Core beliefs

What are core beliefs?

I use the term ‘core belief’ to refer to a deeply held negative affirmation about ourselves or about reality which effectively blocks our growth or self-realisation.  Ideas such as “I always get it wrong“, “Nobody cares about me“, “It’s not safe to be myself“, or “My needs are not so important as other peoples’” not only inhibit us from fully being and expressing our true selves, they are resistant to most therapeutic processes because they are held right at the core of our personality, and often unconsciously. They become central to our way of being in the world and actually help to create the reality we experience.

Classical NVC has no remedy for core beliefs. We can make observations, connect with our feelings, identify our needs and formulate strategies to meet them (‘requests’) till the cows come home, without even getting close to the problem. Tomorrow or next week, the same or a similar situation will upset us in the same way. The problem is that our behavioural responses are no longer being driven by the needs of the present situation, as NVC theory teaches, but directly by our belief system, and only indirectly by the needs of our younger self who originally adopted the belief many years ago.

There’s no marker for thoughts and beliefs in the basic NVC process.  However, with a few tweaks and by combining them with other self-enquiry processes, the elements of NVC can indeed be used to create a very effective process for actually transforming core beliefs. At the heart of this process we still find human needs, but there are two distinct sets of needs to consider and to reconcile: those which we were attempting to meet when the core belief was first adopted, and those which the belief would come to frustrate and are therefore highlighted in the present.

Having worked with many people’s core beliefs, I have tentatively identified four distinct groups:

(1) INADEQUACY: “I’m not good enough” / “I’m not attractive/ worthy / lovable / deserving / etc”
(2) SEPARATION:  “There’s no place for me” / “No one understands me” / “I don’t fit in...”
(3) SCARCITY:        “There’s not enough (resources, space, time, love…) for me
(4) EXISTENTIAL: “The world/ life itself  is…. dangerous/unsafe /hopeless etc

Beliefs of inadequacy are closely linked with shame, while beliefs of separation may lead to anger. Beliefs of scarcity are associated with anxiety, while ‘existential’ core beliefs may engender terror or depression (or both). The many variations on these themes which people have presented to me could all be reduced to one of these four types.

All core beliefs stem ultimately from a trauma response. It’s likely possible for core beliefs to be formed after a major trauma during adult life, but I have not actually come across this yet. The normal situation is that core beliefs arise as a result of childhood trauma – and I should say that childhood trauma in some form or other is not the exception, it is the rule for a modern human being living in an industrial society. Moreover, trauma can be chronic as well as acute in that in may result from continuous pressure or ‘low-level’ abuse over a long period. This is also the case when core beliefs originate by absorption or indoctrination, in which a belief or injunction of a parent or carer is repeated so often or so forcefully that the child absorbs it as his or her own. There is a scale here from matters of social etiquette to severe body-shaming or worthlessness. Often these beliefs may be rejected naturally in adolescence when the person hears different stories from people outside the birth family or just comes to his/her own conclusions, while others remain permanently. The second way core beliefs are formed is by reaction, in which the child forms its own belief in response to trauma, whether that has been acute or chronic in nature. Usually types 2,3 and 4 are formed in this way, while type 1 can have either origin. Reaction beliefs may be more insidious and harder to shift without a conscious process and they constitute the great majority of the cases I have seen.

The part of us which holds the core beliefs, normally for the rest of our lives, is the wounded inner child. As children, our beliefs were typically a way of making sense of reality or of providing some protection in an unsafe environment. “It’s best to keep quiet and not say what I think” serves the little boy well who gets a slap every time he opens his mouth. As a grown man, it doesn’t work so well of course, and gradually other needs than safety, such as self-expression and autonomy, come to the surface and struggle to be heard.

Like a radio telescope which allows astrophysicists to look back in time to an earlier stage of the universe’s development, the core beliefs tell us about the psychological environment of our upbringing, and are often the only remaining evidence of the trauma that we can rely on, especially in the case of very early episodes before our memories solidified. As Bessel van der Kolk has it, ‘The body keeps the score’.  But whatever the trauma, however crazy the core beliefs sound, and whatever their negative effects in later life, it’s important to be aware that the core beliefs were also our best possible response to an impossible childhood situation, and they often bear signs of great creativity, resourcefulness and even compassion for others.

Core beliefs are hard to shift, not just because they met vital needs in the original situation but because they have become habitual and act like a reality filter we look through, so it’s hard to even imagine the world could be another way. They’re also self-fulfilling, thus adding layers of confirmatory evidence as we go through life. “I’m no good at relationships” gets even more convincing after the third failed marriage wrecked on the altar of self-blame and lack of confidence!

Some of the most insidious core beliefs were formed when we were just learning about the power of language to define our reality. They are deeply ingrained from this very sensitive stage of childhood, a time when we were both acquiring verbal reasoning and discovering exactly how words are used in our culture. Others came in at a later stage when natural developmental changes such as learning to walk, wanting to explore the world outside the home, or puberty and teenage came as massive challenges to our ill-prepared parents or guardians, who then responded with violence in one form or another. Many such beliefs basically come down to a simple and perfectly logical assumption, given the kind of upbringing most of us had: “I’m not good enough“. A conclusion which was almost inevitable when we were found wanting in so many ways by our parents and teachers and apparently were not accepted as we were. Even as adults determined to reclaim our true identity, and understanding intellectually that there was never anything ‘wrong’ with us, the nagging fear can remain buried deep inside  – “Maybe they were right, I’m just no good really”. And from there it can sabotage our every effort to step into the fullness of our power and live the life that we long for.

Read more about core beliefs and what is needed to change them!