If I had to define it simply, I would say therapy is the process of updating core beliefs, or beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world around us. An example might be, “Everyone thinks of me as a pushover” or “The world is an ugly place, full of people ready to put one past you.”
The important thing to realize about these beliefs is that they are neither true or false. Nietzsche describes this beautifully in Twilight of the Idols:
"Judgments, judgments of value about life, for it or against it, can in the end never be true: they have value only as symptoms, they are worthy of consideration only as symptoms; in themselves such judgments are meaningless. One must stretch out one’s hands and attempt to grasp this amazing subtlety, that the value of life cannot be estimated."
What Nietzsche is saying is that the sentence “life is _____” cannot be filled in factually. Instead, whatever answer we provide is a reflection of our own experience and learning, with weight given to our earliest years.
Psychologically speaking, what we learn in those early years helps us adapt to our environment, which is why I am hesitant to use the word “maladaptive” to describe some of my clients’ core beliefs (even if that word is in vogue) since these beliefs were adaptive at the time they were developed. The problem is when core beliefs become so ingrained that we cannot change them when the circumstance calls for it. For example, a client of mine recently expressed that she believes everyone in her life will eventually abandon her, which is making it difficult to love and be loved in her relationship. However, it is easy to see how this was adaptive for a person who was constantly abandoned as a child; holding this belief prevented her from becoming too close to anyone, which in turn prevented her from becoming hurt.
Every theory of psychotherapy has its ideas about how core beliefs are changed. For all the work cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has done in uncovering what core beliefs are and how they are formed, I believe it has little to say about how they are changed. In the early days of CBT, core beliefs that were inconsistent with circumstance were called “illogical.” Now they are referred to as “maladaptive.” Neither term, in my opinion, gives enough weight to the understanding that these beliefs were logical and adaptive at the time, and may become so again if the environment reverts back to what it was. In my opinion, a therapist must understand the survival value of these beliefs before he or she tries to help a client change them. Otherwise, we deal flippantly with something that is of immense, vital importance.
For example, in an effort to change clients’ core beliefs, CBT recommends “examining the evidence.” They ask questions like, “What would you tell a friend who held the same opinion?” or “Name three other possibilities that might be true.” In my experience, this is a shallow intervention because it represents an intellectual approach to what is an emotional, experiential thing. Our core beliefs were not imposed upon us logically. They were felt, experienced, lived. What chance does an intellectual approach like “examining the evidence” have against the experience of being abandoned time and time again as a child? Very little, I think.
Next post, we will discuss what has (in my experience) helped clients update their core beliefs to fit the environment they are living in now.