Negative core beliefs about yourself such as "I'm a loser", "I'm unlovable", "I'm a failure", "I'm worthless", "I'm hopeless", "everyone else is better than me" and "I'm not good enough" for example can be very difficult to overcome - because they're so deeply woven into the fabric of your brain that you believe them wholeheartedly. However, even though it may be really hard to believe, it is possible to overcome negative core beliefs about yourself. And, on that note, in this blog post, we'd like to work through a cognitive behavioural therapy-based exercise with you to help you do just that!
How To Overcome Negative Core Beliefs About Yourself: A Cognitive Behavioural Therapy-Based Exercise
To start with, it's important to understand that negative core beliefs such as the ones we've mentioned are not beliefs that you’re born with – rather, they’re beliefs that have been developed overtime. To see how this often happens, let's take a look at the cycle below:
Negative Core Beliefs Component #1: Negative Experiences
As you can see, this cycle starts with a negative experience – such as being bullied, being abused, or being neglected by your parents, for example. Often, this negative experience occurs during childhood, since that’s when your core beliefs about yourself and the world are most often formed. However, this cycle can also be triggered by a negative experience that took place in your adulthood as well (such as by a divorce, for example).
Negative Core Beliefs Component #2: Violation of Basic Needs
In some way, this negative experience violated at least one of your basic human needs – most commonly, your need to avoid pain, your need for safety, your need for control, and/or your need for positive attachment. For example, in the case of being bullied, this violates:
Your need to avoid pain (since being bullied is obviously painful);
It violates your need for safety (since you don’t feel safe when you’re being bullied);
It violates your need for control (since you feel helpless in the face of a person or a group exerting their strength or dominance over you);
And, it violates your need for positive attachment (since being bullied is a negative interaction with the perpetrator(s)).
Negative Core Beliefs Component #3: Mentally Processing The Negative Experience
This is where you try to understand and find an explanation for what happened. And, broadly speaking, you can attribute this negative experience to two different factors:
External factors that have nothing to do with you; or
Internal factors that are to do with you.
And, if we’re talking about a negative experience that occurred in your childhood such as being bullied in school, for example, then chances are that you internally attributed yourself as the cause of this negative experience.
Because when you’re a child, you only have a limited understanding of the world around you, and the complex reasons why other people behave the way they do. Consequently, it’s much simpler to blame yourself, and this is exactly how negative core beliefs often start to develop – such as the “I’m a loser” negative core belief, which, for example, might have come about because as a child, this was the only explanation you could think of for why you were bullied.
Negative Core Beliefs Component #4: Recalibrating Your Behaviours In Response
This is where you try to change your behaviour in the hope of preventing the negative experience you endured from occurring again. In the context of bullying, for example, this might mean:
Withdrawing from social situations;
Not opening up and letting people get to know the “real you” out of fear of being hurt;
Avoiding people altogether.
However, the problem that often occurs when you recalibrate your behaviour in this way is that you unwittingly fuel this cycle that we’ve been talking about, and entrench your negative core belief even deeper in your psyche.
For example, if moving forwards you become very socially withdrawn as a response to being bullied, then this can lead to the negative experience of being lonely, which violates your human needs to avoid pain and to have positive attachments, which can lead you to conclude that this is happening because you’re a loser, which further entrenches the negative core belief that you’re a loser, which can lead you to withdraw even more in response, and so the cycle continues and continues.
A Cognitive Behavioural Therapy-Based Exercise To Help You Overcome Your Negative Core Beliefs
Unfortunately, like we said, negative core beliefs take time to undo and replace with positive core beliefs – particularly if you developed your negative core beliefs in childhood and have held on to them for years and years since then. However, the good news is that with the right help, it is indeed possible – and right now, we're going to guide you through a cognitive behavioural therapy-based exercise to help you do so.
To start with, please get a pen and a piece of paper, and write down a negative core belief that you have about yourself, accompanied by, as a percentage, how convinced you are that this negative core belief is true.
“My negative core belief is that I’m a loser, and I believe it with 100% certainty.”
“My negative core belief is that I’m unlovable, and I believe it with 85% certainty.”
Next, please write down a negative experience that led to the development of this negative core belief, OK?
Now, like we’ve said, the way this experience led to you developing this negative core belief is because at the time it occurred, you attributed something negative about yourself as the cause of it – and then overtime, the continuation of the cycle we showed you at the start of this blog post led to this belief becoming more and more entrenched in your psyche.
However, instead of blaming yourself for that negative experience occurring, right now, please ask yourself:
What are some alternative explanations for why that negative experience took place?
