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Do you know what your Core Beliefs are?
Don’t worry if you don’t. I sure as heck didn’t for a LONG time.
In fact, many of us don’t know what our core beliefs really are. Not until we do a lot of work to uncover them. That’s because these defining values are stored way down in our subconscious, affecting us without our knowledge.
They’re kind of like puppet masters, influencing our life decisions nefariously from the shadows. Muahaha!
So you can tell your parents that the time you flunked that test wasn’t your fault. It was your negative core beliefs fault all along.
And that’s actually no joke! Your core beliefs, or how you think about yourself and your capabilities can deeply affect the outcome of tests, relationships, and careers. Whether you know it or not.
How can a simple thought so radically alter the course of a whole life? To find out, we have to start off by defining just what a core belief is.
*Content note: this article has been updated in June of 2022 to remove the word “toxic” from the title and body text. In the past year, I’ve come to understand that using words like toxic and narcissist promote cluster B ableism. I have always had a strong belief that mental health and the self healing community should be open to everyone and use of this vernacular is, in my opinion, exclusionary. If you’re interested to know why I’ve made this decision, please refer to this article by writer Minal Habash.
What are Core Beliefs and How are They Created In The First Place?
First off, let’s get it straight. A core value isn’t really just a simple thought. It’s a complex neural process built throughout your lifetime and deeply ingrained in your psyche. Basically, your core beliefs are what make you, well, YOU!
They start developing during early childhood. First as a reaction to your surroundings, mostly through your attachment to your caregivers. Your beliefs on how safe the world start to be ingrained at this time. For instance, if your parents were cold to you as a child or were even abusive, you might grown up believing the world is an unsafe place.
On the other hand, let’s say your caregiver was warm. They provided you with lots of emotional and physical support. In this case, you’d be more likely to believe that the world is a good, safe place.
Either way, you’d act accordingly based on those early beliefs. And as you have new experiences, your beliefs would either be challenged, changed, or reinforced by them.
Ideally, we’d have a huge variety of experiences to inform our values, good bad and neutral.
However, if you consistently have negative experiences and/or don’t have access to events that challenge that negative thinking, you might be at risk of developing some unhelpful negative core beliefs.
What is an Unhelpful Core Belief?
At their heart, core values aren’t good or bad. They’re just neural connections. But they can become more negative or positive based on the feedback you gather from the environment around you.
For example, let’s say you experienced a trauma at a young age (a trauma here is anything you can’t handle so it could be anything really).
It scared you but you didn’t really have the vocabulary yet to let others know how badly. So you express this by screaming, having tantrums and being alternately controlling and clingy.
The adults around you don’t really understand what’s happening. So they punish you for your outbursts.
After a while, you learn that expressing your feelings leads to pain. The belief “I have to be good and quiet in order to stay safe.” develops. As a result, you grow up pretty shy and reserved.
You do well in school but get bullied for being a “nerd” whenever you raise your hand to speak in class. This event and others like it reinforces your core belief. You isolate, shrinking more and more into yourself. You rarely take risks. This in turn puts you at a disadvantage when it comes to making friends, getting jobs, and building relationships. Depression and anxiety result.
This is just an example of how a negative core belief is built and fostered. The real process is complex, scientific, and has a lot more variables. The idea here is that toxic beliefs are planted, often unintentionally, by caregivers and deepened by negative experiences throughout your life.
We even start doing behaviors that confirm our negative beliefs because it’s literally what our brain is trained to do. Which makes things oh so much worse.
Why is Important to Challenge Negative Core Beliefs?
- Core beliefs concerning attachment security
- Core beliefs concerning perceived self competence
- Core beliefs concerning your idea of yourself as a whole (Global Self Evaluation)
Why’s all this so important to know? Because, according to the study, if you have a Negative Global Self Evaluation, you are much more prone to hopelessness and suicide. It’s really hard to stay invested in life if you’re constantly telling yourself how useless or bad you are.
So, these beliefs have the power to ruin your life. And we don’t want that. On the same ticket, our core values also have the power to propel us to a great and satisfying life if we let them.
