Written by therapist Doxa Zannou
What are Values?
Our values define the way we see and walk through the world. They describe the essential attitudes that influence our thought processes and behavioral patterns, and they serve to provide meaning to our lives when we walk in accordance with them. Our values are the driving force between everything we do, and they serve to define our identity and place in the world.
Core Beliefs and the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Cycle
Core beliefs are more specific in that they are the central ideas we hold as true, specifically when it comes to ourselves, others, and the world. These core beliefs are like invisible lenses through which we perceive reality. Our core beliefs can shape how we read any given situation, how we read ourselves, and how we read others, which is why two people can often experience the same objective reality, and leave with completely different, subjective perceptions of this said reality. (One could, of course, argue on whether the idea of an “objective reality” is even legitimate, but that is a rabbit trail we will not be pursuing today!)
Unfortunately for most of us, we harbor core beliefs that are often inaccurate, irrational, or flawed. Consequently, these core beliefs lead to negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can make life very difficult for us. Indeed, the CBT cycle states that our automatic thoughts influence the emotions we feel, which then influence our behavior.
Two Case Examples
For instance, let’s imagine that Ashanti and Soraya are currently working in a stressful position they hate and want to quit. They both work the same job, and they both experience heightened anxiety due to the 60+ hours they work each week.
Soraya’s core beliefs: “I am incapable of changing my life. I am a failure. Life will always be terrible.”
This leads Soraya to 1) think: “nothing will ever change.” 2) Consequently, Soraya feels depressed and hopeless. 3) Soraya’s behavior is therefore to do nothing.
She continues working this stressful job for another 10 years, and it takes a toll on her mental, physical, and social wellness.
Ashanti’s core beliefs: “I have agency in shaping my present and future. I have what it takes to learn something new. Life is hard but there are many opportunities for growth and joy.”
This leads Ashanti to 1) think: This job won’t change but I need to make the change that is right for my life. 2) Consequently, Ashanti feels hopeful and resolved. 3) So, Ashanti’s behavior centers on looking for other jobs, interviewing, networking, and researching other vocational fields.
As demonstrated in the above examples, Soraya and Ashanti’s core beliefs influenced the CBT cycle each went through. Common core beliefs we tend to have about ourselves center on the themes of helplessness, worthlessness, and perceived threats. We often believe we are incapable, unable, weak, and trapped. We also believe we are worthless, unlovable, unattractive, unworthy of love and commitment, undeserving, and not good enough. We tend to believe no one can be trusted, the world is scary and dangerous, nowhere is safe, life is always unjust, the future is bleak, and everything is out of our control.
The good news is that we are not born with negative core beliefs. Core beliefs are deeply held assumptions that we learn and internalize in childhood and/or during traumatic times in our lives. Negative core beliefs often feel true, even though they are not factual. We tend to reinforce negative core beliefs by ignoring evidence that disproves what we hold as true, and we focus instead on amplifying experiences or situations that are always aligned with our core beliefs. This limits objectivity, and keeps us stuck in negative, self-defeating feedback loops that prevent new, healthy, and different experiences where we could find much healing and growth.
4 Reasons for Identifying Core Values and Beliefs
- By clarifying our values, we can change the ways we cope with our circumstances and challenges. We can begin living and effecting change that aligns with what we really value in this world. For instance, clients who value mental wellness and time with family over 80+ hours at work, are more likely to make a change if they recognize that their current behavior does not align with what brings them true fulfillment and meaning in this life.
- In understanding our values, we can rank them in terms of importance, and we can even assign different values to different life contexts or stages we find ourselves in.
- We experience liberation when we embody our values in the everyday, instead of seeing them as ideals that we can only fulfill in the future when we have overcome present obstacles. Embodying our values every day, in even the smallest of ways, can lead to increased integrity, meaning, and self-esteem.
- By identifying our core beliefs, we can change them, and therefore disempower their chokehold in our lives. When we are not aware of our core beliefs, we continue perceiving reality through self-defeating and harmful lenses that lead to learned helplessness, a limited ability to reclaim one’s agency, and constant struggle in finding healthy and fulfilling relationships.
In working through our core beliefs and core values, we also learn to resolve the cognitive dissonance we may feel about different things in our lives. Indeed, cognitive dissonance describes the psychological anguish or discomfort we feel when we hold two conflicting attitudes, values, or beliefs, and when we behave in ways that contradict our previously held attitudes, values, or beliefs. So, to resolve this cognitive dissonance, here are helpful things we can do:
We must come to a new understanding of our values so that they are no longer conflicting in our minds. For example, consider these values:
- selflessness vs. personal autonomy
- loyalty vs. independence
- security vs. spontaneity
- tradition vs. change
These values may feel contradictory until we can fully conceptualize what they mean to us, and how we want to integrate each value into our lives. Sometimes, values are conflicting because of learned interpretations and conditioned ways of thinking, which have nothing to do with the actual value we hold dear. To illustrate, if you were taught that respect for tradition means that you never challenge harmful authority, you will find it hard to reconcile this value you have for tradition, with the value you have for effecting positive change. You would have to spend time defining for yourself what you hold dear about tradition, and you would have to identify when progress and change are necessary.
We must identify the behaviors that are not in line with our values and work on changing those behaviors, or we must identify the thoughts that are not consistent with our behaviors and work on changing these thoughts. Sometimes you will have to do both, depending on the situation you are in. Other times, our behavior is in alignment with a negative core belief, but we tell ourselves we are acting in accordance with our values. To change the harmful behavior, we must therefore identify the core belief, change that core belief, and resolve to behave in ways that truly mirror our core values. Another example I can give here would be someone who acts in selfless ways all the time, even when it means they are hurting themselves. They may do so because they believe they are acting in accordance with the value “selflessness,” but in truth, they are acting in accordance with the core belief “I must please everyone to be seen as a good person,” or again, “I must meet others’ needs to be loved.”
With the help of therapy, you can spend time identifying and exploring your core beliefs and values so you can live the life you want to have. CBT helps facilitate this process so that you can change the thoughts and behaviors that prevent you from moving forward or effecting the change you truly want to see in yourself and in your environment. As always, we recognize that mental wellness is directly affected by the oppressive and unjust systems we move through daily, and while these cannot be dismantled in a day, they can never completely suppress the agency we do have.
While learned helplessness and self-defeating core beliefs can feel so ingrained that the thought of healing seems impossible, please remember that with the help of therapy, you can begin again. You can find ways and strategies to live a life that is aligned with who you are and what you value, and I would love to walk alongside you in the process. Please give us a call to schedule an appointment today!