Gridlock and Core Beliefs

It’s taken me a few days to adequately internalize a more profound understanding of core beliefs.  The idea of challenging them doesn’t seem like enough to me.  I want to uproot them.  I want them outta here!

How do I get that done? When I asked my therapist, he didn’t have a great answer, and I suspect that deficiency is because there isn’t one.  He said, “We’ve found it.  Now that you know it’s there, you can identify it.  Call it out when you begin to go there.”

Well, that is not helpful to me.  That’s like a squatter living in your house without your knowledge.  Suddenly, you discover him and feel shocked and violated.  Now what? Every time you come upon the trespasser you’re supposed to shout, “Hey! I see you! I challenge you, o squatter, to squat elsewhere!” And, this describes about just how effective that feels to me…



I decided to come at this from a different direction.  Instead of looking at these unwanted core beliefs as stumbling blocks that prevent me from healing from trauma, I wondered if my core beliefs would actually be appropriate and helpful to me were I still living in my former circumstances.

How does a person survive being raised by a psychopath, a personality disordered mother with narcissistic and sadistic tendencies, and human trafficking? You survive by becoming a non-person.  You manufacture emotional and psychological camouflage so that you move around as unseen as possible.  When threatened, harmed, or facing perceived harm, you become even more invisible in order to deescalate the situation quickly.  As far as I can tell, my primary, or foundational, belief is “I am void.  I am wrong. I am a non-person.”  This belief originated in the tacit rules of engagement that were learned from repeated interactions and might look a little like set theory as we put it all together.

Given a set of behaviors A, if u is an element of set A, then…

For me, I figured out the rules with my parents very quickly.  Two examples…

  • If my father looks at me sideways with that expression, then walk behind him and say nothing.
  • If my stepmother speaks to me in that tone, then quickly apologize and sit where I cannot be seen.
  • If my mother says anything, then always agree with her lest I experience punishment.

These “rules” for engaging in abusive households lead to a plethora of feelings.  I would feel small, frightened, and a strong desire to disappear.  Eventually, those feelings changed into beliefs: “I feel like I’m not even a person.”…”I’m not even a person.”  But, that belief works in this context because following the rules that eventually spawned this core belief kept me as intact as possible.  Imagine what would have happened had I not done so? I would have been killed at some point.

This isn’t always easy to parse, but it’s worth the effort.  It takes insight and a willingness to tolerate the pain that might come forward.

Now that the rules are known, what does one do with it? Here is the tricky part.  There are triggers that exist within us and without us, and we ourselves can trigger an unwanted belief to activate and overtake us.  How? Here is an example.

Remember that before a core belief became a belief it was first a thought (e.g. “I feel worthless.” vs. “I am worthless.”) .  For many of us, our physical behaviors reflect our beliefs.  Our posture, how we walk, where we sit in relation to others, and even how we stand can reflect how we feel and think.  During the last year of my marriage, I began to walk behind my husband in public like a servant.  This was exactly how I was instructed to walk in my father’s household.  I had to call him ‘sir’ and walk behind him.  Well, I never called him ‘sir’ because I thought it was ridiculous, but I did walk behind him.  The more unperson-like I felt, the farther behind I would fall.  As that old belief resurfaced and increased in me in my marriage, the more I walked behind my ex-husband.  And the more I walked behind my husband, the more triggered I became in feeling like a non-entity because I was re-creating an abusive scenario from my childhood that was highly traumatic.  My physical behaviors supported the old belief and created a feedback loop.  This is the machination behind “old cycles”.

What if I had determined not to walk behind him? That would have been one way to challenge that belief.  Making a direct change to the physical expression of that core belief is a very real way to displace it.  It is also surprisingly difficult.  Self-talk must go along with it: “No, I will not walk behind him no matter how I feel about myself.  Head up, shoulders back.  Walk next to him.”  This creates dissonance between a very real part of yourself that is determined to preserve you and a higher cognitive self that also wants to preserve you.  That dissonance is the source of a great deal of panic and pain and the reason so many people drop out of therapy.  When you go head to head with yourself, gridlock can ensue, and this dissonance often produces gridlock.

I have seen many people who sit in corners, sit by themselves, stand hunched over, head down, arms wrapped around themselves.  Changing your physical expression will actually begin to change your beliefs.  This is a very effective way to create new neural pathways and dislodge core beliefs around identity.  If you aren’t sure what your core beliefs are, then this is one way to uncover them, gain insight, and experiment.

But, hey, what about that gridlock? What about that pain?

That’s the next post.

