So in the first part of the podcasts on ‘core beliefs’ we established what core beliefs were and gave a bit of background as to how these sit within the theory of Cognitive Therapy, developed by Aaron Beck. We talked about how convincing many of the core beliefs that we hold about ourselves can be. They can seem absolutely real and true to us because they have often been ‘a part of us’ since early childhood -  we have probably never really identified or expressed these beliefs to ourselves, let alone  to other people. A core belief such as “I’m useless” can seem like it’s the absolute truth - and many people spend their lives trying their best to run away from or hide such beliefs. Aaron Beck writes about how we develop rules to live our lives by to try and compensate for core beliefs. These rules dictate what we can and cannot do and influence how we interpret the world. They are also a big part of how we talk to ourselves.

In this episode we’re going to be digging a bit deeper into how these core beliefs might be formed.

So if we think of the small child - the main ways that they make sense of who they are and how they start to understand the wider world are initially through

  • Parents/Caregivers
  • Wider social group (family)

If we recap a bit on some of those core beliefs of helplessness;

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 incompetent

We can imagine how the kind of home environment that a person grows up might influence them developing a negative view about who they are (core belief) and of the world. So for example if a person grew up with parents/caregivers who constantly belittled them, or put them down - “Oh you’re useless, you never do anything right!”’s pretty reasonable to imagine how they might feel that they were incompetent or inadequate as they grew up. They might feel that the world was a difficult and frightening place for someone so incompetent; and so they would develop rules that stifle and hold them back from really living and enjoying life....and it might be they drink too much because when they’re drunk they don’t feel so incompetent or inadequate.....

And likewise the core beliefs around unloveability;

I am unloveable

I am unlikeable

I am undesirable

I am unattractive

I am unwanted

I am uncared for

I am bad

So for example if a person grew up with parents/caregivers who neglected them and were unable to properly care – the developing child is not able to rationalise this and think “Oh it’s not really aimed at me, it’s because they were themselves neglected and abused as children so they do not have the emotional skills to be parents...”; the child will, instead imagine that they are unwanted or unloveable. As adults they may develop rules in love relationships such as ‘I must never express what I would like or need’ fear that the person they are with will leave them or abandon them...because they (believe) are unloveable.


One of the problems with the therapeutic approach of helping a person to identify personal negative core beliefs and work on changing these is that it falls back onto personal responsibility. So this might mean that someone expects to make changes in their lives without having the proper resources.

Social materialist psychology is an approach in psychology mainly connected with David Smail who was a psychologist and taught psychology – he died in 2014. One of the really important points that Smail makes that  “distress arises from the outside inwards”.

David Smail wrote a book in 1993 called ‘The Origins of Unhappiness’ and in this he described how, during the 1980s – and this was at the height of Thatcherism when class and communities in the UK were being very brutally destroyed - Smail was working as a psychologist and more and more people were coming to see him because they were distressed and anxious. They blamed themselves and imagined they were failing to ‘get on with life’ or adjust to the changing times. Smail believed that this distress was actually as a response to the destructive social and economic policies of Thatcherism.

So Smail would say that distress is “not the consequence of inner flaws or weaknesses” – there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with you.  

Social materialist psychology doesn’t have an easy answer since it recognises that the majority of people’s problems are rooted in an unequal society. Smail was a working psychologist and educator so it’s important to point out that he did acknowledge that both medication and therapy can help people. Medication for distressing mental health conditions can provide a kind of bubble or a space where people can gain a bit of clarity around their problems. Social materialists also recognise that therapy can provide comfort to people by them realising they are not alone, clarification by helping people understand that there are real and valid reasons why they may feel depressed or anxious, and basic support for people. In a world which many people are isolated, lonely these can be really valuable functions. However they are not a ‘cure’ or an instruction.

This is why we include history, philosophy and theories such as feminism when we work with people so that they can see the link between real personal experiences that form core beliefs, but also of the wider social realities that people experience when growing up. Distress in not just the consequence of cognitive errors, or failures to process information correctly.

The following is taken from the manifesto of Social Materialist Psychology

- We are social beings living in a material world.
- Emotional distress (such as anxiety and depression etc) is a natural reaction to adverse social relationships, or material circumstances and events.
- Emotional distress is not a medical condition nor diagnosis, nor is it a sign of weakness.
- Psychological therapies, surgery and medication do nothing to alter the causes of distress.
- People's power to change their lives to reduce distress if often very limited.
- Willpower doesn't work, neither does the power of thought nor imagination.
- Seeking the support of others to help us solve problems is a fundamental human need.

Over the last few years there have been articles and greater discussion around something called Shit Life Syndrome (SLS). It sounds really horrible and dismissive but really it was a phrase coined by doctors in the United Kingdom and the United States to describe the people they were regularly seeing who were trapped in a cycle of poverty and poor physical and psychological health. They saw that people had little education or training and any jobs available are the kind of zero hours contracts with no job security. Finding meaning in life is really difficult since just surviving takes all of the energy and resources that people have.

Yet if you turn on the TV or look at social media or visit shopping malls like Westfield the world seems very different. Full of success, and wealth and people having ‘a great life’. This can make people feel even more trapped and helpless. Feeling powerless and frustrated many people use drugs and booze or are prescribed antidepressants.

Once again the ideas behind SLS say that people are not suffering because they are broken or see the world in a way that is wrong or faulty.... but that actually quite a lot of their suffering is related to the actual circumstances of their lives. They actually have a lot to be depressed about. 

It’s important to stress again that people with SLS really do have mental or physical health problems, but the causes are a tangled mix of economic, social and emotional problems that doctors — with 10- to 15-minute slots per patient — feel powerless to fix. The relationship between economics and health is complex and one that governments do not wish to tackle.

Subjects to think about for the seminars
  • What do you think about this link between core beliefs and the kind of social environment a person grows up in?
  • What connections can you make between your own physical health and what's happening in your social environment? This can be in the present or past.