Identifying Core Beliefs
The Cognitive Behavior approach is based on the process of (1) Identifying a client’s automatic thinking; (2) Questioning the validity of the automatic thought; (3) Identifying core beliefs and; (4) Challenging core beliefs. Of course, the counseling process is considerably more complicated than a simple four-step model. This model however provides a basic overview of the fundamental process.
The process of questioning automatic thoughts demonstrates the way in which thinking may be erroneous or distorted in some way. While this process of highlighting the errors in one’s thinking is helpful to some extent, it often is insufficient in bringing about real change. The next step in the process is to employ strategies that will assist a client in recognizing the core belief from which the thought sprung and challenge that belief.
“Core beliefs (or schemas) are usually formed in the light of early learning experiences. They can be both positive (‘I’m competent’) and negative (‘I’m incompetent’); and most people have both. They process incoming information and thereby determine how we perceive events; in a sense we can see only what our core beliefs allow us to. Negative core beliefs are often activated and thereby pass into our awareness at times of emotional distress or during dramatic events (for example, a client whose wife leaves him believes ‘I’m worthless without her’). With such a schema activated, any information or experience that contradicts the schema is likely to be dismissed, distorted or overlooked”. (Source: Neenan, M. & Dryden, W. (2000). Essential cognitive therapy. London: Whurr)
In the section that follows we highlight the downward arrow technique for identifying core beliefs.
The Downward Arrow – Identifying Core Beliefs
In this technique, the counselor asks a series of ‘what does that mean?’ questions, followed by ‘what does that mean about you?’ to reveal a core belief. The example that follows portrays a client who is anxious about her ability to lead her team to the required sales targets.
Counselor: If you don’t meet the sales target, what does that mean?
Client: I will be demoted.
Counselor: And what does that mean?
Client: I’m no good at my job.
Counselor: And what does that mean about you?
Client: That I’m a failure [core belief].
The final counselor question ‘what does that mean about you?’ often reveals a core belief.
Note: The Downward Arrow is a technique outlined in: Neenan, M., & Dryden, W. (2000). Essential cognitive therapy. London: Whurr.