11 Comments on “Gridlock and Core Beliefs

    • Thank you for your suggestion. It’s a good suggestion. I had a 26-week training on DBT four years ago, and I highly recommend it to many, many people. The problem for me here is that I can’t use a dialectical approach because a negative core belief isn’t true. So, this isn’t a dissonance formed from an inability to hold a dialectic. That I actually can do and do often, and it is frustrating because I really like the dialectical approach. DBT and emotional regulation, moving from the outer edges of emotional mind and rational mind to meet in the middle at wise mind, however, is always one of my goals. DBT was developed as a therapeutic model to increase distress tolerance and increase skills and interpersonal effectiveness. And it does overlap REALLY well in terms of distress tolerance and what might trigger an automatic negative thought, and that is very useful. But, CBT and EMDR specifically for trauma-induced and embedded core beliefs seems to be the more effective approach in terms of moving past coping and into adaptively processing trauma, and then DBT for emotional regulation, learning validation, increasing distress tolerance, and increasing interpersonal effectiveness (particularly effective if raised in family of origin with personality disordered individuals). BUT, this is my experience, and I can see DBT alone being quite helpful for people in my spot particularly if they are still learning distress tolerance. CBT can be very hard to do if a person struggles with profound trauma and has very low distress tolerance. In that case, DBT is the road to take until emotional regulation is learned, and that’s a new concept for a lot of people. It’s a very worthwhile process. Thanks again for the observation. I’ve written a fair amount on DBT on this blog. I should mention it again…

      • Use the DBT skills as well as the other approaches. Mindfulness and distress tolerance should help

        I didn’t find EMDR that helpful for me because it didn’t hit the cognitive part as much as I needed. The emotional piece left me flooded. CBT with some of the DBT skills is the most useful for me

        My PTSD got worse after a brain injury. The neuro- psychiatrist told me that one area of my brain that’s damaged is the one that is emotional regulation. The skills I had before don’t work right now

        Language is also a challenge. Expressive aphasia is the main problem Reading and writing is also harder.

        • Hey now, this is a very helpful suggestion. The breath work left me flooded. TBIs are really hard on regulation. I have a few T3 lesions, and I do wonder if they are sitting right on regulatory areas. For sure, temporal lobe areas which is language-related. Mindfulness really helps me. These are very helpful suggestions. Self-validation, too. Thanks for the reminder.

  1. I think about this kind of issue all the time. Epistemology/core beliefs are important and it seems so few people see how much it impacts us at a personal, practical, and spiritual level. It’s very interesting and useful to read your take on it all.

    One of the things about core beliefs that can make them so insidious is that they can develop subconsciously. I don’t think they always start out as conscious thoughts. They can hide under a pile of unspoken assumptions that we never think to question, especially if they make us feel safe or like we belong.

    I understand your squatter metaphor, but I think it gives too much power to the squatter/core belief. A squatter is a person with a will. A belief is a thing that we act on. It doesn’t have a will — we do.

    So, as I work through these kinds of problems, it seems like I face several common hang-ups.
    *I don’t see the belief in the first place.
    *I see it, but I haven’t replaced it with the truth.
    *I fool myself — thinking that I’ve changed what I believe.
    *I’ve changed the belief, but some habits are hard to change. (Hard to distinguish from the previous item).

    I suspect that the therapist is assuming that you don’t actually believe those old, damaging core beliefs, and that you are now trying to change habits and patterns. That’s not bad, but I think it glosses over a couple steps dealing with what the truth is, and knowing we are being honest with ourselves.

    Proverbs 3:5-6 This passage helps me focus on the goal. I stumble a lot, but it helps me focus.

    • This is an interesting comment, and there are a few well-made points here.

      1. Core beliefs develop subconsciously. Yes, I believe that this is true. And, not all core beliefs are bad. I have some very good core beliefs as do most people. It’s the negative core beliefs I’m after. Those are the ones that often drive us particularly when we are under pressure or perceived threat.

      2. I disagree with you on a belief always being a thing we act on. A core belief, particularly being a subconscious thing, is a thing that drives us. We can act on something that we know about because we consciously choose to do it, but if we lack insight, then we cannot choose. Furthermore, the mind is not a simple mechanism although I wish it were. The prefontal lobe, the seat of executive function and decision making can be ruled by the mammalian brain, the seat of the limbic brain. When a person is under threat and the limbic brain comes online, the prefontal cortex is shut down UNLESS there is profound training put in place to do otherwise–and even then that training is put in place to attempt to hack the brain. Without said training or enormous insight, the limbic system hijacks the brain and calls the shots. Your will has little to do with what goes on from there and subconscious core beliefs tend to come online at that point–the good and bad ones. This is neuroscience. It’s not my opinion.

      3. The cognitive approach that you suggest works well IF a core belief is not biologically embedded. Let’s say I have a belief that I stumble across in my daily living that all this time has been hindering me and I think, “Wow! I don’t need that hanging around. So, what’s the truth? I’ll just replace it!” This is a very basic CBT idea, and it was made familiar to many more people in Christian Bible studies by Beth Moore and other modern Christian writers like John Eldredge. On paper, it looks good and it works; but if you are dealing with deep programming that was put in place through complex trauma, government programming used in the alphabet agencies for deep cover operatives, special forces military programming like torture training common to something like SEAL or Green Beret training, long-term exposure to human trafficking environments and incestuous familial relationships and the like, or even children raised in long-term domestic violence environments, then you cannot take such a simplified approach. It doesn’t work. These are all examples of profound and complex trauma that will rewire a brain–sometimes permanently. Some people never come back from it.

