Identify Your Core Beliefs with “Laddering”

“This is how humans are: we question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.” – Orson Scott Card

Our core beliefs are the most basic assumptions about our identity and place in the world.  They are the deep-seated beliefs of being lovable/unlovable, worthy/unworthy, or bad/good.  We generally develop our core beliefs during childhood and it is precisely because they develop at such a formative time in our development that we rarely think to question these beliefs as adults.  They are the beliefs that we regard as “obviously true.”

Core beliefs ultimately lead us to develop complex systems of rules that regulate our behavior.  If our core beliefs are generally positive or optimistic, then our rules of how to live our lives will be somewhat flexible and realistic.  It is when core beliefs are negative and degrading that we create rules for living that are limiting, restricted, and based in fear (McKay, Davis, & Fanning, 2007).

Since core beliefs are so deeply rooted in our personalities, we are seldom aware of how far-reaching the consequences of these beliefs really are.  These basic assumptions about our fundamental worth/abilities have a huge affect on our automatic thoughts.  Imagine how a person with a core belief of “I’m just dumb” would interpret a wide variety of events as somehow reminding him of his stupidity.

This ultimately leads us to expect whatever it is that we already believe about ourselves.  Most of us know someone in our lives who seems to “see things” in situations or interactions that most other people don’t pick up on.  Imagine a friend who interprets your talking to someone else as meaning that you “just don’t like her anymore.”  If someone has a core belief of being basically unlovable or unworthy, it often follows that they will interpret situations to see what they already believe to be true.

CBT Exercise: Laddering/Downward Arrow

The Cognitive Behavioral workbook Thoughts & Feelings explains how you can use the CBT technique of laddering (also called downward arrow) to uncover your own beliefs.  Notice in this example how our fictional person is able to work down the “ladder” rung by rung to investigate all of the different meanings of her automatic thoughts.  After each automatic thought, what follows is a question meant to shed light on what the consequences would be if each automatic thought “came true.”

  • “I have no control over my spending”
  • What if I can’t stop spending money?  What will this mean?
  • “It means that I’ll go completely broke.”
  • What if I do go broke?  What will this mean?
  • “It means that my whole life will fall apart.”
  • What if my life does fall apart?  What will this mean?
  • It means that I am incapable of controlling my life.
  • What if I can’t control my life?  What will this mean?
  • It means that I am helpless.

Notice how we are able to get down to the core belief of “I am helpless” through using this CBT technique of laddering.  Try thinking of a current stressful situation that you are facing.  Identify the initial automatic thoughts that come to mind when you think of this situation.  Try using the CBT laddering technique to see if you can arrive at one of your core beliefs. Once you identify core beliefs, you can then begin to challenge them.

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McKay, Davis, & Fanning. (2007). Thoughts & feelings: Taking control of your moods & your life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Looking Skywards by aussiegall / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mikey on February 13, 2019 at 3:51 am

    I attempted to complete diploma in CBT therapy l have failed on 2 attempts my academic work and reflective practice seems at very high standard but l can’t or fail at techniques and tools application in skills practice l feel l get stuck can’t remember l can’t relax and on advice from a supervisor l exited last Thursday

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