In many ways it’s our core beliefs that make us who we are. The key word here is ‘core’, that is to say, those strongly-held and often inflexible beliefs we have spent a lifetime refining and defending. We defend such beliefs by focusing on information that supports them and we ignore or discount information that doesn’t. So when it comes to treating depression it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that our core beliefs can become real blocks to progress.
Let’s imagine that Lucy has been receiving psychotherapy for her depression. She is open-minded and willing to accept the influence negative thinking has on her depression. Lucy has made a lot of progress. She has actively challenged negative thoughts and replaced them with more neutral or positive alternatives. Yet, despite all this progress, Lucy just can’t shake off the belief that people find her unlikeable.
What’s happening to Lucy is something we all experience in our own way according to our own core beliefs. Something has touched a core belief of being unlikeable and Lucy selects in the information that seems to support it and filters out information that contradicts it. Lucy will also be making fundamental errors in interpreting neutral situations as negative and any real negative comments that come her way are given huge significance in terms of supporting that particular core belief. This particular core belief is so embedded and has such a narrow focus that Lucy doesn’t even think to challenge it. During a therapy session the therapist picks up the belief and asks Lucy to digger a little deeper.
The fact that Lucy has received therapy may mean she is well placed to investigate what’s keeping her unhappy. She has been keeping a mood diary and on scanning it she sees a theme emerging. She notices entries she’s made about not being to get on with people, and concerns about establishing a personal relationship, in other words all reflections of a core belief that she is unlikeable.
Just like unhelpful negative thoughts it will be important for Lucy to challenge this belief. She will need to carefully monitor and record experiences that either disprove or do not prove her belief and then develop alternative ways of viewing her position in relation to others. For example, the fact that some people may not appear to like her does not mean everyone dislikes her. In that regard Lucy is no different to most people. She may also accept that not being liked all the time is not the same as being disliked all the time.
Using yourself to challenge yourself is no easy undertaking. Lucy will find it easier if she’s kind to herself and see the task as one of personal reflection with a view to making things better. It will take time and work, but if core beliefs are making you unhappy then they deserve to be identified and challenged for what they are - beliefs
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.