How Compelling is an In-Person Presentation About Key Core Beliefs?

How Compelling Is an In-Person Presentation About Key Core Beliefs?

By Kathleen McCarthy

I have been thinking about Key Core Beliefs, how they affect my own life, and the lives of my family members, ever since I edited “Key Core Beliefs: Unlocking the HEART of Happiness & Health” two years ago.

But I hadn’t ever seen the book’s three authors (Dr. Gray Otis, Sandi Williams, and Dr. Jim Messina) give a live presentation on the topic. That changed at the end of June when I attended the annual conference of the American Mental Health Counselors Association as the editor of AMHCA’s quarterly magazine.

While I find the material in the Key Core Beliefs book riveting, I was curious to see how the authors presented the material, and how the conference attendees—clinical mental health counselors—responded to the presentation.

The authors discussed ways Key Core Beliefs could be helpful to those suffering from trauma and co-occurring disorders, in effect explaining how the book could be applied to a particular struggle—recovery from trauma. I was hooked from the outset, when Dr. Otis said, “If you experience trauma or chronic distress in your life, you are normal.” Ahhh. He also explained a key tenet of Key Core Beliefs: “If you are focused on the negative, you will find what you’re looking for and build evidence to show that the negative beliefs about yourself are well-founded and true.”

The presentation was not intended to present a new therapeutic approach; rather it advocated a new perspective that focuses on a crucial aspect of recovery, one that the attendees could use in their day-to-day work with clients.

Virtually everyone was engrossed by the stories Ms. Williams told. These real-life stories about the authors’ clients illustrated some of the ways that trauma had affected clients’ lives, and how helping clients understand their Key Core Beliefs through therapy and
activities available on the Key Core Beliefs website had enabled many people to change their lives for the better.

Dr. Messina pointed out that suffering traumatic events or chronic trauma can be so unbearable that people chose problematic ways to avoid the bad feelings, such as excessive gambling, eating, drug use, etc. “But by attempting to numb severe negative emotions, individuals simultaneously inadvertently numb out joy and love.” In addition, the new numbing behaviors become co-occurring disorders along with the original trauma.

When people are coping with trauma and co-occurring disorders, it’s very common for them to have negative, shame-based beliefs about themselves, such as: “There is something fundamentally, inherently wrong with me.” That belief typically leads to the worst Negative Core Belief of all: “I am not worthy to be loved.”

Hearing the authors explain how Negative Core Beliefs can be transformed into realistic Positive Core Beliefs was relieving and inspiring.

How Did Attendees Respond?
It was exciting for me to see how well the authors connected with their audience. The Key Core Belief authors—a psychologist, a marriage and family therapist, and a clinical mental health counselor—respected the experience of the AMHCA attendees, drawing on their input to illustrate the points they were making. But perhaps the biggest indication of how much the attendees valued the presentation was that they chose to attend a two-part, three-hour presentation at the tail end of the second day of a two-day conference.

Even more compelling, when the second part of the presentation resumed at close to 5 p.m. (!), virtually everyone who had attended the first part of the presentation had returned.
“Key Core Beliefs: Unlocking the HEART of Happiness & Health” is available from The three authors give invited presentations and workshops across the country. Learn more at A board member of Key Core Beliefs Foundation, Kathleen McCarthy works as a magazine and book editor, specializing in the field of mental health. Email her at

What is the ART of Communication

How Does the ART of Communication Work?
By Sandi Williams, MS, MA, LMFT

I have often asked my couples in therapy, the men in particular, what they would give me if I could cut in half the time they spend arguing with their partner. As you can imagine, they are desperate enough to promise me their firstborn – though not a fair commodity since that would be a double win for them, seeing as their firstborn is usually a teenager, ha. So I tell them that fight-times are cut in half if each person will listen while the other one is speaking. 

Our Key Core Beliefs, or the beliefs we hold deeply about ourselves, are often triggered when we feel criticized. If someone points out something we are not doing “right”, then we figure that they are saying we are doing it “wrong”, or even “I am wrong”. So let’s clean this up in the vocabulary we use to define our Key Core Beliefs. Let’s avoid using “right” or “wrong” or “I am right” or “I am wrong”. Let’s pay attention instead to perspective. What’s important is our ability to communicate so that we can understand the other person’s perspective. The Key Core Belief to aspire to then is: “I can communicate”.

To truly communicate, you have to learn the ART of listening – listening well enough that the other person feels
heard, understood, and accepted.

