Have you ever had a patient that came to you with a clear idea of what he or she would like in their career, but just couldn’t seem to make any progress?

Along with relationships, physical health and spiritual concerns, career issues are one of the most common motivations to seek therapy. Most often, concerns about work and money are rooted in core beliefs about success, security and worthiness that are relics of childhood learning.

Whether patients struggle with long-term stuckness, dissatisfaction or underachievement, their core beliefs can act as significant roadblocks to reaching career goals and can radically compromise financial health, too.

Core beliefs are often expressed through actions rather than words. For instance, a patient may not come forth and say that deep down she believes she’s incompetent, but will express this belief through behavior; by not going for the promotion at work, not pushing herself to develop new skills or staying stuck for years in work that doesn’t challenge her.

The following five core beliefs are based on schema theory, which suggests that core beliefs or schemas are developed early in life and carried into our adult lives, where, when triggered, can be intensely painful. The first step to working with core beliefs is to identify them and the ways they show up in clients’ lives.

Core Beliefs

Do you recognize any of these beliefs in your clients?

1.If I can’t do it perfectly, it’s not worth doing.

Clients who struggle with perfectionism, fear of criticism or the vulnerability that comes with making mistakes often find themselves paralyzed. They may put off starting a new project or learning a new skill until they believe that they can execute it perfectly, which tends to result in failure to start at all.  Clients with this core belief are so averse to the thought of failure that they’d prefer to stay stuck in unchallenging situations, which can severely limit career satisfaction.

While “perfectionis” clients may be high achievers at some point in their lives, they may struggle with self-compassion and relaxation, and instead may instead be highly self-critical and hyperactive.

Highly self-critical clients often operate under the assumption that their inner critic is protecting them, and that if they were to “go easy” on themselves, their performance would surely suffer. But research has shown that self-criticism does not actually motivate improved performance. If anything, it leads to increased burnout and depleted resilience.

2. I’ll never accomplish my goals anyway. Why bother?

We’ve all worked with patients who struggle with excessive negative thinking and ruminative thought patterns. Somewhere along the line, these individuals’ brains shifted to focus almost exclusively on disappointment, loss and all that could go wrong in a situation rather than make space for the possibility that things could go right.

Patients who carry excessive negative core beliefs may have learned early on that the world is a dangerous, unforgiving and disappointing place. They may have even grown up with an anxious, depressed or agoraphobic parent. Because these people are so fixated on failure and on what could potentially go wrong, they tend to stay stuck in situations that range from unsatisfying to toxic for much longer than they should.

3. Others’ needs are more important than my own.

Clients who chronically put the needs of others before their own tend to sacrifice their own wants and needs for the wants and needs of others and can get caught in situations that do not serve them because of guilt, shame or a simple inability to attend to personal needs. Such clients may have grown up with a narcissistic or alcoholic parent or otherwise learned to focus on the needs of others from an early age.

For these clients, boundaries are typically non-existent and the idea of paying attention to one’s own needs over those of others will often come with feelings of selfishness, guilt and even intense fear.

4. I know what I want, but I can never seem to make it happen.

While some patients struggle to even know what they want, others seem to have crystal clear visions of the work they’d like to do and the careers they’d like to have. They simply lack the discipline to make it happen.

Lack of discipline often reflects a lack of distress tolerance, diminished impulse control and a need for instant gratification rooted in an inability to sit with difficult thoughts, feelings or bodily sensations.

The good news is that impulse control can be developed through a mindfulness-based practice called urge-surfing, in which the client learns to notice his or her urges as they arise, and let them pass rather than acting on them.

5. I’m incompetent or possess a fatal flaw that makes success virtually impossible for me.

People who carry the core belief that they are incompetent or possess an irredeemable flaw may have grown up with a highly critical, emotionally neglectful or enmeshed parent.

Emotionally neglectful parents often mean well, but lack understanding of their child’s emotional needs and are unable to tend to them in appropriate ways. As a result, the child learns that there is something deeply wrong with him or her, and carries that belief into adulthood.

Enmeshed parents, on the other hand, blur the boundaries between themselves and their child, hampering the child’s developing sense of self and instilling the belief that the child cannot handle the world on his or her own without the parent.

For those whose core beliefs include that they are incompetent or somehow broken, taking career risks or volunteering for challenging projects each come with the risk that the incompetence or fatal flaw will be exposed. Without addressing the validity of one’s believed incompetence or brokenness, it will be very challenging to take the risks that career success requires.