I want to talk about negative core beliefs and dissonance–and perhaps a way to challenge them effectively. Bear with me as I get there. I have written a lot about my last two years in therapy with a neuroscientist. I didn’t know initially that he was an official neuroscientist (who taught at the college level) who also happened to be a social worker, but that’s what he was. He specialized in “difficult cases”. I didn’t think of myself as a difficult case per se, but I imagined that my history would qualify me for that label once my full case history was trotted out.
I’ve written before that my most powerful negative core belief is “I am disposable. I am expendable.” It is hardwired. I have processed almost all of my maladaptive core beliefs at this point, but this one is like the final boss in a video game. I can take it on over and over again, and over and over again I lose. It’s not “online” most of the time, but when it’s activated, I fall. I cannot refute it. There is no line of thinking that will stand up to it. No amount of EMDR has defused it. This is why I agreed to continue therapy after my therapist moved. To try to get at this particular core belief.
As I was sharing my frustration and fear about dealing with this with someone close to me, an idea was brought forth. He commented, “You can’t nullify a person, right? That came up for you early on in therapy. Your sense of morality doesn’t allow you to do that. You view all people as significant regardless of past acts. Is this true?”
Well, yes, I do. Frankly, it has made dealing with my parents a pain.
He continued, “Philosophically speaking, would you find it immoral to view another human being as disposable?”
Yes. I would. Humans are not disposable.
He then asked, “So, would it violate your own sense of morality and personal philosophy to view yourself as disposable? To agree with that?”
Why had I not asked myself this before? How had I not seen it from this perspective? I do not believe that I can have a double standard. There are not two sets of rules in the universe. If it is true for others, then it must be true for me. That is one aspect of integrity. How I view and treat other people must also apply to myself. If I view other people as having inherent worth and in no way disposable, then how could I view myself in an opposite way?
This is where the arguments start. This is what I would like anyone who has a profound struggle with a deeply embedded negative core belief to take note of. Challenging a core belief doesn’t change it. You must think of this like a boxing match. Once you find a statement or a strong sense within yourself that you can hold onto that matches the strength of your negative core belief–that matches its energy, then you can throw the first punch. Like this:
What will happen next? Heisenberg, your profoundly negative, most likely biologically embedded core belief, will get up and come at you with evidence. That is exactly what mine does. Heisenberg is cold, mean, and extremely smart. He uses evidence from my past to prove why I am disposable, and the case is airtight. And, the more you listen, the worse you feel. The more monstrous that core belief becomes. As if it takes on a life of its own until he’s doing this:
Those feelings that you have at this moment are defined as “dissonance”. Why? They are the gap between what you are starting to know is true about yourself or situation and what you feel is true about them. This gap can be shallow or a deep abyss. This is why emotional dissonance can be so dangerous and hard to manage. This is where the spin-outs and target behaviors can happen. I typically freeze and can’t reach out. Emotional eating, cutting, high-risk behaviors like gambling, high-risk sex, substance abuse and emotional dysregulation are all common manifestations of falling into this gap.
Now, a negative core belief doesn’t sound that bad on paper. Why would someone react in such an extreme way? It is a matter of what that core belief represents and triggers. In my case, my negative core belief centering on expendability was literal. I was trafficked. I had a literal price tag put on me and was sent to an auction. Men actually bid on me. It was the most dehumanizing experience that I could never have imagined as an 18 year-old. I was put through experience upon experience meant to rob me of a sense of identity so that I would come to experience my own person as an object void of self. That is the purpose of the “breaking in” process. Once you are no longer a person, you are compliant. The problem for me in all of this was that I fought the process in captivity and left that environment with a sense of self albeit a very traumatized, compromised one. Years later, when there is a trigger, the past becomes present, and I am faced with this old but very effective lie. It is biologically embedded with the actual trauma. This is the neurology of trauma and beliefs acquired with trauma. This is why we suffer so much when we flashback–even with something as seemingly benign as a negative core belief.
