The term ‘core beliefs’ is increasingly popular today, as more people are taking an interest in the psychology of the self and realizing the power of psychoeducation.
The more we learn about ourselves, how our brains develop, and how our opinions and perspectives about the world form, the more power we have over our experiences.
In this article, aside from sharing a list of negative core beliefs, we’ll explore the meaning of core beliefs, why and how they become negative, typical examples of negative core beliefs, and what you can do starting today to change them.
What is a core belief?
The concept of core beliefs is defined in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy as follows:
‘Fundamental, absolute, and lasting comprehensions that a person develops about him or herself, others, and the world, are constructed from the effort of extracting meaning from significant childhood or formative experiences.’
This definition is based on renowned psychologist Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Theory, from which Beck developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) foundations.
Essentially, our experiences in our early life and through repeated experiences influence our self-view (how we see and feel about ourselves). That self-view, in turn, significantly influences how we interact with the world.
If we consider ourselves valuable, belonging, and intrinsically worthy and have experienced those beliefs as accurate through caring, attuned caregivers or other positive experiences, such will be our experience of reality.
We’ll assume those beliefs as accurate. We don’t take it personally when something contradicts one of those beliefs, such as rejection or failure. We understand that life is not always easy and sometimes rejection and failure happen, but neither defines our worth.
However, let’s consider ourselves worthless, stupid, or hopelessly separate from the world, usually because some early experience has led us to form that perspective. That’s how we will likely feel, and when something upsets us, we’ll see it as proof that negative core belief is true.
Of course, we’re human, and it’s normal to feel like a failure, to feel rejected, or to feel generally uncertain of oneself from time to time.
People with positive core beliefs still struggle with these feelings but tend to suffer less internally than those with negative core beliefs.
According to Beck’s Cognitive Theory, our emotional reactions to our experiences, others, and the world around us stem from the meaning we derive from those experiences.
Our beliefs about ourselves and the world lie at the root of our emotional perspectives and experiences.
As such, it allows us to release emotional distress and cultivate healthier emotional wellbeing by identifying and addressing beliefs that hold us back (known as negative core beliefs/limiting beliefs).
List of negative core beliefs
Core beliefs initially form to help us make sense of the world and our place within it. However, these beliefs can become harmful when they take a negative spin.
Negative core beliefs are detrimental to our mental health because they damage our self-esteem and make us move toward avoidant behaviors. They stir up negative emotions and dampen our motivation and efforts toward self-improvement.
There are three main types of negative core beliefs – beliefs about the self (‘I am…’), beliefs about others (People are…), and beliefs about the world (The world is…).
Common examples of core beliefs include:
I am worthless.
Nobody loves me/ nobody will ever love me
I am a failure/I am bound to fail
My emotions are too much
Happiness is something I must earn
I’m not smart enough
Other people are untrustworthy
I need to control people, or they will hurt me
I’m a bad partner
People are dangerous
People are exploitative and manipulative
Nobody cares about me or what I have to say
The future is bleak
The world is not a safe place
I am not safe in the world
Bad things are out there waiting to happen
Judith Beck, psychologist, cognitive researcher, and daughter of Dr. Aaron Beck, identified three main categories of negative core beliefs about the self. These are:
I am helpless
Examples of beliefs based on helplessness include:
I’m powerless/I have no power to change my circumstances
I cannot take care of myself
I am bound to fail at everything I try
I am a loser
These statements are oriented toward a negative view of the self and are stated to oneself, often subconsciously, as fixed or absolute, i.e., there exists an accompanying belief that one is not only a failure or helpless but that change is not possible.
I am unworthy
Core beliefs based on perceived unworthiness can sound like this:
I am worthless
I am not good enough
I don’t deserve success
I don’t deserve good things in my life
I am unlovable
Beliefs that we are unlovable sound like:
Nobody loves me/nobody could ever love me
I don’t deserve love
I will be alone forever
Everyone will reject me sooner or later
The three categories above are not mutually exclusive but quite the opposite.