We definitely DO want that. So let’s take a look at how to change a negative belief into something more productive.
How Can You Change Negative Core Beliefs?
The first step in changing core beliefs is literally just recognizing that you have them.
Seriously, that’s where it all starts. That’s because, again, most people don’t understand that it’s these beliefs producing negative thoughts and behaviors. And you can’t change something you don’t know is there.
So how does one identify a core belief?
Well, it’s easy. And not so easy at the same time. Identifying a negative value is a pretty straightforward process. But it’s also one that can be derailed really easily.
It’s best have the guidance of a mental health professional in this case.
However, professional help isn’t always feasible or possible for a lot of people. Luckily for us, everything from identifying a core belief to changing it can be done with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is evidenced based, practical therapy that usually comes in the form of worksheets, techniques and activities which can easily be practiced at home.
So let’s take a look at the activity that will help us identify our core values. It’s called the Downward Arrow Technique.
It’s really pretty simple. You just ask yourself pointed questions until you come to a statement that says something personally about you. That’s your core belief.
Check out the example below for reference. If you want to know more about what questions to ask yourself, I highly suggest you check out this informative article.
Now That We Know What our Core Belief is, Here’s How to Change it.
Okay, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Here’s the skinny on how to change a negative core belief into something more positive (or even just neutral).
Again, we’re going to be working in a CBT framework here. The first activity is called Thought Challenging. I’ve given a condensed overview of the process below. I suggest you also learn more about this technique by reading this article as well as checking out CCI’s full list of worksheets on thought challenging.
In regards to core beliefs, thought challenging is supremely helpful.
That’s because practice truly does makes perfect. The more you challenge unhelpful thoughts spawned by a negative value, the more you reroute your neural pathways to see things from a more balanced point of view.
So through this process, something damaging like “I’m a terrible person,” becomes a more realistic and productive thought: “I’m a human being who makes mistakes…overall I’m pretty decent.”
Having a more balanced view of yourself will improve your mental health and lead to thoughts and experiences that reinforce that new belief.
But only if you practice! Your brain is a just like a muscle. It needs consistent training to go from negative to positive. I really like the CBT based app Sanvello to help me get my daily “positivity practice.”
What are Some Other Things I can do to Challenge My Unhelpful Core Beliefs?
Glad you asked! There are a lot of other things you can do in addition to Thought Challenging. Here’s a quick list.
- Affirmations and Mantras – Affirmations and mantras are sometimes looked at as a little too woo-woo. I know. But repeating good thoughts about yourself has been scientifically proven to help rewire your brain. I keep mine posted on my bathroom mirror so I see them first and last thing. You can find the most gorgeous set of affirmation cards here on Amazon.
- Meditation – Meditation is really helpful when learning to disengage from negative thoughts. Practicing mindfulness makes us the impartial observer in our own heads. This gives us the ability to rationally decide what’s true and what’s not about ourselves. Not sure that meditation is right for you? Check out MSB’s article on Meditation Made Easy.
- Practicing Radical Self Compassion – Shame is what builds strong negative core beliefs. Self compassion is the antidote to shame. So, even when it seems really difficult, try treating yourself with kindness instead of self hate. You’ll see a big difference in your life, guaranteed. Tara Brach has a great how to guide on RSF here on her website
- Avoiding Safety Behaviors – Safety behaviors keep us, well, safe! But they also keep us stuck. These are behaviors inspired by our negative core beliefs. They also actively reinforce them. So if you stop participating or better yet, replace them with more positive behaviors, you’ll gain traction towards more positive thoughts and feelings. Check out the example below for reference on what Safety Behaviors look like and how to avoid them.
This is a small, non-comprehensive list. As always, I encourage you to find the mix of tools, therapy, and support that work for your needs.
I get it, changing such ingrained beliefs is really hard.
It’s even more difficult considering that negative thoughts naturally have way more power over us than positive ones. But challenging these beliefs is so worth it for our long term mental health.
As always, remember to stay compassionate with yourself during this process. Bad days and missteps happen on the way to greatness more often than people let on! So keep going!
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