Got Anxiety: Core beliefs — understanding internal monologue
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the second in a 3-part series from the Barmanns about “core beliefs” endorsed by those who are dealing with chronic worry and anxiety. Click here to read part one.
Every minute of our conscious life, we are interpreting each experience we encounter, and making assumptions and predictions concerning future social interactions. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as they are accurate more often than not.
However, when our appraisals consistently become MISAPPRAISALS, this often results in the experience of depression and anxiety.
Our strongly held convictions regarding how we interpret day-to-day interactions are developed early in life; typically, by 12 to 15 years of age.
These beliefs become the very CORE of us, and we rely on them as a means of judging our self-worth, competency, the degree to which we trust others and ourselves, how we define fairness, etc.
In essence, they become the rules we live by in order to help us “survive” our social-interpersonal relationships.
Once a particular core belief surfaces, it then triggers a specific pattern of thinking and behaving. Consider Dan, an individual with a diagnosis of Social Anxiety.
Since childhood, Dan has viewed himself as inept, flawed, and unworthy of having a healthy social relationship.
This core belief dictates specific rules that he must follow. And, like a puppet on a set of strings, he moves in whichever direction he is pulled. Soon, Dan finds himself obeying a list of Do’s & Don’ts, such as:
DO portray a competent social facade
DO use a firm handshake
DO smile and laugh often
DO feel like an imposter
DON’T risk forming close friendships
DON’T disagree with another’s opinion
DON’T share your feelings with others; these feelings are not worthy
DON’T try new experiences; you’ll screw it up
DON’T risk exposing the real you
As the result of Dan’s core belief regarding his lack of self-worth, it makes sense for him to follow the rules outlined above.
As long as he remains the puppet, holding onto his safety strings dangling overhead, he will feel successful at escaping a sense of vulnerability.
Dan believes that to not follow these rules would surely result in being publically “exposed”; causing others to recognize that he is “worthless” — someone who should be rejected as a work colleague, friend, etc.
Dan believes his behavioral shield protects him from taking risks that would result in the social rejection and humiliation he expects. Each of the rules Dan obeys is viewed as a necessary strategy to employ in a world where he views himself as worthless.
Unfortunately, his feeling of social ineptitude will endure, as will his tendency to consistently follow these behavioral patterns, thus serving to maintain this self-fulfilling prophecy, as well as his Social Anxiety.
Once a core belief has been developed, there are two factors responsible for maintaining these beliefs:
1. Mental Filtering: Also referred to as Confirmatory Bias, this factor refers to a person’s tendency to selectively ATTEND to and ACCEPT, information that confirms one’s existing belief, while concurrently ignoring information which directly contradicts one’s self-perception, and the perception of others.
Every core belief we hold carries with it a long list of memories which are quickly recalled during certain situations, thus serving as “proof” validating that particular belief.
For example, when a person with Social Anxiety is praised for having given an excellent presentation, he then dismisses the complement, since it does not fit his core belief of incompetence.
Instead, he misinterprets the praise as synonymous to offering crutches to a cripple, for the purpose of helping a disabled person cross the street.
2. Mental Grooving: When feeling anxious, typically due to finding ourselves in a state of uncertainty, we immediately begin looking for ways to feel more certain, believing that greater certainty will result in less anxiety.
Thus, we frantically attempts to recall particular memories, assumptions, etc., that will hopefully help us to fill in the “grooves” related to predicting more certain outcomes.
Recall Dan, discussed earlier. Dan was offered a job promotion that would end many of his financial hardships.
However, this promotion would entail new job responsibilities such as the need to give several presentations in the presence of many staff. The anxiety generated by this job offer, led to the experience of mental grooving.
That is, Dan began to look for any memories, assumptions, etc. (grooves), that would convince him that he could not possibly handle this new job.
He recalled his past difficulties presenting in front of others, due to his “ineptitude” with public speaking. He selectively became hyper-focused on his perceived flaws, completely forgetting the times in which he performed quite well in the past.
His mental grooving joined forces with his confirmatory bias, resulting in a decision to reject the job promotion. In our next article, we will discuss strategies for coping with negative core beliefs.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.