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Uncovering Your Deeper Beliefs

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) describes three levels of cognition: automatic thoughts, assumptions, and core beliefs. While CBT therapists do not always need to target beliefs and assumptions, doing so can help support behavior change. The Uncovering Your Deeper Beliefs exercise is designed to help clients identify their underlying assumptions and core beliefs.

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Introduction & Theoretical Background

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) describes three levels of cognition: automatic thoughts, assumptions, and core beliefs. While CBT therapists do not always need to target beliefs and assumptions, doing so can help support behavior change. The Uncovering Your Deeper Beliefs exercise is designed to help clients identify their underlying assumptions and core beliefs.

Levels of cognition

Beck’s cognitive model describes three levels of cognition (Beck, 2011):

  1. At the top or ‘surface’ level are automatic thoughts. These thoughts arise automatically and involuntarily and can be internal statements or mental images.
    • Because of the speed at which they occur, automatic thoughts are often accepted uncritically, even when objectively inaccurate.
    • While people are usually aware of their emotional responses, they are generally less conscious of the thoughts and images associated with them.
    • Automatic thoughts are situation-specific, but are influenced by underlying assumptions that apply across situations (Greenberger & Padesky, 2016).
  2. At the intermediate level are underlying assumptions, also known as intermediate beliefs, associated beliefs, conditional assumptions, rules, attitudes, and expectations. Usually learned early in life, assumptions organize perception and help individuals make sense of the world (Beck et al., 1979).
    • Assumptions can originate from various childhood experiences, including formative events, attitudes and opinions of others (including one’s family, community, or culture), or family sayings (Fennell, 2006).
    • Assumptions vary in their accuracy and functionality: maladaptive assumptions tend to be rigid, excessive, and inappropriate, so they result in exaggerated, overgeneralized, and absolute conclusions (Beck, 1976).
    • Assumptions often describe behavioral strategies for preventing or coping with the activation of painful core beliefs (e.g., “If I make a mistake, it means I am stupid, so I must strive to be perfect”). Importantly, assumptions are not only influenced by core beliefs but maintain them by explaining contradictory experiences, generating negative automatic thoughts, and developing problematic behaviors (e.g., avoidance and safety behaviors; Fennell et al., 1998; Kuyken et al., 2009).
  3. At the bottom level are core beliefs, also known as unconditional beliefs and central assumptions. These are deep-rooted, global, and overgeneralized judgments about oneself, other people, and the world that are formed early in life.
    • Core beliefs are usually phrased as all-or-nothing, absolute truths (e.g., “I am good”, “I am bad”) and experienced by individuals as “the way things are” (Dowd, 2002).
    • Like underlying assumptions, core beliefs are often unarticulated and rarely questioned by individuals.
    • Core beliefs usually arise in pairs (e.g., “I am worthwhile”; “I am worthless”) although only one belief is active at a time, depending on the client’s current mood (Beck, 1967).

There are some differences in opinion regarding when (and if) therapists should work with underlying beliefs (i.e., dysfunctional assumptions and core beliefs). Several authors acknowledge that assumptions are sometimes the most important level of cognition to address in CBT, helping to support behavior change, maintain long-term progress, and reduce the risk of relapse (Beck et al., 1979; Greenberger & Padesky, 2016; Padesky & Kennerley, 2023):

Although your distorted negative thoughts will be substantially reduced or entirely eliminated after you have recovered from a bout of depression, there are certain “silent assumptions” that probably still lurk in your mind. These silent assumptions explain in large part why you became depressed in the first place and can help you predict when you might again be vulnerable. And they contain therefore the key to relapse prevention.

(Burns, 1980, p.262.)

Similarly, Beck (2011) recommends working with core beliefs as early in treatment as possible as this helps reduce distorted information processing. However, Padesky and Kennerley (2023) caution against addressing core beliefs prematurely, noting that it can be exposing, distressing, and potentially unnecessary. Furthermore, research with depressed clients suggests that working with core beliefs in the early stages of therapy can be counter-therapeutic (Hawley et al., 2017). 

