“I’m defective”, “People are selfish”– my last column described how harmful core beliefs tend to be over-generalised statements about ourselves, others and the world. Negative core beliefs are invariably self-defeating; how can they be changed?
Unhelpful core beliefs typically fall into three categories – helplessness (e.g. “I can’t do anything right”), unlovability (e.g. “I’ll be rejected”) or worthlessness (e.g.,“I don’t deserve happiness”). While these sweeping over-generalisations can be deeply held, people are often unaware of them.
To change such beliefs, you must first identify them. Begin by examining your automatic self-talk. What do you commonly tell yourself? Is your voice encouraging or critical? In what types of situations do you put yourself down? What are your negative predictions? What triggers intense emotion? Are there traits in others (e.g. confidence) that make you feel bad about yourself? What do you avoid?
Gently probing such questions will shed light on how you see yourself and others.
Let’s run with a hypothetical example. Rebecca tells herself she won’t get promoted at work. She sees her colleagues as smarter, more sociable. Rebecca relieves her frustrations by feeding her feelings every evening. She sees the scales increase and views this as proof of her weakness.
Rebecca declines opportunities to up-skill; if she doesn't try, she won’t fail. When Rebecca hears friends describe their goals and leisure time, she feels under-confident and jealous. She admonishes herself for being resentful. She continues to numb feelings of inadequacy with sugar.
While Rebecca may not be overtly telling herself she doesn't measure up, you can see how the conclusions she makes about herself and others imply as much. Rebecca believes she is incapable. Her avoidant behaviours have reinforced this. She also believes she is incapable of learning. This belief means she doesn’t try and remains stuck.
To change, Rebecca could test a more balanced belief. We know from research it is more effective to strengthen a new belief rather than try to eliminate a negative one. Rebecca might choose “I am competent”.
It’s important to measure how much one believes the old belief (e.g. 85 per cent) and the new belief (e.g.15 per cent). While some beliefs are stable across time, others are susceptible to changing moods. You might feel more capable after going for a run and completing a work project. Measuring belief on a 0-100 continuum is a good way of tracking whether it’s influenced by transient stress and external factors.
For a few months, keep a log of evidence that supports the new belief. Rebecca might record how she made healthier food choices, contributed at a team meeting.
It’s crucial not to discount achievements as you log this. Negative core beliefs can be deeply embedded and, like all prejudices, stubbornly resistant to change. If you have berated yourself for years, you may experience discomfort acknowledging your efforts. Don’t let this discomfort steer you; take note of the positive data even if it “feels” untrue.
Continue to re-rate how much you believe the old and new core beliefs.
Be mindful of your ongoing behaviours, of situations where you might be overly eager. Rebecca might put herself forward for promotion because she is trying to prove she is capable. In this sense, she is overcompensating and still operating out of the old belief system. A more moderate approach might be to pursue goals linked with her values while ensuring she is not avoiding situations which activate her self-doubt. The best way to self-monitor accurately is to check with your automatic thoughts and feelings in real time.
It’s important to have realistic expectations. You may have identified with your old core belief for most of your life, so assume it will peer its head from time to time.
Rebecca may also believe “others are untrustworthy”. Understanding how she historically came to hold this view can help her see if it is accurate or outdated. Challenging this belief would involve allowing herself to reach out and let her guard down. The aim would be for Rebecca to gradually buy into the belief that people can be decent and trustworthy.
After all, one of the most reassuring tenets of CBT is that what is learned can be unlearned.