Updated: May 6
Anna Katharina Schaffner, Ph.D.
What are core beliefs, and why do they matter? Core beliefs are our most deeply held assumptions about ourselves, the world, and others. They are firmly embedded in our thinking and significantly shape our reality and behaviors. In fact, nothing matters more than our core beliefs. They are the root causes of many of our problems, including our automatic negative thoughts.
Yet, core beliefs are precisely that: beliefs. Based on childhood assessments, they are often untrue. They are also self-perpetuating. Like magnets, they attract evidence that makes them stronger, and they repel anything that might challenge them. But it is possible to change them.
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Common Examples of Core Beliefs Core beliefs were first theorized in the context of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). They are also known as schemas, which shape how we process and interpret new information (Beck, 1979; Beck, Freeman, & Davis, 2015; Beck, 2005; Beck, 2011). Aaron Beck (1979) outlined three interrelated levels of cognition:
Negative automatic thoughts
We can think of our automatic negative thoughts as the situational expressions of our dysfunctional assumptions and negative core beliefs.
Core beliefs are formed early in life and shaped by our upbringing and experiences. Because they are so deep seated and embedded, they are very difficult to change. Their original function is to help us make sense of our formative experiences, but they can become unproductive or even harmful later in life (Osmo et al., 2018).
Harmful common core beliefs usually come in the form of absolutist “I am …,” “People are …,” and “The world is …” statements.
We may think that we are bad, evil, losers, not good enough, incompetent, ugly, stupid, rotten at our core, unworthy, undeserving, abnormal, boring, existentially flawed, or unlovable.
We may believe that people are bad, not to be trusted, exploitative, or manipulative.
Finally, we may deem the world a dangerous place – unsafe or hostile enemy territory that has only bad things in store for us.
Judith Beck (2005, 2011) proposes three main categories of negative core beliefs about the self: