As we discussed earlier, two people can have very different beliefs and interpretations about the same situation. This can lead them to have very different reactions, some more helpful than others. You may be wondering how this happens. Why do some people seem to struggle more with perfectionistic thinking than others? Where do these pesky, unhelpful automatic thoughts come from?
Good question. According to CBT, the answer comes down to our core beliefs. Core beliefs are the fundamental views we hold about ourselves, others and the world around us. We are often not consciously aware of our core beliefs, as they go even deeper than our automatic thoughts. Core beliefs impact the way we think and relate to ourselves and others. They develop over time and are shaped largely by our early life experiences, including the interactions we have with parents and caregivers.
With nurturance and positive reassurance, people generally develop the core beliefs that they are good and others view them positively. As such, they tend to feel safe, secure and confident in themselves. In contrast, people who experience trauma, neglect, and rejection may go on to develop core beliefs that they are bad and unworthy. They may also develop a sense of mistrust of others. Compared to those with balanced core beliefs (e.g., “I am mostly accepted by others”), people with negative core beliefs (e.g., “I’m unloveable”) are more prone to unhelpful automatic thoughts.
Core beliefs tend to be rigid and stable over time. That is, they are much harder to change than automatic thoughts. People are often drawn to information and interpretations that support their core beliefs. In this way, core beliefs are taken as ‘truth’ and often strengthen over time, unless there is some effort to change them. For example, Allen believes that he is ‘not good enough’. He therefore focuses on his mistakes and all the things he doesn’t do well. Allen even takes neutral comments made by friends as criticisms, which works to strengthen his core belief.
Here are some examples of common core beliefs related to perfectionism:
- I’m ineffective
- I’m incompetent
- I’m weak
- I’m unlovable
- I’m unattractive
- I’m a failure
- I’m out of control
- I’m defective
- I’m not good enough
- I’m worthless
Reading through this list, one or more of these core beliefs may have resonated with you. If that’s the case, keep this in mind as you work through this course. However, knowing your core beliefs often requires first learning how to recognise your automatic thoughts. At this stage of the course, we don’t expect you to be able to identify your own core beliefs. However, simply having the knowledge that they exist will be helpful as we move forward.