Core beliefs are a person’s most central ideas about themselves, others, and the world.

The idea of a person having a ‘core belief’ comes from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which was developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s.

Beck developed Cognitive Therapy (the ‘behavioural’ bit was added later) as a structured short term psychotherapy for treating depression.

The cognitive model outlined the existence of three layers of thought:

  • Automatic thoughts
  • Intermediate beliefs (including attitudes, rules, and conditional assumptions)
  • Core beliefs
Automatic-thoughts-Intermediate-beliefs-including-attitudes-rules-and-conditional-assumptions-Core-beliefs What are your Core Beliefs?

Core beliefs act like a lens through which every situation and life experience is seen. Because of this, people with different core beliefs might be in the same situation, but think, feel, and behave very differently.

Where do Core Beliefs Form?

In childhood, people develop certain beliefs about themselves, other people and the world. 

Also known as schemas, these are deeply held beliefs of the self, the world or others, and the future.

Examples of core beliefs include:

  • Self: “I’m useless”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m unlovable”
  • World or others: “The world is unfriendly”, “The world is dangerous”, “People will reject me”, “People are selfish”
  • Future: “The future is hopeless”, “Things will never work out for me”

Common Core Beliefs

Helpless beliefs

I am helpless

I am powerless

I am out of control

I am weak

I am vulnerable

I am needy

I am inadequate

I am ineffective

I am incompetent

I am a failure

I am disrespected

I am defective (do not measure up to others)

I am not good enough (in terms of achievement)

Unlovable beliefs

I am unlovable

I am unlikeable

I am undesirable

I am unattractive

I am unwanted

I am uncared for

I am bad

I am unworthy

I am different

I am defective (so others will not love me)

I am not good enough (to be loved by others)

I am bound to be rejected

I am bound to be abandoned

I am bound to be alone

These core beliefs then go on to influence the development of Intermediate beliefs

Intermediate beliefs

Automatic thoughts

These are rapid, automatic and spontaneous thoughts that people have in reaction to particular events. As a more conscious and over-the-surface type of thoughts, people tend to be more aware of them than core beliefs or intermediate beliefs. They are more malleable than the rigid core beliefs and, as such, it can be easier to challenge them. Examples of automatic thoughts include:

  • After making a mistake at work: “I’m going to get fired”
  • Being in a crowded place: “I’m going to have a panic attack”
  • Having failed an exam: “I will never graduate”

We refer to these thoughts as automatic thoughts because they simply arise and pop into our heads without conscious thought.

Attitudes

Attitudes are strict and unrealistic overall evaluations or appraisals of a person, thing, or situation.

Examples of attitudes are:

  • “It is better not to try than trying and failing”
  • “Only successful people are worthy of love”
  • “Life is only worthy if you excel at your job”

Rules or Expectations

Rules or Expectations are specific guidelines that people have for themselves and others. These rules usually come with “should” or “musts” that the person needs to follow to navigate the world. Examples of rules in CBT are:

  • “I must always please others”
  • “I should never make mistakes”
  • “I must have the control”

Rules are connected to assumptions and core beliefs. For example, someone with a core belief that they are not good enough may develop a rule that they must always perform perfectly to be accepted. In another example, an individual with a rule that they should always be in control may have an underlying assumption that things will fall apart if they are not in control.

Assumptions

Assumptions are beliefs about the relationship between situations and their consequences. These assumptions are conditional because they often take the form of “if-then” statements, where a person believes that if a certain event occurs, then a specific consequence must follow. Examples of assumptions are:

  • “If I make a mistake, I will lose all my respect”
  • “If I don’t please people, I will be rejected”
  • “If I am not perfect, then I am a failure”

Core beliefs, intermediate beliefs and automatic thoughts reinforce each other to create a wholesome belief system that is difficult to change.

Core beliefs are not true facts

Core Beliefs we have about ourselves tend to surface during times of psychological distress.

At these times people will tend to see only the information which supports the core belief (known as confirmation bias); and so it’s as if people almost start to build a case for the core belief being true.

Even if a core belief is inaccurate, it still shapes how a person sees the world. Harmful core beliefs lead to
negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, whereas rational core beliefs lead to balanced reactions.

Identifying Core Beliefs

We can’t totally avoid having negative core beliefs, we can take action to transform them. The first step is identifying them.

  • Pay attention to recurring patterns in your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors
  • Reflect on your automatic reactions and self-perception.
  • Examine how past experiences shape your beliefs.
  • Observe behavioral patterns and seek feedback from trusted individuals.

Then identify thoughts that are bouncing around in your head every day.

There are two ways to identify your automatic thoughts.

  1. Sit quietly and observe your thoughts. You can do this at any time but are likely to find this technique most helpful when you have been feeling down or edgy and anxious for a period of time. The idea is not to ponder whether these thoughts are true or false. Instead the goal is simply to begin to identity the thoughts.
  2. Look for times when your feelings or mood shift abruptly such as when you begin to feel angry. Again, the goal is not to spend time ruminating on the thoughts. We simply want to label them as thoughts and take note of the content. Once you can identify these thoughts it is very helpful to write them down.

Ways to challenge and change your core beliefs

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Mindfulness techniques
  • Self-compassion practices
  • Positive affirmations

Mindfulness can improve your life in regard to core beliefs, as well as in general.

To practice mindfulness to change your core beliefs:

  • Be open and curious about your thoughts and emotions
  • Practice self-reflection, during which you “observe your internal dialogue and notice any recurring patterns or self-limiting beliefs that arise”
  • Practice non-judgment by acknowledging these beliefs but without attaching value to them
  • Try mindfulness meditation or other mindfulness practices to enhance your sense of self-
  • awareness

Beck, A.T. (1967) “Depression: Causes and treatment,” University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia.