Weaved within the fabric of western society are widespread dreams of greatness and a collective yearning for the good life. If we only had status, wealth and relationships like our culture’s most celebrated figures, we tell ourselves, then we’d finally be confident and forever fulfilled. But is this really true or are we unknowingly overlooking a more important dynamic that’s found underneath these surface level desires? When examining the lives of iconic movie stars, acclaimed musicians and decorated athletes, it becomes clear to see how many of society’s most notarized celebrities are similarly burdened by a negative self-image and forced to overcome the detrimental effects of low self-esteem.
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However, the truth is that our levels of life satisfaction are dependent on something much more substantial than material possessions, beautiful spouses, and social status. Unquestionably, it is in fact the core beliefs we hold about ourselves, found deep within our psyche, that most determine our levels of happiness and fulfillment.
Levels of Cognitions & Core Beliefs:
In the world of psychology today, there isn’t a therapeutic treatment strategy held in higher regard than Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). By working with individuals suffering from a wide variety of mental health disorders at the cognitive and behavioral levels, CBT therapists are able to guide their patients towards healthier lives and higher level of subjective well-being. While each and every case presented to a therapist will certainly have unique variables that help determine an individualized treatment strategy, the therapeutic journey seemingly always starts at the cognitive level because of the role thoughts play in dictating emotional reactions and behavioral choices. This important starting point which consist of monitoring, evaluating and challenging problematic surface level thoughts, however, is usually just the beginning of a more comprehensive voyage to the core of a patient’s most intimate beliefs.
To truly succeed in moving individuals beyond limiting ways of thinking, regardless of if they’re suffering from anxiety, depression, addiction or just low self-esteem, CBT therapists strive to uncover and transform problematic perceptions which are deeply ingrained into their patients’ overarching worldview. Although observable thoughts give insights into how individuals see themselves and think about the world, it’s usually imperative to go below the surface to adjust cognitions found at deeper and more meaningful levels to truly create beneficial change. To actually determine where the problematic thought patterns reside, therapists will formulate their treatment strategies with understanding of three primary levels of cognitions:
Automatic Thoughts (Shallowest Level):
Automatic thoughts are considered to be the most observable cognitions which reactively pop into one’s head when their faced with different circumstances and situations. For example, an individual suffering from social anxiety may have automatic thoughts such as ‘I can’t talk to them’ and ‘They’re judging me’ when being put into a social situation where they may have to talk to others.
Underlying Assumptions (Intermediate Level):
Found underneath automatic thoughts are a variety of underlying assumptions that play a large role in influencing the direction of our surface level cognitions, behaviors and emotions. The framework of CBT tells us that underlying assumptions come in the form of expectations, assumptions, rules, guidelines, biases and attentional priorities. The same individual suffering from social anxiety may have underlying assumptions such as ‘If I open up to others, I’ll make a fool out of myself’ and ‘I’m much safer staying home’.
Core Beliefs (Deepest Level):
Just as underlying assumptions influence our automatic thoughts, our most central beliefs about ourselves, others and the world at large influence our underlying assumptions. Core beliefs, which can arise from one or a combination of life experiences, especially childhood ones, innate dispositions and/or cultural influence, are considered to be unconditionally true by individuals even though they oftentimes go unrecognized. To uncover limiting core beliefs, therapists will work to break down and dissect their patients’ personal values and perceptions until they reach this most important level. The same person who suffers from social anxiety may have core beliefs such as ‘I am worthless’ and ‘The world isn’t a safe place’.
While it is of course important for CBT therapists to adjust the problematic core beliefs of their patients, it can be equally beneficial for each and everyone of us, regardless of our mental state, to increase our understanding of how our most intimate beliefs influence our levels of life-satisfaction and make alterations to the ones that are limiting us. Even if we aren’t suffering from a mental illness and don’t theoretically need therapy, we’d be silly not to improve our lives by heeding the advice of Albert Ellis, a man described as the grandfather of CBT, who tells us:
You have considerable power to construct self-helping thoughts, feelings and actions as well as to construct self-defeating behaviors. You have the ability, if you use it, to choose healthy instead of unhealthy thinking, feeling and acting.”
