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 others’” 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, indeed 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) 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 behaviour pattern is no longer driven by the needs of the present situation, but directly by our belief system, and only  indirectly by the needs of the young child when s/he originally adopted the belief.

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 adopted and those which the belief would come to frustrate.

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

(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. And yet they all stem from the same situation and have the same remedy.

The part of us which holds the core beliefs is the wounded inner child. For the child, the core 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. Effectively, core beliefs arise in response to trauma.  Another way of looking at it, for those of us who are on a healing journey, is that they are the evidence of the trauma – sometimes the only evidence that we can rely on, in the case of very early episodes. Despite their negative effects in later life, our core beliefs were also our best possible response to an impossible childhood situation, and often bear signs of great creativity, resourcefulness and even compassion.

Core beliefs are hard to shift, not just because they met 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/teenage came as massive challenges to our ill-prepared parents or guardians, who then responded with violence of one form or another. Many of these 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!