Why We Tend Not to Challenge Our Core Beliefs about the World and Ourselves

When I was an undergraduate student, my ancient philosophy professor told us: Don’t ever become satisfied; otherwise, you’ll become complacent. Since I respected, and even admired, him, I didn’t think to examine the validity of his comment.; I just knew, or so I believed, that it was true.

When my clients begin treatment, they tend to find it difficult to live with the conflicts of cognition. On the one hand, the world is trying to tell them how smart and attractive and wonderful they are, yet on the other, they can’t square that with how they conceive of themselves. If their core beliefs are true, which they take for granted, then these new data points must be explained in ways that fit what they think they already know.

So, when the CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) work begins, we begin to look for evidence for and against new beliefs. How do I know that this person really finds me attractive? Well, they approached you and gave you an unprompted compliment. What if they just wanted to sleep with me? Does anyone ever want to sleep with someone they find unattractive? And what about what others have said? Are all of them just being nice? Didn’t some of them ask you out and present what seemed like genuine romantic interest? In some sense, there’s a leap of faith here because you can’t know for certain that people aren’t lying to you, but (this is important to recall) you can assess the likelihood that they are. If someone were to tell you that you’re the most beautiful girl in the world, unless you’ve heard this on numerous occasions, chances are that they’re exaggerating. But if you’re told you’re beautiful, and you’ve heard it on other occasions, then chances are that you are that attractive.

However, what happens when that belief doesn’t fit in your schema, or mental map of the world (with yourself included)? That’s why clients often get stuck in therapy and why CBT has the erroneous reputation of not going deep enough. When core beliefs clash with incoming evidence, we tend to favor the former, even telling ourselves that even though we can’t explain why the evidence against them is wrong, we just know that it is. The tension between the two becomes so unbearable that, sometimes, people end treatment. What is it about those core beliefs that makes us feel so certain about them? Why are we so stubborn and so afraid of exploring them?

Returning to the example noted above: I accepted my professor’s statement uncritically because he was infallible, a brilliant authority figure whom I knew couldn’t possibly err. When I told my therapist that I couldn’t allow myself to experience joy because I’d inevitably falter, she wondered why my thinking was so black and white. So, I told her that this genius imparted that jewel to me one day, noting that I’ve since lived my life by his credo. She asked if the payoff was worth it, and my response was indicative of my naive mind. I said, “I never actually thought about it too deeply.” And this is what so many of clients don’t do with respect to the beliefs implanted in them in childhood. Simply, they continue to take them at face value, thinking: Why would my mother lie to me? Wasn’t she just attempting to protect me? By telling me that I wasn’t pretty enough or smart enough, didn’t she want to make sure that I didn’t get my hopes up? What kind of parent would sadistically lie to their child? Is that even possible?

Finally, in understanding a parent’s behavioral patterns (and this isn’t limited to parents, as authority figures of all kinds are often unchallenged in childhood), the traumatized individual is able to reach closer to a harmonious understanding of themselves and the world, wherein the evidence fits with new core beliefs. For some, a parent’s narcissism is difficult to swallow, so they revert back to excusing their actions or worse, blaming themselves. For these people, it helps them to understand how narcissism is made; this way, they can both empathize with, and still allow themselves to feel anger toward, that parent. But the important takeaways, I hope, are the need to challenge authority figures and for the internal freedom to do so. I wouldn’t allow myself to challenge my professor’s beliefs because he was my guide. Essentially, I was afraid of acknowledging his fallibility, as I believed that I needed him to show me the light, in the same way that so many adults still think that they need their parents to continue to mentor them.

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