Core beliefs are foundational thoughts and assumptions that we have about ourselves and the world around us.
Your core beliefs can impact every aspect of your life, from self-image to career aspirations to your sense of what’s right and wrong. And though you may sometimes be aware of your core beliefs, they often come through in your behaviors in an unconscious way.
Some core beliefs are universal — for example, most people share the belief that stealing is wrong. These kinds of beliefs are beneficial both to us and to our collective society.
But some core beliefs can be limiting, particularly when they encourage a negative view of yourself or others.
That’s why identifying your core beliefs — especially limiting ones — can help you shape your experiences in a way that helps you fulfill your potential.
In psychology, core beliefs are firmly held ideas about yourself, other people, the world, and the future.
They can take the form of general principles, such as:
- “People are mostly kind.”
- “Marriage is difficult.”
- “I’m not good enough for that job.”
These beliefs can be influenced by your:
- family and friends
- location and culture
- religious background
- past experiences
Some core beliefs are formed during childhood. You start building your understanding of the world by observing your guardians and modeling some of what they tell you.
And as you get older, especially during your teenage and young adult years, you start developing new core beliefs based on your own experiences of the world.
Core beliefs can be positive, neutral, or negative. Their connotation depends on how they make you and others feel and how much they help or prevent you from functioning in the world.
Here are some examples of potentially positive core beliefs:
- “People are essentially kind.”
- “If I work hard, I will be successful.”
- “I deserve to be loved.”
- “Every setback is a learning opportunity.”
On the other hand, here are some examples of core beliefs that may cause you distress:
- “I don’t fit in.”
- “The world is a dangerous place.”
- “Nobody likes me.”
- “People are essentially selfish.”
- “If I love someone, they will leave me.”
Core beliefs can have a major effect on how you experience the world. They greatly shape your thought patterns, interpretations of events, and decisions.
This is why it may be a good idea to become aware of which core beliefs you hold.
According to one theory of depression, known as
Negative core beliefs can amplify this.
If a person has the core belief that they aren’t good at anything, for example, they may focus too much on experiences that back up this idea, while ignoring any evidence to the contrary.
Core beliefs may also play a role in anxiety symptoms. Persistent worry can be caused by an underlying belief that the world isn’t a safe place, for instance.
Someone with anxiety may also have a core belief that they won’t be able to handle negative experiences. This belief could sound something like “I’m a weak person” or “I’ll fall apart if things go wrong.”
For example, someone may have a core belief that other people are inherently cruel or hostile. This belief could make that person more likely to experience persecutory delusions. This is when they believe that others are plotting against them, even when there’s no evidence to support this.
These, of course, are just examples. As such, they don’t apply to everyone. Not all core beliefs will translate into mental health challenges. But they can affect your mood and life choices.
Cognitive distortions are linked to some of your core beliefs, but they’re not quite the same thing.
A core belief is a fixed thought or idea that affects how you see the world. It can be positive, negative, or neutral.
A cognitive distortion, on the other hand, is an exaggerated thought pattern that develops over time and isn’t based on any actual evidence. It typically makes you see situations as being more negative than they really are.
Some examples of cognitive distortions include:
- Catastrophizing: assuming the worst case scenario in every situation
- Overgeneralization: applying the outcome of one situation to all situations
- Personalization: thinking you’re fully responsible for everything that happens around you
Challenging and fixing cognitive distortions is one of the goals of CBT.
Core beliefs are typically persistent and deep-rooted. Changing some of them may be challenging for some people but it’s possible with patience, hard work, and self-compassion.
The first step to changing a core belief is acknowledging that it exists and giving voice to it. So, if you’ve realized that your core beliefs may be holding you back, you may already be on the right path.
Next, you may want to explore some of the ways that core belief affects your life and how things would be if you didn’t have that limiting belief.
For example, let’s say you’ve become aware that you firmly believe it’s not possible to be successful at work and happy at home. This core belief has inadvertently led you to avoid certain job positions or opportunities you have the skills for. If you didn’t have this core belief, you could apply for that dream job while confirming you’ve still got a supportive and encouraging home life.
If you’re having a hard time identifying core beliefs or thinking of ways to change them, a mental health professional can help. CBT may be a good choice if you’re interested in challenging those beliefs that may be getting in your way.
Core beliefs start developing in your early years. They’re the result of personal experiences, culture, interpersonal influences, and the environment around you.
Core beliefs tend to be firm and unchanging — but that doesn’t mean you can’t reassess the ones that may be causing you distress.
Identifying negative core beliefs and their impact on your life can be the first step toward changing them into beliefs that help you feel more fulfilled.
Journaling, mindfulness, and working with a mental health professional can all help if you feel some of your core beliefs aren’t healthy or useful to you.