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April 2022


Turning Problems Into Questions: Inquiring Deeply About Core Negative Beliefs

In the past two Newsletters I wrote about beliefs in a generic sense, unpacking some of the determinants of how and why we believe as we do.  In this discussion, I want to focus in more closely on one important category of our personal beliefs:   “core negative beliefs.”

Core negative beliefs refer in a general way to judgmental and potentially harmful beliefs people hold about themselves, others, or the world.   In this essay,  I also opt to use the slightly different phrase core negativity,  inclusive of both core negative beliefs  and the negative mental states with which they are associated.   A simple, experience-near definition of core negativity is the deep angst that there is something fundamentally wrong with us.

There is famous lore surrounding the Dalai Lama’s response when asked about self-hatred among Westerners.   Although core negativity is fairly normative in the West,   apparently it is quite unknown among Tibetans.   In any event,  aversion towards oneself is implicated in many of our most common psychological afflictions in our culture, especially problematic anger, depression, anxiety, and shame.

In this Newsletter,  I will first give what I hope is a lucid summary about the nature of core negativity and the negative beliefs we harbor about ourselves.  Then, I will talk about a wise frame for self-reflective and meditative inquiry about them and how inquiry can be of benefit in working with them.   It is my hope that this discussion will inspire readers to “inquire deeply” into their own core negativity.

What Is Core Negativity, and Where Does It Come From?

Most of us are aware of one or more areas in life where we harbor negative self-esteem, self-recrimination, or self-blame.  We may be prone to states of negative mood, emotional ‘bad weather’, and negative thought storms. Self-critical thoughts associated with core negative beliefs are usually not far from the surface, awaiting triggering by something someone says or does (or something that we say or do!).   That said, our core negativity often tends to be apprehended in a somewhat vague way, because it lives partially submerged in the ocean of unconsciousness from which our psychological life emerges.

Core negativity is constellated around early relational wounds and becomes known to us primarily in states of emotional pain.  It is rooted in painful relational events from the past:   composite memories of how we were treated, what we felt at the time, and what we were explicitly told about ourselves when we were young and vulnerable.  We are programmed with core negative beliefs in the process of our early experiences with family and significant others.  A prototypical memory might be something like this:  We did something that made someone (usually a parent) mad, exasperated, or disgusted.  “You’re so stupid!  Can’t you do anything right?”.  Or “you ruin everything!  What’s wrong with you!”   The words hurt, but the emotional impact of the experience was even worse.    We may have felt hated, unsafe.  (We may have been hated and unsafe!)   We took the angry, attacking judgments as true and internalized them as beliefs about what is wrong with us.

While generally it will be obvious to someone when they are in the thrall of core negativity, and while it is usually not difficult to identify what happened externally to trigger the distress, the internal roots of the emotional turbulence may not be so clear.  The best practice opportunity for investigating core negativity is when something deeply upsetting comes along:  a conflict with someone, a rejection or rebuff, a disappointment, insult, or invalidation.  This situation affords an up-close and personal look at the elements of core negativity.

Even so, core negative beliefs about ourselves may be disguised or obscured by psychological defenses.  For example, we may project undesirable attributes onto others, hiding what we are afraid to see in ourselves behind a curtain of externally-directed blame.  Or, we may find ways to shield ourselves from the experience with food, alcohol, drugs, or work.    In any event, it is helpful to recognize that core negativity is deeply ingrained within us.   In these deep layers of psyche, experience is “primary process”: a mélange of archaic, primitively organized perceptions, feelings, and images.  Over time, these experiences are organized into embodied patterns of emotion and behavior and incorporated into our personality and character.

Though we can “work on” core negativity in psychotherapy and/or in dharma practice,  in my experience it tends to remain as an ongoing and indwelling potential to experience things like self-criticism, negative thinking, and depressed mood when the conditions are right.

What Is A Wise Frame For Working With Core Negativity?

