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Core Beliefs Create Our Reality: What Are Yours?

Our core beliefs influence us everyday, but we rarely think of them.

“People just can’t be trusted.”

“I’ll never find someone who will really love me.”

“Nobody ever really understands me.”

“Here we go again.”

“I knew it would turn out this way, it always does.”

I hear people express thoughts like these on a regular basis in my psychotherapy work, and they often come with a sense of resignation. The person having these thoughts often feels like their worst fears are again being confirmed, or that they are reliving an old experience from their past. It is easy to feel doomed to repeat the same tragic fate again and again.

Here is the thing about this kind of thinking: it is not always true. Often, these thoughts are based on interpretations and assumptions that have become so deeply embedded in our thinking that we don’t stop to look at them. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, these are sometimes called core beliefs. When they become especially fixed, sometimes they are referred to as schemas. Whatever you call them, they can cause a great deal of pain.

ERnesto Bruschi/Unsplash
Source: ERnesto Bruschi/Unsplash

Core beliefs are like the underground roots of a tree. They are unseen, but they determine a great deal about the overall health and functioning of the tree. These beliefs set a foundation, a list of rules and assumptions about ourselves (“I’m unloveable”), others (“people are selfish”), or the world (“I am not safe anywhere”). They guide our interpretation of all the events that happen to us, even if we rarely think of them consciously.

The words that actually run through our mind on a day-to-day basis are the observable parts of the tree, its roots, leaves, and branches. These are the thoughts we blame for much of our emotional pain, but they are often actually the symptoms of our deeper unhelpful core beliefs.

In order to make major changes in how we think and behave in the world, we need to look at the roots. We need to spend some time looking at our core beliefs.

One way to start to understand our assumptions is to look at the “same old stuff” that keeps happening in our lives. What are the themes that keep coming up? What are the conclusions you keep drawing from your experiences? Once we see those, we can start to see if other things might be going on. Be a little bit dubious about accepting your first interpretation of an event, especially if it fits into that old pattern. Instead, wonder what else might be going on. If my worst fear wasn’t again coming true, what else might be going on?

When you are calm, you might also approach the people involved in the situation. You could ask them to help you understand their intentions, and explain that you don’t want to misunderstand them. You could gently express your fear (“I’m afraid I’ll never feel understood”) or your wish (“it’s important that I can trust you”). Be open to learning that other people's thoughts and feelings might be different than your reflexive thoughts might expect.

We all relate a little differently to our core beliefs or schemas. Sometimes we try to fight against them, other times we resign ourselves to them. Occasionally, we might even put ourselves in situations where our worst fears are repeated (e.g. we choose an unloving partner) because it’s so unfamiliar to experience anything different.

However we’ve related to these beliefs in the past, we don’t have to keep doing it and getting the “same old stuff” from life. Start exploring your own core beliefs, and see which ones might finally be ready for retirement.