For example, let’s say that you were bullied in school, which led you to conclude that the reason you were bullied is because you’re a loser. However:
- The bully may have been feeling extremely angry and frustrated with something going on in their own life (such as their parents getting divorced, for example), and since they were just a kid and didn’t know how to healthily process this anger and frustration, they bullied you – not because you’re a "loser", but because their childish selves didn’t know how else to release their anger and frustration.
- The bully may have lacked self-esteem, and so they bullied you not because you’re a "loser", but because bullying you improved their self-esteem by making them feel strong, powerful and dominant.
- The bully may have also admired and been jealous of you – for example, because you achieved better marks in school than they did – and since they didn’t like feeling inferior to you intellectually, they tried to compensate by bullying you in order to feel superior to you physically. Unfortunately, this explains why a lot of children are bullied – not because they’re a "loser", but because they have admirable qualities or traits that bullies wish they could emulate, but can’t.
- The bully may’ve also simply been acting out behaviour that they’d repeatedly witnessed in their own personal life – most commonly by their parents. In this instance, they bullied you not because you’re a "loser", but because they’d never been shown a better way to behave.
As you can see in this example, there are a lot of reasons why you could’ve been bullied that have nothing to do with you being a "loser". So, right now, please return to your own negative core belief, and try to re-process the experience that triggered it by writing down 5-10 alternative explanations for why it occurred. Doing this exercise is extremely, extremely important, because like we’ve said, when you’re a child, your mind is still developing, and your understanding of the world is relatively limited, which means that rather than appreciating the complexity of the situation in question and being able to correctly attribute it’s occurrence to one or more external factors, you simply blamed yourself – and as the “negative core belief cycle” continued and continued to occur, your negative core belief became more and more entrenched. So, now that you’re an adult and have the capacity to better appreciate the complexity of the situation, we encourage you to spend some time trying to think of 5-10 additional explanations for why your negative experience occurred.
A Cognitive Behavioural Therapy-Based Exercise To Help You Overcome Your Negative Core Beliefs (Part 2)
After completing Part 1 of this exercise above, you’re now going to have 5-10 explanations for why your negative experience took place, in addition to the original conclusion that you drew which led to you developing your negative core belief. To use our bullying example once again, our total list of possible explanations for why this occurred would now be:
- Because the bully was angry / frustrated about something, and was taking it out on you.
- Because bullying you made them feel strong, powerful and good about themselves.
- Because the bully was jealous of you.
- Because the bully was modelling the behaviour of their parents.
- Because you’re a "loser" (the original negative core belief that you have).
The fact that you now have not just one, but a handful of explanations for why your negative experience took place should already cast some doubt on the accuracy of your original negative core belief.
And, to cast even more doubt, we now encourage you to ask yourself:
If I was an innocent bystander and saw the same negative experience play out with different people in front of me, then how would I explain it? And even more fundamentally, would I blame the victim or the perpetrator?
This is an extremely, extremely important question to ask, because in almost all cases, you would not explain it by attributing the negative core belief you have about yourself to the victim who’s in your shoes. Rather, you would blame the perpetrator – are we right?
So, to return to our bullying example once again, if you witnessed another child being bullied in the same way you were, then:
Would you conclude that the child is being bullied because they’re a "loser"? Our guess is that you certainly would not! And, if this is the case, then don't you think it's unfair to yourself to conclude that the reason you were bullied was because you are a "loser"?
Would you blame the bully, or the victim? Once again, we're very confident that you would blame the bully – and if this is the case, then isn't it also unfair to blame yourself for the time when you were bullied?
Once again, asking yourself these questions should cast even more doubt on the accuracy of your negative core belief.
After Completing This Exercise, How Convinced Are You Now That Your Negative Core Belief Is True?
Remember at the start of this exercise, when we asked you to write down, as a percentage, how convinced you are that your negative core belief is true?
Well, after completing the above exercise, we'd like you to answer this question again.
Because our guess is that right now, you’re less convinced that this negative core belief is true than you were beforehand. For example:
If you were 100% convinced it was true before this exercise, then maybe now, you’re only 60% convinced that it’s true.
If you were 80% convinced it was true before this exercise, then maybe now, you’re only 50% convinced that it’s true.
If you were 50% convinced it was true before this exercise, then maybe you’re only 25% convinced now.
And, if you keep on working at overcoming your negative core beliefs about yourself, then in time, you can reach a point where you know that they're not true!
All our love,
The Depression Project Team.