- Automatic thoughts
- Intermediate beliefs (including attitudes, rules, and conditional assumptions)
- Core beliefs
These layers of cognition are part of a person’s belief system and play a significant role in how they interpret and respond to situations. Although they have their differences, they are interconnected and work together in creating a coherent belief system.
What are core beliefs?
Core beliefs, also known as schemas, are deeply held beliefs of the self, the world or others, and the future. Examples of core beliefs include:
- Self: “I’m useless”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m unlovable”
- World or others: “The world is unfriendly”, “The world is dangerous”, “People will reject me”, “People are selfish”
- Future: “The future is hopeless”, “Things will never work out for me”
Often formed early in life and reinforced by life experiences, they are rigid, inflexible, and frequently unconscious beliefs. They are more generic than intermediate and automatic thoughts. For instance, the core belief “I am a failure” represents a general idea, while the automatic thought “I messed up again in the meeting” is a more specific situation”.
Core beliefs influence the person’s selective attention (they are biased towards stimuli that confirm the belief), and memory (they remember events that match the belief), creating a reality tinted by the lenses of the core belief. Anything that disconfirms the belief is ignored or minimised. As a result, they shape how a person perceives themselves and their experiences. Understandably, negative core beliefs can lead to negative automatic thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, which can cause mental disorders, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, phobias, etc.
Intermediate beliefs: what are attitudes, rules, and assumptions in CBT?
A second layer of thoughts is the intermediate beliefs. Within this category of thought, we can distinguish attitudes, rules and conditional assumptions. Intermediate beliefs are beliefs that sit between core beliefs and automatic thoughts and are more specific than core beliefs, but less than automatic thoughts. They can also be referred to as “rules for living” and, similarly to core beliefs, can easily pass by unconsciously.
This type of belief is developed as a way of coping with rigid core beliefs. For example, if a person has the core belief “I am not good enough”, he/she might develop the following intermediate beliefs to be able to be okay or to compensate for the idea that they are not enough:
- “I must work harder than others to be enough” (rule)
- “People need to work really hard to be a good enough person” (attitude)
- “If I don’t work harder than others, then I will fall short” (conditional assumption).
In this example, these intermediate beliefs move people to behave in a way that would allow them to be okay in a world where they are not good enough (e.g., work hard, overprepare, try to control things, etc.). However, these intermediate beliefs are unrealistic and over-generalised and can cause emotional pain if the person is unable to behave according to them (e.g. if my rule is “I must have control all the time” I am surely going to struggle, as having control all the time is impossible”).
Here we describe each type of intermediate belief:
1) Attitudes: Attitudes are strict and unrealistic overall evaluations or appraisals of a person, thing, or situation. Examples of attitudes are:
- “It is better not to try than trying and failing”
- “Only successful people are worthy of love”
- “Life is only worthy if you excel at your job”
2) Conditional assumptions: Assumptions are beliefs about the relationship between situations and their consequences. These assumptions are conditional because they often take the form of “if-then” statements, where a person believes that if a certain event occurs, then a specific consequence must follow. Examples of assumptions are:
- “If I make a mistake, I will lose all my respect”
- “If I don’t please people, I will be rejected”
- “If I am not perfect, then I am a failure”
3) Rules: Rules are specific guidelines that people have for themselves and others. These rules usually come with “should” or “musts” that the person needs to follow to navigate the world. Examples of rules in CBT are:
- “I must always please others”
- “I should never make mistakes”
- “I must have the control”
Rules are connected to assumptions and core beliefs in CBT. For example, someone with a core belief that they are not good enough may develop a rule that they must always perform perfectly to be accepted. In another example, an individual with a rule that they should always be in control may have an underlying assumption that things will fall apart if they are not in control.
What are automatic thoughts?
The third type of thought the cognitive model distinguishes is called automatic thought. They are rapid, automatic and spontaneous thoughts that people have in reaction to particular events. As a more conscious and over-the-surface type of thoughts, people tend to be more aware of them than core beliefs or intermediate beliefs. They are more malleable than the rigid core beliefs and, as such, it can be easier to challenge them. Examples of automatic thoughts include:
- After making a mistake at work: “I’m going to get fired”
- Being in a crowded place: “I’m going to have a panic attack”
- Having failed an exam: “I will never graduate”
Core beliefs, intermediate beliefs and automatic thoughts reinforce each other to create a wholesome belief system that is difficult to change. The difficulty is that many of these beliefs are unconscious and, someone can behave from the perspective of their beliefs without being consciously aware. For instance, someone with the core belief “I am unlovable” may have developed the assumption “if someone dislikes me, that means I am unlovable”, and as a result the rule “I must always be nice to everyone”. These beliefs can lead to negative automatic thoughts when facing situations (e.g., “I have done something wrong to him” after a friend didn’t call when he said he would). They also motivate the person to behave according to these beliefs (e.g., people-pleasing, not setting boundaries, etc.).
The cognitive-behavioural therapist understands how these three layers of cognition operate as a system and is skilled at discovering hidden or unconscious automatic thoughts, and intermediate and core beliefs. Only by being aware of the most deeply held beliefs, a person can start challenging those that are unrealistic and unhelpful.
If you are interested in CBT and the cognitive model and want to explore these three layers of cognition, contact us!
Beck, A.T. (1967) “Depression: Causes and treatment,” University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia.
Fenn, K., & Byrne, M. (2013). The key principles of cognitive behavioural therapy. InnovAiT: Education and Inspiration for General Practice, 6(9), 579–585. https://doi.org/10.1177/1755738012471029
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