You may not think you have a core negative belief, but if you’re mysteriously stuck, one or two ideas are probably holding you back — or blowing you off course and away from your final eighth finish line — without your even realizing it.
“I’m worthless.” “I am unlovable.” “I am fundamentally flawed.” “I’m broken.” These are examples of truly believed, yet false, painful core beliefs, the foundation on which many people unconsciously base their lives. A person can have a core negative belief and still have many positive attributes.
A core negative belief is different from acknowledgment of a negative situation. Sometimes it’s true that someone you love doesn’t love you back; that you’re the one who screwed up the math, invalidating the results in a report; that your genius ability to diagram sentences is irrelevant, and perhaps even an impediment, in the era of social media. Experiences like this can hurt, but the difference between them and a core negative belief is that the latter is a hurtful lie that undermines your entire being and destroys your motivation. It is part of the glue that’s keeping you stuck.
The concept of core negative beliefs has its roots in cognitive behavioral therapy, a therapeutic approach originally developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s and extended by Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Both psychologists noticed that people’s feelings are affected less by the external circumstances they face than by the underlying assumptions that shape their perceptions of those circumstances. Many of us routinely maintain unexplored and distorting cognitive biases that we regard as the obvious truth, like “nothing works out” or “I am ugly” (or inferior, stupid, unlucky or weak). These cognitive biases are self-reinforcing and all-consuming. It can feel impossible to accept that they are not only separate from our identity but bald-faced lies that have influenced a lifetime’s decision-making and behavior. When we’re stuck, it’s often a signal that we’re trapped by the gravitational pull of our core negative beliefs.
People have only one or two core negative beliefs, but they affect everything we think and do. They’re like a black hole in space, getting heavier and stronger as it draws in all the matter around it. They limit our access to our full range of intelligence. One of the worst consequences is that they lead us to believe we see the entire situation clearly, blinding us to the fact that our core negative beliefs obstruct and warp our view.
These beliefs are based on ideas and rules instilled by our early caregivers and authority figures: parents, grandparents, babysitters, teachers, and religious and cultural leaders. These caregivers have rules for what kind of person they want you to be. The rules are intended to protect your vulnerability (and theirs). Ideally, they’re also intended to help you become a strong, happy, contributing member of society.
Core negative beliefs develop out of rules and commands like “Don’t be selfish,” “Don’t be stupid,” “Be quiet,” “Be loyal,” “Boys are strong,” and “Don’t cry.” Over time, especially when uttered in mean or threatening tones, these edicts can make kids feel they are condemned to be perpetual failures, as opposed to making the occasional blunder. Other such sayings include: “A fool and his money are soon parted,” “You made your bed, now you must lie in it,” “Don’t get too big for your britches,” and “It’s time to give up that pipe dream.” You get the picture. What were some of the sayings you grew up with?
In the right quantity, rules and credos reinforce important and healthy values. It’s important for kids to learn to control impulsivity, to be accountable and considerate of others. They also need to learn basic rules of social behavior: it’s totally reasonable to expect a preschooler to be able to wash their hands and say please.
Very early in a child’s development, the precocious Inner Critic absorbs all this cautionary information and takes on the role of enforcing these internalized rules.
The Inner Critic is a five-star general who recruits Protectors/Controllers, Perfectionists, Pushers, Incomparable Comparers, and many other inner selves to enforce the rules it believes are crucial to the individual’s survival. A gift of the Inner Critic can be that it gets things done. A sting can be that it’s too harsh and thus paralyzes you.
In punitive households where mistakes aren’t allowed and kids are yelled at and scolded, they may come to believe that they deserve pain. When children are shamed, severely punished, or mocked when they miss the mark or disobey, they start to perceive themselves as fundamentally flawed and irredeemably bad. This perception is the essence of core negative beliefs.
The Inner Critic emerges in this environment to save the child from abandonment. Even if its modus operandi becomes toxic, its original motivation, like that of all our inner selves, is protective. The scar tissue around the primal wounding from criticism forms at a very early stage of development. This is why these beliefs are often brutally fierce and don’t respond to logic.
Another tricky characteristic of core negative beliefs is their ability to hide. For example, your can-do self may take over your schedule and accomplish many tasks for some time. But if your root belief (conscious or unconscious) is “Nothing works out,” different personas will take over and collude to make sure things don’t work out. Many of us work against ourselves. Failure can truly be an inside job.
We’re complicated beings with multiple, competing inner agendas. Once you see what those are and how they’re working, you can do something about them.