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3 Ways to Conquer Negative Beliefs About Yourself

Break the cycle of harmful thoughts.

Key points

  • Core beliefs are deeply held views that people have about themselves, others, and the world. They generally develop in childhood.
  • Negative beliefs tend to get activated during difficult times and can impact mood.
  • People can address these beliefs by challenging them, or acknowledging them and moving on to something else.
Shift Drive/Shutterstock
Source: Shift Drive/Shutterstock

Last week several of my therapy clients said to me, "I feel like something is wrong with me." One person said it as the reason why they thought they were single. Another said it was the cause of why they didn't have many friends. Another used it as an explanation as to why they thought they stalled in their career development.

Most people have had thoughts like this, in which they believe that they are unlovable, helpless, or worthless. For some, these thoughts occur frequently, maybe several times a day. For others, these thoughts only surface under challenging situations, such as after a perceived personal failing or rejection. Mental health professionals call these types of thoughts negative core beliefs.

What Are Core Beliefs?

Core beliefs were first described by cognitive therapist Aaron T. Beck. They are deeply held views that people have about themselves, others, and the world.

People tend to have both positive and negative core beliefs. Positive core beliefs include thoughts like, "I am a likable person," or, "People are usually trustworthy." However, when people experience emotional distress, negative core beliefs get activated. In turn, these negative thoughts make people feel even worse. Often, when a negative core belief is activated, people tend to believe it strongly, even feeling like it is true.

Here are some examples of negative core beliefs:

  • I am a failure
  • I am unlovable
  • I am weak
  • I am inadequate
  • I am incompetent
  • I am bound to be rejected
  • I am not good enough
  • I am worthless

Why Do We Have Negative Core Beliefs?

When we are young we start to develop views about ourselves and the world. These beliefs are usually heavily impacted by what people tell us and our experiences. For example, someone who grows up in a household with very critical parents or a mean sibling might start to believe those negative things about themselves. Or, a person of color might internalize racist messages or experiences they have encountered.

Children often accept these types of messages as facts. Also, they tend to come up with their own explanations about their experiences that help the world make sense to them. "I am stupid because I did not do well on the test," or "I'm unlikable because my friend stopped being friends with me." Or, "I'm a bad person because I was abused."

In addition, there are genetic and biological influences on our thinking patterns. People genetically prone to depression or anxiety are more likely to have these negative thoughts. They might get stuck in the cycle of low mood or high anxiety, activating negative core beliefs, which reinforce the mood and anxiety, and so forth.

Steps to Address Negative Core Beliefs

1. Realize that you are not alone. Often people think they are the only ones who feel like something is wrong with them. If only everyone could see a negative core belief thought bubble over everyone else's head, people would realize that they are very common.

People you respect and people who seem to have everything going for them also have negative beliefs about themselves. This type of thinking is part of the human condition, and you are not alone!

2. Challenge your beliefs. Negative core beliefs tend to have an all-encompassing, all-or-nothing quality to them. These characteristics are problematic because they lack nuance and make you feel bad about yourself. When you challenge these beliefs, you mustn't simply think positive thoughts. That won't work. Instead, it's better to develop a more realistic thought that you will believe.

For example, suppose you were ghosted by someone you met on a dating app. You might have the thought, "I'm unlovable. I'll never meet anyone who wants to be in a relationship with me." Ask yourself some questions like, "Just because this person rejected me, does it really mean that everyone else in the future will reject me?" Or, "Do I want to give this person the power to make me feel like I'm unlovable?" Or, "Even though I'm single, are there people in my life that love and care about me?"

3. Acknowledge, validate, and move on. Another approach to these thoughts is: acknowledging the thought, validating yourself, and moving on to doing something else. You can distract yourself or refocus your attention on something important to you or what you value.

After being passed up for a promotion at work, you might think, "I'm a failure, and I'll never amount to anything." Rather than getting caught up in the rumination of being a failure, you could tell yourself, "Of course I just had thought, given that I'm upset about not getting the promotion. At the same time, thinking I'm a failure is only going to make me feel worse."

This disappointment could be an opportunity to talk to your supervisor about why you didn't get the promotion and what you could do about getting promoted in the future. Or, it might be a time to think about whether or not you want to stay at this job, and if not, consider starting a job search.

In Sum

Most of us have untrue negative core beliefs that start in childhood and stick around throughout life. The problem is that people believe them, especially when they are feeling vulnerable. Reminding yourself that most people have these thoughts can help you feel less alone. Challenging these negative thoughts and moving on to thinking or doing something more affirming can help you lessen their power over you.


Beck, A. T. (1964). Thinking and depression: II. Theory and therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry, 10, 561–571.

Beck, J. S. (2005). Cognitive therapy for challenging problems: What to do when the basics don’t work. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.