Start by taking a deep breath. John Gottman, a marriage researcher from Seattle, has found that when your heart rate is over 100 beats per minute (bpm), no effective communication can happen because your built-in alarm system has been triggered. This alarm system has a name: Diffuse Physiological Arousal or DPA for short. When your body hits DPA mode, your heart speeds up, so it pumps your blood faster, raising your heart rate. You might also experience other physical reactions when you’re upset – your skin gets blotchy or tears form in your eyes, you shut down and stop talking, you say the same thing over and over again, your throat may feel tight, or you feel suddenly feel sick to your stomach.

These reactions lead to the infamous fight, flight, or freeze responses. The two most basic ones are fight - in relationship terms we call “pursue” and flight - we call this “withdraw”. No communicating happens if you feel your heart beating too fast because of your body’s DPA response, so take a minute to breathe and calm down. Now onto the rules of the ART of Communication:

Goal #1: Actively listen. The reason that most people repeat themselves over and over is because they don’t feel heard. When you’re listening, you can’t be speaking! Further, if you’re thinking of what you are going to say next while your partner is talking, you aren’t actively listening. If your partner doesn’t feel heard, your partner is not going to hear your response anyway, so your response is irrelevant until your partner feels heard.

Goal #2: Relate through empathy. Be sure that you have understood what your partner has told you. Repeat back what your partner just said to see if you understand correctly - “Am I understanding this right, you would like me to ….” or, “If I’m hearing you correctly, you’d like me to …”. By repeating back what your partner said, you are not trying to mock their perception or point of view, but instead trying to gain empathy in what it’s like to be them. This is a very important point. So I often say to my couples, “If I were you, I can imagine I might feel _______.” Your goal here is to be able to fill in the blank accurately. What is it like to be the other person? This is not about what’s right or wrong, it’s about having empathy for the other person.

Goal #3: Trust in the other person’s good intentions. To do this, you have to understand where the other person is coming from. It’s important that your partner feels accepted, or what therapy refers to as “validated”. This doesn’t mean that we agree with their viewpoint; it just means that you accept it as valid.

So the ART of communication is:

  • A=actively listen
  • R=relate through empathy
  • T=trust in the other person’s good intentions.
Once you both feel hear, understood, and accepted, then you’ll be able to discuss your differences together and begin to figure out how to resolve them.

“Key Core Beliefs: Unlocking the HEART of Happiness & Health” is available from

What Is at the Root of Your Mental and Emotion Pain?

Drawn from first half of the Counseling Tips on page 8 of the Winter 2019 issue of The Advocate Magazine ___________________________________

What Is at the Root of Your Mental and Emotional Pain?
By Gray Otis, PhD, PhD, LCMHC, DCMHS-T

Many of the individuals my co-authors and I see don’t understand why they continually deal with depression, anger, and anxiety. When you see a mental health professional for the first time, your counselor has to identify what fundamental factors are causing your disorders:
Do your symptoms indicate brain dysfunction—physiological disease or injury?
If so, can you be successfully treated with medications?
Do your symptoms instead indicate that your disorders are caused by psychological distress?
If so, can your counselor help you attain better mental health?

Three Approaches to Healing

  • 1. Treating physiological causes. Injuries to the brain, dementia, substance use, hypo- or hyper-thyroidism, and congenital conditions are just a few of the many physiological causes of brain dysfunction. If your symptoms may be physiological in origin, your counselor should be aware of that and refer you to a primary care provider (PCP). Note that even if your symptoms are caused by neurological factors, mental health professionals can be highly effective treatment providers. Mental health support for you and your family members can also be crucial.
  • 2. Prescribing medication. Pharmaceutical treatment can certainly sometimes be helpful, but be aware that psychotropic prescriptions primarily relieve symptoms, not the issues that cause the symptoms. Therefore, medication alone rarely restores psychological health. For example, SSRIs (a type of commonly prescribed antidepressant) can reduce the symptoms of acute depression or anxiety, but they do not treat the underlying mental-emotional causes.
  • 3. Identifying Key Core Beliefs. This approach, which has its roots in psychodynamic therapy, can led to lasting health outcomes. Mental health professionals using this approach identify and address any of your Negative Core Beliefs, which underlie all psychologically based disorders.
Why a Key Core Beliefs Approach to Healing Works
Each person harbors a great many Core Beliefs about themselves. For example, you may strongly accept all of these statements as true about yourself:
  • I am musical.
  • I am coordinated.
  • I am smart.
  • I am irresponsible.
  • I am lazy.
  • I am unlovable.
Self-beliefs are core to how we each perceive ourselves and our life experiences. To illustrate, suppose you have all of the Core Beliefs listed above and you are asked to play the piano at a school play. You may think, “I play the piano pretty well because it takes coordination to play an instrument, and I am smart; however, playing in public would require a lot of practice. I hate to practice, and if I played poorly, it would show everyone that I’m lazy and unreliable, which is why no one could ever really love me.” Most people do not think in exactly this manner, but nearly everyone rationalizes decisions in this way.
As one mental health professional observed, “Whenever I see someone for the first time with chronic anxiety, anger, or depression, I anticipate that they will eventually tell me about their Negative Core Beliefs. Because I know what to look for, these beliefs soon become very apparent. Without fail, these self-beliefs provide the basis for effective treatment outcomes with nearly every one of my clients.”
My next blog will address how mental health professionals can help clients believe that they—like all of us—are worthy of being loved.
“Key Core Beliefs: Unlocking the HEART of Happiness & Health” is available from Gray Otis is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and an AMHCA Diplomate & Clinical Mental Health Specialist in Trauma. A past president of AMHCA, he has a private practice in Cedar Hills, Utah. He is also the primary author of the 2018 book, “Key Core Beliefs: Unlocking the HEART of Happiness & Health,” which was written for both mental health professionals and members of the public. Learn more at, and email him at

