Okay, I’m going to get right into it. How do you heal from trauma? From the profound shit that keeps you locked up inside yourself?
Well, let’s talk about that because I finally hit the motherlode.
Core beliefs. F*cking core beliefs.
What is a core belief? It sounds innocuous enough. I’m going to use my personal definition. A core belief is something that your subconscious believes to be true even if you cognitively believe the opposite. I’ll give you a basic example.
A person might have come to believe on a deep, emotional level that they are worthless due to how they were treated in their family of origin and subsequent, confirming life experiences. After growing older, reading self-help books, practicing a meaningful spirituality, building rewarding friendships, and going to therapy with a good therapist, they learned that they were in fact not worthless at all. They learned about family dynamics, invalidation, and the toxic power of shame. They learned about emotional regulation, adaptive coping strategies, and mindfulness. For the first time in a long time, things felt different. But sometimes something dark and familiar returned. That cold, clinging fear. The dread that accompanied the voice: “What if you really are worth nothing? What if everyone finds out? What if you are just a fraud? Everyone will know the truth about you. And then they will leave you. What then?”
This is a core belief. It is buried in these “What if…” questions and there’s another one coming up. What happens after the “What then?” What happens after everyone leaves? What is necessary to prevent that? Running? Being perfect? Pleasing everyone? Self-annihilating? Core beliefs like these are the lies that fuel our self-sabotaging behaviors, and they are biologically embedded in our subconscious through repeated exposure to trauma. EMDR is one way to root them out. Here is another way.
After I started EMDR I knew that my brain would open up the compartments and let the memories come forth. How did I know this? I’ve done trauma work before. I’ve also done an inordinate amount of cognitive work. Twenty years of it. I know what’s true. At this point, I don’t need therapy to work out the ins and outs of human behavior or discuss pathologies. I needed therapy to deal with fresh trauma or old trauma that was activated due to fresh trauma. The blessing in this is that uncovered core beliefs from days of yore were discovered.
My root core belief seems to be “I am void”. Apparently, I have gone for self-annihilation. This core belief has permeated my personality and everything I do in various ways. I have struggled with assertiveness. Self-advocacy has always been next to impossible. I do not like attention. I do not like compliments. I do not want to be noticed. I do not want my picture taken. I prefer to sit in the back of every room. I am overly accommodating to the point of self-sacrifice. I will “take the hits” in most relationships to the point of literally taking the hits. I will make myself as small as possible to the point of trying not to exist if I feel under threat. I used to be a chronic apologizer. I even don’t move when I sleep so as not to disturb my partner.
In my mind, I know that I am not void. I am not existentially wrong, but I somehow viscerally believe this to be true. There is literally a fight going on within me over what is going to be the truth, and this needs to be settled.
How would something like this develop? My therapist observed, “You survived because of this belief.” Please note that.
Our core beliefs helped us survive.
He went on to say that I had to make myself as small as possible around my mother lest I draw too much attention and be in her crosshairs. The same was true with my father. Plus, my father tried to kill me. When a parent tries to do that to you, you will struggle with feeling like you should not exist. You will either shut down completely or try harder to prove that you have the right to be there. I continually apologized for existing while, at the same time, tried harder and harder.
“It is common in PTSD,” my therapist said, “for a person to cognitively know what is true but for the subconscious to hold onto a belief that the person denies. This is because the subconscious mind says, ‘I’m not getting rid of this belief! You are alive today because of me! You need me so I’m keeping it!'”
There it was. A core belief sticks around in the brain because a part of us is convinced that we need it for our survival. Because we did, on some level, survive due to believing that! Sweet mother!
“You did survive because of this belief. Your belief that you needed to void yourself kept you alive. It kept you alive in captivity. It kept you intact with both your parents. And it served you somehow in your marriage. Is it any wonder you are struggling now?”
Core beliefs are adaptive even if we don’t cognitively believe them! Son of a…
So, why is there so much pain involved in the process of healing from trauma then? Well, there is a special kind of existential pain when your higher cognitive functions try to tell your subconscious limbic system what to do. There is a space in between what we want to believe and what we truly believe on a deep, visceral level, and that space is filled with uncertainty, pain, and fear. It is what we have known from past experiences and what we do not know about the future. It is the terrible friction of the rubber meeting the road. The grind of the turning of an old thought process into a new one, and it is terrifying. The learning of a new thing when the old has served us even if only maladaptively in the present. And the whole thing is there to prevent the Great Fear from ever visiting us again because we can’t endure such a thing. Not again.
No matter how adaptive these core beliefs might have been at one time, however, they are often wrong. What’s more, they act as translators for all our experiences, thusly, sabotaging our attempts at building better lives. It is painful as all get out to discover them and confront them because they were put in place by bad things like trauma. We held onto them most often to survive. Humans are built for survival. This is why core beliefs can be so bloody hard to let go of. Humans will eat other humans to survive. We will do extreme things to stay alive. We will believe what we have to–even if it’s a complete lie and prevents us from ever being happy or fulfilled.
Furthermore, these beliefs come online when we are not calm. They come online most often when we are triggered. When I feel threatened in some way–even in a small way–the negative “What if” cycle begins and I begin voiding myself. It happens every time. I know some people who begin running. One perceived slight, and they hole up in their house. All communication is cut off. That’s a form of running–isolation. People pleasing? Oh, that usually starts with incessant texting from people who ask if someone is okay. They don’t do it out of generosity. They do it from a place of fear.
So, what do we do about it then?
Isn’t that the question though. Well, you have to challenge the core beliefs. What does that look like?
That’s the next post.
Very good post, thank you
I really hope it’s helpful.
Yes- I had to do over 40 hours of personal counselling as part of my Counselling qualification; when my counsellor challenged my trait of over-responsibility, I uncovered a core belief of ‘needing to justify my existence’. It is the basis of my worth….working on it.
Oh my gosh. THIS. This is exactly where I am, right now. You just put words to what I am struggling with–that feeling of cognitively knowing I am valuable and lovable, but subconsciously believing no one can love me. That knowledge that I need to give up the desire, the hope, of ever being loved the way I need to by my parents versus the fear that if I walk away then I am TRULY alone, and then have no one.
Thank you so much for sharing.
I just punched the air. Your response is why I blog. I’m so glad it helped. Sometimes I might read something and it’s like, “YES! THAT!” And that’s enough to get me going again. I’m a little in shock that I haven’t spent more time on this topic in therapy, but I’ve also seen that it takes a lot of time to get it, too. This is CORE work. So, it’s aptly named. Keep going! You can do it!
Serendipity! You just described me. I know it’s true on an intellectual level, discovered it 10 years ago but have struggled to make even a dent in it. I would go so far as to say it is my reason for being. Procrastination, distraction, isolation, despair, elation, sometimes I feel like my unconscious is my enemy. Your words and insight really help. Thanks, I can’t wait for the next blog!
Thank you for your comments! I will continue to post on core beliefs. I am continually surprised by their influence and power. I am, however, even more surprised and encouraged by our capacity to replace them with better beliefs. It seems we often need help with that. Thanks again, David…Best, MJ
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