Modifying Core Beliefs in CBT

Now that we’ve learned what core beliefs are, the video below describes how we can start modifying and changing our core beliefs.

Changing Negative Core Beliefs in CBT

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In my first video about core beliefs, rules, and assumptions, we looked at what they are and how you can uncover what yours are. So if you’re not sure what these terms refer to, we’re not sure what your own core beliefs are. You may want to check out that video first, and I’ll link to it in the description and pin comment.

In this video, we’re going to look at how you can change your core beliefs in order to improve how you feel about yourself, reduce negative thinking, moods, and emotions, and act in ways that are more helpful to you.

Core beliefs are our long-standing and deeply held beliefs about ourselves, the world, and other people. They influence how we think, feel, and act. Since our core beliefs are formed starting in childhood, we never made the conscious decision to believe the things we ended up believing about ourselves, the world, and others. We just absorbed these beliefs subconsciously based on what we learned from our parents and other significant people in our lives, as well as from significant experiences we’ve had.

Now, as children, when these beliefs were forming, we didn’t have the mental capacity or life experience to be able to evaluate the core beliefs we were developing or to assess whether or not we wanted these beliefs or even to be aware of what they were in most cases. So that’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that we didn’t choose our core beliefs. They were thrust upon us, and we adopted them usually without giving them a second thought. But the good news is now that we’re older, we do have the ability to evaluate our core beliefs, assess whether or not they’re working for us or represent who we really are or the types of people we want to be, and then make a conscious effort to change the core beliefs that aren’t a good fit for us.

Core beliefs can be difficult to change, not only because they’re so long-standing and deeply ingrained in us, but also because they influence our thoughts and behavior. And as a result, the way we think and act tends to provide evidence that supports what we already believe, making our core beliefs even stronger. If I have a core belief that the world is dangerous or scary, then I’ll have lots of anxious thoughts and I’ll avoid doing things because they cause me too much anxiety. And as a result, I’m feeding back into my belief system information along the lines of “Look at how much I have to worry about things! Look at how anxious I get when I have to do something! Look at all this data that the world really is scary!” And my core belief gets reinforced. But this is just a self-perpetuating cycle. I’ve gathered no external data that suggests the world is actually scary. I believe the world is scary, so my thoughts and behavior reflect this belief. And then I use these thoughts and behaviors as if they’re confirmations of my belief, rather than just a byproduct or result that sprung from this belief in the first place.

So the most common way we change core beliefs isn’t to target them directly, but to target thoughts and behavior. We focus on reframing automatic negative thoughts through cognitive restructuring and modifying behaviors that are contributing to our depression or anxiety or whatever issues we’re struggling with. And as we do this, we break the self-perpetuating feedback loop and start sending new data down into our core belief system that can contradict existing core beliefs. And as a result, these core beliefs start to loosen up a bit, become less rigid, and begin to naturally change on their own.

Sometimes modifying thoughts and behavior is sufficient to change core beliefs enough that they no longer cause us problems. But sometimes this alone may not be sufficient, and we need to target our core beliefs more directly. And other times it may be a temporary fix, and things are better for a while, but eventually negative core beliefs that have become relatively dormant get reawoken by some trigger and re-emerge and start causing issues again. For example, you may have a core belief “I’m worthless” that rears up when you’re feeling depressed. But lately, you haven’t been depressed. You’ve been doing well in your job, and you’re in a good relationship and have a nice group of friends. So that “I’m worthless” core belief hasn’t had any reason to be active lately. But then maybe you get a new boss, and things aren’t going so well at work, and your relationship ends, and you start to feel a little depressed. And all of a sudden, that “I’m worthless” core belief is back in play and it starts influencing your thoughts and behaviors and making everything worse. So if you notice a recurring pattern like this where our core belief keeps re-emerging, you may wish to target this core belief directly.

So let’s look at how we can do this by working our way through a couple of examples. In order to modify a core belief, we want to both decrease how strongly we hold our current belief and how often it gets activated, while building up support for a new belief that’s more realistic and functional. So let’s start by assessing on a scale from 0 to 100 how strongly we believe the core belief we’re trying to change, which in this example is “I am worthless.” And so maybe right now we believe it’s at 90 percent. So that’s our baseline.

Now when I look at the belief “I am worthless,” my first thought is, what does that even mean? Core beliefs are usually stated in pretty broad terms, so we often need to break them down into their components before we can start to dispute them. So maybe to me, “I am worthless” means things like “I’m not as good as other people,” “Nobody cares about me,” “I’m wasting my life,” “I have no future.” And that’s all pretty discouraging. But it’s also now possible to dispute these claims in a way that it’s difficult to do with a broader and less specific term like “worthless.”

