How to Change a Core Belief


Recently I was posed this question:  “Okay, so I understand about core beliefs and how they literally drive the thoughts and feelings I am going to have regarding an experienced event, and thus the behavior I am likely to exhibit, but how do I change a core belief?”


Good question!!  It reminded me of a book I had stumbled across several years ago titled “Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are” by Joseph LeDoux.  The book is a rather technical, scientific treatment of how our brains literally store information at the cellular level and how that stored information is retrieved, used and modified to govern thought, emotion and behavior.


Genetics surely play a part in how a person does these things, but most experts agree that genetics are less than 50% of the picture.  Most information used to process what is happening in our outside world comes to us as “input” into the brain.  The storage of information, electro-chemically, in the brain is known as memory.  It is literally our “memory” that is used to process, respond to and store the new information.


In a very simplistic way, our core beliefs consist of “bits” of information, stored in our brain, that are used to interpret and make sense of our world.  As we go through life, our brains are busy processing the information being received from our senses, looking for similarity features in our memory banks that inform us as to what occurred last time we received this information and the outcome of our response to it at that time.


The entire process happens hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of times daily as we continuously process new information entering the brain.  Each new process is, in turn, stored as a new memory, supporting, reinforcing or denying the previous information that has been stored.  Through this process we “learn” how to respond to events.


The sheer volume of similar “bits” of memory regarding similar events constitutes the strength of a belief.  The advantage of this “human thought processing system” (events to beliefs) is that it promotes survival.  When we get out of a life-threatening situation alive, it is good to remember how we did that.  Each time we are faced with a similar situation, this information will be called up, used to respond, tweaked and added to memory to make us increasingly better at surviving.  The disadvantage of the system is that memory of dysfunctional responses to events (responses that didn’t get us killed) can inadvertently be encoded as “good” (the response wasn’t optimal, but it secured the desired outcome) and stored as information that should be used the next time a similar event occurs.  The stakes are not usually life or death, but rather ‘Did I get what I wanted, or not?’ ‘Were my needs met, or not?’  As long as we continue to see the outcome as favorable, we will continue to add “bits” of memory, electro-chemical footprints per se, that support and strengthen the belief.


A belief will remain intact, and likely grow by reinforcement, until the pain of behaving according to this belief becomes great enough for the individual to “take notice.”  At this point (with the help of good outside information) the belief can be identified and challenged.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) this is only the beginning of the change process.  In order to operate according to a new core belief, it literally has to be built from the ground up, in precisely the same way the “old” belief was built.  It needs to be used as a substitute when new, similar events occur and thus stored as a “bit” of memory that reinforces a new selected response that elicits a preferred outcome.  It will remain the “new”, “weaker” belief until enough “bits” of memory are stored to begin to rival the magnitude of the “old” belief.


So the “how” of changing a belief, according to this principle, is to accumulate as much “memory” of the new thought process through repetition as quickly as possible.  The good thing is that one does not have to wait for a random occurrence of the event to register “new bits” of memory.  The mere act of “thinking the new process through” registers a new bit of memory.  Waiting for random occurrences could take the rest of your life; however one can accelerate the process using the “imagination” (known as imaginal disputation).  Each time the new process is imagined, another bit of memory is created, adding to the magnitude of memories similar in nature.  The only limit to the number of times one cares to imagine is time and effort.  It can be done while driving to work, waiting at the Dr’s. office, sitting in a boring meeting, taking a jog, walking the dog, or any other mundane activity that requires little conscious thought.  Since the old memories likely accumulated in a much more random fashion, theoretically speaking we can play “catch up” with the new memories by simply thinking them more often.


From a cellular, micro-biological standpoint, then, a core belief is officially changed when the collection of new memories created by thinking through a new response (either real or imagined) out-weighs the collection of memories created by the old.  Of course, it is much more difficult than it sounds, but in the end, it all boils down to persistence and tenacity on the part of the person making the attempt.


All Rights Reserved.  Copyright: October 2008.  Take Charge Counseling and Consulting. 

Author: Miles Nitz, MS, LMFT