Dealing with negative thoughts (Self Confidence, Part 2)

As already discussed in Part 1, today we don’t deal with the potential reasons for an underdeveloped feeling of self worth but with helpful strategies to make some changes. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that would help to change low self-confidence into a stronger sense of confidence over night. I personally don’t think much of weekend workshops when brain washing is supposed to change negative thinking into a positive attitude within a few hours. Our thought processes are the result of years, decades of evolution and programming and these patterns are deeply embedded. To change that takes lots of discipline, effort and time (after all, it took lots of effort and time to embed it in us that deeply, in the first place!) Therefore, the most important appeal to you going in: Please have patience with yourself! If you take too much on in the beginning and then are disappointed and blame yourself you are already in the middle of a totally counter productive process! Because now you put yourself down to begin with instead of dealing with yourself a little more lovingly and fairly. It is much smarter to set yourself small and attainable goals and not to give up if you occasionally have the feeling of not getting anywhere. It is worth it, I guarantee it!
The first step to give your feeling of self worth a new, positive direction consists of interrupting your own innermost destructive dialogue with yourself and to make it more constructive. You are surely familiar with those thoughts about yourself that are not exactly gracious flashing through your head when something doesn’t go as planned: “I knew that I would screw it up again!” – “In mathematics I am just a zero” – “What a loser I am!” Since you are so used to these thoughts you may not even notice them any longer; they flash by, do their damage and have disappeared before you are even aware of them. In those critical situations it is important to be consciously aware of these thoughts, to hang on to them and to examine them one step at the time and search for (objectively justified!) alternative thoughts for this situation that may be more helpful and constructive. It is not the objective to put lipstick on the pig but rather to organize your thought process a little more flexibly and for a moment free yourself from the ingrained course. This first exercise is not meant to immediately replace those negative thoughts with their alternatives because that would be asking a bit too much. It is only the objective to put a second, more constructive though next to the automatically occurring negative thought, at least for a short while. In the beginning, the automatic negative thought is probably going to occupy a lot more space than the laboriously acquired alternative thought – that’s ok! That’s normal. It is important that you give the alternative thought a little space for a short time. Doing so you have already taken a big step in the direction of change.

It is not at all easy to substitute these alternative thoughts for the negative ones that have already and forever been a part of you and those critical situations. Imagine a muscle that has been forever inactive and is now called upon to do its work properly and also quickly, if you please. And that in the face of the resistance of a second well trained muscle that has been called upon to perform this activity for a long time and almost in a reflex whenever an opportunity arose! That being the case, here you’ll find a few hints geared to help motivate your “wimpy thought muscle”. Whenever you catch yourself in a difficult situation and are about to start abusing and criticizing yourself inwardly, stop and ask yourself (one or all) of the following questions:

Is my perception of the situation/event the only one possible?
You are probably at least intellectually aware that this is never the case. Each situation can be seen from different perspectives. The exercise to imagine that this is happening to your best friend is useful. How would you think about this issue as an outsider? Would you criticize him or her as mercilessly as yourself? Or, you remember another person whom you know well and whom you consider to be someone who is very self-confident. If the same thing had happened to that person, what would he/she had thought about it? Would that be justified in your eyes, or not? Why?

Is my point of view based on realistic valid proof or is it the result of a simple conjecture or the unsolicited opinions of others? How many objective clues (that would stand up in court) supporting my perception are available?
That is always an important question whenever abilities or qualities that may have contributed to the specific outcome of a situation are concerned. For instance, I was always convinced to be a failure in mathematics simply because my parents made me feel that it was not for me. Consequently, I loathed mathematics tests and to me bad grades became inevitable. This continued until I sat down and decided to really understand this darned stuff once and for all. I have to admit, it was quite a bit of work. At the end I found out that mathematics was not my weak spot – I was just less interested in that subject than in languages for instance and therefore I had to overcome more obstacles within myself until I was able to force myself to study. The result was 14 points in my mathematics Abitur exam plus the (far more important) realization that I was not a “failure in mathematics” at all, but just “personally totally disinterested in the third derivative of something”. And that is much easier to cope with when dealing with one’s self worth, I can tell you!
Which flaws in reasoning do I potentially make in my perceptions?
There are a variety of flaws in reasoning leading to, in cognitive behavioral therapy so called “distorted cognitions”. I would like to list a few examples for you to illustrate what it is all about:

Rash Conclusions: “If my friend forgets my birthday its obviously because I am unimportant to him/her.” Possibly – but maybe not. It is also possible that the friend has major relationship issues that I know nothing about and that occupy him/her to the point that lots of other things are forgotten. Or that he/she incorrectly transposed the date when laying out the birthday calendar (even though I am a very organized person, that happened to me once). Or…or…or…By the way, women like to do that because they often wrongly assume that they can read thoughts. Instead of asking about the reasons when an act or a statement is unclear or irritates them, they automatically think that the other person was dismissive or depreciative.

Everything or Nothing Thoughts: Also a great favorite with people who like being critical of themselves. This flaw is relatively easily to identify by taking the time to search one’s own thoughts for words like “always”, “never”, “everybody”, “nobody”, and others like it. Whoever always thinks in black and white, obviously lives by the categories “perfect” and “failure”.

Exaggerated Generalizations: One mishap becomes the reason to depreciate the entire person. Or a negative detail is isolated and dragged into the foreground causing the entire picture to be tarnished (just as a drop of black ink will discolor an entire glass of water). An especially nasty version of that is self-labeling: “I am just a loser”, “I am always unlucky” “I’ll never be anyone, that is typical for me!”

Exaggerating or Understating: The importance of certain matters (for instance one’s own mistake) is given too much weight while other aspects (for instance the weaknesses of others or one’s own achievement) are understated. Especially people with low self-esteem often overrate their responsibility for something that goes wrong. They are unable to recognize unfavorable circumstances or the contribution of others to the failure. Their reflex reaction to something that happens is always that it was their fault.

The black Glasses: People with low self-esteem never or barely notice positive experiences, those don’t count nearly as much as the negative kind. At the same time they fixate on their weaknesses instead of deliberately concentrating on their strengths and those things they do well (If you recognize that about yourself, you may want to read the article “Discover your Strengths!”). A telling image from therapy is that of the “innermost prosecutor” who’ll call your attention to every mistake or any weakness and will drag you mercilessly before the innermost judge. With those folks the “innermost defense counsel” who is supposed to put in a good word for the defendant is usually speechless or permanently hoarse and simply does not get through….

Do my Thoughts help me?
The final and probably most important question of all! Whenever you catch yourself with self-deprecating thoughts check whether they’ll help you reach your goals, help you to feel happier and/or healthier and optimize your performance. Certain self-deprecating thoughts will pass this test. For instance, if you have just flunked a test with bells and whistles and know darn well that you started studying too late, a little self-criticism can be quite healthy and may help you plan an additional week the next time. On the other hand self-deprecating thoughts generating painful feelings like rage, guilt, sadness etc. are not helpful. In that case they only contribute to your low self-esteem and stand in the way of your feeling of well-being and objectives.

You should devote ten to twenty minutes every day to this first step to a better feeling of self-esteem. Create a record of one or two situations that caused you to feel down on that day and try to trace back which thoughts caused your negative feelings. Afterwards look at the list with the questions and try to second-guess your thoughts or in other words, to develop the suitable alternative thought for the situation. As I already mentioned, this first step is not intended to replace negative with positive. You have achieved a lot if you just begin re-activating your “muscle for alternative thinking!”