoughts.
To transform our core beliefs, we can try cognitive restructuring methods to train our minds to embrace more productive attitudes. We can venture into our pasts to unearth their origins and use patterns in our experiences and our interpretations as guides for uncovering their all-pervasive influence.
We can also try to manage them by using second-wave positive psychology approaches, such as ACT-based interventions. These seek to shift our focus away from problematic cognitions to value, meaning, and positive action-taking. Rather than trying to correct negative core beliefs, they ask us to accept them and to be mindful of the fact that they are, as their name suggests, mere opinions.
Like fake news, however, harmful core-beliefs are very difficult to control and eradicate and have the power to cause much long-term damage. Whether we may wish to activate a constant inner fact-checker, tasked with assessing the integrity of our cognitions, or instead decide to acknowledge but then to let them go, depends on our therapeutic preferences.
The former approach takes the content of our own core beliefs seriously and tries to provide rational counter-arguments to disempower them. The latter does not grace their exact content with too much attention. The hope is that by recognizing and labeling our unhelpful core beliefs as the ‘fake news’ of our psyches, they will lose most of their power and influence.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our 3 Positive CBT Exercises for free.
- Beck, A. T. (1979). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: Meridian.
- Beck, A. T., Freeman, A., & Davis, D. (2015). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders (3rd ed.). New York: Guilford.
- Beck, J. S. (2005). Cognitive therapy for challenging problems: What to do when the basics don’t work. New York: Guilford Press.
- Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
- Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.
- David, D., Lynn, S., & Ellis, A. (eds.). (2010). Rational and irrational beliefs: Research, theory, and clinical practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Frankl, Viktor E. (2004) Man’s Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust. London: Rider.
- Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., and Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.
- Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap. Based on ACT: A revolutionary mindfulness-based program for overcoming stress, anxiety, and depression. London: Robinson.
- Osmo, F., Duran, V., Wenzel, A., de Oliveira, I. R., Nepomuceno, S., Madeira, M., & Menezes, I. (2018). The negative core beliefs inventory: Development and psychometric properties. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 32(1), 67-84.