Core beliefs and automatic thoughts

Buoyant students are less likely to hold a maladaptive attribution style; they are more likely to view failure and setbacks as changeable and temporary as well as in some way under their own control. If they perform badly on a

Table 10.1 Attributional styles

Attributional style




Biased towards internal (often stable) attributions for positive outcomes. External (often unstable) for negative outcomes.

A student who attributes personal success to intelligence and failure to poor teaching.


Biased towards internal (often stable) attributions for negative outcomes. External (often unstable for positive outcomes.

A student who attributes personal failure to their lack of ability and success to luck


Biased towards external, stable attributions for negative outcomes.

A student who displays aggression when confronted with academic problems. Likely to blame others and seek revenge.

test, they will look for explanations, rather than simply think of themselves as incapable. These differences result in three broad attributional styles: optimistic, pessimistic and hostile (summarised in Table 10.1). As can be seen, attributions aren't as straightforward as one might think. A student may hold and internal attribution of success (7 succeeded because I'm intelligent') and an external attribution of failure (7 failed because my teacher is rubbish'). What we therefore need to nurture is an adaptive attributional style, one that emphasises the notion that we ultimately have control over both success and failure - what we might call ownership.

Shifting a maladaptive attributional style, like changing any habit, is difficult, but can be achieved with some careful planning and a great deal of determination. Chapter 5 offers some solutions related to habits, including creating new adaptive ones and eliminating ones that are doing us harm and preventing us from reaching our goals.

One way to shift our attributional style is to identify our core beliefs, deeply embedded and enduring ideas we hold about ourselves, others and the world. There is certainly a relationship here between core beliefs and the previously described attributional style; however, core beliefs are always global and absolute (although they can be both positive and negative), a specific core beliefs might include 7 am a bad person', 7 am unintelligent’,

'I am a good/bad student'. It is not that we think we are these things, it is that we know we are and these beliefs mean that, for example, we will never be successful, popular or loved or that we will always be successful, popular and loved.

Core beliefs give rise to rules and demands, these in turn produce automatic thoughts, usually in the form of musts and shoulds, such as I must succeed or I should be able to this; they are the demands we place upon ourselves and metaphorically beat ourselves up over if we fall short of these expectations. Other core beliefs are based on rules and demands, so we might believe that we can't let people down or that we must avoid leaving ourselves open to any kind of criticism. These responses are often described as negative automatic thoughts because we tend to access them with little conscious effort. We might, therefore, hold the core belief that we are a bad employee (or student), a belief that is fuelled by automatic thoughts such as, I must always be efficient in everything I do or I must never ask for help because then people will think me incompetent. If we then fail to live up to these unrealistically high expectations we consider ourselves to be unworthy and any criticism directed towards us is justified, any outcome deserved. Core beliefs act like a filter or a lens through which we interpret the information from other people and the world. The three components of core beliefs are described in Box 10.1. It's worth noting that the core beliefs model is most often used for people struggling with moderate to severe psychological distress, such as anxiety disorders and depression. The low level day-to-day problems encountered within a school setting are unlikely to represent such extremes, yet the beliefs we might witness in students are often the same. In addition, such core beliefs needn't have arisen through severe abuse or early trauma, but through early experiences of education and the complex web of childhood relationships. The model is included here as a way in which negative core beliefs can undermine the ability to bounce back from goal-related disappointment, rather than as an attempt to treat more serious underlying problems, for which professional advice should always be sought.

Detecting core beliefs in ourselves is hard enough, detecting them in others is even more difficult. Because core beliefs are deeply embedded, we are often unaware of their existence. However, our automatic thoughts can be used as a top-down processing model, that is, if we detect these automatic shoulds and musts we find that they lead us towards the core beliefs from which they arise. For example, a young person might decide not to apply to university because they believe they won't be accepted. Their automatic thought might be along the lines of, 'I'll never get into university'. This negative automatic thought is rather superficial because we can't identify why the young person feels this way. On closer interrogation this negative automatic thought is related to the potential disappointment that not getting into university might cause (to the young person themselves, their parents, wider family and teachers who have supported them). This disappointment is related to failure (or the fear of failure) and this fear of failure is rooted in a core belief, namely, 'I am a failure/disappointment'. The core belief, therefore, is the belief that they are a failure (rather than they fail) and they will disappoint those closest to them. This core notion manifests itself in negative automatic thoughts.

Once we've managed to identify these core beliefs we need to go about interrogating them. We can think of this as a to and fro discussion, a search for the evidence that underpins the core belief. Perhaps a student thinks they aren't intelligent enough to succeed. In this case we need to look for evidence that suggests this core belief is false. By looking at previous successes the student begins to undermine the core belief and uncover a more realistic picture; there will still be failures, but hopefully they will have begun to develop a more adaptive relationship with setbacks and disappointments through some of the other methods described in this book. But they mustn't restrict their search to specific incidences of success, rather, they should include other personal strengths and assets that can help to overturn this core belief: do they excel in a particular discipline? Do they possess particularly desirable character traits? In addition, consider the ways in which core beliefs are leading to avoidant behaviours (e.g. choosing less challenging tasks) or continually repeated ineffective or maladaptive ones. In students, avoidant or maladaptive habitual behaviours often manifest themselves in self- handicapping and procrastination.

Box 10.1 The three components of core beliefs

Beliefs about ourselves

These are unhelpful negative core beliefs about ourselves that are often rooted in our early experiences. These experiences might include neglect, bullying or being ostracised by our schoolmates. They may also arise through harsh criticism levelled against us by significant others, such as parents, siblings and teachers. For example, a child who is continually being criticised for not being clever enough (or not as clever as others) would be more likely to develop the core belief 7 am stupid'.

Beliefs about other people

Negative core beliefs about other people often develop as a result of something that has been done to us, usually in the form or aggression and personal harm, or witnessing harm done to others. These early experiences lead to core beliefs about the danger of other people, perhaps that they are unpredictable and violent and wish to harm us. They can also develop through repeated negative experiences with other people, specifically, significant others such as parents and teachers, resulting in a belief that people are unkind and uncaring and always want to make us feel bad about ourselves.

Beliefs about the world

If a person has experienced trauma, has lived with severe deprivation or survived harmful, insecure and unpredictable environments, these experiences can lead to the formation of negative core beliefs about life and the world. They might, therefore, see the world as dangerous and harmful and full of bad things. These core beliefs can then manifest themselves in our behaviour, perhaps through anxiety or a proclivity towards aggression.

Main points

  • • The way we think about specific situations is deeply embedded in our past experience of similar situations. We then build up internal profiles (scripts or schemata) that impact future thoughts and behaviours, which can be both positive and negative.
  • • People attribute causes based on these profiles; the extent to which they feel in control of circumstances is partly influenced by these attributions.
  • • Attributions are often based on erroneous or exaggerated interpretations of past events that become muddled in our long-term autobiographical memory and cause all sorts of trouble later on.
  • • Holding maladaptive attributional styles can make students feel that they are incapable of success and lack the skills to cope effectively with setbacks, leading them to give up or employ strategies that sabotage any future success.
  • • Bouncing back from the daily hassles we face is, in part, dependent on how our past is interpreted in the present, if we believe that we have the capacity to cope with setbacks then we are driven forward by these beliefs; if we remain the prisoners of our past failures we become more apprehensive and anxious about the future and simply stop trying.
  • • Taking control of our attributional style and resisting the influence of wholly negative past experiences liberates students and opens up a host of alternative possibilities.


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