By the time we are adults, most of us have developed entrenched, deeply rooted, fundamental beliefs about ourselves. Psychologists refer to these as our CORE BELIEFS. Once established, they can prove very difficult to change without the aid of therapeutic interventions (such as cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT).
A traumatic childhood, especially one that involved us being rejected and unloved by our parents, will very frequently have a very adverse effect on these CORE BELIEFS. However, precisely how our self-concept is warped and distorted by our problematic childhood experiences will depend upon the unique aspects of those experiences (as well as other factors such as our genetic inheritance, our temperament and the support we received (or failed to receive) from others to help us to cope with our childhood difficulties.
Examples of the kind of false core beliefs our traumatic childhood experiences could have led us to form are as follows:
- OTHERS WILL ABANDON ME – this belief may develop if one/both parents abandoned us during our childhoods, for example,
- I AM NOT WORTH OTHERS CARING ABOUT – this belief may develop if our parent/s focused far more on their own needs than our own, for example, I MUST BE SELF-SACRIFICING – this belief may develop if our parent/s ‘parentified’ us, for example
- I MUST SUBJUGATE MYSELF TO OTHERS – this belief may develop if our own views and needs were dismissed as unimportant by our parent/s, for example,
- I AM A SOCIAL PARIAH, UNFIT TO ASSOCIATE WITH OTHERS – this belief may develop if we grew up feeling our childhood experiences set us apart from our contemporaries or if we were in some way ‘forced to grow up’ too early so that we developed difficulties relating to those of our own age during childhood (perhaps we were so anxious and pre-occupied we couldn’t behave in a care-free way join in the ‘fun’).
- I AM INTRINSICALLY UNLOVABLE – this belief may have developed if we were unloved, or PERCEIVED OURSELVES TO BE UNLOVED, by our parent/s, for example,
- I AM VULNERABLE AND IN CONSTANT DANGER – such a belief can develop if we spent a lot of our childhood feeling anxious, under stress, apprehensive or in fear, for example,
- I MUST ALWAYS KEEP TO THE HIGHEST OF STANDARDS – such a belief may develop if our parents only CONDITIONAL LOVED/ACCEPTED us
- I AM SPECIALLY ENTITLED – this belief may develop if we feel (probably on an unconscious level) that society, in general, should compensate us for our childhood suffering or because we are so overwhelmed by our emotional pain that we can’t help but to focus almost exclusively upon our own needs (rather as we would, say if we were on fire).
HOW DO THESE FALSE CORE BELIEFS AFFECT US?
Unfortunately, such deeply instilled core beliefs are liable to become self-fulfilling prophecies. As already stated, they are resilient to change and this state of affairs is seriously aggravated by the fact that, once such beliefs have become deeply ingrained, our view of the world is so coloured that we misinterpret, or ‘over-interpret’, what is going on around us, specifically: We selectively attend to, and absorb, information which supports, or, seems to us to support, our negative view of ourselves, while, at the same time, ignoring or discounting anything that contradicts our negative self-view.
In so doing, we are likely, often, to grossly overestimate the significance of the information that seems to confirm our negative self-view, or simply completely to misinterpret information (eg by thinking/believing: ‘he just yawned because I’m boring’, whereas, in fact, he yawned because he had not slept for twenty-four hours).
CHALLENGING NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
When we have negative thoughts, it is important to ask ourselves: ‘What is the evidence to support this negative thought/belief?’
OFTEN, WE WILL FIND THERE IS VERY LITTLE OR AT LEAST NOT THE COMPELLING EVIDENCE WE’D ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED. It is important for us to get into the habit of challenging negative thoughts in this way because very often the negative thoughts come to us automatically (due to entrenched negative thinking patterns caused in large part by our traumatic childhoods) without us analyzing them and examining them to see if they are actually valid. So, to repeat, we need to try to get into the habit of CHALLENGING OUR NEGATIVE THOUGHTS AND ASKING OURSELVES IF THERE REALLY IS PROPER EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT THEM.
A SUGGESTED EXERCISE FOR CHALLENGING NEGATIVE THOUGHTS :
1) Think of two or three negative thoughts that you have experienced lately.
2) Ask yourself what evidence you have to support them.
3) Ask yourself how strong this evidence actually is.
4) Now think of evidence AGAINST THE NEGATIVE THOUGHT. Step 4 above is very important. This is because when we are depressed and have negative thoughts we tend to focus on the (often flimsy) evidence which supports them BUT IGNORE ALL THE EVIDENCE AGAINST THEM (in other words, we give ourselves an ‘unfair hearing’ and, in effect, are prejudiced against ourselves).
This is sometimes referred to as CONFIRMATION BIAS. Challenging our negative thoughts and FINDING EVIDENCE TO REFUTE THEM is a very important part of CBT. It is, therefore, worth us putting in the effort to search hard for evidence which weakens or invalidates our automatic negative thoughts/beliefs.
When we have successfully challenged our negative thoughts and found, by reviewing the evidence, reason not to hold them anymore, it is useful to replace them by MORE REALISTIC APPROPRIATE THOUGHTS.
One way to get into the habit of this is to spend a little time occasionally writing down our automatic negative thoughts. Then, for each thought, we can write beside it:
1) Evidence in support of the negative thought.
2) Evidence against the negative thought.
3) In the light of the analysis carried out above in steps 1 and 2, replace it with a more realistic, valid and positive thought.
Here is an example:
Negative Thought: I failed my exam which means I’m stupid and will never get the job I wanted or any other.
1) Evidence in support of negative thought: ‘after a lot of revision, I still didn’t pass.’
2) Evidence against negative thought: ‘I only failed by a couple of percents and was affected by my nerves – failing one exam does not make me stupid’.
3) Alternative, more valid, realistic and positive thought: ‘I can retake the exam and still get the job. Even if I don’t get my first choice of job, that does not mean there won’t be other jobs I can get, and they may turn out to be better.’
Getting into the habit of occasionally writing down negative thoughts, challenging them, and coming up with more positive alternative thoughts will help to ‘reprogram’ the brain not to just passively accept the automatic negative thoughts which come to us without subjecting them to scrutiny and challenging their validity.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).