Carl Jung, a famous thinker in the field of psychology, once said “until we make our unconscious conscious, it will direct our lives and we will call it fate”.

Understanding our inner thoughts and reasons for why we engage in certain behaviours or feel certain emotions is the first step to making a change.

One way to understand our innermost thoughts is through the downward arrow technique.

What is the downward arrow technique?

The downward arrow technique is a common technique used in cognitive behavioural therapy. It can be used for a number of psychological challenges, such as insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

The idea behind the downward arrow technique is that people have different levels of thoughts: 1) surface level thoughts 2) intermediate rules/beliefs and 3) core beliefs. These thoughts can be related to ourselves, others, or the world/future.

Surface level thoughts are those that come up immediately in response to a situation. For example, if a friend cancels a meet-up, the surface thought might be “they don’t want to hang out with me”.

Intermediate level beliefs tend to capture general beliefs or rules that a person implicitly believes. They tend to follow a “if…then…” logic. For example, “if my friends don’t want to hang out with me, then it means I am boring”.

Finally, core beliefs are the very essence of how we think about ourselves, others, the world, and the future. Examples of core beliefs include “I am worthless”, “I am unloveable”, “the world is unfair”.

The downward arrow technique brings us to our core beliefs.

How do we use the downward arrow technique?

Using the downward technique is quite simple. After a situation, you would note down the initial thought that you had in response to the event.

For example, if you’re someone with insomnia, you may have the thought “I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight again” when you’re lying wide awake in bed.

And then you ask the question: “if that were true, then what?”. “Then I would not be able to perform at work.”

“And if that were true, then what?”

“Well, I might be fired from my job”

“And then what?”

“I wouldn’t have enough money to feed my family”

“And then what?”

“I’d be a failure.”

Here, you can see that the pressure of being able to sleep and perform is related to providing for family and worries about being a failure.

Now that I know my core belief, what do I do now?

Once you have identified the different thoughts and beliefs that affect you how you feel, the next step is to tackle them.

Fortunately, there are many strategies that you can apply to work through these thoughts. For example, testing the validity of the thought through thought records or behavioural experiments. Another strategy is to relate to them differently through regular mindfulness practice.

With sufficient experimenting and practice, you’ll start to notice that these thoughts become less automatic and may eventually change your core beliefs. For example, does having bad nights affect your performance as bad as you believe and will you really get fired? You might use a thought record to consider situations where you had a bad night but still manage to get what you needed done.