“Behind every system of actions is a system of beliefs."
I came late to the idea that we all have negative core beliefs. For most of my life, I saw my drive to succeed as a positive motivator in both my career and my personal life. I also considered my negative thoughts to be an inevitable consequence of a good - but not great - childhood.
Then, nearly 10 years ago, as part of researching my PhD, I learnt about core beliefs. The Oxford English dictionary defines a "belief" as an acceptance that something exists or is true; a firmly held opinion or conviction.
We all have core beliefs that represent our fundamental view of the world, other people and ourselves. They're what we believe to be true on the deepest level. Core beliefs are based on conclusions we formed in the past and can be conscious and/or subconscious.
As psychologist Robert M. Williams writes, "(b)eliefs are like filters on a camera. What the camera ‘sees’ is a function of the filters through which it is viewing its subject. In other words, how we ‘see’ the world is a function of our beliefs and profoundly influences personality."
The thing with core beliefs is that they are present all the time. Positive core beliefs help us function in the world, develop healthy relationships and achieve our goals. Negative core beliefs do the opposite - undermine our self-confidence, our ability to maintain healthy relationships and our belief in our goals.
Our thoughts are not random but instead follow our core beliefs. Psychologists have shown that we can predict what our thoughts (both positive and negative) will be in any given situation based on our core beliefs.
Common negative self-beliefs include:
I am not good enough
I don't belong
I need to control myself
I can't trust myself/others/the world
I don't have the capacity
There is a right way
The biggest obstacle to changing our core beliefs is that they are self-perpetuating . When we have a negative belief about ourselves (such as I am not good enough), we are biased to interpret our experiences and, in particular, any negative outcomes as evidence of that belief. This interpretation of events then works to reinforce our core belief. The process is circular, with core beliefs driving our behaviour, which in turn justify our core belief.
For example, a person who believes they are "not good enough" will often become an over-achiever. Their behaviour will be focused on endlessly trying to prove themselves, get external validation and is very future orientated. These behaviours are driven by the desire to feel whole. However, every time they do not achieve their full intention or goal, the belief that they are not good enough will again arise.
For each one of us, the most important thing is to identify the main belief influencing our thinking. This can be done by reflecting on a time we did not succeed, or felt unmotivated to achieve something that was important to us. Write down the thoughts you have when remembering this experience. Another technique is to write down all the thoughts you have about yourself for a day or two and then look for patterns.
You might be surprised to find just how deep your core beliefs go. Chances are that variations on your core negative belief arise whenever you are stressed, under pressure or don't succeed at something that is important to you.
Until then, reflect on the image below. Are the lines straight or wavy? Check your answer by using a ruler. Sometimes we need to check whether what we think is real really is!