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Identifying and Challenging Core Beliefs: 12 Helpful Worksheets

Updated: Jan 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.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will provide you with a detailed insight into positive CBT and will give you the tools to help you identify and challenge core beliefs in your therapy or coaching.

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:
  • Core beliefs

  • Dysfunctional assumptions

  • 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:
  • Helplessness

  • Unlovability

  • Worthlessness

The beliefs that fall into the helplessness category are related to personal incompetence, vulnerability, and inferiority. Unlovability-related core beliefs include the fear that we are not likable and incapable of intimacy, while worthlessness-themed core beliefs include the belief that we are insignificant and a burden to others.

If we have negative views of others, we may think of them as untrustworthy, as wishing to hurt us, or as demeaning, uncaring, or manipulative. All of these beliefs may make us very anxious to avoid rejection and overly keen to seek validation from others (Osmo et al., 2018). If our core beliefs are positive and helpful, we need to take no further action. If they are not, we must seek to transform them because core beliefs that are limiting are the root causes of low self-esteem. They shape how we treat ourselves, others, and even how others may treat us. They set the rules by which we live and the tone of our self-talk.

When our experiences do not align with our core beliefs, our minds – always set on avoiding cognitive dissonance – will twist them until they do.

Top 2 Core Beliefs Worksheets

A good starting point for exploring your clients’ core beliefs is this Core Beliefs CBT Formulation. It follows standard CBT methods and steps, asking us to analyze a situation, a thought, and a resulting feeling, and then to identify the underlying themes behind our recurring thoughts and feelings.

If we can detect patterns in our recurring negative thoughts, they may lead us to the core beliefs that are producing them. As a third step, we are invited to outline core strategies for dealing with these beliefs. The final part of this process involves some existential detective work to determine which significant childhood events may have shaped our core beliefs. This Core Beliefs Worksheet is another useful starting point for core belief work with clients. A simple and accessible awareness-raising tool, the worksheet prompts us to complete three statements: “I am …,” “Other people are …,” and “The world is …”

Clients are invited to explore when they first became aware of these beliefs, which experiences contributed to shaping them, and who in their family may hold similar opinions. Next, clients are asked to reflect on whether these beliefs still serve them. If the answer is no, we can begin to help them formulate and cultivate alternative views.

4 Ways to Identify Core Beliefs

Our negative core beliefs drive our dysfunctional immediate beliefs in the forms of attitudes and rules. If we believe we are unlovable, for example, this could translate into rules such as “I must be thin, because only then would I become lovable.”

Or we may think we have to be rich, or always agreeable, or overly helpful, or constantly self-deprecating, or that we must never say no to anyone to be worthy of other people’s love.

Because our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are the spawns of our core beliefs, we can use them as guides to trace our underlying core beliefs. The best way to identify negative core beliefs is, therefore, to look at our recurring ANTs and try to detect patterns and themes. We can begin by looking for patterns in our experiences and also in our interpretations of these experiences.

Vertical Arrow/Downward Arrow/Vertical Descent techniques use Socratic questioning to help uncover clients’ intermediate-level and core beliefs. Their purpose is to uncover the deeper origins of surface cognitions. The idea is to follow thoughts down to the underlying assumptions that produce them, like peeling away the layers of an onion.

The Core Beliefs Worksheet 2 hones in on negative core beliefs about ourselves. These beliefs tend to revolve around the themes of helplessness, unlovability, and worthlessness. It lists the most common beliefs in each category and asks clients to identify the ones that apply to them.

Finally, we can also have a closer look at our rules (or common beliefs). The Identifying Personal Rules worksheet is a handy tool. It encourages us to identify and challenge harmful rules, and to think about alternative rules going forward.

Dealing With Negative Beliefs: 4 Sheets

There are various strategies for dealing with negative beliefs.

The first is merely becoming more aware of our negative cognitions.

The second is understanding where they came from. When did we first think about ourselves, the world, or others in a particular way? Which experiences contributed to shaping these beliefs? Who in our family may hold similar opinions?

The third step entails challenging these beliefs. This includes a deliberate attempt at cognitive restructuring, identifying the cognitive distortions that are at work in our ANTs, and patiently amassing evidence that contradicts our beliefs until we can accept that they no longer serve us and let them go (Burns, 1980).

ANTs have been graced with much empirical and clinical attention, significantly more so than negative core beliefs, despite their crucial importance (David, Lynn, & Ellis, 2010). But given that ANTs can be the guides that lead us to our negative core beliefs, it is a great idea to use them as a starting point for identifying and then dealing with our more deep-seated negative beliefs.

This article on Challenging Automatic Thoughts is a rich resource for worksheets on ANTs.

The following four worksheets are particularly helpful tools for challenging nega