Challenging Unhelpful Thinking Styles & Core Beliefs Featured

"If you're pretty crazy then you're in good company because the human race as a whole is out of its goddam head." Albert Ellis - founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and pioneer in the development of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).

This article on challenging core beliefs fits in our Depression series. You can read our related articles The Psychology of Depression and Psychotherapy for Depression by clicking on the links.

By way of review, look at the diagram below regarding the differences in the roles both sides of our brain play. When the right hemisphere is more active it floods us with negative thinking , bad memories and uncomfortable emotions.

Left BrainPositive EmotionsOutwardly focussedApproaches the worldLanguage specialityAnalyticalDetailsProcesses learned experiences

In order to get the left side of our brain more active to balance things up a bit, we can actively and consciously engage in cognitive challenging or restructuring. The following strategy forces a sub-conscious thought into our working memory where it is 'worked with' and processed to a deep level to then be transferred into our long term storage to be accessed at a later date. The idea being, we want to make more balanced, rational and helpful thoughts our go-to automatic belief systems through which we view and interact with the world around us. Read on to learn how.

What is a Core Belief?

Core beliefs (also called schemas) are thinking patterns that act as templates that we can use to help us perceive and interpret our experiences in life. We have lovely, healthy balanced ones, we have neutral ones, and we all also have maladaptive, distorted ones. The latter are the ones that sometimes cause us problems in our lives and they're the ones we focus on in therapy because, well, they cause us the problems!

The ABC Model.

The ABC Model underpins all cognitive therapies. You can read much more about it in our article Thinking Tools 101 and at the Centre for Clinical Interventions website (details below), but for now, it's enough to know the following.

A = Activating Event
B = Belief
C = Consequence (feelings/emotions)

Examples of Unhelpful Thoughts and Core Beliefs in Depression:
  • I am a failure, anything I do or try will ultimately fail.
  • I'm hopeless and worthless.
  • I'm unlovable.
  • People will be better off without me in their life.
  • Life is too hard and it will never get better.
  • Nothing good ever happens to me.
  • I'm not good enough/smart enough/attractive enough/funny enough
Why do we need to challenge our unhelpful thoughts and beliefs?

Because they make us feel more discomfort than we need to and they often impact on how we live our life. They can make us avoid situations that might ultimately be good for us, meaning that we miss out of opportunities. Worse still, it can mean that we miss out on life.

Unhelpful thinking can also get in the way of our relationships with others, making us feel and act in a hurt or defensive way, leading to withdrawal or other unhelpful behaviours.

Sometimes, instead of identifying and working on our core issues, we seek short-term solutions to feel better and sometimes those solutions can cause problems of their own. For example, drinking alcohol to block our pain or distract from our problems, or to 'take the edge off' and relax. It's good in the short-term, but it never really solves the problem.

So, one thing we can do to start making some permanent changes in our brains, is to challenge our faulty thinking - figure it out, challenge it, change it. It'll definitely help make you feel better and get back into your life.

How to Challenge Your Unhelpful Thinking:

Step One:

Be sure of your ABCs. Often we need to work backwards because many of our unhelpful thoughts and core beliefs are very old and familiar and occur automatically, often subconsciously. This means that we'll often feel the feeling (C) first.

So, what are the uncomfortable emotions and feelings you've been having lately that you'd like to improve or change? Some common feelings that bring people into the clinic include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, fear, anxiety, anger and irritability, to name but a few.

From there, it's important to reflect on which types situations (A) trigger your unhelpful thoughts and beliefs resulting in those uncomfortable emotions (C).

Once you're aware of the kinds of situations, perhaps even the types of people you are around when these feelings often occur, you're in a better position to be able to hypothesise about the kinds of thoughts you might have in such situations. You know yourself well, and while it often takes some time to analyse and interpret our thoughts, we need to be aware of the actual core negative belief or fear before we can begin challenging it.

For example, a young client came to me recently, upset at overhearing a peer speak negatively about something my client was doing. My client was still upset several days later and missed a day of school straight after the event.

We began with her emotions (C) and linked those to the situation (A) in order to figure out the kinds of thoughts my client had at the time - what had she told herself about the situation (B).

Why me?
What did I ever do to her?
Why doesn't she like me?
What if the person she said it to, doesn't like me now?

Knowing that my client experiences social anxiety, I realised I had to help her dig a little bit deeper to get to the core of the issue. I used questions such as, "and what would be the worst thing that could happen if those two people don't like you?", "and what would be the worst thing about that?", until she was able to identify that her core belief/fear was that nobody likes me and one day I'll turn up to school and have no friends.

You can see how one situation, involving one person making a negative comment about a singular behaviour, managed to turn into a catastrophic scenario in my client's mind where she was unable to face anyone at school the following day, impacting on her education.

To recap Step One - be clear about your ABCs!

