In a nutshell, core beliefs are a person’s most central ideas about themselves, others, and the world. These beliefs act like a lens or pair of glasses through which every situation and life experience is seen. In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), core beliefs are believed to underlie automatic thoughts or thoughts that so rarely get challenged but are accepted as truth.
A common core belief that plagues many people is that of, “I’m defective”. Oftentimes, this develops early in life. During childhood, for example, children are not often unaware of how they are different, they only have this general sense of difference. In order to cope with and attempt to manage this feeling of difference, the child often assumes that something is wrong/defective in some way with him/her. As the child ages this core belief manifests itself in many harmful ways to the individual and his/her interpersonal relationships. This core belief facilitates and strengthens the belief and feeling that the individual is internally flawed in some critical way. It leads the person to therefore feel that if people get close to him/her or see his/her significant defects, they will reject and withdraw from him/her.
As previously stated, the core belief of defectiveness, if unchecked, has the ability to cause major harm to the person and others. This core belief aids in the person being his or her own worst enemy. The person cannot shake the feeling that there is something irreparably wrong with him/her, and that any attempts at improvement will just result in further failure and embarrassment. Thus, life may feel like a series of avoidant strategies and isolation. To cope with these uncomfortable feelings and behaviors, the person may seek and struggle with perfectionism and self-help to the point of attempting to improve every single aspect of his or her life. This, understandably so, is exhausting and may result in emotionally shutting down and withdrawing from others especially when the person believes that lack of success, embarrassment, and rejection is on the horizon.
In order to understand how to start challenging this core belief, it is important to become aware of and identify the behaviors that one utilizes to provide temporary relief from the pain fueled by this core belief but ultimately reinforces it. The Ten common defectiveness coping behaviors that were first described by Jeffrey Young (Young et al., 2003), help break down these defensive coping strategies into three major types: overcompensation, surrender, and avoidance.
- Aggression or hostility: Counterattacking by blaming, criticizing, challenging, or being resistant.
- Dominance or excessive self-assertion: Attempting to control others in order to accomplish your goals.
- Recognition seeking or status seeking: Overcompensating by trying to impress others and get attention through high achievement and status.
- For example, recognition or status-seeking in a work or academic setting, constantly trying to impress or succeed in order to silence your fear of being seen as an imposter.
- Manipulation and exploitation: Meeting your needs without letting others know what you’re doing. This may involve the use of seduction or not being completely truthful with others.
- Passive-aggressiveness or rebellion: Appearing to be compliant but will rebel by procrastinating, complaining, being tardy, pouting, or performing poorly.
- Compliance or dependence: Relying on others, giving in, becoming dependent, behaving passively, avoiding conflict, and trying to please others.
- For example, surrendering in personal relationships, engaging in them with a passive dependence, such that one is constantly trying to please those who do not reciprocate.
- Social withdrawal or excessive autonomy: Isolating self socially, disconnecting, and withdrawing from others. You may appear to be excessively independent and self-reliant, or you may engage in solitary activities such as reading, watching television, computer use, or solitary work.
- Compulsive stimulation-seeking: Seeking excitement or distraction through compulsive shopping, sex, gambling, risk-taking, or physical activity.
- Addictive self-soothing: Seeking excitement with drugs, alcohol, food, or excessive self-stimulation.
- Psychological withdrawal: Escaping through dissociation, denial, fantasy, or other internal forms of withdrawal.
The reality is that most people struggling with this core belief do not use just one of these defensive coping behaviors, because there are factors that influence which coping behaviors are utilized. A clinician can help facilitate deeper awareness and help this client look at the situations in which he/she finds him/herself engaging in the behaviors that have been described above and the triggers at play. Clinicians can also help their clients think back to a difficult or troubling interaction that played out in a domain (i.e., work, friendship, family, partner, parenting, community) that he or she considers important as well as process a troubling interaction that contributed to the client feeling vulnerable, depressed, angry, paranoid, embarrassed.
While this is a journey and takes growing in awareness, time, patience, and compassion, the core wound of “I’m defective” can absolutely be mitigated in power and influence over one’s life especially with the support from a professional mental health clinician. Overcoming this core wound is overcoming value-judgments about the self and combating thoughts rooted in this core wound requires awareness of self-critical thoughts. Clinicians can help their clients struggling with this core wound become more aware of its origin, the little things he or she does to hide the “defective” self, the ways in which it is triggered, and how to challenge and reframe these thoughts based on evidence.