So now we can do some cognitive restructuring on these statements, just like we would on an automatic thought, to try to make them less extreme and not so negatively biased. And I have a video about cognitive restructuring and an upcoming video about thought diaries that can help with this if you’re not familiar with cognitive restructuring. So maybe we come up with something like “I’m not doing as well as I’d like, and I could be doing better.” “I’d like to have closer relationships.” “I’m not sure what the future holds, and I wish there was less uncertainty.” So having unpacked things a bit and done some cognitive restructuring, now how much do we believe the statement “I am worthless”? And so maybe we’re down to an 80 out of a hundred.

And we want to make sure to focus on evidence from the here and now. While something that happened when we were 10 years old may have played a big role in forming our core belief, it’s not really relevant to whether or not that core belief is still valid today. On the evidence for side, maybe we have the modified statements we just came up with, as well as things such as:

  • I thought I would have had a better job by now.
  • I’ve lost touch with people I used to be close to.
  • I’m not in a romantic relationship.
  • I can’t afford to buy a house.
  • I can’t even keep my apartment clean.

In terms of evidence that maybe this core belief isn’t true or at least not 100% true, we have things like:

  • I have an okay job, even if it’s not as good as I’d like.
  • I get along with my co-workers.
  • I do have friends, I just don’t get to see them that much.
  • I was in a relationship for a couple of years until recently.
  • Lots of people I know can’t afford a house these days.

So right now, there is more evidence for the belief than against it, which makes sense. When we’ve been believing something for years, we’re good at finding evidence that supports it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t still hold that belief. And it’s harder to come up with evidence that something we’ve believed for most of our lives isn’t true. But even if we only come up with three or four things that argue against a core belief versus nine or ten that support it, that’s still a good start. Because a few minutes ago, the score might have been 9 or 10 to nothing.

So now we ask ourselves, is there a statement other than “I am worthless” that better describes the evidence we’ve collected? And maybe we come up with:

“My life’s not exactly what I want, but I’m doing okay.”

So now we’ve modified the belief “I am worthless,” and we can ask ourselves, how much do we believe this new belief? And maybe we believe it 40%. And now we can go back to our original belief “I am worthless” and ask ourselves, how much do we still believe that? And maybe now we’re at 65%. And even though 65% may be higher than we’d like, it’s a pretty big improvement from where we started at 90. And now we have a modified new belief that we already believe 40%. So now what we need to do is find ways to build support for this new modified belief while continuing to decrease how strongly we hold the old belief.

But first, now that we’re all grown up, we have the ability to choose what we want to believe about ourselves, the world, and other people in a way that we couldn’t while our core beliefs were forming when we were children. So we can ask ourselves, am I okay with the belief “I am worthless,” and is there another belief that’s more in line with my values and better reflects the way I’d like to think of myself and the kind of person I’d like to be? And so maybe we come up with something like:

“I do have value as a person and accept my limitations while acknowledging my strengths and achievements.”

So now we have two beliefs that counter our old belief “I am worthless.” This one we’ve just chosen for ourselves, and the modified belief we came up with based on the evidence we were looking at earlier. But we still need to find ways to instill these beliefs deeper down into our cores.

One way to do this is to make sure that whenever we catch ourselves saying “I am worthless,” we don’t let it slide, but correct ourselves with something like:

“I’m not worthless, my life’s not perfect, but I’m doing okay.”

“I’m not worthless, I do have value as a person, and I accept my limitations and acknowledge my strengths and achievements,”

or whatever modified or new beliefs you’ve come up with. And if the ones I’ve come up with make you want to roll your eyes, that’s fine, because you’re not trying to get yourself to believe my beliefs, but your own beliefs that you come up with and that resonate with you.

And it’s very important that we keep correcting ourselves, replacing our old core belief whenever it appears with our modified or new core beliefs. Because that’s part of how we start buying into these new beliefs over our old ones. Our old beliefs were formed in part by other people and then ourselves repeating that negative message to ourselves over and over and over again for years. So now it’s time to stop repeating that belief to ourselves and start repeating our new modified and desired beliefs over and over until they sink in.

Our core beliefs also initially develop partially as a result of our experiences. So in order to change our beliefs, we need to have not just new thoughts that reinforce our new beliefs, but new experiences that provide evidence for our new beliefs and against the old belief we’re trying to change.

So for this part, let’s switch over to a different example and use a core belief related to anxiety, like “the world is scary.” Let’s say we’ve just gone through the steps above and come up with a modified belief like “the world isn’t that scary, but it can be uncomfortable,” which we find fits the evidence better. And a new desired belief that’s more in line with our values and how we’d like to see the world and the types of people we’d like to be: “the world can be scary, but fear doesn’t rule my life.” So what we need to do now is collect evidence that supports these new beliefs and argues against our old core belief that “the world is scary.”

