Negative core beliefs are very common in emotional disorders, including depression. Core beliefs are deeply ingrained conclusions that an individual holds about themselves, others, and the world around them. Read on to learn about core beliefs and what causes them in the first place.
One of my past patients* – let’s call her “Janet” to protect privacy – struggled with the core belief “I am not worthy.” Janet grew up in an environment where her accomplishments and efforts were constantly criticized by her parents – who had very high expectations of her. As a result, Jannet internalized the message that she was not good enough and would never measure up to others’ standards.
This belief affected Janet in many areas of her life. As an adult, she struggled with social anxiety and avoided making new friends because she was convinced that people would not like her. She also struggled at her job, where she was always hesitant to speak up in meetings or offer her opinion because she feared it would not be valued. Whenever she made a minor mistake, she harshly criticized herself, thinking she was a failure.
In an effort to avoid the uncomfortable feelings and anxiety that came up in these situations, Janet began to withdraw from her friends. She also constantly doubted herself and her abilities at work and gave up on any activities or hobbies which she was unlikely to be “perfect.” She found herself sad much of the time, not knowing why. This is when she entered therapy with me.
Janet’s story is one example of why depression and anxiety so commonly co-occur. Janet’s internalized core belief led to some initial anxiety, so she relied on a very common coping strategy to escape those uncomfortable feelings – avoidance. As I’ve written about avoidance before, it often leads to bigger problems. In Janet’s circumstance, it led to further isolation, self-doubt in her own abilities, and eventually depression.
What is a core belief?
A core belief is a deeply ingrained, fundamental belief that an individual holds about themselves, others, and the world around them. Core beliefs are often formed early in life but can also form, or be reinforced, throughout one’s life.
Core beliefs can be influenced by a variety of factors, like:
- One’s upbringing
- Experiences and events that happen to us
- Observations of how others behave around us
- Social conditioning or reinforcement
Here are some common ways that core beliefs can develop:
- Upbringing and early experiences: Our earliest experiences with caregivers and the world around us can shape our core beliefs. For example, a child who grows up in a neglectful environment may develop a core belief that they are not worthy of love or attention.
- Social conditioning: The messages we receive from society, media, and culture can also shape our core beliefs. For example, women are often bombarded with messages that they should be thin, pretty, and perfect, which can lead to core beliefs around body image and self-worth.
- Trauma: Traumatic experiences can leave a lasting impact on our core beliefs. For example, a person who was attacked or assaulted may develop a core belief that they are weak or powerless.
- Belief reinforcement: Once a core belief is formed, it can be reinforced through ongoing experiences and self-talk. For example, a person who believes they are not good enough may interpret any mistake or rejection as evidence that their belief is true, reinforcing it further.
These beliefs can shape an individual’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors, and can have a profound impact on their mental and emotional well-being.
Common categories of core beliefs include:
- Beliefs about oneself: These are beliefs about one’s own characteristics, abilities, worth, and identity. For example: I am unworthy. I am not good enough. I am unlovable.
- Beliefs about others: These are beliefs about other people, including their intentions, trustworthiness, and reliability. For example: People cannot be trusted. Others will always let me down. People are generally selfish.
- Beliefs about the world: These are beliefs about the nature of the world, including ideas about safety, fairness, and justice. For example: The world is a dangerous place. Life is unfair. The world is a hostile and threatening place.
- Beliefs about the future: These are beliefs about what the future holds, and one’s ability to cope with it. For example: Things will never get better. I will never be happy. I will always be alone.
- Beliefs about personal control: These are beliefs about one’s ability to influence or control events in one’s life. For example: I am powerless. I have no control over my life. I am at the mercy of others.
- Beliefs about personal responsibility: These are beliefs about one’s responsibility for what happens in one’s life. For example: Everything that happens to me is my fault. I am responsible for the happiness of others. I am always to blame.
There are many different types of core beliefs, but there are a few specific core beliefs common to depression. Late psychologist Dr. Aaron Beck, described a set of core beliefs in depression which he called the cognitive triad in the book Cognitive Therapy of Depression. The cognitive triad consists of three major cognitive patterns which are:
- Negative views of the self (seeing yourself as not good enough)
- Negative views of experiences/or others (perceiving life as unrewarding)
- Negative views of the future (pessimistic that anything positive will come)
Look at the list of additional examples of core beliefs common in depression, below. See if you can identify which ones fit within the cognitive triad.
Helplessness: I have no control over my life. Things will never change no matter what I do. There’s no point in trying because I’ll just fail anyway.
Hopelessness: Things will never get better. There’s no point in living because it’s all meaningless. Nothing good ever happens to me.
Worthlessness: I’m a failure. I’m worthless. I don’t deserve love or happiness.
Self-criticism: I’m so stupid. I’m such a loser. I’m not good enough.
Pessimism: Everything is always going wrong. Things never work out for me. I’ll never be happy.
Social isolation: No one understands me. I’m all alone in this world. I don’t have any real friends.
Perfectionism: I have to be perfect all the time. If I’m not perfect, I’m a failure. I can never make a mistake.
Negative views of the world: The world is a terrible place. Nothing good ever happens in the world. Everyone is out to get me.
It is important to identify and challenge these negative core beliefs in therapy in order to reduce symptoms of depression and develop more positive and realistic beliefs about yourself and the world around you.
Core beliefs are often deeply ingrained and can be difficult to change. However, therapy can be a helpful tool for identifying and working through core beliefs that are contributing to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. It is possible to overwrite these beliefs to create a more positive and self-affirming mindset.
In the next blog post, I will describe how to identify a core belief. This is a necessary first step to better understand what lies at the root of unhelpful thinking or ineffective behavior. Once you identify a belief, you can be aware of it and begin to take steps to overwrite it. This is exactly what Janet did with my support.
Follow along to continue to hear the story of Janet and how she began to identify and change her core beliefs.
*All identifying information has been removed, changed, and edited for privacy.
Send a Secure Message:
"*" indicates required fields