Disqualifying the Positives of Life

The tendency to downplay or negate compliments or accomplishments can hurt your self-esteem.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

What do you say when someone pays you a compliment? If you’re like many, you say something to downplay it like, “It wasn’t much” or “I got it on clearance” or “I just got lucky.”

You may feel that your response was simply an attempt to appear humble or modest. You may believe that anyDisqualifying the positive. response that acknowledges the accomplishment or agrees with the complement would appear conceited or proud. You may be right.

But, what do you think in your head when you hear the compliment? Do you downplay the compliment in your mind as well? Do you minimize the accomplishment or positive attribute in your thinking? Do you find a way to negate the positive so that it somehow doesn’t count?

Compare your reaction to a compliment with your reaction to a criticism. Do you downplay the criticism? I suspect not. Most people replay, analyze and long remember criticisms or failures. Not so much with compliments.

For most of us, this has been a lifelong habit. We’re totally unaware that we’re doing it. We don’t recognize the impact. The effect is subtle, but powerful.

Think of your self-esteem as a bank savings account. When you internally recognize a positive attribute, an accomplishment or a success, you make a deposit. When you experience a criticism, a weakness or a failure, you make a withdrawal. When your withdrawals exceed your deposits, your self-esteem account becomes overdrawn. Your “insufficient funds” notice may come in the form of depression, anxiety, helplessness or loss of motivation.

You may argue that you just don’t have any positives to deposit. You feel that your negatives simply outweigh your positives. This belief just illustrates a powerful aspect of perception.

You see, when you downplay a positive experience, you soon forget it. It escapes your awareness, as if it never happened. If reminded, you may recall the event, but it feels small and unimportant. It fades into the background. It never gets deposited into your account.

A healthy self-esteem is an accurate one. The individual recognizes his strengths and his weaknesses. He doesn’t see himself as better than others. He sees himself as being equal with all other human beings, who have strengths and weaknesses.

Recognition of his positive traits, helps him deal more effectively with his negative ones. He works on his weaknesses, but doesn’t allow them to define him. His failures hurt him, but don’t crush him.

Make a conscious attempt to acknowledge your strengths. Consider your positive traits. Enjoy your successes. It may feel odd, conceited or proud at first, but you’ll get used to it.

Think about it this way. What would you want for your children? Would you want them to negate their strengths or accomplishments, or would you want them to recognize both their positives and their negatives? Wouldn’t the same attitude work for you?


Do You Have Selective Attention?

Your focus of attention can have a big impact on your mood, your self-esteem, and your life.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Imagine that you have just received an annual job evaluation. Almost every item or comment was positive, even above average. But, there was one negative statement, with the label, “needs improvement.” You were pleased withselective attention the positives, but where did you focus your attention? Which item lingered in your thoughts?

If you’re like most, you paid most attention to the negative statement, and remembered it the longest. You may have allowed that one criticism to ruin your overall satisfaction with the evaluation.

There is some benefit to doing this. We need to pay enough attention to the negative to address it properly. We need to work on our weaknesses.

We actually seem to be hardwired to pay attention to the negative. Such a tendency would have helped our caveman ancestors survive. While walking through the jungle, he would fare better by noticing the sound of a predator behind him, than by focusing his attention on the pretty flowers by the path.

But, we often take this negative focus of attention too far. We focus attention on our problems, while ignoring our blessings. We ruminate over our failings, and forget about our successes. We worry about our weaknesses, and minimize our strengths. David Burns, MD labeled this tendency “mental filter,” suggesting that we filter the positives out of our awareness, while letting in the negatives.

As a boy, I liked Cracker Jacks. The caramel popcorn always came with a prize. I remember one prize that contained a white card covered with red and blue curved lines. It just looked like a mess. But, it came with a sheet of red cellophane and a sheet of blue cellophane. If you placed the red cellophane on the card, the red lines disappeared and the blue lines stood out, forming a picture. If you put the blue cellophane on the card, the blue lines disappeared and the red lines stood out, forming a different picture.

Imagine the red lines to be the bad things in your life, and the blue lines to be the good things. Everyone’s life contains both bad and good. What you see, what you notice, is determined by the filter you use. If you focus on the negatives in your life, or in yourself, that is what you will see, and everything else will disappear. If you notice on the positives, you will enjoy your blessings, and a more positive self-image. You will be happier.

