Core beliefs are strongly held and highly stable beliefs that exert a powerful influence over thoughts and feelings. They influence the way in which incoming information is perceived, attended to and interpreted, and are very difficult to change.

The terms ‘core beliefs’ and ‘schemas’ are generally used interchangeably by Cognitive Therapists, and they are concerned with beliefs that are maladaptive or very unhelpful to the person.

Maladaptive or dysfunctional schemas are enduring, unconditional, negative beliefs about oneself, others, and the world that organise one’s experiences and subsequent behaviours. These schemas are very broad, pervasive themes that develop early in life. They are elaborated in adolescence, reinforced through repetitive experiences, and perpetuated into adulthood primarily through relational patterns. They are deeply entrenched, central to self, self-perpetuating, and difficult to change (Ball, 2007; p118; Riso & McBride, 2007; p5&7).

Leahy (2003) talks about schemas in terms of ‘underlying maladaptive assumptions’ or rules that are highly rigid, over inclusive, or impossible to attain (p7).

Maladaptive schemas are self-perpetuating because they strongly affect selective attention and memory. The person is more likely to detect, interpret or recall information that is consistent with the schema. Contradictory information is generally ignored or not perceived (Leahy, 2003; p8). 

Cognitive therapists often formulate schemas in terms of ‘I am’, ‘If / then’ and ‘I must’ statements. Examples of schemas commonly problematic for young people with emotional and behavioural problems include: ‘I am unlovable’, ‘I am a troublemaker’, ‘I am never going to succeed at anything’, ‘If I don’t show aggression first, then they will walk all over me’, ‘If I had been well behaved, then my mother would not have had a breakdown’, ‘If I don’t go along with whatever my friends do then they will abandon me and I’ll be lonely’, ‘I must get the approval of everyone to be worthwhile’.

The process of discovering or describing underlying schemas is challenging because schemas are not readily accessible to conscious thought (McBride, Farvolden, & Swallow, 2007; p14). 

Many people are unaware of fears that may sit beneath negative automatic thoughts.

According to cognitive theory, the biases of information processing due to dysfunctional schemas give rise to the Negative Automatic Thoughts and unhelpful thinking styles that can be readily observed. Hence, automatic thoughts provide important clues to schemas.

Questioning the young person about the Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviours (TFBs) that arise in response to emotionally charged events, and the meanings they attribute to events and their responses, is the main strategy available to reveal schemas (McBride, Farvolden & Swallow, 2007; p15).

This can be done in the style of supportive debriefing aimed at reducing painful feelings, ensuring short and medium term safety, and helping the young person to learn from the experience.

‘Guided Discovery’ is the term that Cognitive Therapists often use to refer to the process of asking skilful questions aimed as revealing core beliefs.

Any number of questions can be asked to help stimulate awareness and begin to explore core beliefs that underpin unhelpful thinking.

Types of questions that can be asked when a young person expresses a Negative Automatic Thought include: ‘Where does that idea come from?’; ‘Hey, that doesn’t seem right to me, why do you think that?’; ‘That seems to suggest you think XXX. Is that what you believe?’.

Various exercises and tools have been developed to assist clients to explore core beliefs underpinning unhelpful thinking.

The ‘Downward Arrow’ or the ‘Vertical Descent Exercise’ (Leahy, 2003; p20-22) is a commonly used technique for revealing core beliefs or schemas. It involves a series of questions following a string of implications that burrow down to the bottom-most belief. <Link to resource>

Note. The notion of a maladaptive schema is similar in many respects to a ‘problem-saturated narrative’ from a Narrative Therapy perspective. When working with core belief systems the Cognitive Restructuring approach will be more appropriate for some clients, while others may benefit more from the Narrative Therapy approach.