Self-Image, Self-Esteem & Subjective Well-Being:
Thanks to an evolutionary journey that’s incomparable to any other animal in terms of complexity, humans today enjoy a variety of unique mental capabilities such as the faculty to communicate with sophisticated spoken languages, the ability to analytically ponder past and future events, and the capacity to think about ourselves as unique individuals with a set of distinguishable characteristics and talents. Psychologists tell us that these brain-based competences, especially the one that allows us to see ourselves as comparatively distinct from others, gives rise to a collections of core beliefs about who we think we are as individuals. While the self-concept, the all-encompassing term used to describe how an individual sees themselves, is highly complex in nature and include a variety of self-schemas about one’s past, present and future selfs, two of its most important components are undeniably self-image and self-esteem, both of which play a vastly influential role in determining happiness and subjective well-being.
Where as the term self-image is used to describe how an individual thinks about the current version of themselves, and how they think others perceive them to be, the term self-esteem refers to the positive or negative feelings they associate with this mental picture. Depending upon how much or how little an individual accepts and approves of their physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual selfs, which together makes up self-image, they’ll either enjoy the benefits of a healthy self-esteem or unnecessarily suffer the consequences of an unhealthy one. While psychologists advise us that self-esteem can be problematic when it’s too high or low, in the form of narcissism or self-hated, it is certain that it plays an important part in determining the feelings of life satisfaction we live with. Unfortunately, because of an array of factors such as cultural influence, perfectionist mindsets and ill-considered comparative references, all too many individuals think about themselves negatively, suffers from low levels of self-esteem and remains unfulfilled with life. As prominent CBT therapist Christine Wilding puts it:
Life is as good as your relationship with yourself.”
Our Two Most Influential Core Beliefs:
Mental health and well-being statistics around the globe and in the United States show how low self-esteem and mental illness have become commonplace if not the norm. Despite the fact that self-esteem is hard to measure because of its subjective nature, which is also the reason why an individual can seemingly have everything yet remain unsatisfied, some emotional health experts estimate that upwards of 80% of the world’s population suffers from low self-esteem. A direct correlation between extremely low self-esteem and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, however, is less disputed and considered as fact by nearly all mental health professionals. Unfortunately, mental health statistics in the United States reiterate the notion that low self-esteem is rampant as 40 million adults, or 18% of the population, suffer from an anxiety disorder and just over 16 million more, or 6.7% of the population, have at least one major depressive episode in a given year. Additionally, estimates from the World Happiness Index tell us that only 31% of Americans consider themselves to be very happy.
Although there assuredly isn’t a single universal cause for our world’s immense levels of dissatisfaction and unhappiness, because of a plethora of individualized variables, it is certain that negative self-image and low self-esteem are at the very least a large part of the problem. While we’ve already seen how personal dynamics such as these are built upon an array of unyielding opinions individuals hold about themselves, there are two specific core beliefs, which both relate to feelings of worthiness, that shape our self-image and influence our self-esteem more than the rest:
The Core Belief of Success:
Unquestionably one of our most influential core beliefs revolves around the question ‘Am I successful?’. When individuals don’t consider themselves to be accomplished, or capable of future achievements, they’ll have underlying core beliefs that materialize in saying such as ‘I’m a failure’, ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘I can’t do anything right’. Unfortunately, these deeply ingrained self-perceptions paradoxically prohibit people from taking steps to transform their limiting core beliefs because they see themselves as incapable of success and ultimately not adequate individuals. If someone doesn’t see themselves as a ‘success’ in the present but is moving in that direction, however, their self-esteem won’t suffer as much as it would if they weren’t making the attempt. We will soon examine a broader strategy for transforming core beliefs, but first it’ll be important to examine a number of philosophical recommendations in regard to success-based core beliefs.
