“The world is unsafe.”
“People will always leave me.”
“I’ll never be good enough.”
In the therapy world, we call the above statements core beliefs or stuck points: beliefs that act as a lens by which an individual might see himself, the world or others. We are not born with these beliefs; they develop somewhere along the way, typically after repeated messages that support these ideas. For some, they may be born after a traumatic event or what may be experienced as traumatic, if not technically defined as such. For others, life events and relationships act as building blocks to cause these beliefs to be held as truths or facts, rather than thoughts.
No matter the individual, everyone has core beliefs. They may be neutral, positive or negative—such as those listed above—but we all have these core thoughts that impact our decisions and the way we judge a situation. The example I most often give is one I feel is relatable to so many: you are walking down the street and notice a group of people looking around the area at which you’re walking and they are laughing.
Individuals with a negative core belief related to rejection or poor interpersonal relationships will likely assume that this laughter is about them—that they are being laughed at and this will hurt, feeling like a reinforcement of their core belief. The alternative, perhaps, is that they wonder if they are being laughed at, but do not assume so and even if they are being made fun of, they do not experience this as a deep wound but perhaps as an unfortunate moment, and then they move on.
For clients I work with who have eating disorder diagnoses, we try to shift our focus away from simply discussing food and body image (the symptoms) and instead focus on the underlying issues. One tool to identify these issues is engaging in questioning and dialogue that allows the individual to get to the heart of what the core belief is, impacting the person’s tendency to feel that s/he “must” engage in the behaviors s/he is using.
Core beliefs can be at the heart of behavioral diagnoses and other mental health concerns. And, as noted above, we all have these beliefs that impact us and at times act as obstacles toward growth, relationships or self-care.
So how can we achieve a shift for those whose thought patterns and beliefs are deeply ingrained?
There are a number of tools used to accomplish this shift. One is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a practice that involves shifting thought patterns by recognizing and challenging cognitive distortions. Another is called cognitive processing therapy (CPT), which I tend to use in my work with folks with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorder diagnoses and with individuals who reach out based on how their beliefs have impacted their lives.
CPT, a module-based therapy, was developed in the late 1980s specifically for those with a PTSD diagnosis. Clients engage in 12-24 sessions of a specific curriculum, allowing them to fully challenge these beliefs—called “stuck points” in CPT—by using tools to identify feelings, thoughts and assumptions, and then name alternatives.
I have seen, firsthand, the incredible shift for individuals who feel their lives are dictated by these core beliefs, who feel constant shame, guilt, sadness, fear and a plethora of other emotions that leave their minds spinning and hearts reeling. They leave CPT knowing that the way they are thinking is not the absolute truth, and that there is room for their experiences to be different.
Our brains are extremely powerful. How wonderful to know that there is opportunity for change. To unlearn what has been learned and to live life differently. A life when core beliefs may be neutral or full of opportunity.
Instead of “I am unlovable,” the belief that “some people will love me and some won’t and that is okay.”
The first step is curiosity and hope, an experience we can hold for others if it might be difficult for them to grasp for themselves. The next step is knowing that change can be possible and exploring with help and tools that feelings may hurt and thoughts may sting, but these need not color or control our lives and choices. There is more to you then what has happened to you. Growth is possible. It can be okay. You—you are okay.
Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works in private practice in New York and New Jersey (virtually at this time) to help those struggling with rigid thought patterns, body image issues, eating disorders, disordered eating, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, fears of change, grief and coping with life stressors. Temimah is also the assistant clinical director of Monte Nido Manhattan, a day treatment program for those with eating disorder diagnoses. To learn more, visit www.temimah.com.