Step Two - The Challenging Questions

Please note, there are many ways to challenge an unhelpful thought and I'll include a resource list at the end of this article, but here are some of my favourite challenging questions. The point of this part of the exercise is to take the irrational/unhelpful belief and highlight just how irrational or illogical it is.

As an example to highlight how to challenge an unhelpful thought, we'll use one of the examples from above: I am a failure, anything I do or try will ultimately fail.

  • What is your evidence for the thought?
    (Evidence must be factual! Not other unhelpful thoughts or feelings)

I didn't succeed at getting the job I interviewed for and the roast I made for dinner last night was overcooked.

  • What is your evidence against the thought?

I've never actually been out of a job. Most nights the dinner that I make turns out well. I have many friends who all tell me that I am good at the things I do.

  • Is this thought a habit or a fact?
    (Our automatic thoughts are so familiar, we often get tricked into thinking they are facts but this is usually not the case!)

I've been telling myself for a long time that I'm hopeless and a failure and there's all this evidence that I don't fail at EVERYTHING, so it must be a habit.

  • Is it taking into consideration all the parts of the story or is it just focused on one aspect?
    (Often we'll be focussed on the one little negative aspect of a story because it hurts, but what would happen if we also included all of the positive and neutral aspects to the story too, to balance things out?)

I'm focused on just the one job I missed out on and not the last five that I actually got.

  • Is the thought black and white?
    (When you use words like 'always', 'never', 'everyone', 'noone' etc. your thought is likely to be an All or Nothing/Black & White kind of thought. This is never good!)

My thought is black and white because I'm telling myself that I fail at EVERYTHING.

  • Is it extreme or exaggerated in any way?


  • Is the source of this thought dependable?
    (Often the source of our thoughts is fear or another emotion, even low self-esteem or confidence. These are never reliable sources!)

My thought is driven by my depression and my emotions are never reliable sources of information because they are biased.

  • Is the thought confusing something that is possible with something that is probable?
    (We totally do this. All. The. Time. So stop it!)

Yes, it's possible that I will fail some things, but not most of the time. My brain is acting like I will fail most of the time when that is not true.

  • Is the feeling based on feelings or facts?
    (If you've gotten to this stage in challenging your thought, there's no way your thought is a fact...)


  • What's the worst thing that could happen in this scenario?

That I will fail at everything I try.

  • What's the best thing that could happen in this scenario?

That I will succeed at most things I try.

  • What's the most likely thing that will happen?
    (Usually we find that the Best and Most Likely case scenarios are EXACTLY the same! Who'd have thought that could be true?)

That I will succeed at most of the things and try and fail at some things as well.

  • What benefits does this thought provide?
    (Usually there are none...at this point, clients usually try to tell me that the thought drives them to strive for great things, but if they're honest with themselves, they can usually see that it only adds unnecessary pressure.)

None that are helpful.

  • What are the disadvantages to listening to this thought?
    (Usually there are heaps... they can be emotional discomfort, practical implications, anything that gets in the way of you living your value driven life really...)

It makes me feel really disappointed, sad and depressed. It makes me doubt myself and feel hopeless about my future. It makes me want to give up and not try to achieve anything. It makes me want to avoid my friends and family, making me feel even lonelier and more hopeless than ever.

Step Three:

Identify which Unhelpful Thinking Style your thought belongs to. The entire point of Step Three is to further highlight that your thought is an UNHELPFUL one. Red Flag anyone?

  • Is it Jumping to any Conclusions?
  • Are there any Shoulds or Musts in your thought?
  • Is it Oversimplifying or Overgeneralising?
  • Are you attempting to be a Mind Reader?
  • Is it using Emotional Reasoning?
  • Are you Catastophising?

If you answered 'YES' to any of these, then your thought is definitely NOT one for you to be spending anytime with much less listening to!

You can read more about Unhelpful Thinking Styles on the Centre for Clinical Interventions website.

Step Four:

Generate an alternative, balanced, helpful thought/belief about the situation.

For example, if the core belief is "I am a failure, anything I do or try will ultimately fail" a more balanced alternative might be "At times I will fail at the things I try, but I will also succeed a lot of the time" and "Life is about learning from our failures and it's normal to have both failures and successes in life."

Step Five:

Check in with the original thought. Do you still believe it as much as you did? It's likely that you won't. You might be more in favour of your new alternative belief by this stage.

Step Six:

Check in with any changes in your feelings and emotions and notice the positive changes. Feeling better will motivate you in the future to consciously manage your thinking in order to reduce emotional discomfort.

Step Seven:

Notice the differences in your choices about how to act and what you are able to do now with your new thought/belief in place. You'll probably find you're more willing to approach life than avoid it which will improve your overall mood and quality of life.

Thank you for reading our article on cognitive challenging, we hope you've found it useful. If you have any comments or questions, be sure to contact us. Stay tuned for our upcoming articles on post-natal depression and grief and loss. x

Resource List:

Change Your Thinking. A book by Sarah Edeman. ABC Books.
Centre for Clinical Interventions - www. cci.health.wa.gov.au

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