Understanding core beliefs

Do you ever feel unclear why you have made certain decisions? Do you question why you end up experiencing the same or similar pitfalls? Or do you back down on plans without understanding why? If this resonates with you, perhaps it might be helpful to explore your core beliefs. 

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What are core beliefs? 

Core beliefs contribute to who we are and inform our decisions, both big and small. Some of our core beliefs are obvious. For instance, if you are a vegetarian you might believe in animal rights. If you have specific religious beliefs or if you are an atheist, this will help make you who you are.

There are some core beliefs that we live and breathe every day, but we might not think about it. For example, if we have children or work with them, we might have an active core belief that all children deserve a voice. If we are a teacher, we most probably believe that everyone has a right to an education, but we wouldn’t necessarily express this belief or think about it all the time.

We may hold other core beliefs that aren’t as obvious, even to us. In some cases, these core beliefs might not be helpful. For example, we may have a core belief that we aren’t good enough or that strong people don’t cry. We might not even know that we are holding these beliefs and they can impact many parts of our life. 


Different types of core beliefs

It can be useful to split core beliefs into three different types: 

  • Beliefs about ourselves
  • Beliefs about other people
  • Beliefs about the world 

Beliefs about ourselves

Unhelpful beliefs about yourself can be damaging, especially when they go unidentified for years. The reason we don’t identify them is that sometimes these beliefs are nearly as old as we are and so ingrained, so it is very difficult to know we have them, and even more difficult to realise these beliefs aren’t really ours.
 
Beliefs about ourselves may have been instilled in us from our caregivers from a very young age. Sadly, some people may have been told explicitly that they are ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’ and this might be a belief that they carry with them even though it isn’t true. Even indifferent or positive messages from others about who we are can skew our identity and the path we take in life.

For example, if we are told that we are an introvert or extrovert (when we might not be) we might believe it and think we need to act in a way that reflects that. On a similar note, if we are told that we are ‘really caring’ at a young age and receive compliments and validation due to that, we might be very careful that everything we do fits into this ‘caring’ remit which might turn out to be detrimental to us in the long term.

Some core beliefs may be due to more implicit messages. For example, we might not explicitly be told that we are not allowed to express our emotions but if we are shouted at or punished for expressing our emotions when we are young, we might end up with the core belief that expressing our emotions is a bad thing.
 
Some beliefs we hold about ourselves can arise from messages from society, education, or the media. For example, if we looked at magazines growing up and we didn’t identify with the people in those magazines we may think that there is something wrong with the way that we look. Another example of this could be that the school we went to didn’t value our creativity. In this case we might not think we are as worthy as those who are good at science, maths, or sport.

Beliefs about other people

We can be given messages about other people when we are young and impressionable which understandably stick and stay with us for a long time. For example, we may be led to believe that there are lots of ‘dangerous’ people out there. Whilst it is important we are taught not to trust everyone we meet, going too far the other way can mean that we end up with trust issues and we can end up feeling isolated. Sometimes (although this may not have been a conscious thing on the part of the caregiver) this may have been an effort to make sure that you didn’t stray too far from the family.
 
Something else that falls into this category is that we can have beliefs about certain groups of people that we have held on to from a very young age and it may have been because of things we heard those around us say or due to things that we saw on TV or similar. If you do have long held beliefs about certain groups of people, it can be worth examining those beliefs and seeing if this is still something you prescribe to.

Beliefs about the world

Beliefs about the world can include messages regarding what you can and can’t do in the world, for instance: ‘women don’t do science’, ‘you need to have a degree to be successful in life’ or ‘the world is unsafe’. Like the other messages, they are often fed to us implicitly or explicitly from our family of origin. Sometimes they can be due to the insecurities or experiences of our caregivers. For example, if someone in our family of origin regrets not doing a degree or felt it was out of their reach in some way, they may have decided that this has held them back and applied the rule as a widespread truth.

Again, beliefs about the world can come from societal messages. For example, there are also still lots of assumptions or beliefs about gender roles that can affect many of us such as men don’t cry, or women should put others first. These messages can impact us greatly throughout our life and it can be immensely freeing to examine these beliefs and replace them with our own perspective. It is one of those processes that takes time, and we need to be kind to ourselves, but if we do it can be beneficial for our emotional and mental health and mean that we are living a much more authentic and meaningful life.

How can I explore and challenge my core beliefs?

Journalling, talking to a close friend or speaking to a counsellor are all ways we can explore and challenge core beliefs. It is also possible to explore these topics creatively, with painting or drawing for instance. Here are some specific ways that you can explore and, where necessary, challenge your core beliefs:
 
Through journalling or talking, you could reflect on the times that you feel that you made a decision that wasn’t best for you. You could unpick what it was that led to that decision being made. For example, if you decided not to do a certain course or qualification was it because deep down you didn’t think that you could do it? This could point to a core belief of not being good enough. Or was it because you spoke to people who didn’t think that it was the right thing and you ended up agreeing with them? Perhaps you ended up conforming to a belief that ‘women don’t do science’ or ‘men don’t pursue careers in caring professions’ for example.

If you wonder why you often end up in situations you don’t feel are right for you, perhaps even leading to poor emotional and mental health, it could be that you are making decisions based on unhelpful core beliefs. This could be a springboard for journalling or reflection. You could ask yourself questions including: who do I listen to when making decisions? Has this had a bearing on the decisions I have made? What core beliefs might have been passed on to me? Do I still want to prescribe to this core belief?

If you feel comfortable and safe to, you could talk to members of your family about what beliefs they feel have been passed down in the family. It could be that they have struggled with some of the messages that have been passed down from generation to generation and you might find some common ground. This could include anything from ‘women do the dishes’ to ‘you have to eat all the dinner on your plate’ to ‘you must work long hours to show your worth’. If you feel you are in the right circumstances this could be a freeing experience. On a similar note, you could have a conversation with contemporaries about what it was like growing up when you did. Do you still believe the things you were told?

If you struggle with negative beliefs about yourself perhaps it is time to focus more on the things you like or appreciate about yourself. For example, if you feel you are a good friend, great at arts and crafts or that you look after people in your community, focus on those things instead.

If you would like to be creative you could do a painting, drawing or collage depicting the core beliefs that you are mindful and intentional about. After all, these say more about you than unhelpful or inaccurate beliefs that have inadvertently been programmed in. This could include beliefs around animal rights, sustainable living, being kind, teaching the next generation or equality, for example. 


Sometimes people can be wary about exploring and challenging their core beliefs. It is understandable as there could be a fear that they will no longer have an inner compass or that they will be betraying where they have come from. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that it is reasonable to want to move forward in life and not to allow old beliefs to weigh you down. Also, once you relinquish any unhelpful beliefs you can become more yourself and have an even stronger inner compass than before.

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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Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX3
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Written by Beth Roberts, Integrative Counsellor and EMDR Therapist MBACP (Accred).
Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX3

I am an integrative counsellor and I work with women of all ages who have experienced trauma and adversity. Ways I can help include exploring unhelpful patterns, uniting body and mind, processing trauma in the body, helping you to live in the here and now and using creative interventions to raise awareness. I work face to face (OX3) and online.

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