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Basic concept and skill -

Beliefs and the Body

As humans, we have an innate ability to make meaning. This process happens continuously, not only through verbal communication but also through our automatic and nonverbal capacities. We make meaning by observing, inferring, and compiling data from our environment and our internal reactions to stimuli. Our brains quickly process the effects of external stimuli on our sensations, movements, perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. In a fraction of a second, our brains compare this data to our past experiences. By comparing the present to the past, we instantly understand what is happening and create meaning. We use this implicit meaning to predict the future and respond accordingly.


If a certain kind of experience is repeated often enough over time, the meaning we make of it might also be repeated and eventually become a somewhat inflexible core belief. Picture a child who seeks her father when she is frightened of new experiences, such as going on a playdate to a friend's house, and the father repeatedly comforts her and provides the support she needs to overcome her fear and engage in the new activity. The child then learns to associate being frightened of something new with the availability of someone to comfort and encourage her. This might result in beliefs such as "When I'm scared, someone will be there to help me," "I can count on other people's support." or "It's ok to try new things." We all form some positive beliefs like these, but trauma and painful attachment experiences also lead us to form core beliefs that are negatively biased and erroneous. Beliefs such as "I'm bad,” “It was my fault," "No one will ever love me," and "I'm never good enough" remain potent determinants of our behavior long after the experiences that shaped these beliefs are over. As we have discussed, they are reflected and sustained in the procedural patterns of the body.


During the first phase of gaining self-awareness through the body, we learn to focus on our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and physical sensations related to our resources. These resources help us regulate our arousal levels, increase our self-esteem, and enhance our ability to control our lives. In the second phase, which involves working with memory, we focus on bottom-up interventions to address our beliefs about animal defenses. This is done by following the sensations or movements of our bodies and putting aside any thoughts or beliefs that hinder our body movements. The main objective of this phase is to directly confront the core beliefs that we developed as a result of our interactions with attachment figures. The aim is to identify and understand these core beliefs and how they are formed and to discover how they are reflected and sustained in our bodies. Once we have achieved this understanding, we can challenge our limiting beliefs and explore the possibility of constructing more positive or realistic beliefs to help us move forward.


How Beliefs Are Formed


Our beliefs originate in childhood and develop and change over our lifetimes through our new experiences. We make meaning through our emotions and body experiences, even as infants and young children. Sometimes, these meanings can become pervasive negative or positive beliefs we express through our behavior and words. If, as babies, our mother comforts us when we cry or cling to her, we will repeat those actions. Without words, we have implicitly predicted the future by making the meaning that she will respond if we cry and cling. If she is responsive to us more than not, over time, we may develop positive and realistic beliefs about others and the world, such as, “Others will usually respond to my needs" or "The world is supportive." We may also make meaning about ourselves: for example, "I'm worthy of attention" or "I deserve to have my needs met."


On the other hand, if we are not attended to and comforted consistently, we probably learn to detach emotionally and physically when we need support from others. If a parent continues to be unresponsive time after time, whatever meaning we make, whether it is about others ("She doesn't like me,"; "She is too busy for me"), the world (“The world is not a supportive place"), or ourselves ("I'm not good enough"; "I don't deserve attention"), turns into pervasive negative beliefs about others, the world, or ourselves. These beliefs are communicated to others through posture, tension patterns, and movement.



Types of Beliefs 


Beliefs can be realistically positive ("Most people will treat me kindly"), unrealistically optimistic ("All people will always treat me kindly"), or unrealistically negative ("All people will always treat me unkindly"). Similarly, beliefs about ourselves can be realistically positive ("I'm good enough just as I am"), unrealistically optimistic ("I'm better than other people"), or unrealistically negative ("I'm stupid and always mess up"). Following is a chart of examples of realistic positive beliefs and unrealistic negative ones. Which ones resonate with you?



"I'm unlovable."

"I always have to do what others want."

"My needs will never be met."

"I can only count on myself."

"I'm not good enough."

"My feelings are not OK."

"I always have to do everything right."



"I deserve to be loved."

"I can usually do what I want."

"I can get my needs met."

"I can count on others."

"I'm good enough."

"Whatever I feel is ΟΚ."

"It's OK to make mistakes."


