Negative core beliefs are convictions you have about either yourself or the world, which quite literally keep you from the wellbeing you deserve. It’s not your fault for believing these messages about yourself, but you may be able to replace them with more realistic assessments.
According to psychologists and authors Kathy Steele, Onno van der Hart, and Suzette Boon: “Negative core beliefs are reinforced over time by negative emotions, perceptions, and predictions, and by additional negative life experiences. The same is true for positive core beliefs and attendant perceptions, emotions, and experiences.”
Regardless of the cause of your negative core beliefs, clear research reveals these convictions about ourselves are “correlated positively with reports of negative experiences in childhood, attachment styles, anxiety, and depression.” So if you can’t change your past, or your attachment, it might be worth trying a top-down approach–by noticing and replacing these unhelpful beliefs.
Examples of negative core beliefs
The simplest way to see whether you have negative core beliefs is to look at a list. Most of our negative core beliefs are subconscious, built into how we see the world. But when prompted, some of these beliefs may look subtly familiar…
- “Nothing goes well for me.”
- “I’m not lovable.”
- “I’m broken.”
- “Everyone has an agenda.”
- “People are only nice when they want something.”
- “I’m a waste of space.”
- “People think of me like an alien.”
- “I can’t stand on my own.”
- “I’m not good at anything.”
- “Nobody will ever understand me.”
- “I have to earn kindness and love from others.”
- Giving yourself a reality check, and
- Reminding yourself of alternative, positive, core beliefs.
As the aforementioned experts say of negative core beliefs, “These are deeply rooted convictions that typically involve all or nothing thinking without balance or nuance…” So the first step is noticing your unhelpful convictions, and giving yourself a reality check.
1. Occam’s razor
Am I jumping to conclusions? What’s the most positive belief possible here? Usually the simplest explanation for things going wrong, is that…things just go wrong.
Bad luck 🙅=🙅 the universe being against you.
2. Focus on precision
Is it really “always”?
Don’t let this reality check spiral into an empowered inner critic, but do stop and check your core beliefs for precision.
You might carelessly think “Oh, I’ll always be alone,” when you don’t really think it’s 100% true. But when you regularly think a certain way, you reinforce that thought — even if it imprecisely reflects your actual belief.
Try to notice when you think in broad, vague terms, especially about anxiety-provoking or emotional topics. Is that really how I feel? Is that really true? Do I want to perpetuate this thought in my mind?
Realistic, positive alternatives To negative core beliefs
Here are some examples to replace unhelpful core beliefs:
- “I can be a good person and still have room to grow.”
- “If I need help, all I have to do is ask.”
- “I don’t have to be around bad people.”
- “There is a community out there for me.”
- “Taking initiative is safe. Nobody will punish me.”
- “Good people exist in the world.”
- “I’m allowed to do what’s right for me.”
- “It’s proactive to rest and recharge.”
- “Nobody will hurt me for being happy.”
- “I can march to the beat of my own drum.”
- “If I open up authentically, people will understand my human feelings.”
Remember: spend your emotional energy wisely.
Is it possible things won’t go badly?
Am I reading into someone’s behavior? What are the chances I might be wrong? Is it worth assessing at all? Do I need to use my energy on this? Is my rumination now actually going to prepare me for possible negative events in the future?
And… Be patient with yourself.
A parting note from trauma experts Boon, Steele, and van der Hart:
“You may be quite convinced that something is healthy and good, but this does not mean that you can always ‘practice what you preach.'”
Punishing yourself for engaging with a negative thought won’t help. All you can do is continue trying your best to notice when it happens. In the process of noticing and replacing your negative core beliefs, patience with yourself is your most important tool.