Although psychotherapy can be very useful in working with core negativity, several common pitfalls are worth mentioning:

First, people often engage psychotherapeutic work with an expectation that core negative beliefs can be made to go away.  For reasons stated above, I think this view is unrealistic.   The more appropriate goal is to develop a more nuanced awareness of core negativity and how it functions within us.

Second, the effort to actively counter negative beliefs with more rational positive alternatives – positive thinking,  positive self-talk, or other self-affirmative assertions—  is quite limited in its effectiveness.  In my view, this is because core negativity is rooted in regions of the psyche that are fundamentally emotional, relational, and non-verbal.  Cognitive ‘corrections’ can only go so far in addressing it.  Core negativity needs to be experienced, not objectified. And, relational wounds are best healed in relationship.

And third, trying too hard to uproot negative beliefs is counterproductive.   This is especially likely to happen among those who tend to perfectionistic or obsessive (traits which are quite common among those who struggle the most with core negativity).   As the saying goes, what we resist, persists.   The effort to overcome negative thinking can have the paradoxical effect of making negative beliefs seem more rather than less real.

Inquiry about core negativity is without these drawbacks.  It enables us to discern what is cloudy, confused, or mistaken in our point of view about ourselves.  Perhaps it is important to add that inquiry as a meditative practice does NOT mean running after thoughts,  obsessing, or spinning out in thoughts about why.  Inquiry doesn’t demand an answer.  Indeed, the answer inheres in the very act of questioning itself.

The frame for this inquiry is multi-layered, inclusive both of deep emotional understanding and of our understanding of the Buddhist view of what causes suffering.   We can begin with the simple intention to investigate the experience of emotional pain that accompanies core negativity.   The goal is to discern as clearly as possible what our negative views of ourselves actually are.  Starting at the surface– delineating core core beliefs and negative thought patterns— we can allow inquiry to deepen along its own track.  We  feel our way into the experience of core negativity, and we endeavor to hold those parts of ourselves with kindness.

It quickly becomes evident that the inquiry about core negativity is really an inquiry about self.    What we’re after is a clear-eyed view of who we are afraid we are (or will be seen to be in the eyes of others).  Since our self-view is born out of our relationships with others,  autobiographical reflections can be very generative here.   On the flip side of the core negative — what we think is wrong with us— is its inverse: who we think we are supposed to be (or supposed to become).   It is useful to inquire about how we want to be seen.

One underlying premise in deep inquiry that I have found to be very useful is  beautifully stated in the following lines from psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin:   “The problem is not that there are problems.   The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”    Core negativity is part of our nature. The less we “problematize” it, the less we will suffer.

Core Negativity,  Dharma Practice, And Deep Inquiry

It seems ironic that whereas every spiritual path tells us that what we seek is inside us,  core negativity seems to proclaim the opposite: that we are fundamentally insufficient, unworthy, bad, or wrong.  Therein lies the rub.   In any event,   spiritual ‘solutions’ to core negativity seem to boil down to the following propositions:

  • Negative beliefs are only thoughts, not actually “real”, and, as such, are to be let go of.
  • The problem is simply that we are identified with the ego “I,” the voice in our head that disparages us, worries, doubts, suffers, and fears losing control.If do not believe those voices, we are told— if we do not reify ego—then the problem disappears.

In other words, the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of core negativity lies beyond belief.  Though simple in theory, for many different reasons this is much more easily said than done.

Inquiry allows us to see that believing is only one way to relate to something that may or may not be true.  Once we wrap a belief in a question mark, we have already begun to undermine the very credulity upon which its existence depends.  There is power in holding open the question of what is true.   It loosens the hold of belief on our experience.

Inquiry can reveal our tendency to respond to core negative beliefs by closing down, blocking opportunities for growth that might otherwise be present.    Conversely, when we are willing to look more openly, deeply, and compassionately at what we don’t like about ourselves, we open new avenues for authentic self-acceptance and self-expression.

My experiences with deep inquiry have re-affirmed for me again and again that inquiry has a mind of its own.   When we follow along in the slipstream of our curiosity, interest, and experience, our awareness of core negativity leads us naturally to a deepening of our wisdom and compassion.