For most difficulties, CBT therapists are advized target underlying assumptions before core beliefs (Beck, 2011; Padesky & Kennerley, 2011). There are several reasons for this:

  • Assumptions are more amenable to modification than core beliefs, the latter being more entrenched and often viewed as entirely true by clients.
  • Working at the level of dysfunctional assumptions (e.g., addressing thinking biases, looking at the evidence for and against, costs-benefits analysis, and behavioral experimentation) equips clients with the skills needed to address their core beliefs.
  • Working at the level of core beliefs may prove unnecessary once the client’s primary mood has improved and their positive core beliefs are activated using other interventions (e.g., re-evaluating automatic thoughts and testing dysfunctional assumptions through behavioral experiments).

Therapists can use various methods to identify clients’ underlying assumptions and core beliefs (Beck et al., 1979; Beck, 2011; Fennell, 2006). They include:

  • Detecting recurring themes or patterns in the client’s automatic thoughts.
  • Asking the client to complete a belief-related statement (e.g., “If my friend doesn’t call me back, it shows…?”, “Failing my exams means I’m…?”).
  • Discussing significant childhood events or experiences that are imbued with meaning (e.g., vivid memories, family sayings, or bedtime stories).
  • Exploring how the client understands other people’s experiences (e.g., “My friend is happy because they are popular”, meaning “I can only be happy if I am popular”).
  • Reflecting on times the client felt particularly good, or identifying qualities they admire in others (e.g., “What rule might you have obeyed when you felt good about yourself? What expectation did you meet in that situation?”).
  • Reviewing belief checklists with the client, such as the Dysfunctional Attitude Scale (Weismann & Beck, 1979) or Personality Belief Questionnaire (Beck & Beck, 1991).
  • Asking the client directly (e.g., “Do you have a rule or belief about that?”).

The downward arrow technique (also called vertical descent and vertical arrow) is a well-known method for eliciting underlying beliefs (Burns, 1980; Leahy, 2017). It involves identifying the progressively deeper levels of meaning associated with a negative thought or event through a series of “if-then” questions that assume the previous cognition was correct (e.g., “And if that thought were true, what would it mean? Why would it upset you?”). The exercise ends when an important assumption or core belief has been identified, usually signaled by a change in affect or the cognition being stated in the same or similar words (Beck, 2011).

Two points should be made about how the client is questioned during this exercise. First, therapists are encouraged to change the form of their questions intermittently, ensuring that the client does not feel antagonized, and that the task is varied. Therapists might experiment with different prompts, such as:

If that thought were true…

  • What would bother you about it?
  • What would that tell you?
  • What be the worst thing about it?
  • What would follow from that?
  • What would it make you think?
  • Why would you feel bad?
  • Why would it upset you?
  • How would that be a problem for you?
  • What then?

Second, the wording of prompts may evoke different underlying beliefs (Beck, 2011; Fennell, 2016): general meaning-related questions tend to elicit dysfunctional assumptions (e.g., “If that thought were true, what would it mean to you?”), while referential questions usually lead to core beliefs (e.g., “If that thought were true, what would it mean about you? What kind of person would it make you? What would it tell you about other people / the world / your life?”).

While the downward arrow and related techniques can be quick and effective, certain missteps are common. They include:

  • The client dislikes the therapist’s repetitive questions. Starting with a brief explanation of what the exercise entails and varying the lines of questioning throughout helps avoid negative reactions (Beck, 2011).
  • The client responds to a question with a feeling or emotional reaction. For instance, the client might say, “That thought means I would feel terrible”. In this case, therapists should validate the client’s emotional response and direct their attention to the meanings associated with it. (e.g., “I can understand that, and what thought would make you feel so terrible? What would be the worst part of it? Would it say something about you that would make you feel that way?”; Leahy, 2017).
  • The client ends the exercise prematurely. For example, the client might stop at the thought, “It would mean I won’t find a partner” and not explore the meanings and implications of this. Therapists should encourage the client to persist until their reach their ‘deeper’ or ‘most painful’ beliefs (Leahy, 2017). Equally, they should be reminded that the process does not have a fixed number of steps and may take some time to complete, especially if they have not articulated their underlying beliefs before (Fennell, 2016).

Variations of the downward arrow technique have been outlined by other authors. Greenberger and Padesky (2016) suggest that negative self-related core beliefs only partially explain why individuals struggle with recurrent problems. Accordingly, they recommend repeating the exercise with a focus on core beliefs about oneself (e.g., “If that thought were true, what would it say about you as a person?”), the world (e.g., “If that thought were true, what would it say about the world and how it works?”), and other people (e.g., “If that thought were true, what would it say about others?”).

