Do you think you are a friendly person? If you answer yes, then you might be a person with a positive self-schema. A self-schema is the information and beliefs you hold about yourself. This cognitive framework influences how you feel, how you react, your actual behavior, and your perception of your place in the world.
A positive self-schema can bring benefits beyond light social interactions: Before going to a networking event with people in your industry that you admire, you might think about how you are, for example, and that check-in soothes your nerves.
But on the flip side, a negative self-schema might tip you toward brooding and more isolating thought cycles, like, “I can’t do anything right.”
How your self-schema influences your actions can be nuanced: For example, you may have internalized that you’re not athletic during childhood — and then, later in life, limit yourself when you want to try a sport. Not being a great athlete isn’t a negative attribute, but the idea can have negative consequences if it keeps you from doing what you actually want.
As you might have already guessed, research suggests our self-schemas develop during early childhood and can remain stable over time. But do not despair: Negative self-schemas can be changed with evidence, explains David Dozois, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario.
“It is not really the power of positive thinking but the power of non-negative thinking that is helpful,” Dozois says.
There are effective strategies that can help individuals alter the course of this type of negative thinking, he explains. And by studying how we reinforce negative self-schema, researchers are gleaning new insights into the human mind. Ultimately, their work could yield even better strategies for combating these intrusive and unhelpful self-beliefs.
Understanding negative core beliefs
Negative core beliefs about the self can be the result of insecure attachment experiences, childhood maltreatment, and other adverse events in childhood, Dozois explains. Research suggests these beliefs can essentially lie dormant in the back of the mind until a negative life event — like rejection or failure at work — wakes them up.
“Once activated or triggered, these negative beliefs and schemas can impact other information processing such as attention and memory biases,” Dozois says. For example, focusing on a perceived negative attribute could cause you to unintentionally filter out positive or contradictory information.
“With the right skills and motivation to change, one’s thinking can improve and become more evidence-based.”
Negative self-schemas can also feed cognitive biases. If one person believes they are unloveable and then they are triggered by a stressful event, like romantic rejection, they are more likely to have other negative thoughts about themselves in the future. In other words: One negative core belief can spiral into many negative core beliefs.
To try and untangle this relationship, a team of researchers examined what can activate and amplify negative self-schema. They found that people who view themselves in a negative light are more likely to remember and incorporate negative feedback into their thought processes. This was especially true if they displayed cognitive reactivity while they felt sad — during cognitive reactivity, negative patterns of thinking can be reactivated through smaller triggers, feeding the vicious cycle of thoughts. The study was published in October 2022 in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research
The link between cognitive reactivity and the likelihood of reinforcing negative self-schema interests Noboru Matsumoto, an associate professor at Shinshu University and the paper’s first author. Because cognitive reactivity can be modified by techniques like mindfulness, this opens the door to testing mindfulness as an intervention for negative self-beliefs, Matsumoto tells me.
How to change negative self-beliefs
Before you try and change how you feel about yourself, it may be helpful to figure out your self-schema. One way to do this — perhaps alongside a therapist — is the “downward arrow” technique. This, roughly, starts with considering an automatic thought prompted by a question like “Why are you afraid of ending your relationship? or “Why are you unhappy at work?” The therapist then invites an exploration of the answer with another question, and so on.
This process can lead to the emergence of an underlying conditional assumption. Often, the assumption takes the form of an “if…then” statement — “If I don’t get the job, then it will be embarrassing” can lead to “If I’m not approved of by my family, it proves I’m a failure.”
Becoming aware of your own internalized rules can reveal underlying core beliefs and schema.
It’s also important that people understand that negative core beliefs don’t develop randomly, Dozois explains. These beliefs are the result of previous experiences. But how you perceived yourself as a child may not represent how you see yourself as an adult.
Once you identify negative self-schema, monitoring negative thinking and changing it with evidence can help, Dozois says. When you catch yourself thinking harshly about yourself, you can ask: What is the evidence for thinking this? If a friend knew I thought this about myself, what would they say?
5 strategies to challenge negative thinking:
- Describing the issue accurately and specifically
- Identifying associated thoughts and interpretations
- Understanding the meaning of these beliefs
- Assessing the consequences of these beliefs
- Determining if these consequences are backed by evidence
These strategies are similar to those used in cognitive behavioral therapy. Meanwhile, some self-help books might also help people incorporate evidence-based thinking into their life — Dozois recommends Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky.
“I think a common misconception is that one’s thinking will never be able to change or that it is too engrained to be modified,” he says.
“With the right skills and motivation to change, one’s thinking can improve and become more evidence-based. Over time, as one continues to test and change their negative thinking, a more helpful, adaptive way of thinking will develop and will eventually start to become the default mode.”