The idea of a person having a ‘core belief’ comes from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which was developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Beck developed Cognitive Therapy (the ‘behavioural’ bit was added later) as a structured short term psychotherapy for treating depression. Beck recognised that one of the common underlying themes of depression, and actually all psychological disturbances, was a distorted or dysfunctional way of thinking about the world which in turn influences mood and behaviour. So if you ask someone who is depressed about how they experience an event they will report a different experience from someone who is not. It sounds obvious but it’s an important point.

Beck says that ‘Beginning in childhood, people develop certain beliefs about themselves, other people and the world. Their most central or core beliefs are understandings that are so fundamental and deep that they often do not articulate them, even to themselves. These ideas are regarded by the person as absolute truths, just the way things “are”.

So if we understand that these beliefs we hold about ourselves develop in our childhood experiences -  for example, if as a child your mother does not defend you or stand up for you against bullying or abuse, you may quite reasonably start to believe that you are unwanted. It’s worth flagging up something we touched upon in an earlier podcast we did on ‘Relationships in recovery’. In this we talked about Karen Horney. Horney placed great emphasis on the child's perception of events, as opposed to what might have been the parent's intentions. For example a child might experience a parent making fun of their feelings as them being at fault or unloved by the parent whereas this might not have been the intention of the parent. Likewise a parent who might make frequent promises to a child and then constantly fail to follow through on these promises might be experienced by the child as rejection or dislike, rather than the parent being ‘flaky‘ or that parent being busy or preoccupied.

These beliefs we hold about ourselves tend to surface during times of psychological distress. At these times people will tend to see only the information which supports the core belief (known as confirmation bias); and so it’s as if people almost start to build a case for the core belief being true.

It’s also important to remember that we develop core beliefs not only about ourselves, but also about other people in the world too - such as ‘people will hurt you’ ‘the world is a terrible place’ etc.

So if a person has a difficult start in life and then terrible things happen to a person it’s easy to see why this might compound a negative view they may hold about themselves and their world.

Judith Beck who is the daughter of Aaron Beck  (and carried on much of his work), has suggested that negative core beliefs fall into two broad categories: those associated with helplessness and those associated with unlovability.


Helpless beliefs

I am helpless

I am powerless

I am out of control

I am weak

I am vulnerable

I am needy

I am inadequate

I am ineffective

I am incompetent

I am a failure

I am disrespected

I am defective (do not measure up to others)

I am not good enough (in terms of achievement)

Unlovable beliefs


I am unlovable

I am unlikeable

I am undesirable

I am unattractive

I am unwanted

I am uncared for

I am bad

I am unworthy

I am different

I am defective (so others will not love me)

I am not good enough (to be loved by others)

I am bound to be rejected

I am bound to be abandoned

I am bound to be alone

These core beliefs then go on to influence the development of what Beck calls ‘intermediate beliefs’, consisting of a set of attitudes, rules and assumptions. Once again Beck suggests that these are often things we don’t express in language, or articulate, so once again they seem to be natural, or universal truths – surely everybody thinks like this??

So let’s imagine that a person has a core belief that they were incompetent, the intermediate beliefs would look something like:

Attitude: It’s terrible to be incompetent.

Rules/expectations: I must work as hard as I can all of the time.

Assumption: If I work as hard as I can I may be able to do some things that other people can do easily.

CBT says that in a specific situation the combination of a person’s underlying core beliefs and intermediate beliefs influence their perception or understanding of that situation. This is expressed in automatic thoughts which influence emotions and often lead to a physiological response. 

So if we return to the core belief of ‘I’m incompetent’ –

  • This is a wrong thing to feel (attitude).
  • The person who has this core belief might be working hard to overcome this by working hard to learn about psychology (rules) so they can feel competent (assumption);
  • They decide to read a book about CBT (situation);
  • However pretty quickly comes the automatic thought “This is too hard, I’ll never understand this!”;
  • So has a feeling of sadness (emotion) and they experience a feeling of heaviness in the stomach or across the shoulders (physiological feeling) and they slam the book shut (behaviour).

If we rewind that scenario a little, we could see that considering some alternatives can change the outcome or behaviour. So the person could say “It may be hard, but I’m sure if I keep at it, I’ll get there eventually, and the book will begin to make more sense” – and persevere slowly with the book.

Or perhaps “this book is written in an unclear, difficult to understand way, maybe I can find a more accessible and better written book!” – and find an alternative.

So CBT is all about digging deeper and examining those seemingly natural intermediate beliefs and the negative automatic thoughts to dig backwards to those deep core beliefs.  This obviously takes a bit of work and it can be difficult to identify the core beliefs we hold about ourselves.

Things to consider for the seminar:

  • Can you identify any ‘rules’ or ways that you have felt you had to behave in your life?
  • Can you think about how or where these ‘rules’ originated? Can you see a connection to core beliefs?
  • Can you identify the influences of your parents or caregivers had upon how you viewed the world – and did this influence your world?