Try to be more aware of your focus of attention. Notice your filter. If you recognize that you have a negative focus of attention, make a deliberate effort to change. Make it a habit to count your blessings. Remind yourself of your successes, or positive traits. It won’t be easy, because our focus of attention is so automatic. It’s an old habit. So, be persistent in your efforts. I think you’ll find it to be worthwhile.


Using words like always and never can hurt our self-esteem and our relationships.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

We all experience negative events. Everyone makes mistakes and lives with some negative traits or characteristics.overgeneralization It’s part of the human experience.

We exhibit overgeneralization thinking when we react to a negative experience with thoughts such as, “This always happens to me” or “I can’t do anything right.” We perceive a singular negative experience as if it is the rule.

Overgeneralization can be applied to ourselves, as in “I always mess up” or to our circumstances, as in “Things never work out for me” or to others, as in “They’re all lazy.” Regardless of the application, such thinking is inaccurate and destructive.

When pressed, we usually acknowledge that overgeneralization isn’t entirely accurate. We don’t always mess up. We can do some things right. Sometimes, things actually do work out for us. Just not as often as we would like. And, no group of people are universally lazy.

We may intellectually know the truth, but overgeneralization still hurts. When we make such statements in our thinking, we feel as if they are true. We feel the same frustration, self-criticism or anger that we would feel if they were true.

The brain is a bit like a computer; garbage in – garbage out. True or false, accurate or inaccurate, our brains react to our thoughts, as they are stated. Thus, having the thought “I can’t do anything right” creates the same feelings as if we actually couldn’t do anything right. We feel beaten down.

Overgeneralization also has a major impact on our relationships. Thinking of your spouse in terms like “He never does anything for me” or “She always puts me down” can set a tone for the relationship that is difficult to overcome. Again, you may intellectually know that the statement is not entirely accurate, but the damage is done. And when the statements are spoken out loud, we respond, usually appropriately, with defensiveness.

Be careful about any statement that includes the terms “never” or “always.” They’re usually inaccurate, and can do significant damage to our self-esteem, our views on life, and our relationships.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking

Expectations of perfection can damage our self-esteem or our relationships.

Today, I’m starting a series of articles about various forms of negative thinking, and the ways each impacts our lives and our self-esteem. These negative thinking patterns have been a core component of Cognitive/Behavioralperfectionism Psychotherapy for many years. Dr. David Burns did a nice job of defining them in his book, “The Feeling Good Handbook.” I would recommend Dr. Burns book to anyone who wants to understand more about Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy in general or the negative thinking patterns in particular. It can be found on Amazon and in most book stores.

In this article, we’ll look at All-Or-Nothing Thinking, which can also be called perfectionism. All-Or-Nothing thinking occurs when we believe that something must be exactly the way we want or expect it to be, and that nothing less is acceptable. This thinking pattern can be applied to ourselves, to our life situations or to our judgment of someone else. I also call this thinking pattern, light switch thinking, because the light is either on or off. There is no in between.

When applied to ourselves, all-or-nothing thinking reflects perfectionism. We feel that our performance must meet our standards exactly, or it is totally unacceptable. Anything less than an A grade is awful. The paper must not have any mistakes or corrections. We can’t make any errors, or we are terrible. We beat ourselves up whenever we mess up, even in a minor way. We expect performance from ourselves, that we would never expect from anyone else.

The problem with this is that it is an impossible expectation. As humans, we are imperfect. We mess up. We make mistakes. Holding ourselves to an impossible standard only results in our feeling inadequate. As a result, we feel pain, pressure and stress.

When we apply all-or-nothing thinking to our life situations, we get upset whenever circumstances fail to live up to our expectations. We imagine an outcome or an experience, then get angry or depressed when it doesn’t occur the way we planned.

Again, such expectations are doomed to fail, since each life is filled with some disappointment. Life just doesn’t happen as we would like. The dream must be adjusted to fit the reality. To be happy or content, we have to learn to accept our life, even if it doesn’t conform to our dream.

When we apply all-or-nothing thinking to other people, we tend to become an unrealistic taskmaster. We become upset with others, because they fall short of our expectations. We maintain that they “should” have done better. They should have done it our way. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found this kind of thinking to work very well.

Now, there is nothing wrong with striving for self-improvement, setting goals for our life, or expecting others to treat us well. We just run into problems whenever we are perfectionistic about it.  If you find yourself having all-or-nothing thinking, try to ease up a bit. Consider the option of “good enough,” rather than perfect. See if it doesn’t make life a bit easier.