Core negative beliefs refer in a general way to judgmental and potentially harmful beliefs people hold about themselves. In this essay, I also opt to use the slightly different phrase core negativity, including 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”. Before he could answer, His Holiness had to confer at length with his translator. Although core negativity is fairly normative in the West, apparently it is sufficiently unusual among Tibetans that the translation was not simple. Be that as it may, in our culture aversion towards oneself is implicated in many common psychological afflictions, 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.
One of the biggest challenges in investigating core negativity is the tendency to locate the “problem” in the other person. 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. When your spouse gets angry with you, for example, it’s natural to focus on your perceptions and judgments about them, when what really needs your attention is what is going on inside of you. What experience does your spouse’s anger trigger in you that you find overwhelming? What are you having trouble being with?
In the deep layers of psyche, experience is “primary process”: a mélange of archaic, primitively organized perceptions, feelings, and images. The differentiation between what is Self and what is Other is not a given; it has to be learned. (This topic is addressed at length in two Newsletters in the final section of this book which have the word “Entanglement” in their titles.) In any event, in order to work with negative beliefs which cause emotional distress, it is necessary that we first be able to own the attributions that belong to us.
Inquiring Deeply About Core Negativity
The frame for inquiry about core negativity is multi-layered, inclusive both of the psychological basis of core negativity and of the Buddhist view of what causes suffering.
- “What Is This?”
Typically, inquiry begins with the simple intention to investigate an experience of emotional pain. The basic goal is to be able to clearly discern what we feeling: both what emotions have been activated and the negative thought patterns that are present. This inquiry has several components:
- Locating where the emotion (or distress) is felt to be located in the body (although this may not always be clear). And/or,
- Settling into the body while ‘listening in on’ what the mind has to say about what is going on and the meaning we are giving it.
As previously noted, when we have gotten upset in an interaction with someone else, it can be difficult to see clearly who is doing what to whom.
- “What story am I believing Now”? and: “Is it really true”?
Quite often emotional pain has to do with our ideas and beliefs about what is “wrong” with us. We have been told or have otherwise come to conclusions about the ways that we are deficient or inadequate. It can be useful to see the origin of these ideas in our earlier life experience. (“Where did that story come from”? and/or “Where did I get that idea”? and/or “Who told me that”?) And, it is important to reflect on the evidence upon which our negative views are based.
- “Who am I afraid I am”? and/or “Who do I think I need to be”?
At a deeper level, inquiry about core negativity often becomes an inquiry about self. We need to see who we are afraid we are; or, how we are afraid we will be seen by others.
Moreover, 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).
Psychotherapy and 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. Because core negativity is embedded in deep layers of the psyche which are pre-verbal or unconscious may, they are difficult to eradicate. A more realistic goal is to develop a more nuanced awareness of core negativity and how it functions within us.
Second, for the same reasons, 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. 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.
Third, because core negative beliefs reflect emotional wounding sustained in our primary relationships in early life, positive relational experiences are the best way to counteract them. Relational wounds are best healed in relationship.
And fourth, trying too hard to uproot negative beliefs is counterproductive. This is especially likely to happen among those who tend to perfectionistic or have 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. Instead, we feel our way into the experience of core negativity, and we endeavor to hold those parts of ourselves with kindness.
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 we 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.
 Rubin, T.I. (1998) Compassion and Self-Hate. Touchtone Press, New York.