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Pesky negative beliefs

Pesky negative beliefs

This is the third blog in a little series looking at the three ‘compass points’ that we work from when we’re exploring and then processing trauma.  As a quick recap, we’re talking about thoughts (this is more about the meaning or beliefs we have about ourselves, other people or the world around us as a result of certain events or experiences), physical sensations and feelings (or emotions).  This week I’m looking at the way that our busy brains work to create all the complex thoughts that can trip us up when they become entrenched negative core beliefs.

I think that conceptually it’s important to stress that the way that I work from a somatic psychotherapeutic sense comes from an appreciation that our nervous system, rather than our brain, runs the show that is our lives.  I explain a bit more about the nervous system in this blog (HERE) but to quickly summarise, our complex central nervous system (CNS) is continually receiving messages from the people, environment and the world around us.  These nervous system signals are first received by our most ancient part of our brain stem that is responsible for our flight/flight, or safety system, commonly known as our emotion-centre of the brain (amygdala). Only after that does our thinking part of the brain – prefrontal cortex (PFC) – come online and start to give us objective analysis, thoughts or considerations about the situation we are experiencing.  I like to explain that essentially our thinking brain is responsible for making sense of the feelings and sensations that our nervous system is experiencing, but that if functions a little bit like an algorithm and can only give us an explanation, or story, based on our own particular set of experiences in life.  And this is where things can get a little bit funky.

Let me go a bit to how we have made sense this in the psychology-world: back in 1979 Aaron Beck (the ‘father’ of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)) identified that there were three levels of cognition (thought):

  1. Negative core beliefs
  2. Dysfunctional assumptions
  3. Negative automatic thoughts

He expressed that our negative automatic thoughts were like the daily representations of our negative core beliefs.  We know that our core beliefs are formed early in our lives and are shaped by our upbringing and early experiences.  They emerge as a mechanism to make sense of our formative experiences, but can become life limiting, or even harmful later in our lives. (Osmo et al., 2018) Negative core beliefs are usually absolute statements that might sound like:

  • “I am…” (bad, stupid, not good enough, unworthy, undeserving, unlovable)
  • “People are…” (bad, not to be trusted, unkind, manipulative, unsafe)
  • “The world is…” (bad, hostile, only going to hurt me, unsafe)

Negative core beliefs & EMDR:

As you can see, negative beliefs are a universal experience – most of us can identify at least one negative core belief that has shaped our lives, and perhaps continues to challenge us.  Whichever approach to therapy you may work with, there will always be attention given to the negative beliefs that you have, however different sorts of therapy will approach it in different ways.  With EMDR we understand that with every traumatic or painful memory comes a set of emotions, bodily sensations, and negative beliefs that we still feel and believe today, and that often it’s the negative beliefs that can be most disruptive and life-limiting.

We consider that negative beliefs fall into three broad categories:

  1. Personal defectiveness (I am bad, I am not good enough, I am stupid, I deserve to be sad)
  2. Lack of safety (I cannot be trusted, I am in danger, I cannot trust anyone, I cannot keep myself safe)
  3. Lack of choices (I am not in control, I am powerless / helpless, I am weak, I am a failure)

Here’s a great little introduction / summary video to help you identify your own negative beliefs within an EMDR framework (HERE).



If you’d like to explore your negative beliefs and would like a safe space to talk about how they’re affecting your life, please get in touch with us: / / 03 9077 8194.


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