While there isn’t any denying the fact that setting out to achieve goals through hard work and perseverance is a good path to follow, it’s important to remember how countless numbers of celebrities have remained unsatisfied with their successes even after achieving everything there is to seemingly achieve. Their stories illuminate the fact that factors we often associate with success, such as material possessions, financial wealth and social status, don’t necessarily result in individuals feeling the way we would assume. For this reason, it can be extremely helpful to consciously monitor and change the comparative references we base our success upon and consider only ‘competing’ with the previous version of ourselves. Furthermore, it’s because of this same reason that one of the most important things we can do to transform our limiting core beliefs is to redefine what success actually means. Although society largely tell us that success is based upon money, sex, and big paychecks, truth be told its something much different. To be truly ‘successful‘ during our limited time on this earth, we must begin to think of our levels of achievement as being directly correlated with our levels of life-satisfaction, which aren’t necessarily dependent upon externals. As His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, a man who understands an immense amount about cognitive psychology and personal well-being, tells us:
The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”
The Core Belief of Lovability:
In addition to how one perceives their levels of success, the second all important core belief revolves around individuals’ feelings of lovability. If an individual doesn’t wholeheartedly believe they’re lovable, and can’t answer the question ‘Am I lovable?’ with a resounding yes, they’ll often have limiting core beliefs that present themselves in variations such as ‘I’m not lovable’, ‘I don’t fit in anywhere’, ‘I’m bound to get rejected’ and ‘people I love always leave me’. Core beliefs such as these, which are similarly related to one’s perceived inherent worth, cause individuals to withdraw from relationships, and avoid them all together, with hopes of preventing themselves from getting hurt. Unfortunately, behaving in such a way typically leads to feelings of loneliness and ultimately low levels of self-esteem.
Just as there are a variety of different problematic ways of thinking about success that give rise to limiting beliefs, so too are there a range of faulty perceptions that cause us to feel unlovable. While some individuals come to believe that their lovability is dependent upon their success, others struggle to see themselves as loveworthy because of issues such as an unhealthy body image, past failed relationships or previous experiences of abandonment or neglect. In western societies, it’s widely believed that part of the reason lovability issues are so rampant is because everyday individuals use airbrushed super models and celebrities to compare their bodies with. Yet still, even bigger problems may arise when individuals put their feelings of lovability into the hands of others because the love, acceptance and approval we need most is from ourselves. Fortunately, helpful practices such as loving-kindness meditation can move individuals towards greater self-love and more affirming core beliefs. Brené Brown, the highly acclaimed author of The Power of Vulnerability, tells us:
The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness. We must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity, and creativity.”
Transforming Core Beliefs to Increase Our Self-Esteem:
It should now be apparent to see how there is a clear relationship between one’s core beliefs, self-esteem and levels of subjective well-being. Hopefully, it’s also possible to recognize the fact that although each and everyone of us most desires fulfillment at the core of our beings, we often go about creating it in ineffective ways. The truth is that if we really want to increase the levels of happiness we live with, we’ll have to move ourselves away from seeking it outside of ourselves and instead focus on increasing our self-esteem by transforming our most intimate core beliefs.
