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Automatic Thoughts and Core Beliefs: What Are They, and What Is the Difference Between Them?

Have you ever wondered where our thoughts and behaviours come from? Why do we have different thoughts about the same situation or act differently under similar circumstances? It’s because we have a different set of core beliefs. But what are core beliefs, and what is the difference between them and our automatic thoughts? 

Two and a half years after my accident, I had an experience where negative thoughts started entering my mind during my Pilates class as I struggled with one of the exercises due to pain. Despite comforting myself, telling myself that I am not a failure, my mind took me to the time when I was emotionally abused and called names. I thought this chapter had been long closed. However, those thoughts started to reappear after my accident which unfortunately opened Pandora’s box.

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Read also, ‘What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disoreder? My Experiences

Layers of cognition

I automatically travelled back in time to my childhood. This isn’t surprising, as it has been evidenced that our beliefs about ourselves, others and the world stem from our childhood. I recently wrote about this in a guest post on another blog, where I shared that as children, we bond with those around us, our caregivers. Depending on the environment you grow up in, you either develop trust and security and learn that it is good to help others or alternatively that people hurt you. Our experiences shape our beliefs, and in the course of life, we see evidence that reinforces our beliefs. And these influence the generation of our automatic thoughts, which impact our moods and behaviour. I explain this process in a video on TikTok and IG.

According to the cognitive behavioural model, there are three layers of thoughts. The outer layer, which is most accessible to us, represents our automatic thoughts. Below this, our intermediate beliefs control our attitudes and ‘rules’ before finally, our deep-rooted core beliefs dictate how we see ourselves, others and the world as a whole. All three layers are connected, and our automatic thoughts are often based on our intermediate and core beliefs. I explain how it works in a video on TikTok or IG. Whilst any of these layers can be distorted, our core beliefs are the hardest to access, and hence the hardest to challenge. However, working on one layer can benefit the others.

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Read also ‘How to Overcome Fears? Dealing With PTSD and Anxiety

Automatic thoughts, intermediate and core beliefs

So what are they, and what is the difference between our automatic thoughts and core beliefs?

Automatic thoughts

Our mind is always on the go. And our automatic thoughts are the thoughts that constantly pop into our heads throughout the day. Our automatic thoughts arise in response to various situations and will be based on the beliefs we hold about ourselves, others and the wider world. They are the words we tell ourselves, the images we see and the memories we have. They may be good or bad, distorted, exaggerated or even irrational; we might not be even aware of them, but they influence our emotions. Subsequently, negative types of thoughts are linked to negative moods. 

My automatic thoughts during the Pilates class were that ‘I can’t do anything,’ and ‘I can never do anything properly’. Obviously, they were irrational. However, being unable to perform to the standard I was before my accident, my self-talk turned negative. Most of us experience negative thoughts on occasion. However, if these negative thoughts are constant, reaching out for help either through your doctor or via organisations such as Samaritans or Mind UK is vital.

Intermediate beliefs / Underlying rules and assumptions

Intermediate beliefs are the rules and assumptions that guide our lives, behaviour and emotional reactions. They are beneath our awareness. We develop these by internalising the messages we receive from those we interact with and the world around us. 

The underlying rules and assumptions are those ‘I should / shouldn’t…’, ‘I must / mustn’t…’ or ‘If I / someone…, then…’ statements. In my case, my thinking was ‘If I can’t do the exercise, then it means I am weak.’

Perhaps you have some rules too. ‘I must take care of everyone’, ‘I must never ask for help,’ or ‘I should always be prepared,’ and ‘I should be able to look after myself’, or maybe ‘If they cared about me, then they’d ask how I was doing’, and ‘If I am always nice to others, then they will like me’. 

It’s crucial to pay attention to our rules and assumptions and choose the good, flexible ones. Unhelpful rules can be rigid, often unrealistic, and make us feel bad about ourselves.

Core beliefs

Core beliefs are deep-seated, fundamental beliefs about oneself, others, and the world. They are mostly formed early in life and are often ingrained and resistant to change. Our beliefs are imposed on us, either directly or directly or indirectly, by our family, friends, teachers and society as a whole. Each experience, good or bad, helps to determine how we think, feel, and relate to others. They shape how we interpret and perceive situations, make choices and navigate the world. Our automatic thoughts are then in turn influenced by our core beliefs.

Any thought about ourselves, others or the world can either be the result of a core belief or simply just a momentary thought not going any deeper. To identify this ask yourself, ‘Is what I’m thinking a response to a specific situation, or do I really believe what I am telling myself?’ 

Our negative core beliefs about ourselves can be ‘I am stupid’, ‘I am weak’, ‘I am unlovable/unlikeable’, or ‘I am worthless.’ Whereas our negative core beliefs about others may be ‘People will always let you down’, or ‘It’s not safe to trust people,’ and when it comes to life or the world in general they may be along the lines of ‘The world is a dangerous place,’ and ‘Life is too hard.’   

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Read also ‘PTSD and Anxiety – Anxiety Hacks Podcast

Difference between automatic thoughts and core beliefs

We established that the main difference between our automatic thoughts and core beliefs is their accessibility, depth and persistence. Our automatic thoughts are the immediate, surface-level reactions to situations. Our core beliefs are the deeply ingrained, foundational beliefs that influence the generation of these automatic thoughts. 

Identifying our automatic negative thoughts and core beliefs is critical so we can challenge and change them. There are several approaches to help identify our core beliefs. When discussing my experience in the Pilates class with my psychologist she used the Downward arrow technique. You can read about this technique in my blog post here. And once you have uncovered your beliefs, you can start working on changing them.

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Read also ‘Downward Arrow: Identify and Understand Your Core Beliefs

Get the keys to your healing

If you are going through a hard time and feel that a bit of encouragement and support is what you might need right now, feel free to download my free e-book 7 Keys To Self-Healing, A Trauma Survivor’s Guide. It will equip you with knowledge and tools to assist you on your healing journey, help you care for yourself, and feel more in control. Download your free e-book here

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Thank you so much for reading, and until the next blog post,

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4 thoughts on “Automatic Thoughts and Core Beliefs: What Are They, and What Is the Difference Between Them?”

  1. This is such a well written and thought provoking post. Sometimes my automatic pessimism tends to get in the way but I am always working on challenging these kind of thoughts with more positive and less catastrophic ones. I find that when I am aware of when they occur I am able to deal with them more.

  2. Nicely done! Great information. I study early childhood and have been learning about this in newborns and young kids. I look forward to your next post!

  3. This is such a great resource. It’s so easy to confuse automatic thoughts with core beliefs and feel guilty when they aren’t aligned. Thank you for sharing!

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