There is a hierarchy in our negative thoughts: Automatic Thoughts, Conditional Assumptions (or Rules), and Core Beliefs (or Core Limiting Beliefs). Those form the foundation of our identity. They are the central beliefs that we maintain about ourselves, others and the world. We have mentioned this hierarchy in the previous episode.
In this episode, we explore more closely how to uncover the Core Beliefs, especially Core Limiting Beliefs about ourselves. These belong in two domains: competency and desirability.
Examples of Core Beliefs that reflect incompetency are:
I am incompetent
I am a failure
I am weak
I am not good enough
I am inferior
I am dumb
Examples of Core Beliefs that reflect undesirability are:
I am undesirable
I am unattractive
I am unlovable
I am unlikable
I am bad
I am worthless
You can think of Core Beliefs as a pair of sunglasses. We may forget that we’re wearing them on our nose, but they still color the way we see the world:
In the handout, you’ll find a sample list of common Core Beliefs—see if some of them apply to you. You’ll also learn how to uncover some of your Core Beliefs, especially when they are hard to find. It uses a technique called the Downward Arrow.
Questions used in the Downward Arrow:
“What does that mean? Why is that upsetting to you?” “What does that mean about you (or others, or the world)?” “If that’s true, what’s so bad about it?” “What’s the worst part about this?” “So what if this is true? What are you afraid would happen?” “How is that a problem for you?”
Find the Core Belief(s) underlying your Automatic Thoughts, and challenge it (them) by finding contradicting evidence.
In this first episode of the podcast, I talk about how our thoughts influence our emotions. This principle was discovered—or rediscovered—by American psychologists and pioneers of the cognitive model, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. They were drawing on ancient wisdom, such as that of Greek philosopher Epictetus, who wrote in his philosophical manual, the Enchiridion:
“What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgements on events”
(Epictetus, The Enchiridion, c. 135 A.D.)
Going back even further, Buddhism’s sacred scripture, the Dhammapada, start with these words:
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts; it is made up of our thoughts.”
Opening lines of the Dhammapada (c. 500 B.C.E., trans. F. Max Müller)
Today, cognitive-behavior therapy posits that:
We feel the way we think
When we feel depressed/angry/anxious, the thoughts that create those difficult emotions are distorted
You can change the way the way you feel by changing the way you think
Albert Ellis noticed the following set of beliefs in North American culture (if you are not from North America, don’t worry—those beliefs are very human and tend to be generously spread around the world):
It is a dire necessity for adults to be loved by significant others for almost everything they do
Certain acts are awful or wicked, and that people who perform such acts should be severely damned
It is horrible when things are not the way we like them to be
Human misery is invariably externally caused and is forced on us by outside people and events
If something is or may be dangerous or fearsome we should be terribly upset and endlessly obsess about it
It is easier to avoid than to face life difficulties and self-responsibilities
We absolutely need something other or stronger or greater than ourselves on which to rely
We should be thoroughly competent, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects
Because something once strongly affected our life, it should indefinitely affect it
We must have certain and perfect control over things
Human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction
We have virtually no control over our emotions and that we cannot help feeling disturbed about things
Aaron Beck researched the thought content of depressed people, and found that his patients reported:
Low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority
Sense of deprivation or aloneness
Self-criticism or self-blame
Magnifying their problems
Speaking to themselves in terms of “shoulds” and “musts”
Wanting to escape their unsolvable problems, sometimes through suicide
(Aaron T. Beck. “Thinking and Depression: I. Idiosyncratic Content and Cognitive Distortions.” Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1963;9(4):324–333)
Types of Irrational Beliefs:
Core Beliefs (or Schemas) — serve as a basis for screening, categorizing, and interpreting experiences.
Conditional Assumptions — beliefs that shape your response to experiences and situations. Conditional assumptions that focus specifically on ways of influencing others become interpersonal strategies.
Automatic Thoughts — spontaneously flow through our mind in the moment.
In the following handout you will see that it is divided into 4 columns. In the first column, note what is the situation where you are feeling discomfort; for example, “Hanging up the phone after talking to mom.” In the second column, write down the thoughts that come up; e.g. “I need her to love me.” In the third column, check the box that corresponds to the type of thought, as I described earlier, e.g. Automatic Thought, if the thought is a spontaneous reaction to the situation, Conditional Assumption, if represents your interpersonal strategy, or Core Belief, if that’s one of your basic assumptions about yourself, others or the world. Finally, in the fourth column write down how that thought might be distorted.