First, we need to start paying attention for contradictory evidence that we’ve been overlooking up until now. Obviously, we all like to think that the things we believe are true, and so we tend to dismiss any evidence that suggests our beliefs may not be accurate. And this applies to beliefs in general, not just to our core beliefs. That’s how we end up with confirmation bias. We’re always on the lookout for evidence that confirms or supports what we already believe, and so we find lots of this sort of evidence, and then we don’t notice or we ignore any evidence to the contrary because we don’t like having our beliefs challenged.

So if we do want to start challenging our existing beliefs, we need to break this cycle of confirmation bias by deliberately seeking out evidence from our daily lives that we can support for the old core beliefs we’re trying to change, while increasing support for our new beliefs. Once we start looking for evidence that the world isn’t that scary, we will start to find it. Maybe we were worrying about something that was coming up, but then nothing bad happened. Usually, that wouldn’t even register, and we just go on and start worrying about the next thing. But now we take time to note that the thing we were worried about did not in fact happen. And so maybe the world isn’t as scary as we’d feared. Or someone does something kind for us, and we make the effort to note that. Here’s some evidence that the world isn’t scary. The more often we do this, the more we start believing our old core belief a little bit less.

Now the other way we gather new evidence is by making some changes in our behavior and acting differently in the situations that trigger our “the world is scary” belief. And this is where rules and assumptions come in, as we talked about in my last video. Based on our core beliefs, we make rules and assumptions that guide our behavior. So with a core belief like “the world is scary,” we might have rules like:

  • I must not take any risks.
  • I should always keep myself safe.
  • I must always stay in control.

And assumptions like:

  • If I’m not careful, then something bad will happen.
  • If I feel anxious about something, then I should avoid it.
  • If I take a risk, then I’ll regret it.

And these rules and assumptions that are designed to keep us safe from the scary world end up preventing us from having any experiences that might provide evidence that the world isn’t as scary as we believe. So in order to have different types of experiences and gather new data and evidence that can help shift our core beliefs, we need to come up with some new rules and assumptions to guide how we act.

For example, we could try rules like:

  • I can let myself get a little out of my comfort zone.
  • I can tolerate some anxiety.
  • If I always avoid things out of fear, then I won’t have a fulfilling life.
  • If I’m careful, then I can take small risks.

Going back to the example from my last video, let’s say we’re planning to go to a party by ourselves. But based on our core beliefs, rules, and assumptions, when we get to the party, we’re feeling so anxious that we immediately turn around and go home. And so here’s an example of a situation in which we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to have a different sort of experience where we might get some evidence that the world isn’t that scary.

But now with these new rules and assumptions based on these new core beliefs that we’re trying to gather support for, we convince ourselves to take a small risk, to get a little out of our comfort zone, even if it means feeling a little bit of anxiety. Because we know if we keep avoiding things like this, we’re never going to have the life that we’d like. And so instead of behaving the way we usually would and turning around and going home, we actually go inside.

Maybe we run into some people there that we know and enjoy seeing them and have a pretty good time. Or maybe we don’t really know anyone there and mainly keep to ourselves and just make small talk with a few people who start talking to us first. And it’s not that enjoyable, but it’s not particularly scary either. Or worst-case scenario, we say something a little awkward and feel embarrassed for a while, but nothing really bad happens. In all of these scenarios, if we’re looking for evidence that the world isn’t that scary, we’re going to find some. And so our “the world is scary” belief diminishes a little.

We’re also going to find evidence that we can take small risks and get a bit out of our comfort zones and experience some anxiety without anything terrible happening. And so the new belief that the world isn’t that scary, just uncomfortable at times, gathers some support. By going to the party despite feeling anxious, we get evidence for the belief “fear doesn’t rule my life.” And as we continue having more new experiences that give us more data and evidence that the world isn’t as scary as we’d believed, our old core belief gets weaker, and the new beliefs we’re trying to instill get stronger.

Then we can expand our rules and assumptions even more, which allows us to have further new experiences that provide even more evidence in favor of the new beliefs we’re trying to adopt. Changing core beliefs doesn’t happen overnight. We can’t make ourselves suddenly stop believing something we’ve held to be true for most of our lives just because we want to. But if we’re willing to try out some new beliefs and start gathering new evidence to support and reinforce them, our old beliefs that haven’t been working for us will start to fade.

We can transition into a belief system about ourselves, the world, and other people that works better for us and that’s not based on what we learned growing up, but is more true to our values today and reflects the types of people that we want to be.

In the next couple of posts we’ll look at some other ways we can respond to our negative thoughts. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.