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CBT, Core Beliefs and the Pre-verbal Mind

CBT doesn't only deal with correcting this quick automatic thinking. CBT also explores and changes deep rooted core beliefs and on-going assumptions we may have about ourselves and our world. It addresses our value system and related rules.

Since very early in our lives, our minds start gathering information. We don't only learn how things are called or that two plus two equals four. We also learn that when we cry somebody comes to comfort us, that when we break something people talk to us in an unpleasant tone. Little by little we learn important, deep rooted, beliefs about how lovable we are and how important things like success, pleasure and belonging are. We build an identity, based on multiple beliefs about who we are, how we are and what we are meant to do with our lives. We incorporate in our minds basic beliefs about the world being a safe opportunity or a threatening danger.

Many crucial things are learned before we can speak much or not at all. Knowledge of things can certainly be non-verbal as is obvious with animals. It is therefore not surprising that sometimes it's hard to explain, to put into words what we are going through. But the human mind has the power to understand and define emotions and beliefs that became part of our minds before we could speak. Before she can put it into words, a baby cries, feels sad and can even learn that her suffering doesn't matter to people around her. A core belief that she is not lovable may exist in parts of her mind that have never been accessed by the rational mind that can put it into words and process it.

Fast-forward to college years and we find this same girl breaking up with her boyfriend:

  • Situation: Boyfriend just called her and broke up with her on the phone saying he needed to focus on his studies and being in a serious relationship was not a priority for him.
  • Emotions: Sad, angry, distraught, hopeless
  • Automatic Thinking: I am lost without him. I won't tolerate feeling lonely all the time. I am not fun to be around. There's something wrong with me. I am not lovable.

Eliciting automatic negative thoughts is not easy. Uncovering the related core beliefs is harder. She most likely never had the phrase "I am not lovable" in her mind. It was simply assumed. Only deep self questioning, or better still, questioning by a therapist can explore these deep rooted assumptions. Questioning what she was thinking about at the moment may not be enough. In the most front conscious part of her mind she may have been thinking "He is an idiot and he hurt me" which explains the anger, but not the sadness and even less her hopelessness. It may take for her to describe the details of her situation and how she sees what she is going through retroactively to fully appreciate her interpretation of the situation. Likewise, she was not thinking at the moment "I am a female", or "I am a college student." This are facts in her mind that were part of her perception of reality. She "knew" this information very well at the moment, but she wouldn't say she was "thinking" about it. In the same way she may have "known" herself to be not worthy of love, even if she was not "thinking" about it. This basic core belief or assumption is crucial to understand the full emotional impact of the stressful situation she was dealing with.