How To Change Core Beliefs, Part II
Last post I discussed the concept of core beliefs: why they are formed, when they are a problem, and how certain approaches (like cognitive-behavioral therapy) try to change them. In that post, I expressed the idea that many of CBT’s approaches—along with techniques from other approaches I did not specifically mention—fall short of the tall task of helping a person update their core beliefs to fit the environment they are living in now.
Below, then, are some concepts I have found helpful in working with core beliefs:
Allow them. The first step in dealing with a core belief that is out-of-touch with the current environment is to recognize the belief as, at one time, vitally important to the client. It will also feel vitally important to the client at the moment, which is why it is helpful to have the attitude that if the client does not want to change that belief, or does not want to change right now, that is perfectly acceptable. There are many ways of changing ourselves to make room for a happier, more fulfilling life that do not involve changing how we view the world. And quite frankly, it makes a good deal of sense that someone would not want to change something so fundamental to their way of operating unless they absolutely had to.
Help the client experience the opposite. Core beliefs are formed experientially, not logically, so it makes sense that they would be updated experientially, too. But what does this mean? It means that “asking for the evidence” for core beliefs, or trying to outsmart a client using Socratic questioning, is only going to be marginally helpful. Instead, I have found that showing a client is more important than telling. For example, the client I mentioned last post has a core belief that she will be abandoned, so I consider it my goal to show her the opposite of abandonment, which is consistent care and support. In many ways, that is more important than anything we talk about. Another client is inexperienced with sharing his feelings because his mother always rewarded him for being “fine” and punished him for being “a problem.” Therefore, therapy is the perfect place for him to share his feelings without being punished for doing so—or rewarded for not doing so. Only then can he prevent himself from falling into the same pattern in his relationships, in which he takes on the other person’s emotional baggage until he breaks. For a more in-depth exploration of this, see my post on corrective emotional experiences.
Replace them. One of the major risks of removing a core belief is that it creates an absence. Things that once made sense to us (even if illogical) are all of a sudden confusing again. We might feel lost, terrified, out of control, strange, identity-less. For example, the client who was constantly abandoned eventually settled on the core belief that she is not worth anyone’s love or attention. This interpretation has serious drawbacks, of course, but it also protects her, in a way, by encouraging her to avoid the same hurt. If she is going to change her belief, then she must find another reason to explain why she was so constantly left as a child, and another way to avoid the pain she expects to come. The world can become confusing and intimidating again in the absence of reasons and defenses. This is why replacing one belief with another can be quite helpful. It is the therapist’s job to make sure the client comes up with an alternate story, one that feels true. Otherwise, the narrative isn’t going to stick.
Understand reality as nuanced. Updating core beliefs with clients can become significantly easier once we realize that the reality we are dealing with is quite nuanced. If we continue with the example of the client who was abandoned as a child, we can probably guess, without knowing too much about the situation, that there were a variety of reasons she was abandoned. The pain and hurt causes us to look for one reason, however, even if that reason puts us at fault. There is something simpler to the human psychology to believe in one explanation (even if self-defeating) rather than multiple, nuanced reasons. But this is, in fact, good news. Our perceptions are often singular and unyielding, but the reality they are based upon is not. Helping clients see that perception is an interpretation of reality and not reality itself, is a powerful step in the right direction. It becomes even more powerful when we allow the client to have that perception: even when we think it is wrong, and even when we know it is harmful.
I have found these concepts helpful in giving my clients the choice to update their core beliefs, if they wish and when they are ready. If we never update them, that’s fine, too. There are other things to work on.