Core beliefs are deeply held beliefs that inform how people see themselves and the world. They have a large influence on people’s perceptions and decision making.
Core beliefs can be helpful, unhelpful, or neutral. Unhelpful or unrealistic core beliefs may negatively affect a person’s mental health and overall life satisfaction.
However, because core beliefs form such a large part of a person’s worldview, a person may find it difficult to identify them. It also takes time and effort to change core beliefs.
The notion of core beliefs is central to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Aaron Temkin Beck, whose cognitive theory informed CBT, argued that a person’s core beliefs help govern their interactions with the world, their response to stress, and their relationships.
Read on to learn more about core beliefs.
Core beliefs are strong beliefs a person holds consistently over time that inform their worldview and self-perception. These beliefs function as unstated rules for how the world works and a person’s role within it.
These beliefs tend to be rigid and inflexible, and they are not necessarily reasonable, accurate, or based on evidence. For example, a person might see themself as fundamentally unlikable even though they have friends.
Core beliefs also include a person’s views of others, such as the belief that humans are mostly good or mostly bad.
A person can have core beliefs that are inconsistent with one another. This can create cognitive dissonance, which is when a person’s actions do not fit with their beliefs or when they believe in two contradictory ideas.
Any deep belief that is fundamental to a person’s interactions with the world or their sense of self is a core belief. Core beliefs can be positive, negative, or neutral. Here are some examples:
- Beliefs about goodness: a person’s belief that they are good or bad or that other people are mostly good or bad
- Beliefs about likability: beliefs such as “I am unlovable” and “I am likable”
- Beliefs about the world: beliefs such as “The world is a dangerous place” and “the world is fundamentally unfair”
- Beliefs about competence: beliefs such as “I am intelligent and resourceful” and “I will succeed if I try hard”
Core beliefs develop in response to a person’s experiences. They begin developing in early childhood and continue developing over time.
As a child grows up, they try to make sense of what is happening around them or to them. In trying to find meaning or learn from this, they develop a set of beliefs.
However, because core beliefs start to develop so early, they are not always based on balanced or informed opinions. People can unknowingly absorb messages from family, friends, teachers, and the media, and those messages may influence their worldview in positive or negative ways.
Some strategies for identifying core beliefs include:
- Noticing thoughts: Pay attention to automatic thoughts. These are the thoughts a person often does not notice. By becoming more aware of them, a person can start to note any consistent themes or patterns.
- Keeping a diary: It can help to keep a diary for several weeks to record thoughts and feelings. Focus on times of intense emotion or stress, such as following a fight with a loved one, and write down what thoughts it sparked. After some time, review the diary to look for patterns. For example, a person might repeatedly have fears of being late.
- Asking questions: Once a person notices a pattern in their thoughts, they can start to explore the core beliefs that underlie the thoughts. For example, a person who worries about being late might consider what happens if they are late, what it means about them, or why it matters. This could help them realize that they believe they must be perfect and that this matters because if they are not perfect, they are not likable.
- Considering the evidence: Consider what beliefs a person has without evidence. If a person finds they cannot change a belief despite having strong evidence that contradicts it, it is probably a core belief. Thoughts that are the most difficult to change or challenge often link to core beliefs.
Many therapists offer core beliefs worksheets or inventories that people can use to review common core beliefs and assess which ones they hold.
CBT therapists encourage their clients to identify unhelpful automatic thoughts. Once a person understands the role of these thoughts in their emotional pain, they can work to adjust and replace these thoughts with ones that are more reasonable, balanced, and accurate.
Core beliefs can have a significant impact on any aspect of a person’s life. As such, anyone experiencing difficulty can speak with a therapist, whether they have a mental health condition or not.
For example, a person who believes they are unlovable may be less willing to date, and this may cause them to miss opportunities to meet a romantic partner. Similarly, a person who sees other people as untrustworthy may see negative intentions where none exist.
Core beliefs can also affect personality. For example, a 2022 study of young adults found that participants who displayed more greed were also more likely to hold negative core beliefs, such as that they were unlovable. This suggests that greed might be a misdirected attempt to find love or approval through material wealth.
A therapist may help a person work through these obstacles so they can feel fulfilled.
Core beliefs are strong, long-term beliefs a person has that help them understand how the world works and who they are. These beliefs begin forming in early childhood and influence a person’s personality, decision making, and mental health.
These beliefs act as rules for managing relationships and daily life. People use them to set expectations and react in stressful situations. However, they are not always balanced or accurate.
When core beliefs are unhelpful, they may lead to harmful behavior. This can undermine a person’s well-being. Therapy, such as CBT, may help a person identify and question their core beliefs and eventually replace those beliefs with more reasonable alternatives.