Except for a few amongst us, most of our minds chatter constantly. These inner dialogues range in personality, even though they are our thoughts. Sometimes, our thoughts can be light, non-substantial, comical, even cheery. And sometimes, our thoughts are dark, all-consuming, or self-critical. Whatever they are, thoughts and mindsets follow our core beliefs, which are the beliefs that we hold to be true about our experiences.
These core beliefs can be positive or negative – which lead to very different outcomes. Read on to learn more about negative core beliefs and how to stop them from tearing you down.
What are core beliefs?
Core beliefs are general truths that you believe about yourself and your world, whether they are true or not! While our minds run commentary to our daily experiences, core beliefs frame how we view those experiences: If we see our experiences as good or bad, and if we see ourselves as good or bad.
Have you ever called yourself a bad name, insulted yourself, or been hard on yourself? What about doing the same to other people in your thoughts? Those are examples of negative core beliefs. Negative core beliefs are judgmental and potentially harmful beliefs held about yourself, others, or the world.
Take the example of finishing a big presentation about how your company can address climate change. What does your mind tell you after the presentation? Thoughts that come up might be:
- “No one was paying attention because I’m so boring.”
- “I’m not smart enough to work here.”
- “Of course I bombed that presentation, why wouldn’t I? I never do anything right.”
- “My boss checked her phone in the middle of the presentation, the whole company must not be interested in saving the world.”
- “No one in this country cares about climate change, why do I even try to get people to care?”
Ouch! Some of those thoughts, quite obviously, hurt when you think them. Now multiply that by how much time you spend thinking (all day!) and perhaps you can see how large the impact that negative core beliefs might have on your mental health.
How negative core beliefs can impact your life
What you think about yourself, others, and the world can have an impact on your mood in the moment and your overall wellness across time. Having thoughts about failure might lead to believing that we’re not worthy, which then tells us not to try. Our thoughts become beliefs that become actions (or inactions!).
Here’s another example, this time from college: big test, something you studied for all week. You get your score back and it’s a B. How will you interpret the situation?
- Positive core belief: “I studied really hard for this test and I did my best. A B isn’t that bad at all, considering how difficult this class is! I’m grateful that I’m capable of a B.”
- Negative core belief: “I’m so stupid, I’ll never understand this material. I shouldn’t have gone out with friends last Friday, clearly I’m not smart enough to have fun anymore.”
It’s quite easy to see the difference between those core beliefs and imagine what emotions they bring up. So, when the next exam comes up, how will you handle it?
How to challenge your core beliefs:
Every judgmental thought we have builds up over time to create our core beliefs - so they are often challenging to change when negative! However challenging, though, the benefits are enormous. What if, instead of tearing yourself down, you affirmed what you like about yourself?
How we conquer our negative thoughts lies in disrupting those nasty patterns. Here are three steps to decreasing negative core beliefs about yourself:
- Notice patterns. You can’t change what you can’t see, and in this case it’s very important to figure out exactly what your negative core beliefs are. What types of thoughts do you have? Do you have more of these thoughts in certain places (i.e. work, school, home)? How often do you think a negative judgmental thought about yourself?
- Examine the origin. Once you see the patterns in your negative self-talk, consider why you have those thoughts. Can you think of a time from your past where you felt ashamed or judged? How did that inform your internal thoughts? What are the triggers of your negative self-talk? Why do you feel like you aren’t enough?
- Challenge yourself. When you think a negative or judgmental thought about yourself, pause and take a moment to check out its truth. Instead of calling yourself worthless, think of three reasons why you aren’t worthless. Or, if you want to call yourself unlovable, think of a few people that love you to contradict your belief.
This is called cognitive reframing. Cognitive reframing is when we take a good long look at our cognitive distortions (things we think are true but they really aren’t) and decide to head in a different direction.
By identifying the activating events (when you have those negative thoughts), you can put your negative self-talk under a microscope to examine why you have those negative core beliefs and what the consequences are of thinking that way. From here, disrupting the patterns is manageable by coming up with the ways that your belief isn’t true or practicing any other reframing techniques.
And those examples are only for negative core beliefs about yourself! What if we reframed our negative core beliefs about others, about the world? While negative judgement on the self can be detrimental to our mental health, focusing only on the negative in other people or about current events also impacts our well-being. That’s why learning to challenge negative core beliefs is so important!
Seek therapeutic help
There are many different types of therapy that offer support in overcoming negative core beliefs or reframing. While most therapists draw from the general concept of cognitive reframing, here are the major players when it comes to challenging our negative thoughts:
- ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy). This type of therapy focuses on growing our positive actions by accepting then moving past negative thoughts or judgements.
- CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). This type of therapy is a skills-based therapy that often involves “homework” outside of the session to practice identifying and challenging our emotional reactions to everyday life.
- REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy). This last type of therapy addresses negative core beliefs head-on by finding the best ways to correct our incorrect or inaccurate assumptions about ourselves and others.
If cognitive reframing of your negative core beliefs is something that you think would promote happiness and a better sense of well-being, finding a therapist to help is a great step!
Especially because our thoughts are our constant companions, it’s so important to make sure that they aren’t bullies - instead, that they only make us feel better.