Counsellor & Psychotherapist
Masters of Counselling & Psychotherapy UofA
Member of the ACA College of Supervisors
Level 3 Member Australian Counselling Association
I am referring to the rules that we follow for the purpose of pleasing others so we can feel safe or that we belong. These rules were established when we were children. Many times in families you will hear the children described as "the athletic one", "the creative one", "the responsible one", "the black sheep" etc.
The roles which have been assigned in families often are created to meet the needs of others rather than meeting the individual needs.
Not all roles are negative however some will involve shutting down or hiding your true selves to keep others happy.
Examples of rules and roles in the here and now which no longer serve you
• Mum comes to visit your home and she goes through your wardrobe or things without asking. You are annoyed, you feel violated but at the same time you feel unable to stop her. You might feel very strongly about what she is doing but you can’t raise this with her.
• Perhaps Dad is always borrowing money which he never returns and you always lend it to him whether you can afford it or not.
You still believe that you have to do whatever your parents want – no matter what it is, no matter what the personal cost is to you.
If we are unable to remain our adult self in certain situations then when have rules and roles which are holding us back.
It is these rules and roles which provide the foundation for our core beliefs. Core beliefs subconsciously direct how we navigate life. So it is smart to review our core beliefs if we realize they are not creating the quality of life that we want.
Unsplash, Jiyeon Park
We don’t question our core beliefs we simply accept them as the truth. The problem with that is that we don’t realize that they are simply conclusions that we arrived at in our early life about how the world is, how things work, how people are, and what has priority.
Core beliefs inform what we believe about ourselves, our bodies and others. They tell us who we believe is in control and what we have to do to feel safe. They tell us what we believe is what is right or wrong and what we need to do.
Our core beliefs are the filter through which we view ourselves and our lives. Not unlike photography filters they can make things appear different to what they actually are. We use them as guidelines on how to respond to live events and they seem so basic that we rarely question them. In fact they have been in place so long they we simply don’t notice them.
How do we tell if they are not working for us?
The most common clue is unexplained complete physical exhaustion. Core beliefs are the impossible rules that we must follow to make up for something that isn’t even true. We can’t do or achieve enough to get beyond them. We can’t be good enough. We do the same things over and over, yet never seem to get anywhere and end up dog tired because the same old things keep happening. We can’t seem to get past the wall that is in our way. That is exhausting.
Tiffany (fictional woman) defines herself as a failure. She is a part of a family which work hard and are very successful in the business world. The belief she gained was that money is essential and you needed money – lots of it to be successful. She has worked hard, long hours and achieved her success. Then she became too disabled to work. So now she calls herself a failure because “if I don’t make lots of money, I’m just not good enough”. By defining herself this way she had determined her value on what she does rather than finding out who she really is. So when we take away the “thing” then we jump to the conclusion that there is no us and that is not true.
Tiffany had to realize that what we learn about ourselves years ago may be true, it also may not be true or only part true.
Unsplash, Pavel Nekoranec
There is an old story about three blind men walking up to an elephant. One man describes the elephant as a big, flat rough wall. Another man described it as a long skinny thing that wiggles like a snake. The third man describes it as a big upright pillar. Three men experience the elephant in three different ways.
So which man is right? What is the truth of what an elephant is like? The answer is they are all right. They have simply experienced a different part of the truth or it can be described as a different perspective.
So, back to Tiffany, a different perspective on her situation or the creation of a new core belief to help her rather than hold her back would be “Taking good care of myself physically really is being good enough”. Her previous core belief had caused her to drive herself that hard that she had neglected her body which in turn created her disability.
Second problem is that we learn can be selective.
A bit like a blind man describing the elephant we can have one significant experience and create a core belief.
Maybe you tried sports and were so embarrassed by your efforts that you decided that you are lousy at sports. We set up the expectation that whatever sports we try we will fail, and then take whatever experience no matter how small to support this belief. Over the years this may turn into a generalization such as “I’m not good at anything I do”.
Alternatively you could have realized that you loved sports even though you weren’t very good at it. You might have got lessons, played more with a friend who didn’t criticize you. You might have found out you were having fun and so you become more determined to improve your skill.
So the core belief could look something like this “I can learn things even when they are difficult”.
Core beliefs come in different flavors they can be positive or negative. They can be helpful or hold us back. They can be true about us – or not.
What we want to discover are the old and outdated negative core beliefs that lock us into safety patterns, which prevent us from rebuilding our true self.
Unsplash, Garidy Sanders
How do we learn about ourselves?
If you lived with smiling faces you might have learned that people enjoy being with you.
If others helped to meet our needs than we learned that we are valued.
If we lived with encouragement we probably learned to be persistent when something gets difficult.
If we lived with kindness than hopefully we learned that we are lovable.
On the other side of things:
If we lived with criticism (not of the constructive kind) we may have learned that we did things wrong and made mistakes.
If we lived with humiliation, we in all likelihood would have learned we are bad.
If we lived with neglect we will learn that we are unimportant.
If we have lived with rejection than we may have learned we don’t belong.
If we lived with people who ignored us we probably learned to stop asking for what we needed.
If we lived with violence we most certainly learned that other people might hurt us.
Whatever your particular experience has been we learn from them. With the limited information we have on hand we decide on how to make more good things happen and to stop the bad things. Often these conclusions and beliefs are formed when we are children.
The problem with that is as children we have not yet developed the maturity to understand totally “cause and effect”. Preschoolers think that whatever happened first caused whatever happened next. This means if we do something that it causes the next thing to happen- so we blame ourselves or give ourselves the credit.
At school age we think that bad things happen because we broke the rules. Teenagers are more objective.
Our childhood conclusions are our best effort to explain the “why” and “how can I stop this?”
As adults we have the opportunity to update and create more accurate, empowering core beliefs.