identify core beliefs

Identify and Understand Your Core Beliefs: The Downward Arrow Technique

Today, I will share my experience about how I uncovered my core belief during my therapy whilst utilising the Downward Arrow technique with my EMDR psychotherapist. This is a great technique that can help you identify your negative core beliefs regardless of whether you are actually undergoing therapy or not. It can be a great self-help tool for anyone wanting to change their negative thinking and beliefs.

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

What are core beliefs?

Our thoughts, behaviour, and feelings are all connected, and at the centre of this cognitive triangle are our core beliefs. Core beliefs are the deepest layer of cognition and, hence, the hardest to access. They are connected with the other two layers, the intermediate beliefs / underlying rules and assumptions, and our automatic thoughts. You can read all about the layers of cognition in my previous post.  

We all have core beliefs which cover ourselves, others, and the world around us. They were most likely shaped in childhood and reverberated throughout your life. In childhood, we form our beliefs based on what others say or on our experiences with others. They become so deeply ingrained into us that we might not even be aware of them. And we form our rules and assumptions, what we should / shouldn’t do, based on our beliefs. To change our negative thoughts, we need to identify our core beliefs. I explain it more in my video on TikTok and IG.

Negative core beliefs examples about ourselves, others and the world on the Journeyofsmiley blog

Read also ‘What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? My Experience

Our negative automatic thoughts

In my previous post, I shared how my negative automatic thoughts entered my mind during a Pilates class about 2.5 years after my accident when I was struggling with an exercise due to pain. My automatic negative thoughts during that Pilates class were that ‘I can’t do anything,’ and ‘I can never do anything properly,’ because I couldn’t perform at the level I was used to before the accident.

When I got home I spoke to my hubby, who tried to reassure me that not being able to do something doesn’t make me a failure or stupid and that I can try again next time. After all, I’m still recovering from my accident, and one day I’ll be able to do it. I just need to practice more. But even if that does transpire to be the case, it doesn’t make me a failure, as I can do things that others can’t. We can all do different things, and no one can do everything.

However, despite my husband’s reassurance and me telling myself that I was not a failure, when I went to therapy this experience was something that we really honed in on and discussed at great lengths. This was because it wasn’t just the thought that I couldn’t do anything that felt so overwhelming, but also the feelings that came with this whole experience. Laid on the Pilates mat that morning, negative thoughts entered my mind. And although I tried to defend myself, telling myself I was not a failure, it was too late. My mind took me to the time when I was emotionally abused and called names. While I thought this chapter had been closed a long time ago, those thoughts started to reappear after my accident which opened Pandora’s box

How to spot negative core beliefs? Examples of how to identify negative core beliefs on the Journeyofsmiley blog

Read also ‘PTSD and Anxiety – Anxiety Hacks Podcast

Downward Arrow technique

No wonder then that whilst discussing the experience during therapy, I was automatically transported back to my childhood. I felt like I was a little child again. And I knew where the roots of this experience lay as soon as the psychologist started to ask me questions. The psychologist was using the Downward Arrow technique. 

The Downward Arrow technique is a therapeutic method developed by David Burns in 1990 to access our core beliefs. This technique is often used in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It helps trace our thoughts back to the deep-rooted beliefs that shape our perceptions and reactions. The Downward Arrow technique can be also used in EMDR therapy. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a psychotherapy treatment developed by Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist and educator. It is a recognised therapy for treating trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which I am grateful to have undergone. 

light pink background with the title Symptoms of Trauma in the middle is a word trauma and around them are negative symptoms of trauma on the Journeyofsmiley blog

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

Downward arrow in EMDR

When using the Downward Arrow technique in EMDR, the psychologist will direct questions towards us with the aim of drilling back into our thought process in order to identify our core beliefs. These will most likely be tied to distressing and trauma-causing experiences in our lives. The questions in EMDR therapy don’t just focus on our emotions, instead, they also explore the physical feelings and sensations we experience in our body as a result of that core belief. This is consistent with trauma research which has demonstrated that trauma reshapes not just our brain, but also our body. You can read more about this in this New York Times bestseller The Body Keeps The Score, written by the author, psychiatrist, researcher and educator Bessel van der Kolk.

With my psychologist, we were looking at my experience in Pilates class, which was undoubtedly very distressing for me. The worst part of the experience was that I actually started believing the voice in my head which was repeatedly screaming at me that ‘I can’t do anything.’ The psychologist then took a whiteboard and wrote down questions as she asked me, “What does your thought ‘I can’t do anything’ say about you?” I looked at her saying, ” That I can’t do anything properly,” as this was another memory from the experience. “And if that’s true, what does this say about you?” she asked, before continuing to repeat the question until we reached the point where we couldn’t go any deeper. And that was the point when we uncovered my core belief. 

Downward arrow technique explained with an example of how to identify negative core beliefs on the Journeyofsmiley blog

Identify and understand your core beliefs to change them

If you struggle to find the answer to the question of my psychologist, then try questions such as, ‘If that were to happen, what does it mean?’ or ‘Why does that bother me?’ You can test yourself in different situations and see if you will come up with the same or similar core belief. You can also ask yourself questions related to others and the wider world, such as ‘What does it say about them / the world?’ You can check out my video on TikTok or IG for a demonstration. It is important to identify and understand our core beliefs to change them. Negative core beliefs can be helpless, such as ‘I am helpless/weak / a failure…’, unlovable, such as ‘I am unlovable/unwanted or rejected/abandoned’ and worthless, such as ‘I am worthless/bad or I don’t deserve to live.’

Our negative core beliefs are like a thread, weaved through our trauma experiences, with memories stitched deeply down the seam. However, finding the thread and unpicking the stitches will bring us to the knot at the end. Once untied, we can pull the thread through, and by pulling it out, we let the memories go.   

‘Is this even possible?’ you may ask. Can we really change the negative core beliefs that are so deeply ingrained in us? You can find the answers to your questions in my next blog. So, if you have negative thoughts and beliefs you would like to change, don’t miss my next blog post.  

Pink background with an inspirational quote about our negative core beliefs, trauma and unwanted memories by Katy Parker on Journeyofsmiley blog

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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Download your free e-book here

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

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9 thoughts on “Identify and Understand Your Core Beliefs: The Downward Arrow Technique”

  1. While reading through this text it seems to me like you covered mostly thoughts. And thoughts are not beliefs. Thoughts can evolve into ideas which we can call beliefs. For me, beliefs are related to our religion, to some higher social idea social or purpose.

    1. Beliefs are convictions which are hold to be true, they can be about ourselves, others ot the world. They don’t have to be about religion, society or culture. But it looks like you’re writing about beliefs connecting to religion, or cultural beliefs, whilst this post is looking at our core beliefs as the deepest layer of cognition. Beliefs refer to “fundamental representation of imaginative and emotional content that link an individual’s prior experience with his/her future behaviour” (Seitz, 2022). You can find out more about core beliefs and our automatic thoughts and the difference between them in my previous post ‘Automatic Thoughts and Core Beliefs: What Are They, and What Is the Difference Between Them?’ I hope it will help.

  2. sad that so much rudeness concerning us about us is caused by ourselves. Many core concepts began with us complaining and eventually we started to believ

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