How To Change Negative Core Beliefs: A Straightforward Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

The core beliefs that cause the most common problems fall into the following 3 categories. These core beliefs commonly underlie depression and anxiety.

Helpless Core Beliefs

such as:

“I’m incompetent”
“I’m needy”
“I’m weak”
“I’m defective, I don’t measure up”
“I’m a failure”

Unlovable Core Beliefs

such as:

“I’m unlovable”
“I’m different”
“I’m bound to be abandoned/rejected”
“I’m defective, so others will not love me”

Worthless Core Beliefs

such as

“I’m worthless”
“I’m bad”
“I’m evil”

How to Begin Changing a Negative Core Belief

Step 1: Pick a new core belief that you would prefer.

For example, if your old belief is “I’m incompetent,” you would likely pick “I’m competent.” Don’t pick “I’m mostly competent” or “I’m sometimes competent.”

Step 2: Rate how much you currently believe the old negative core belief on a scale of 0% (= I don’t believe it at all) to 100% ( = I believe it completely) and do the same for the new positive core belief.

For example, you might say you believe “I’m incompetent” 95% and believe “I’m competent” 10% (the numbers don’t need to add up to 100%).

Step 3: There are two types of negative core belief. Which type do you have? (both can be changed)

One type is the very stable kind. For example, you believe you are incompetent and you have never believed anything else, not even when you are in a positive mood.

The other type is the type that goes up and down with your mood, anxiety, and stress. When your mood is low, you believe the negative core belief much more strongly than when you mood is positive. If your negative core belief changes due to transient things like your mood, anxiety, or stress, it can help you start to see that the belief is a product of these things rather than true.

Step 4: The most useful goal is usually to work on strengthening the new positive core belief rather than dismantling the old negative core belief.

Thoughts are funny things. The more you try to not think about something, the more you’ll think about it, so trying to eliminate negative thoughts completely doesn’t work. Instead, when you experience the negative core belief, you can learn to experience it as “just a thought” rather than as something that is true. Thanks, Mind!

Step 5: Positive Data Log.

For 2 weeks, commit to writing down evidence that supports the NEW core belief. For example, if you are trying to boost your belief in the thought “I’m competent” and you show up to an appointment on time, you can write that down as evidence.

Don’t fall into the cognitive bias trap of discounting some of the evidence. For example, if you make a mistake and then sort it out, this is evidence of competence, not incompetence, so you could put this in your positive data log.

Step 6: Re-rate how much you believe the old and the new core beliefs.

Hopefully there will have been a little bit of change.

For example, you might now believe “I’m incompetent” only 50% instead of 95%, and believe “I’m competent” 50% instead of 10%.

You’ve probably had the negative core belief for a long time, so change usually takes a period of a few months concerted work. You’re unlikely to be there yet.

Step 7. Tell Someone You Trust.

– Tell someone you trust what the old belief is and the new one you’re trying to increase. This helps decrease shame.

– If you have a partner, practice being able to let your partner know (in a self responsible way) that your negative core belief is activated. For example, “My negative core belief that I’m incompetent is activated right now, and that’s why I’m feeling embarrassed or why I’m avoiding. I just need a moment to figure out what action right now would be consistent with my new core belief.”

Step 8. An historical data test.

You can do this for either the old core belief, or the new core belief, or both.

I’m going to direct you to the example in this pdf rather than reinvent the wheel here. See column 2 of the page labelled page 275. The example is for the negative core belief “I’m abnormal.”

Step 9. Pick some other tools to try.

The pdf mentioned above has lots of other great examples of therapy techniques used to help clients change core beliefs. It’s designed for therapists but, if you’re a confident reader, you can read it too.

You might pay particular attention to the section on “Constructing Continua Criteria” that starts on Page 271 and continues onto Page 272. This will help you develop more flexible thinking.

Step 10. Where Did the Negative Core Belief Come From?