      So, why can’t you just find a “lie” and replace it with truth easily? Because you can cognitively completely disagree with all the negative core beliefs to the nth degree. I don’t believe any of my negative core beliefs on a cognitive level, and I’ve written that on my blog. I am completely cognitvely intact, but profound and complex trauma changes the neural pathways in the brain and biologically embeds memories with beliefs preventing them from being adaptively processed. Neurons that fire together wire together. This is what causes the dissonance. It isn’t a matter of belief. It’s a matter of neuronal structure. It becomes a conflict between the higher cognitive function in the frontal lobe and the limbic system disagreeing with that. It is why it takes so long for certain types of trauma to heal. The brain’s structure changes. Further complicating the matter, you have trauma experienced as body memory, too.

      4. The word “heart” is Proverbs 3:5-6 in Hebrew actually means “mind”, “inner man”, and “intelligence” in addition to “heart”. The Jews did not have a sense of heart as Westerners do. And they prized learning from teachers and even spending most of their money on learning from them. So, another interpretation of this passage is to continue to devote resources to improving your mind in order to understand so as to have a favorable journey and increased wisdom as one ages. It ties nicely into this. (

      My therapist knows that I don’t cognitively believe the negative core beliefs. That is why there is the dissonance–the gridlock. But, not everyone will experience their trauma in the same way. Not everyone will experience their past invading their present in the same way. There are different kinds of trauma and it manifests so differently for each person. Thank God there are different approaches and interventions for healing. Finding what works is the hard part but a worthwhile effort.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It was very good.

      • 🙂 When I try to talk about this with other people, they glaze over. Finding someone else who thinks hard about this is a pleasure!

        First, let me say that I my previous comment was very simplified. I did not mean to convey that a person needs to just change their mind, or that the process is easy. I find that core beliefs can be tiny or huge, and they can be quite deeply seated. And, even in a person who has experienced little trauma, the limbic system takes over and bypasses conscious cortical decision making processes. I agree with you on that. I agree with you also that severe and/or long-term trauma changes the brain in structural ways.

        There are tons of people who want to just throw a scripture at us and disrespect us if whatever problem we have hasn’t cleared up in a couple weeks. That is shallow foolishness. I made the scriptural reference to encourage you… knowing that you are jewish, and respect scripture.

        Conceptually, I find the easiest way to discover core beliefs that are wrong is when I am able to compare them to something I know is true. I have believed for ages that I am worthless. Yet, I know from scripture and elsewhere that people are valuable. My own effort to change that belief is a long, hard journey that isn’t about just “knowing better”. Still, it /began/ when I made that conscious comparison.

        I want to tell you I was positively THRILLED, when you explained the jewish, biblical concept of the heart. It was absolutely, 100% right on! I piss off a lot of Christians because I have a very high view of Torah, and I think that the scriptures are best interpreted by remembering that it is written by Jews. This *hugely* changed my perception of the New Testament, too — it’s written completely by Jews, after all.

        In that passage in Proverbs, just knowing a little about the way jewish writing is structured helps immensely. The passage is about the mind and understanding changing the way you live your life if you consciously focus on His ways. It has little or nothing to do with emotions/feelings. Emotions are important. God made them. I just think that most Christians use their feelings for things that God gave them and intellect for.

        As I said, I piss off a lot of Christians. It is useful and enjoyable to discuss this with you! Thank you!

        • I re-read that and think a couple things were not clear.

          I agree that you can cognitively know and believe something (your importance and value as a person), and still have a core belief that contradicts that and that defines your immediate, default actions — especially when dealing with triggers. Knowing the truth helps in setting a goal to work toward, and hopefully we can have that sink into our souls to the depth that the lie did. It is hard to overcome.

          One other thing… I don’t like to piss people off. I also don’t like to have to pretend to be something I’m not just to fit into a group. If I discover that the standard, cultural way of understanding scripture isn’t right, I start looking for the right way to understand it. If I find a better way, I share it because it’s exciting and I expect others will be glad to learn about it. I should know better than that, but I share it anyway. Paradigm shifts hurt, but they are so important.

          • Well, I have probably upset my share of people. I think, at this point, I try to slowly introduce ideas (in person, not on my blog). Sometimes people cling to concepts because it’s all they have particularly if that idea is a self-defining worldview. If there is a curiosity around a new idea, then there can be slow progress and an exchange. But, if people are entrenched or invested in being right, then it’s not worth it. But, that’s just my experience and perhaps my personality. The world must have “spitfires”. People who will just put it out there and let it land. That’s actually really important.

  2. Pingback: Deep Programming and Core Beliefs | Out of the Mire

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