Part of battling it out in the therapeutic process is identifying that which you solidly believe to be true with someone who can parse your language. When someone gets to know you, they can often help you discover your values and truths–the truths that you take for granted. This can prove to be quite useful when you can’t see what’s true anymore staring up from the bottom of your dissonant abyss.
What is a better strategy? Don’t fall into the abyss. Well, that’s brilliant. How do we avoid that? Go back to that moment when Heisenberg is giving you the finger. In the past, I didn’t have anything that could adequately refute the case he made against me. I would fold every time and free fall. Now? I still feel the onset of panic when that profoundly negative belief comes online, but I honestly know that it cannot be true because it does not line up with any of my beliefs about humanity. How could it be true? Once I sat with that, I let it go further. If I’m not expendable or disposable but a person treated me as if I were, then who in that situation had acted badly? Me or the other person? Clearly, the other person. This is an easy conclusion, but it is a very difficult idea to internalize when you grow up under gaslighting conditions or presently experience them:
“We treat you like this because you are bad.”
The truth is this:
“We treat you like this because we are bad.”
Change one word in that statement and the meaning is completely different. Gaslighting is very common: “You are the problem which is why we hurt you. You are the problem which is why you were sexually abused. You are the problem which is why X happened to you.” What perpetrator is ever going to admit, “I have the problem which is why I hurt you”? Nary a one most likely.
So, there you are staring down Heisenberg. He’s coming at you with your terrible belief, triggered by something that you can’t control like a phone call from that person, something a person said to you, a feeling you had when something happened that made the past present in an instant. It could be anything. When this experience is beginning to crescendo, do not try to change how you feel. Do not try to change Heisenberg. He never changes. Bring in your own strength–your own hitter. I figured this out because I realized that some of our very malignant core beliefs do not belong to us. They originated in our trauma and are not natural to our personalities or nature. We may have held onto them because they helped us navigate extreme and painful circumstances, but they no longer help us. They hinder us. This is the definition of ‘maladaptive’.
This is what a solid refute will do to your Heisenberg:
Your challenge will become the wall to your Heisenberg. Heisenberg does not stop showing up when stress shows up. Your neural connections have created a fantastic pathway for him. The more you use your challenge against him, however, the more you weaken his pathway until there are potholes in your neural connections. It will look something like this:
After a few months of challenging Heisenberg with the same new thought that might be one of your beliefs: “I can’t be disposable because it violates my own personal sense of morality,” my personal Heisenberg is starting to do this:
He leaves before anything serious starts.
In my mind, I thought for years that dealing with negative core beliefs was all about changing them, but then I realized that a negative core belief was a lot like Heisenberg of “Breaking Bad”. Heisenberg, much like Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde, was an evil alter ego. A negative core belief is a negative alter ego of a functional, adaptive thought. It’s a thought gone rogue. It served a purpose, but its present existence has long outlived its original purpose. Now it just keeps on comin’ because that’s what it does. Like a cancer.
I can try to kill Heisenberg or strengthen my other thoughts in order to overcome him. Where is the effort better spent?
So, the key here is finding the right challenge. That is the most important part of the process in taking down a malignant core belief and arguably the most difficult. I would assert, however, that the prior work done in therapy, which included EMDR, laid the foundation for present insight.
The other strategy I have used in the past and model in this post is externalizing and naming a toxic feeling in order to separate it from yourself and your identity. I have identified my most feared maladaptive core belief as “Heisenberg” in order to differentiate every idea associated with it from myself and my identity. This draws a distinct line between me, my own thoughts, my hopes for my present and future, and what I would like to think about. This is highly effective for dealing with negative emotions.
For anyone experiencing the abysmal free fall or struggling with repetitive negative thoughts rooted in malignant core beliefs, there are strategic ways to deal with them and eventually defeat them. It takes time and consistency, but it is possible.