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Challenging Core Beliefs

Challenging Core Beliefs

This is how humans are: we question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.” – Orson Scott Car, American novelist. Challenging core beliefs is a useful exercise to do when we feel depressed and hopeless.

When we are down or depressed we can let our whole way of thinking and feeling be influenced by harsh, unkind, outdated, untrue beliefs about ourselves and about the world.

As last week’s blog showed, core beliefs are deep beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world around us that we have come to rely on very deeply. We develop these deep beliefs from what has happened to us and from what we’ve been told to believe. 

For example, if you witness violence in your home growing up, your core belief may be “caring people always hurt each other or that the world is a frightening place where you should trust no-one.”

On the other hand, your past experiences may have led you to the core beliefs that you are safe, that you are in control of what happens to you, that other people are essentially good and can be trusted.

Using the Downward Arrow Technique to challenge core beliefs

The downward Arrow Technique (sometimes called Laddering)  is an exercise used in CBT and gets down to the root of core beliefs.

In the following example an imaginary person works down  a mental “ladder” rung by rung to investigate all of the different meanings of his/ her core beliefs or automatic thoughts about not being good with their finances.  After each belief or thought, what follows is a question meant to shed light on what the consequences would be if each automatic thought “came true.”

“I have no control over my spending”

Write this down at the top of a sheet of paper. Now draw on arrow downwards underneath that thought and ask yourself a question. If that thought is true, why is it upsetting me? Then draw a downward arrow to the next thought that comes into your head as a result of the first thought:

What if I can’t stop spending money?  What will this mean?

 “It means that I’ll go completely broke, I’ll lose my home, I’ll lose everything”

And the same again: What would happen then? What if I do lose everything?

“It means that my whole life will fall apart.”

And what would happen then? What if my life does fall apart?  What will this mean?

It means that I am completely helpless, I have no control over ANYTHING in my life”

The core belief here is:  “I am helpless, I have no control over my life”. 

Another example is:

‘I will never find another job.

Write this down at the top of a sheet of paper. ‘If this thought is true, why would it be upsetting  me?’

Then draw a downward arrow to the next thought that comes into your head, which might be:

‘Because everyone would look down on me.’

Write this down, draw another downward arrow and ask yourself the same question. “If this thought is true, why would it be upsetting me?

The next thought might be, ‘Because they would think I was useless.’

And again  ‘If this thought were true, what would it mean about me?’ And the answer to this might be, ‘It would mean I am worthless.’

The core belief here is “ I am worthless” or as above “I am helpless, I have no control over my life”.

Try using the technique to see if you can arrive at one of your core beliefs. Many of our core beliefs are about lack of control over our lives and lack of worth and they can influence how we think and feel in a very negative way. Once you identify core beliefs, you can then begin to challenge them.  It can also be helpful to ask yourself “where did this belief come from?” Very often we developed these core beliefs early on in life, especially if we formed them in our childhoods or teenage years.  If we were constantly criticised by a school teacher, that can be enough for a powerful core belief about not being good enough to be laid down. Who’s voice is saying the negative stuff? A parent’s or authority figure? Was it ever really true? What evidence is there against the belief?

Book a counselling session today!

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with Depression and would like to talk it over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


See also Depression and Core Beliefs, Depression and Anxiety, All you Need to Know about Depression