Despite the fact that core beliefs can be hard to distinguish, because we assume them to be true, therapeutic approaches and tools found within CBT can guide us towards finding and replacing the ones that hinder our states of well-being. As you’ll soon discover, the all important process of identifying, challenging and modifying core beliefs, which will manifest throughout the following four transformational strategies, offers us the opportunity to rewrite our own personal story. Before we do this, however, it’s important to point out that the ultimate goal of transforming core beliefs isn’t to throw self-praise at ourselves until we become narcissistic, as this won’t give us what we desire either, rather its to find an appropriate balance between self-acceptance and compassionate criticism so that we’ll continuously move ourselves forward:
If you were to ask nearly any CBT therapist what personal skills are most important to develop for someone wanting to transform their limiting core beliefs, they’d assuredly start with the ability to monitor cognitions, emotions and behaviors. In fact, it’s only through the means of self-awareness that anyone is able to observe the automatic thoughts that guide them to uncovering their core beliefs. This means that by monitoring and recording spontaneous surface level cognitions, potentially in a thought journal, each of us has the capacity to pick up on common themes which direct us to more deeply ingrained core beliefs. Additionally, a number of useful CBT tools and activities such as ABCD Model, Dysfunctional Thoughts Records and Core Beliefs Worksheet can help us during the identification stage. Yet still, there perhaps isn’t a better practice to undertake for identification purposes than the practice of Mindfulness Meditation which, because of its effectiveness, has recently been integrated into a third wave therapeutic approach closely related to CBT called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
Conscious Questioning & Analytical Reasoning:
There is no denying the fact that the astonishing capabilities of the human brain have given us an endless variety of extraordinary things, but it is also because of our vastly influential mental capacities that individuals ruminate, get stuck in ruts and develop limiting core beliefs. Fortunately, by intentionally taking control of our thought processes with the practices of conscious questions and analytical reasoning, we can further our understanding of how we think, dissect problematic thought patterns and contemplate more useful alternatives in ways that ultimately results in healthier ways of thinking and improved self-esteem. Additionally, beyond using these two practices, in coordination with one another, to challenge limiting core beliefs with questions such as ‘What life experiences do I have that show me this belief isn’t true?’, we can also use them to change how we feel about success and to get in touch with our deepest desires. Furthermore, the practice of conscious questions and analytical reasoning can help us distance ourselves from ill-suited comparative references that limit our self-esteem.
For an individual to truly change the way they feel about themselves, they’ll have to restructure their cognitive patterns at the deepest levels. For this reason, much of CBT’s framework is set up to help individuals achieve the goal of cognitive restructuring. While the strategies of conscious questions and analytical reasoning can certainly be useful for this process, we looked at them more as being tools for challenging limiting beliefs. In regard to creating true and lasting change at the cognitive level, we can examine a number of tools and strategies more specific to CBT. First, when we’re aiming to replace a core belief with a healthier alternative, CBT therapist tell us that we need to create a new balanced belief that counteracts the old limiting one and can do so by asking and reflecting on questions such as ‘What core belief would be a better alternative?’. Additionally, it may be necessary to utilize the Modifying Rules and Assumptions worksheet to change problematic guidelines we have for living. Lastly, the previously mentioned Loving-Kindness Meditation and the tool of positive affirmations can also help with the process of cognitive restructuring.
The last transformative strategy that we’ll discuss is certainly not the least important because it allows us to cement our new core beliefs into place. By taking definitive action through a variety of behavioral interventions, we’ll be able to obtain the real evidence that’s needed to truly change the way we feel. In CBT, common behavioral strategies may come in the form of behavioral experiments or behavioral activation, which respectively help individuals gather information to disprove particular beliefs and break cycles of detrimental behavior. Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that other tools such as SMART goals and action plans can greatly increase the effectiveness of this strategy.
Although we’ve mention it a number of times throughout this article, it’s important to reiterate the fact that each and everyone of us, regardless of our mental states, has the opportunity to benefit from the strategies of CBT and one of the ways we can do so is by transforming our limiting core beliefs. While changing our most intimate personal perception with hopes of increasing our levels of self-esteem undeniably takes nurturing and loving care, the benefits of heightened levels of subjective well-being will certainly make the process worth it. As inspirational icon and personal development legend Tony Robbins puts it:
You may not realize it, but you have the power to choose what you believe about your life, people, money and health. You can either choose beliefs that limit you or beliefs that empower you to move towards success. Your beliefs energize you to create the world you want to live in right now.”