Core beliefs are the general principles and assumptions that guide you through life. They can be positive: “Most people are good,” or “I can do anything I set my mind to." But they can also be self-limiting, tricking your mind into seeing the world as darker and less full of possibility than it really is.
Read through these common harmful core beliefs and make a note of the ones that resonate with you.
Common Harmful Core Beliefs
1. "I don’t belong." Being rejected by peers or even family at an early age can make you carry an “outsider” identity for years afterward. As an adult, you might avoid engaging with others for fear of rejection, or you might swing to the other extreme and become overly concerned with being the perfect group member.
2. "The world is dangerous." This negative core belief leads to a lot of worrying and risk avoidance. If you believe there’s evil or misfortune lurking around every corner, you’re likely to restrict your activities and seek excessive reassurance to alleviate your anxiety. You also tend to overestimate the probability of negative outcomes and underestimate your ability to cope.
3. "I am a failure/I’m not good enough." A persistent feeling of not measuring up can often be traced back to over-critical parents, bullying from classmates, or a tendency to compare yourself to others. This belief can lead people to push themselves too hard to overcompensate. It also drives impostor syndrome, the constant feeling that you’re a fraud, and you’ll be unmasked any day now. People who see themselves as failures can also be prone to avoidance or procrastination, which allows them to say, “I didn’t fail; I never really tried.”
4. "I have to be perfect." A cousin of “I’m not good enough,” this core belief also leads people to drive themselves until their health or relationships suffer. Perfectionists have unrealistically high expectations and tend to focus on their flaws and missteps. They may have trouble taking life less seriously and often have the sense that there is too little time.
3 Ways to Establish New Core Beliefs
Here are a few ways to look at your self-limiting beliefs from new angles until your mind starts to change.
1. Consider your past.
Negative core beliefs can often be traced back to your early days. Even when parents are trying their best, sometimes a mismatch in temperaments can leave a kid feeling left out or judged by the rest of the family. The same is true in peer groups. After you leave the nest, even if you find your “tribe,” you might hold on to untrue beliefs about yourself that formed in your childhood.
Try this: Look at the core beliefs you identified above. See if you can find messages in your past that echo those feelings, whether implicit or explicit. For instance, maybe your dad never showed up at your baseball games, making you think, “I’m not important,” whether or not he ever said so. Or maybe your mother left the family when you were little, and now you think, “I’m not worthy of love.”
2. Look for evidence.
Beliefs come in pairs. If one of your internal messages is “I’m not good enough,” you can begin to starve that belief by feeding its benevolent twin, “I am good enough.” Look for evidence to build up the good belief: the ways your contributions made a difference, the obstacles you overcame, the people who love and support you. Slowly, you’ll begin to draw your mind’s attention away from the flaws and failures that you mistakenly think disqualify you from your dreams.
3. Focus on the good.
Of course, humans are emotional creatures, and sometimes trying to be rational about your beliefs just doesn’t work. That’s when it’s time to appeal to your feelings.
Focus on the positive flip side of one of your negative beliefs. Think about a time when the positive belief really felt true, no matter how fleeting the feeling was. For instance, if your negative belief is “I’m not good enough,” recall a time when you did feel “good enough.” Soak in that feeling for a few minutes, and remind yourself that you can and will feel that way again.
Allow yourself to accept new evidence of the good belief, even when you feel like dismissing it. Maybe you landed an interview for your dream job, and your instinct is to tell yourself, “Well, this is just a fluke. They’ll never hire me.” Instead of making that leap to negativity, take a moment to truly recognize and celebrate that the employer was impressed by your credentials and wants to meet you. Keeping your perceived flaws in perspective is key to recalibrating your belief system toward realistic, self-compassionate views.
Other things to try:
- Create a visual reminder of evidence of the positive beliefs you’re working to build. This could be as simple as putting photos on your fridge that remind you of the goals you’ve reached and people who love you. Or, if you want to put in a little more time, you could make a whole collage reminding you that you are loved, capable, big-hearted, and so on.
- Think about the people in your life who tend to support positive beliefs and see if you can spend more time with them. Similarly, if there are people who consistently make you feel negative about yourself or the world, try to limit your time with them.
- Consider how the news and entertainment you consume might be affecting your beliefs. For example, if you’re trying to stop thinking the danger is lurking around every corner, you might try cutting back on true-crime dramas and TV news.