When I first met Cathy I was struck by how well put together she seemed to be. She was impeccably dressed with a confident air and a firm handshake; hard work and persistence had helped her rise to the top of her law firm, making partner even as she balanced raising two kids.
And yet there was a brittleness to the confidence she exuded, which became more apparent as I got to know her through the course of her therapy. I learned that she was extremely hard on herself—quick to apologize and highly self-critical for anything she judged to be less than perfect.
On one occasion Cathy thought she had lost a major account (it turned out she hadn't). She blamed herself for the imagined loss, sobbing into her hands as she wondered aloud how she could "be such an idiot." She was sure her senior partners would never again trust her judgment.
Catchy was certainly not alone in her harsh self-judgments. Many of us are more caustically critical of ourselves than of anyone else, even people we actively dislike (as I wrote about in a previous post, What Makes You So Special? It's Time You Found Out). Where do these self-loathing tendencies come from?
If we pay attention to our negative thoughts toward ourselves, we'll start to notice a pattern: The thoughts are not random but instead follow a theme. In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) we call this theme a "core belief." Core beliefs capture our fundamental view of the world, other people, and ourselves. They're what we believe to be true on the deepest level.
Based on our core belief, we can predict what types of thoughts we're going to have in a given situation. Core beliefs are kind of like radio frequencies in this way. Depending on the station, you know what genre of music to expect: jazz from a jazz station, rock from a rock station, and so forth. The songs vary, but they're part of the same music family.
Like a radio station, our core beliefs will cue up predictable negative automatic thoughts that are thematically related. In Cathy's case her automatic thoughts included, "I'm so lazy," "I can't do anything right," and "People think I'm incompetent."
Common negative core beliefs include:
These types of belief are more common in people who are depressed, and can contribute to ongoing depression. However, you don't have to be depressed to carry these types of beliefs, which can make it hard to feel kindness toward yourself.
When Cathy started to pay attention to her harsh automatic thoughts, she identified her core belief: "I'm a failure." It was this belief that was driving her reactions to times when she thought she didn't measure up. Incidents like thinking she'd lost the account didn't cause her to think she was a failure so much as reveal her underlying view of herself.
Core beliefs can be hard to change because they've generally been with us for a long time, and we assume that they're true. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to changing our core beliefs is that they are strongly self-perpetuating. When we have a fundamentally negative view of ourselves, we're biased to interpret negative outcomes as evidence of our shortcomings. For example, Cathy was quick to blame her work issue on being "an idiot."
That interpretation then functions to reinforce the core belief:
I'm such an idiot, which is just more evidence that I'm a failure.
But it's a complete setup, because the negative thought about ourself was driven by the negative core belief! The process is entirely circular, with core beliefs driving our automatic thoughts, and those thoughts in turn being used to justify the core belief.
Clearly it's going to take a good deal of work to break out of this cycle.
As I discuss in my forthcoming book Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, some of us may be more likely to develop negative core beliefs based on our genetic makeup. But the specific beliefs we develop are driven by our life experiences and the lessons we take from them.
Cathy traced her belief about being a failure to her continual sense while growing up that her parents were disappointed with her because her older sister was smarter and more popular (or so Cathy thought). Even as she experienced considerable professional success, Cathy couldn't shake the feeling that her parents saw her as a disappointment.
We can also develop core beliefs based on our observations of others. For example, Cathy attributed her core belief in part to growing up with a mother who was harshly self-critical.
Core beliefs might also make sense at an earlier point in our lives, and then endure long past the point of serving us well. In the case of a child who's being mistreated, she might develop the belief that she is powerless. That belief might be realistic given her lack of control over her circumstances, but it can persist decades later even when she could exercise considerable control over her life.
If you suspect a negative core belief is driving your own self-criticism, I encourage you to take the time to identify it. The thoughts can be so well-rehearsed that we don't even think of them as thoughts, but rather assume we're simply observing reality.
Thus "I'm inadequate" can feel as true as, "The sky is blue," an acknowledgment of a truth about the world. We don't recognize the story our minds are creating about ourselves—and one that is almost certainly false.
The first step in changing your core belief is to get a good idea of what it is. Try the following approaches to identify your own:
Once you have a handle on what your negative core belief is, you can work to change it—a topic I'll turn to in a subsequent post. If you're tired of listening to harsh judgments of yourself, you can learn to change the station.
Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond. New York: Guilford Press.
Gillihan, S. J. (2016). Retrain your brain: Cognitive behavioral therapy in 7 weeks. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press.