How Negative Core Beliefs Affect Your Emotions
Everyone suffers from a bad mood, feels bad about themselves, or has low days now and then. Even anxiety in certain situations is quite normal and can sometimes even be helpful. But when your mood is persistently angry, low or anxious, you begin to realise that you could be dealing with a more serious problem.
Sometimes problematic moods can begin to slide down to the illness side of the wellness spectrum. The intent of the following discussion is not to outline the symptoms or diagnostic criteria of mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. There is already tons of very good information on these subjects published in print and on the Internet. Rather, my intent is to explore the underlying psychological processes that influence negative mood states – whether or not they could be classified as ‘illnesses’. There is one main reason for this: these psychological processes are the same for everyone – depressed, anxious or neither of the above. The things that go through a depressed or anxious person’s mind are no different than what goes through every person’s mind from time to time. Only, when you have depression or anxiety your negative thoughts and beliefs tend to be more severe and pervasive. Nevertheless, we are all prone to negative mood states and understanding what influences these states can be an important step in overcoming them. And ultimately, the more control we have over our moods, the happier we will be!
What Are Core Beliefs?
Core beliefs are the long-standing views that we hold about ourselves, other people, the world and the future. Usually formed during childhood or other important times in our lives, they serve us as a sort of ‘guide’ to life – they tell us how things are. We filter our experiences according to our beliefs - in a way, its how we make sense of the world.
These core beliefs are sometimes helpful, and sometimes just the opposite. They can work against us, thwarting all our efforts to grow, be happy, and get ahead in life. They aren’t always accurate, and in fact can be grossly skewed at times. But nevertheless – they always make sense, at least according to our experiences. If you were able to rewind your life and watch it in slow motion from its very beginning, you would be able to see the key times when certain beliefs were formed and you would understand why you developed those beliefs.
Core beliefs, especially negative ones, can lie dormant most of the time and only become activated when a crucial situation triggers them.
How Negative Beliefs Harm Us
The problem with negative core beliefs is that they tend to be exaggerated, absolute, and very rigid. A healthy, helpful belief is one that is open to new evidence, meaning that it will reshape itself according to new information that presents itself, even that which contradicts the old belief. But an unhelpful belief is one that is unbending. For example, an enduring belief that ‘I am a failure’, even in the face of many past successes, is negative. A more healthy belief would be something like: ‘I have failed at this task, but I have succeeded at other things in the past. I am only human!’
Our core beliefs influence the rules that we have for living. Together, our beliefs and rules form a mental map to life – they tell us how to get where we want to go, how to conduct ourselves, etc. But if our rules are based on dysfunctional or inaccurate beliefs, it stands to reason that our rules will also misguide us. Often, they cause us to make choices or take actions that in reality work against us.
Examples of Negative Core Beliefs
Recognising Your Core Beliefs
As is often the case with any problem, recognition is the first step towards solution. Simply recognising what your negative beliefs and rules are, and when they are operating, is often enough to help you feel better. Any time you experience extremes of emotion is good indication of when a core belief may be at work. Taking a look at your thoughts and running mental dialogue, you will notice certain key words or phrases that are generally typical of rules and beliefs. Statements that include words like ‘always’ or ‘never’ (absolute & extreme), or phrases that imply conditions like ‘if…then…’ and ‘in order to… I must…’ are good examples. Sometimes, though, our thoughts do not directly reflect our core beliefs in such obvious ways. A good way to uncover your belief, then, is to dig deeper and analyse the negative thought that you are having. For example, ask yourself the following questions:
If this negative thought were true, what’s would be so bad about that?
What would it mean about me/other people/the world/the future?
What’s the worst that could happen?
How to Change Negative Core Beliefs
Changing core beliefs, however, is a difficult and sometimes long process, but not impossible! Remember, these beliefs weren’t formed overnight – they took years of building, practicing and integrating them into your psyche. For many people, especially those who are suffering from depression or anxiety, it would only be advisable to work on changing a core belief under the guidance of an experienced therapist. The reasons for this are many. Changing core beliefs requires the use of psychological tools which both challenge the old, negative belief whilst at the same time helping the person to formulate a new, more helpful belief to replace it. This requires a robust set of ‘tools’ that will help the person to think about their situation from an entirely different perspective than they are used to. Many people cannot generate these ideas on their own and need the guidance of therapist to assist them. Furthermore, for some people, negative core beliefs (however hurtful they have been) have been necessary in order to help them survive their past and function on a day to day basis. Tearing away at these core beliefs without a confident plan of how to deal with the ‘fallout’ could do more harm than good.
Of course, the above scenario is extreme and rare. Many people are more than capable of dealing with their underlying beliefs and rules by working through them on their own. I do suggest, however, that if you want to be successful at doing this kind of self-help work, you will find it much easier and more beneficial if you put your thoughts down on paper rather than just thinking it out.
The ideas expressed in this hub are based on the theoretical underpinnings of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), a psychotherapy that has proven effectiveness in helping people overcome anxiety and depression, as well as a number of other mental health difficulties and non-clinical problems. More than a therapy, CBT is a problem-solving approach, or a way of thinking, that can be applied to almost any problem one could have. If you would like to know more about this therapy or would like to try some self-help work, I recommend the following reading list:
Burns, D.D. (1990). The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: Plume.
Butler, G. & Hope, T. (1995). Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fennell, M. (1999). Overcoming Low Self-Esteem. London: Robinson.
Gilbert, P. (1997). Overcoming Depression. London: Robinson.
Kennerley, H. (1997). Overcoming Anxiety. London: Robinson.
Padesky, C., & Greenberger, D. (1995). Mind Over Mood. New York: Guilford Press.