One core belief tends to lead to other supporting beliefs.
For example, if you believe you are helpless (I have no power to change my circumstances), you may reason that you are unworthy (I can’t change because I’m not good enough). These two beliefs lead to the belief that you are flawed and, therefore, unlovable (I’m not good enough, so I don’t deserve love).
Identifying core beliefs
‘Our core beliefs need to be seen for what they are: deeply held assumptions about reality that our particular life circumstances have conditioned us to accept as absolute truth.’Ezra Bayda
Identifying negative core beliefs is crucial to living a healthy and fulfilled life. These negative beliefs hold us back from embracing life as it is, which includes a calling to be open and vulnerable with others, to trust ourselves, and to take on risks and challenges.
We’re unlikely to embrace challenges if we deem ourselves intrinsically unworthy and bound to fail. The problem is that challenges and even failure help us grow and evolve and teach us valuable lessons for moving forward.
Without these challenges and lessons, we stagnate, and our lack of action leads to reaffirming our negative beliefs in a consuming, vicious cycle.
When we hold tightly to negative core beliefs, we tend to look for proof in our relationships and environment. Anything that suggests failure or rejection or not being good enough will be amplified, and contradicting information that indicates that we are loved, and worthy is lost or overshadowed.
Therapists term this imbalanced use of information, ‘cognitive dissonance.’
Cognitive dissonance is prevalent in eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and issues around low self-esteem. These conditions and issues can often be traced back to a deeply held system of beliefs about oneself and the world.
As such, many therapists and other mental health professionals help clients experiencing these issues and many others by working on identifying and addressing these negative thinking patterns and core beliefs.
How to identify and dismantle negative core beliefs
We can identify and begin to dismantle our core beliefs by:
1. Paying attention
The best way to identify a negative, limiting belief is to pay close attention to the recurring themes of our thoughts.
Journaling and mindfulness meditation are effective habits that help us hear on a deeper level the quality and themes of the thoughts that we think automatically (automatic thoughts) throughout the day.
Developing your internal listening skills may take patience and consistent practice, so be patient and go easy on yourself. These beliefs can be so rooted in the psyche that they take time to uncover.
2. Challenging negative thoughts
Once we’ve recognized a negative belief, we must challenge it.
With compassionate and investigative questioning, we can peel back the layers of our negative thoughts and find healthier ways of dealing with them.
For example, if you hear yourself thinking, ‘I am not good enough..’ you would ask yourself to explain further. Not good enough for what?
Next, we consider if others have an alternative point of view. On what assumption do you figure that you’re not good enough? By what standards? Can you think of a specific example?
Next, we compassionately ask ourselves if this way of thinking is helpful or unhelpful.
Taking yourself out of the situation, how does this thought or belief affect someone’s mental health or emotional well-being? Can you see how it may be affecting yours?
3. Replacing negative thoughts with healthy alternatives
Once we recognize that a particular belief or way of thinking is unhelpful, we intervene and try to replace negative thoughts with healthier alternatives. Replacing negative thoughts takes practice, and these thoughts are often firmly rooted in our worldview.
For example, we may recognize the belief that ‘I am bound to fail.’
Knowing that this way of thinking limits us from taking risks, we may encourage ourselves to think differently and achieve a more desired outcome. Instead of the former, we remind ourselves that ‘failure is part of life and is a valuable teacher. If I fail, at least I learn.’
Negative core beliefs can be so firmly rooted in our psyche that they often require patience, consistent practice, and self-forgiveness to uproot and release.
We can practice identifying and releasing these beliefs with the aforementioned self-administered CBT techniques but know that you don’t have to do it alone.
Reaching out to trusted loved ones and/or a mental health professional is essential if your beliefs about yourself and the world are hurting you.
We all have intrinsic worth and belonging, and it’s ok if you need help remembering that.