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Core Beliefs: How They Influence You and What to Do About It

5 minute read

Core beliefs influence everything you do. Shaped by your childhood experiences, they’re deeply ingrained beliefs about yourself, others, and the world around you. Sometimes core beliefs can lead to cognitive distortions, meaning you get an inaccurate view of reality.

Do Your Positive or Negative Core Beliefs Affect How You See Yourself?

As you go through life experiencing the world, you unconsciously interpret, judge, feel, and figure out what things mean. It’s how you learn to survive. If, as a child, you had a family that encouraged curiosity and safe risk-taking and gave you support and validation, your inner monologue is likely supportive. If you have a positive core belief system, you only recall life data that supports existing, fact-based experiences with positive views of yourself and the world.

If you grew up in a family that gave you little support, your inner monologue will be negative, reflecting your rules about yourself and the world. Some of the rules people create through core belief systems become a major source of anxiety and depression. Negative core beliefs about yourself typically fall into one of three categories:

  1. Helplessness
  2. Unlovability
  3. Worthlessness

Some examples of negative core beliefs include:

  • The world is not safe.
  • I am unworthy.
  • I am bad.
  • I have to be perfect, or I will be rejected.
  • I need to read people’s minds and give them what they want, or I will be rejected.
  • No one wants to hear my feelings.
  • Do not ask for anything, no one wants to give it to you.
  • Life is unfair, don’t expect too much.

Have you ever heard yourself say something like the statements above, or thought them in your head? You may have negative core beliefs, at least when it comes to yourself. It is common to only pay attention to evidence that supports your core beliefs and toss aside evidence that doesn’t. This concept is called “confirmation bias.” And it’s why changing your core beliefs can be a difficult task. These distorted ways of thinking are your default setting. You must retrain yourself to think differently, which takes time and a lot of work.

Core Beliefs Play a Role in Addiction

Dysfunctional core beliefs about yourself can fuel unhealthy relationships and behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse. An example of a common core belief that addicted people have is, “I am bad.” This is a heavy burden to carry. When you attribute every difficulty that happens to you as something you brought on yourself, it can lead to depression, feelings of helplessness, low self-esteem, and self-hate.

People sometimes turn to substance abuse, eating disorders, and other unhealthy coping practices to quiet negative self-talk and numb their feelings. Addiction can further fuel the negative core beliefs that “I am bad” or, “I am unworthy.” Society at large doesn’t accept that addiction is a disease, and there’s still great stigma around it. Having that message mirrored back to you and feeling like you can’t stop abusing drugs or alcohol on your own can just keep your negative core beliefs going.

You Can Identify and Challenge Core Beliefs

It’s not easy, but it’s very possible to change your core beliefs. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a research-backed approach proven effective in treating substance use disorders, mental health disorders, and trauma. Medication and other therapies can complement the work done in CBT.

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you challenge core beliefs that are negative and replace them with positive core beliefs. If CBT is part of your therapy for substance abuse, you might:

1. Identify situations, relationships, or conditions that are causing distress. For example, maybe you’ve just gotten out of an unhealthy relationship and you’re abusing alcohol.

2. Identify thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors tied to the distress. Your therapist will encourage you to talk about the situation and pay attention to the negative self-talk, physical sensations, and beliefs about yourself and other people in the situation. For example, when you talk about your ex-partner, your jaw and stomach might tighten. You may feel helpless. Your thoughts may be that you are bad and unworthy of love, so you don’t deserve any better. You may think you’ll never have a (fulfilling) relationship again. This could be one reason you self-medicate with alcohol.

3. Challenge distorted beliefs. Your therapist will help you challenge the accuracy of your thoughts. You will explore the actual evidence behind your beliefs. For example, you’ll discuss what tells you that you’re bad or unworthy. You’ll talk about what evidence supports your decision that you’ll never have a respectful relationship, and you don’t deserve one.

A handful of examples of cognitive distortions include:

  • Black-and-white thinking – Thinking in extremes. Most things are either good or bad. There is no in-between.
  • Catastrophizing – Always assuming the worst. A small inconvenience can spiral into a huge calamity in your mind.
  • Mental filtering – Only paying attention to negative aspects of life and dismissing any positive aspects
  • Overgeneralization – Applying the result of one negative event across the board
  • Personalization – Taking things personally or blaming yourself for events even when they have nothing to do with you
  • Mind-reading – Being certain that you know what others are thinking and feeling

4. Work on alternative ways of thinking. Your therapist will help you replace negative or inaccurate thoughts and beliefs with positive, fact-based ones. You will learn that your perception is often distorted because of your negative core beliefs. In addition to addressing this in therapy, you may be asked to:

  • Journal
  • Read relevant books and other materials
  • Complete core beliefs worksheets
  • Do other CBT exercises

You’ll work hard to recognize when your thoughts turn to negative core beliefs; challenge them; and replace them with more accurate, empowering thoughts.

Cognitive behavioral therapy often creates positive change faster than other approaches. Many clients see significant improvement in 12 to 20 weeks of 30- or 60-minute sessions. Recently, a new form of CBT has emerged: intensive cognitive behavioral therapy (I-CBT). This approach involves longer, concentrated sessions over a weekend, week, month, or even a day-long session. There’s little research on I-CBT’s effectiveness.

Get Help to Understand and Combat Your Negative Core Beliefs

Negative core beliefs are hard to change, but, with work and dedication, you can transform your thinking, beliefs, and behaviors to be more healthy, accurate, and empowering. Distorted core beliefs are one of the underlying issues behind drug and alcohol abuse. Footprints to Recovery offers cognitive behavioral therapy as well as an array of other therapies proven to help people struggling with addiction and co-occurring mental health issues. Call us today to begin a better, more fulfilling life.


David Szarka
Medically Reviewed by David Szarka, MA, LCADC
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