Core beliefs, automatic thoughts and conceptualisation in CBT

Core beliefs are central beliefs that people hold about the self, others and the world. Core beliefs are often formed at an early age, and can refer to a cognitive content or construct such as “I am unlovable” or “people can’t be trusted”.


What are core beliefs in CBT?

When a person is anxious, the core belief “I am weak” is likely to be activated, whereas in less threatening situations the core belief “I am strong” may be activated. When activated these beliefs are experienced by the person as absolute truths.

Sometimes people with anxiety or clinical depression will develop strongly developed core beliefs that are not balanced by alternative core beliefs. In therapy, one way to detect the evidence of a core belief is to notice thoughts that are accompanied by a strong emotion that do not shift in the face of contradictory evidence.

What are automatic thoughts?

Automatic thoughts are thoughts that people routinely have during the day as they make sense of their experiences. In therapy, clients can be helped to identify their automatic thoughts by asking questions such as:

  • What was going through your mind then?
  • What does this mean for you?
  • What do other people say about this?

Some automatic thoughts are more important than others to understand what is going on in the client’s mind. The therapist can ask clients to record their thoughts to have a better understanding of when these automatic thoughts occur.

Case conceptualisation and CBT

Case conceptualisation can be defined as a process whereby the therapist and the client work together to describe and explain the issues clients present in therapy. If CBT can help clients to build resilience and to alleviate distress, case conceptualisation can help clients to achieve these two goals.

Case conceptualisation can have the following functions:

  • To integrate client experiences with relevant CBT theories such as anxiety theory (Beck,1985) or depression (Beck, 1999).
  • To help clients to describe their problems in a constructive language and help them to understand how problems are maintained.
  • It can help problems to become more manageable for clients and therapists. Also, it can help the therapist to select, focus and plan interventions.
  • A good conceptualisation offers an understanding of therapeutic difficulties as well as ways to address them. 

Overall case conceptualisation is viewed as a core aspect of CBT theory and provides an explanatory framework that links triggers, maintenance cycles, and protective/ predisposing factors. Conceptualisation incorporates a client's strengths in order to apply to exhibit resources to common issues and to strengthen client awareness to build resilience over time.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bloomsbury WC1B & Bedford MK40
Written by Gherardo Della Marta, MBACP counsellor in London WC1B, NW1 and Bedford MK40
Bloomsbury WC1B & Bedford MK40

Gherardo Della Marta BACP counsellor in private practice in W10, NW1, WC1B in London

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