There are certain aspects of ourselves that are at the center of many of our beliefs about who we are, in the mental health field we call these Core Beliefs. These beliefs can be healthy or unhealthy, and we can have quite a few. They are also sometimes rather obvious, and others are harder to recognize. There are certain avenues that we use in order to understand them, deconstruct them, and then build them up in a healthier way, one such technique that can be useful is The Downward Arrow.
First, a quick rundown to set the scene for The Downward Arrow. This technique comes from the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) model. CBT is a type of therapy in which we examine the ways in which our thoughts affect our feelings in profound ways and can lead to unhealthy ways of feeling and thinking and ultimately, acting. We then try to understand where each of these things come from and deconstruct them. We then build up a healthier alternative to these unhealthy ways of thinking. What we find when we do this is that our thoughts are often indicative of our Core Beliefs. Once we get a good understanding of these Core Beliefs, we can do profound work to turn them into healthier beliefs. For example, let’s say there is a client who comes in and says they are depressed because things are not going well at their job because they didn’t get the promotion they wanted. What we want to do is assess what thoughts they are having and what they may be telling themselves when they are feeling this way. Then we can use this to guide us where to go next.
After we have done this groundwork, we want to take this information and use it to direct where to go next. We ask for them to explain their thoughts and why they think what they do. Say this person says, “I am an idiot. I shouldn’t be in this field, obviously, I am terrible. My boss thinks so.” We can now use The Downward Arrow to get to the root of their difficulties, so we ask, “What do you believe that means about you?” Often times you get a response that is free associated thinking, “It means I have invested so much into being good at what I do, and I am not. They all probably think I am terrible. I probably am terrible, and I am probably going to get fired.” And then we ask the same question, “Assuming those things are true, what do you believe that means about you?” You keep asking this question, and yes, it can be frustrating to hear it over and over. However, this is an appropriate time to push like this. Often times people will keep digging until they start repeating themselves. “Like I said, it means I am a failure.” Now we stop here, we have dug as deep as we could and push as hard as appropriate.
The next step is labeling, bolding, and underlining this point. You have a Core Belief, that you are not good at what you do, that you are a failure. What we want to do is to scrutinize this belief. What are the main reasons you believe this? Once we have a number of key reasons for why the client feels this way, we start scrutinizing and building evidence. “Isn’t it possible, you were a good candidate too, but there was a good reason they got the promotion? Maybe they were a better candidate than you, that doesn’t automatically mean you are terrible, it could just be that another person was a better fit. Maybe not, maybe it wasn’t fair. However, that doesn’t automatically mean you are bad at what you do. Maybe they didn’t know you wanted the job.” We start to fill the whole picture in and not just the negative.
We use The Downward Arrow to dig to the bottom of where these beliefs come from, and only then are we able to understand it and deconstruct it and build a healthier belief in its place. The Downward Arrow is a powerful tool to get past the surface. This is, of course, one small piece of CBT, but it is a powerful question that can help us get to the root of where some of our deepest negative thoughts about ourselves come from and help us see that the way we think about ourselves can sometimes skew very negative and become deeply unhealthy. This is one of the first steps to getting to a place where we are able to think and feel in healthier ways.