Burns (2020) has described a similar method called the ‘interpersonal downward arrow’, which aims to identify beliefs contributing to relationship problems (e.g., submissiveness and entitlement). Taking a negative automatic thought about a relationship as the starting point, the client is asked, “If this were true, what would it tell me about the type of person they are, the type of person I am, and the type of relationship we have?” The process is repeated until self-defeating interpersonal beliefs are identified (e.g., “If I express myself, other people will be unhappy”).

The downward arrow has also been applied to anxiety, but with a different focus (Clarke & Beck, 2010; Tolin, 2016). In this context, the client is questioned about their feared outcomes, rather than the meaning of a situation or automatic thought – what Waltman and colleagues (2021) describe as ‘sideways arrow’ (e.g., “What is the worst thing you imagine might happen?... And if that did happen, what would be so bad about that? What do you worry would happen as a result?). Clarke and Beck (2010) suggest that this can be used in various ways, including eliciting feared catastrophes, demonstrating the anxiety-inducing effects of catastrophization, reversing cognitive avoidance, facilitating worry exposure, and testing how uncontrollable worry is. Tolin (2016) describes using a similar method to decatastrophize dreaded events: a downward arrow is used to elicit catastrophic predictions, following which the client is questioned about how realistic these outcomes are (e.g., “Is that likely to happen? Would it be the end of the world if it did?”) and their ability to cope with them (e.g., “What would you do to manage? Would you feel awful forever?”).

The Uncovering Your Deeper Beliefs exercise is designed to help clients identify underlying assumptions and core beliefs and summarize their learning.

Therapist Guidance

"The way we think is shaped by our underlying assumptions and the beliefs we hold about ourselves, other people, and how the world works. However, most people are often unaware of these underlying beliefs as they exist on a deeper level. Can we do an exercise to uncover some of your underlying beliefs? It could help us understand why you tend to think and react to situations in certain ways."

Step 1: explain what the task will involve

Beck (2011) recommends outlining what the exercise entails to prevent or minimize negative reactions:

  • "In this exercise, we’ll assume that one of your automatic thoughts is true, even though we haven’t looked at evidence to see if it is. I’ll then ask you a series of questions to explore what that thought means to you. The questions might be a bit repetitive, but that will help us dig deeper."

Step 2: describe the situation 

Exploring underlying beliefs usually begins with a situational starting point. Greenberger and Padesky (2016) ask the client to describe a specific situation connected to a strong mood, following by the meaning of that situation. Similarly, Waltman and colleagues (2021) explore a recent distressing situation and take the client’s hottest thought as the starting point. In contrast, Fennell (2006) opts for a more general trigger situation that consistently upsets the client and makes them feel bad about themselves:

  • "Let’s start by identifying an upsetting situation. It could be a recent event that is fresh in your mind or an experience that always upsets you, like being criticized or ignored. Describe what happened."

Step 3: identify the key thought or image

Help the client identify the thought or image that seems most important, or best accounts for their distress in the situation (Fennell, 2006). Alternatively, ask the client to identify their hottest or most painful thought (Waltman et al., 2021). Therapists can also lead this step, selecting the automatic thought that is most likely to stem from an underlying belief (Beck, 2011):

  • "What thoughts and images ran through your mind in that situation?" 
  • "Which one seems most important or best explains why you felt so bad?" 
  • "Is there a thought that stands out as being the most painful or upsetting?"

Step 4: iteratively explore the beliefs underlying the thought or image

Help the client identify the meaning of their automatic thought with a prompt. As noted previously, general meaning-related questions will guide the client toward their underlying assumptions, while referential meaning-related questions evoke core beliefs. Varying the wording of these questions will ensure the inquiry does not become repetitive or irritating:

  • "If that thought were true, what would it mean to you / about you?"
  • "If that thought were true, what would be the most upsetting thing about it?"
  • "If that thought were true, what would it tell you?"
  • "Then what?"

Step 5: stop when an underlying belief is identified

Key indicators that an underlying belief has been uncovered include a negative change in the client’s affect, or the client repeating the belief in the same or similar words (Beck, 2011). If the aim of the tasks is to identify a core belief, it should conclude with an absolute statement (e.g., “It would mean I / other people / the world is bad”). Therapists might ask:

  • "Does it feel like we are starting to go around in circles?" 
  • "Have we reached the bottom?"
  • "It sounds like the emotional meaning of your original thought might be [underlying belief]. How do you feel when you hear that?"

