If I asked you to describe yourself, what would you say? Are you good at managing projects and people? Or maybe you prefer to spend more time alone tending to independent tasks. The way you describe yourself offers insight into the core beliefs that influence how you live your life and make decisions.
A core belief is essentially a framework that impacts not only how we see ourselves, but also how we view the people and world around us. We begin to develop these core beliefs at a young age, and our understanding of who we are and what we mean to others is often developed through the important relationships in our lives. Our beliefs are not just something that are prescribed to us – they grow to become true based on our experiences.
Core beliefs can be either negative or positive. For example, a young child who is scolded for crying too much may develop a core belief that it’s not okay to show their emotions. They may even gravitate towards professions or activities where a lot of emotional control is required to live up to this belief. Or if a child is praised for learning a new skill like riding a bicycle, they might develop a core belief that they can learn to do new things if they keep trying. This belief may set the stage for engaging in new opportunities throughout their lifetime.
Our beliefs are not just something that are told to us – they grow to become true based on our experiences.
Our core beliefs can be subtle and exist without our direct awareness. Many of us will go through life without explicitly identifying what our core beliefs are or how they influence our day-to-day experiences. Consider the core beliefs you hold to be true about yourself and whether they are helping you or holding you back in any way. Here are a few things to think about when you are evaluating your core beliefs:
Notice when your beliefs are no longer serving you well
When you are really good at something, you may invest a lot of energy in succeeding in this area. You have likely received a lot of praise for the things you are good at doing and so they become an important part of your self-identity.
Mary had been volunteering to make hot lunches for local elementary schools for almost twenty years. She created the program when her own children were attending school and the program gradually expanded into other locations thanks to her passion and enthusiasm to provide children with a warm meal. As a child, Mary had learned the value of being charitable and enjoyed the satisfaction she received by running the program and seeing the results.
Consider the core beliefs you hold to be true about yourself and whether they are helping you or holding you back in any way.
However, due to some physical limitations, Mary was facing the prospect of not being able to continue in her role. She worried about what would happen to the lunch program if she was no longer present. She also wanted to be able to slow down and spend more time with her grandchildren. Mary had developed a core belief that she can’t let people down, and grappled with the decision that was looming ahead of her.
Separate fact from fiction
If you’ve grown up believing something about yourself, you are more apt to look for evidence to support that belief. If you were the “accident prone” child in your family, chances are that every time you tripped or fell, someone was quick to point out your tendency to stumble! This characteristic becomes associated with your personality so you may choose to stay away from careers or opportunities that require stability and precision, like waiting tables in a restaurant or becoming a surgeon. But are you really that clumsy, or is the label limiting you because it became part of your belief system?
So often in therapy, a client will make a claim about themselves in a negative light and attach the observation that “It’s just the way I am.” Although there may be some comfort associated with holding onto a limiting belief, the fact is that we have the ability to understand where that belief came from. And if it’s hurting or holding us back in any way, it can be changed.
Identify new, wanted beliefs
Once you’ve started identifying the beliefs that you currently hold about yourself, you can start creating new ones. If you’ve been telling yourself that you can’t do something, check and see if this is a core belief that’s holding you back and consider whether you need to start creating a new belief.
Angela was the oldest of three children in her family. After witnessing the stress her parents were under, she took it upon herself to help around the house whenever she could. Her parents never had to ask, she just took on the extra responsibilities of caring for her siblings and the household while her parents worked long hours in their family business.
Angela got married and had her own children while continuing to fill the role of caretaker in her extended family. She was also employed as a legal assistant in a busy law firm. By the time she was 40, many years of caretaking had caught up to her and she was exhausted, burned out, and resentful of the expectations that had become part of her identity.
In therapy, Angela learned to recognize that as a child she received a lot of praise and recognition for being a caregiver and taking on responsibilities without being asked. However, in the process of fulfilling the belief that she has to take care of everyone, she hadn’t learned that she also needs to take care of herself. When Angela identified this new core belief, she learned that she could still take on the parts of caregiving that she enjoyed, but she also gave herself permission to set limits and create more space to care for herself.
If you want to start paying more attention to your core beliefs, notice the thoughts or statements that you frequently use to describe yourself or your expectations of others. Spend a moment or two thinking about other times in your life when you have experienced similar thoughts. Consider the experiences you have had in your life that may have contributed to that belief. Then think about people you admire or attributes that you would like to have more of. Changing the way you speak about yourself will have a significant impact on what you actually believe about yourself!
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