They usually come from childhood experiences. I might regret sharing this personal example but here goes anyway… Like I said anti-shame…

For example, I’m an introvert and as a kid I didn’t like to go to other kids’ houses after school. My Mum tried to explain that it might make it hard to have friends if I kept refusing to come over to play, but I accidentally interpreted this as no one was ever going to like me because I’m an introvert. (I get wiped out by too much social interaction, so I was completely over other people after a whole day at school.). My Mum is the best Mum in the world, but she’s not an introvert so she didn’t understand that I wasn’t capable of more social interaction after school. I chose to share this example because sometimes it’s not “bad parenting” that leads to negative core beliefs, rather it’s more related to the child’s temperament/sensitivity and parent-child temperament fit.

You can use imagery role plays in which you replay these painful incidents from childhood to help heal the wounds. Play both you and your parent, alternately. Set up 2 chairs and switch chairs when you’re in the different roles. When you are in the parent role, say what your parent might’ve said if they’d been able to completely understand LITTLE YOU and give you exactly what you needed (without providing any dishonest reassurance). Your parent should try to help LITTLE YOU understand and accept your emotions. When you’re in the child role, feel what it feels like to be responded to in a useful way, allow yourself to soak it up.

This tends to be quite a hard exercise so you might need to do “multiple takes” of your role play to figure out what would be a responsive but not dishonest thing for a parent to say, or you might need a therapist to help you.

Step 11: Self monitor when you are OVERCOMPENSATING for the negative core belief and choose more moderate behavior.

For example, keep a spreadsheet to record times when you observe that you are overworking to try to compensate for the belief “I’m incompetent.” Track how often this happens over time and try to reduce the amount.

When you notice it happening, step back from your activity, and choose a more moderate action. How would you be acting if you believed “I’m competent.”?

Do this for 4-6 months. Patterns that you’ve had for a long time take more than 5 mins to change.

Step 12: Self monitor when you are SURRENDERING to the negative core belief.”

In psychology PhD-speak, this means when you are acting as if the negative core belief were true. Related to the negative core belief “I’m incomptent,” surrendering might be not opening your VISA bill because you don’t trust yourself to keep track of your finances.

Behave how you want to feel. Behaving competent > feeling competent. Choose moderate, reasonable, doable behavior. What would be the single next action/step that a competent person would take? Try just thinking of the next step to help you not feel overwhelmed by the negative core belief.

Again, use some type of self monitoring to record when you observe yourself surrendering to the negative core belief, and try to reduce it over time. Think in terms of 4-6 months of effort.

Step 13: Self monitor when you are AVOIDING situations or behaviors that trigger the negative core belief.”

For example, you might avoid taking positions of leadership or not seek help from a professor on an essay, if doing so would trigger your “I’m incompetent” beliefs.

Again, behave consistent with your new core belief. What would you do if you believed “I’m as competent as other people.”?

Step 14: If you notice your mood is low or your anxiety is high, ask yourself “How much am I BUYING my negative core belief right now?” (0-100%)

“Buying/believing” a negative core belief is different from HAVING a negative core belief. You can have the experience of it, without believing it/buying it.

Asking yourself “How much am I BUYING my negative core belief right now?” (0-100%) when your mood is low or your anxiety is high, can help you see low mood/high anxiety as a product of believing your negative core beliefs.

More Info

1. You can read some more common negative core beliefs by looking at the Amazon book preview here and choosing the result for page 233.

You’ll need to sign into your Amazon account, and when you select the result for page 233 you’ll see a table of core beliefs. I got there by searching the word “unlovable” in the preview. Page 232 shows up first so go forward 1 page. Just hit the right arrow key once to do that.

2. This book (not the same book as above) is good. Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again

3. Also make sure you checked out the pdf.

Check Out My Top 4 Books for Changing Your Core Beliefs

Reinventing Your Life
Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again

Emotional First Aid

Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts

Cognitive Therapy, Basics and Beyond, 2nd edition.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Second Edition: Basics and Beyond

The Anxiety Toolkit (my book.) The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points