Can I Learn to Believe That I - Like Everyone - Is Worthy of Being Loved?

Drawn from first half of the Counseling Tips on page 8 of the Winter 2019 issue of The Advocate Magazine ______________________________________________

Can I Learn to Believe That I—Like Everyone— Is Worthy of Being Loved?
By Gray Otis, PhD, PhD, LCMHC, DCMHS-T

José felt trapped. He had experienced chronic feelings of depression and anxiousness since his early 20s, and he didn’t know why. Now, at age 32, he was divorced and a single parent of his son, Raffi, an energetic 3-year-old. José’s parents both encouraged him to see a mental health professional, Aimee, who had been highly recommended. When they first met, José told Aimee “I don’t think what’s wrong with me can be fixed. I feel like no one could ever really love who I am.”

José’s Core Belief was “I am unlovable.” Aimee wanted to know how José came to believe he was unlovable. He told her about falling deeply in love with a high school friend when he was 15. After being together for almost two years, he found out that his love was seeing someone behind his back and instantly severed the relationship. The betrayal was almost more than he could bear.

After graduating from high school, he completed a community college program in law enforcement and was immediately hired by a local police department in a large city. The work was physically and mentally demanding, but he made friends in the department and eventually married one of them. When their baby, Raffi, was born, José thought he had everything he wanted to make his life complete.

Unfortunately, his partner fell in love with one of the department’s lieutenants. When José heard about it from a friend, he once again felt betrayed. He became convinced that no one could love him because he was, for some reason, unlovable.

When he told Aimee of his experiences of betrayal, she had a sense of what was plaguing José. First, she assessed José for any physiological concerns, but he was in excellent physical condition and had recently passed an annual physical given by his department’s doctor.

Aimee worked with José so that he understood his Negative Core Beliefs. She asked him to identify a belief that we would all like to have, one opposite of his belief that “I am unlovable.” José thought for a couple of minutes and finally said, “I would like to believe that ‘I am worthy to be loved.’ But I don’t think that is even possible.”

Over the following four sessions, Aimee helped José develop this Positive Core Belief: “I am worthy to be loved.” In between sessions, Aimee gave José a treatment prescription to follow that was behavioral rather than medicinal. She asked him to be more aware of when he had a negative self-belief. She also challenged him to recognize accurate Positive Core Beliefs that he held about himself and then to take action to prove that those positive beliefs were accurate.

For example, one day José got mad at his son for knocking over a glass of milk. Later, José recalled his response and thought, “I’m a lousy father!” Realizing this negative belief, he changed his thought to, “No, I love Raffi more than I can say. Sometimes I don’t make the right choices as a parent, but almost always I am a loving dad.” He then went to his son and said he was sorry. Raffi instantly gave him a big hug.

It took about two months for José to proactively build new Positive Core Beliefs. At each meeting, he and Aimee discussed his progress and how he was implementing these new self-beliefs. Jose’s consistent efforts resulted in diminishing depression symptoms. He even reported that he felt more confident on the job and in his relationships with others.

After they concluded counseling, Aimee didn’t hear from José for more than a year. One day he texted her, “I am getting married. Thank you!” She texted back, “Congratulations! You’re welcome, but you did all the work.”

“Key Core Beliefs: Unlocking the HEART of Happiness & Health” is available from Gray Otis is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and an AMHCA Diplomate & Clinical Mental Health Specialist in Trauma. A past president of AMHCA, he has a private practice in Cedar Hills, Utah. He is also the primary author of the 2018 book, “Key Core Beliefs: Unlocking the HEART of Happiness & Health,” which was written for both mental health professionals and members of the public. Learn more at, and email him at

What Makes Core Beliefs Powerful?

Positive Core Beliefs strengthen a positive or desirable sense of self. They develop through constructive, favorable, supportive, or effective experiences. Read Moreā€¦