Step 6: summarize and reflect on the underlying belief

Ask the client to summarize the underlying belief and rate how much they believe it on a 0–100% scale. Note that core beliefs usually take the form of absolute statements (e.g., “I am worthless”), while assumptions are often phrased as conditional “if-then” statements, perhaps combining the client’s initial thoughts with their final thought. If the underlying belief does not fully fit, encourage the client to experiment with how it is worded. Fennel (2016) suggests that they could replace a conditional assumption (such as “If I make a mistake, I have failed”), with an imperative (such as “I should never make mistakes”). Consider asking:

  • "How would you summarize your underlying belief?" 
  • "If it doesn’t feel quite right, what do the final steps of the exercise suggest it could be?" 
  • "How would you put it in your own words?"
  • "Reflecting on what you have written, does this belief explain your thoughts and feelings in the original situation?"
  • "Does it apply in other areas of your life?" 
  • "Does it lead you to do unhelpful things or react in extreme ways?"
  • "Does it help you make sense of the problems you’re experiencing?"

Step 7: repeat the exercise as required

Some clients find it useful to repeat the downward arrow from different starting points to uncover other assumptions and beliefs, or to test the veracity those identified (Fennell, 2016). Alternatively, the exercise can be repeated with a focus on meanings related to other people or the world for additional insights into the client’s belief system (Greenberger & Padesky, 2016). 

References And Further Reading

  • Beck, A. T. (1967). Depression: Clinical, experimental, and theoretic aspects. Harper and Row.
  • Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. International Universities Press.
  • Beck, A. T., & Beck, J. S. (1991). The personality belief questionnaire. , Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania: The Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research.
  • Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F., Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Burns, D. D. (1980). Feel good: The new mood therapy. United Kingdom: Penguin Books.
  • Burns, D. D. (2020). Feeling great: The revolutionary new treatment for depression and anxiety. United States: PESI Publishing.
  • Clark, D. A., & Beck, A. T. (2010). Cognitive therapy of anxiety disorders: Science and practice. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Dowd, E. T. (2002). History and recent developments in cognitive psychotherapy. In R. L. Leahy & E. T. Dowd (Eds.), Clinical advances in cognitive psychotherapy: Theory and application. 15-28. Springer.
  • Fennell, M. (1998). Cognitive therapy in the treatment of low self-esteem. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 4, (5) 296-304. DOI: 10.1192/apt.4.5.296.
  • Fennell, M. (2006). Part three: Changing the rules, creating a new bottom line, and looking to the future. In Fennel, M (eds.) Overcoming low self-esteem self-help course: A 3-part programme based on cognitive behavioural techniques. London: Robinson. 82-328
  • Fennell, M. (2016). Overcoming low self-esteem: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioural techniques (2nd ed.). London: Robinson.
  • Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (2016). Mind over mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Hawley, L. L., Padesky, C. A., Hollon, S. D., Mancuso, E., Laposa, J. M., Brozina, K., & Segal, Z. V. (2017). Cognitive behavioral therapy for depression using mind over mood: CBT skill use and differential symptom alleviation. Behavior Therapy, 48, (1) 29-44. DOI: 10.1016/j.beth.2016.09.003.
  • Kuyken, W., Padesky, C. A., & Dudley, R. (2009). Collaborative case conceptualization: Working effectively with clients in cognitive-behavioral therapy. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive Therapy Techniques: A Practitioner’s Guide. (2nd Ed.).: New York: Guilford Press.
  • Padesky, C. A., & Kennerley, H. (2023). Dialogues for discovery: Improving psychotherapy’s effectiveness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Tolin, D. F. (2016). Doing CBT: A comprehensive guide to working with behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Waltman, S. H., Codd III, R. T., McFarr, L. M., & Moore, B. A. (2021). Socratic questioning for therapists and counselors: Learn how to think and intervene like a cognitive behavior therapist. New York: Routledge.
  • Weissman, A. N., & Beck, A. T. (1978). Development and validation of the Dysfunctional Attitude Scale: A preliminary investigation. Paper presented at the 86th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.