Our negative or limiting beliefs usually involve global generalizations (no one, all people, or everyone) and feel like facts or "absolutes." Words such as always, only, or never accompany these absolute beliefs; for example, “No one will ever love me,” “I will never get what I want," and "This world is only full of heartache." These beliefs, painful memories, emotions, and physical patterns accompanying them all form a repetitive, negative cycle.


Upgrading Our Beliefs 


Although we begin to develop these beliefs early in our lives, they can be modified over time as we are exposed to new and different experiences that challenge the assumptions. What we take in through our senses is continually compared to past and present experiences. Through this automatic comparison process, we can revise or upgrade core beliefs based on new experiences. However, this often does not occur fully because the old beliefs and their emotional and physical correlates impose the old meaning on new experiences. New meaning-making is constrained by the old meanings of earlier experiences, even in childhood. The little boy with the downcast eyes and collapsed chest who believes he is stupid has been unable to take in new information that could upgrade his meaning-making. With his head down, looking at his feet instead of making eye contact, he cannot see his teacher's smiles, and he has missed her encouraging body language. With his chest collapsed, his breathing shallow, and his body heavy and numb, his teacher's positive words feel empty, and he cannot absorb them.


Nate's parents did not pay attention to their own emotions or those of Nate's own. He remembers dinnertime as full of intellectual conversation, but no one ever asked him how he felt. Nate learned to tighten his body, hold his breath, and keep his facial expressions blank so his feelings would not show. He developed limiting beliefs, such as "My emotions are not interesting to others," "I should keep whatever I feel to myself," and "My feelings are not OK.” However, as an adult, his best friend, who came from a family that expressed emotions quickly to one another, often asked Nate how he felt. Through this friendship, Nate had an opportunity to upgrade his old beliefs, and he began to challenge his limiting beliefs with more realistically positive ones, such as, "My friends care about how I feel."


But, even though Nate's limiting beliefs were challenged, he still had difficulty opening up to his friend. He implicitly remembered the early imprint of his parents' disinterest in his emotional life and how his attempts to communicate his feelings had brought only indifference and disapproval- very hurtful to him as a child. The possibility of testing out if his old belief was still accurate by opening up to his friend felt frightening because Nate unconsciously associated the pain he had experienced from his parents' rejection of his emotions with opening up to another person. He did not want to take the chance of reexperiencing the same hurt he had experienced with his parents.


It's important to note that these beliefs and accompanying learned behaviors are not consciously chosen. They are strategies beneath the surface designed to reduce the possibility of experiencing painful emotional connections. Nate's implicit learning led him to conclude that it was safer to assume nobody would care about his feelings rather than risking the disappointment of hoping they would care and being let down.


Whenever Nate's friend inquired about his emotional state, Nate would instinctively tense up and experience difficulty breathing, leading him to believe that his emotions should be kept to himself. Nate's fundamental belief remained unchanged because it had become an ingrained habit. As a result, Nate became overly preoccupied with any indication that others were uninterested in his emotions. For instance, if Nate's friend looked away, seemed distracted, or furrowed his brow, Nate subconsciously perceived these actions as evidence that his friend lacked interest in his emotions, thus affirming his limiting belief. In such moments, Nate's body would tense further and withdraw slightly.


Our beliefs can become rigid, causing us to repeat behaviors that were once useful but are no longer needed in the present. Our beliefs need to be flexible and adaptable to new experiences to meet the needs of the present. As we develop and mature, we should strive to learn from others and gain new perspectives to expand our actions and approach to life. However, changing our beliefs requires intention, courage, and diligence, as they can feel like the ultimate truth. Ultimately, our goal should be to grow and evolve and have fulfilling lives and relationships continuously.


Nate challenged his core belief by taking several steps. He identified his procedural learning, which included tension and constricted breath, and attempted to relax and take deep breaths, mainly when he was with his friend, to be more open to new experiences. Nate also talked to his friend about his desire to change his pattern and asked for his friend's help. Together, they worked on challenging Nate's beliefs. They made a pact that when Nate misinterpreted his friend's behavior as disinterest, he would ask openly if that were true (which, according to his friend, it never was).

