We all have deeply held beliefs about ourselves that we may or may not be aware of. From a cognitive therapist’s perspective, these are known as core beliefs. Core beliefs originate and develop throughout our childhood and then are continuously reinforced in adulthood. Some core beliefs are healthy and accurate and some are inaccurate. Research shows that people with anxiety tend to have inaccurate core beliefs about themselves that fall into 1 (or more) of three main categories: beliefs about helplessness, unlovability and worthlessness.
In this article, I am going to give you an in-depth breakdown of how core beliefs develop and are reinforced. But first, grab my free guide on improving self-doubt by identifying your unhelpful automatic thoughts and core beliefs.
The process of reinforcement
Do any of these core beliefs resonate with you? These beliefs about ourselves can be extremely problematic. Here is a breakdown of what happens. As I mentioned, core beliefs originate in childhood and then, once developed, are continuously reinforced throughout the rest of childhood and adulthood. How are they reinforced? Well, once you have a core belief, you seek out information that confirms this belief and then you dismiss information that disconfirms this belief.
Let's say you grew up in a home where your father was present but emotionally unavailable and rarely gave you affection or attention. Through these experiences you might start to believe that you are unlikable or unlovable in some way.
Once you begin to believe this, then you start noticing situations that prove to you that you are unlikable or unlovable. In high school, you might pay extra special attention to times when friends didn’t want to hang out or when a boyfriend or girlfriend didn’t call back right away. This then continues into adulthood where you tend to focus on situations in which you are being rejected in some way, even if it is in a small way, like someone not listening to you or texting you back.
On the flip side, you pay a lot LESS attention to situations in which people DO demonstrate that they like or love you.You might find reasons to dismiss the fact that you have a good relationship with your siblings, good relationships with your coworkers or a couple of really close friends. In other words, you ignore or dismiss information that disconfirms the belief that you are unlikable.
Let's say that as a child you had older siblings or a parent who constantly made you feel inadequate in some way. Perhaps you felt like nothing was ever good enough for them or that no matter how hard you worked or how well you did at something, they either didn’t notice it or were dismissive or condescending about it.
Thus, you developed a core belief that you are inadequate or helpless in some way. As in the other example, once initiated, this belief is like a snowball growing as it rolls down the mountain. It just gets bigger and bigger. You become hyperaware of anything that points to you being inadequate in some way. You didn’t make the team. You didn't get an A in a college course you worked hard in. You didn’t get that highly coveted job you applied for.
And then, of course, you dismiss all of the evidence that you are extremely competent: you got a graduate degree, you won an award, you got a promotion. The belief of being helpless or inadequate in some way just gets further reinforced as you move through life.
Paving a new path
The reason why these inaccurate core beliefs are so problematic is that they impact your daily living experience. Over time, it can really weigh you down and keep you from enjoying life.
But there are ways to change these core beliefs. Anything you learn can be unlearned. But it takes time and effort.
You have to learn to dismiss the information that you have been so hyper focused on (i.e., the evidence that shows you are unlikeable or inadequate). Similarly, you have to retrain your brain to recognize and acknowledge the information you have been dismissing for so long (i.e., the evidence that shows you are likeable or adequate). In CBT, we work to reshape negative beliefs about the self through cognitive and behavioral exercises.
If you want to take the first step toward improving your anxiety and self-doubt, grab my free guide!