Additionally, they decided to have a monthly evening to discuss their emotions about their lives and relationships. During these meetings, Nate learned from his friend's openness and receptivity that showing emotions was acceptable. In therapy, Nate revisited a harrowing memory and tearfully remembered how he had cried as a young boy after being bullied, only to be told by his father to grow up and be a man. It was essential for Nate to reconnect with the emotions he had suppressed to fit into his family and change his beliefs.



Trauma and Attachment-Related Core Beliefs


The feelings that arise from beliefs associated with trauma share similarities with the emotions experienced during animal defenses, such as panic, rage, terror, and despair. Our survival instincts are connected to these beliefs and feelings. When we encounter certain situations, our arousal level can be higher than we can handle. Although there may be some similarities, trauma beliefs differ from limiting beliefs, which we develop in everyday relationships with others, such as our significant others and peers. Feelings of sadness, loneliness, anger, frustration, grief, and fear accompany these beliefs that limit us. Usually, our level of arousal does not go beyond our capacity to deal with it unless we experience emotions and animal defenses related to trauma. Here are a few examples of core beliefs for each type mentioned:


Trauma Beliefs


"I'll die if I'm left alone."

"The world is a dangerous place."

"I have to perform, or I will perish."

"I must fight to survive."

"I'm completely helpless."

"I have to comply to survive."



Attachment- related beliefs


"I'll always be alone."

"I can't count on anyone."

"I should please others."

"No one cares about me."

"My needs are not important."

"I'm not loveable."


If someone has experienced relational trauma, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the trauma and attachment beliefs. In such cases, the two beliefs often overlap. To address trauma-related beliefs, we can use bottom-up interventions by developing resources and working with traumatic memory, as explained in the previous chapters. For instance, Sue, who underwent sexual abuse in her childhood from a nonfamily member, had developed a trauma-related belief that she was weak and incapable. Since this belief was associated with the danger she faced during the abuse and being too little to defend herself, she and her therapist dealt with it using somatic resources and reinstating empowering physical defenses. Sue realized that her rounded shoulders, collapsed posture, and lack of tone and energy in her arms reinforced these beliefs. She started practicing alignment of her spine, lifting her head, and strengthening the "pushing away" muscles of her arms by lifting weights under the direction of a trainer. As Sue worked with her therapist to resolve her traumatic memories, she rediscovered the long-forgotten ability to push away and defend herself, which led to her trauma-related belief changing to "I am capable. I can protect myself."


John had developed the belief that "I have to be a high achiever to be loved" due to being raised in a family that emphasized excellence in all aspects. As a result, his body exhibited overall tension, high and shallow breathing, and quick, continuous movements, all reflecting this attachment belief. Even when sitting, he couldn't sit still and continually jiggled his leg and squirmed in his chair. These physical patterns contributed to his workaholism and prevented him from relaxing. On the other hand, nontraumatic attachment beliefs are filled with emotions that must be experienced and expressed.


John learned to slow down and relax his body to develop the belief that he can be loved for who he is. He also learned to have compassion for the little boy he used to be, who always performed for fear of losing his parents' love and attention. Another person needed to experience and accept the painful emotions of feeling unloved for John to develop this belief. His therapist provided the necessary compassionate support to help John express the deep sadness on behalf of his young self and for all the years spent trying to win approval. As John cried softly, his agitated movements lessened, and his breathing deepened. Gradually, John could replace his limiting belief of only being loved if he achieved with the assumption that he is lovable as he is, not just for what he achieves.


It's essential to acknowledge that when dealing with beliefs related to attachment, we often relive the emotional pain of disapproval, rejection, or lack of support from our primary caregivers during childhood. Both you and your therapist can provide compassion to the child you once were, who had to form these beliefs to cope with your childhood circumstances. This will help you experience the healing grief that can resolve past issues and change your core beliefs. The following worksheets can assist you in exploring your core beliefs and how they relate to your body and begin comprehending the circumstances that led you to form them.





Heller, D. (2012). Healing developmental trauma: How early trauma affects self-regulation, self-image, and the capacity for relationship. North Atlantic Books.

Rothschild, B. (2000). The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. W. W. Norton & Company.


Lipton, B. (2005). The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles.

Schwartz, J. M., & Begley, S. (2002). The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force.

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