It May Not Be About You

Realizing that we are not the center of the universe can be a big relief.

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.

Like it or not, our tendency is to see ourselves as the center of our universe. We perceive events as good or bad based on how they impact us. We interpret other’s actions as a statement of how they feel about us or what they are thinking about us. We act like it’s all about us. The perception that we are the center of our universe is also called egocentrism.

We tend to be most egocentric as young children. I’ve never seen this, but it’s said that if you catch a toddler at exact the right stage of cognitive development, and ask her why the sun rises, she will say, “So I can see.” Then, if you ask her why the sun sets, she will say, “So I can sleep.

As we grow and mature, the tendency lessons, but doesn’t completely go away. Some adults are more egocentric than others, but everyone has moments where they feel that it’s all about them.

The danger of egocentrism is that it can lead us to false and hurtful assumptions. Because we always believe our own assumptions, our thoughts, feelings, and reactions are based on them. The two most common problems associated with egocentrism are (a) perceiving disapproval, and (b) self-blame.

When we are egocentric, we perceive that others are thinking about us more than they actually are. We believe that others are watching us, and often, that they are disapproving of us. We imagine their thoughts about our appearance or our actions. Many people experience social anxiety because they imagine constant scrutiny from others.

The reality is that other people are too busy thinking about themselves and their lives to be focusing much attention on us. As an illustration, I will sometimes ask a student to tell me what their best friend was wearing that morning at school. Even though they spent much of the day with them, they couldn’t recall. Or I might ask an adult to describe the other people who were in the drug store with them, as they shopped that morning. They can’t recall anyone. I then remind them that others don’t notice them either.

A second problem with egocentrism is that a tendency to blame yourself for any negative life event. You feel like you must have done something to create the negative outcome. Of course, this may be true, but often, it is not. One common example is the tendency for a parent to blame himself for his teenager’s negative choices, without recognizing that there are many factors influencing the child. Another example is when someone treats us badly, and we assume we must have done something to deserve it. We may have done something, and should take responsibility when we have, but we may be innocent. When someone treats you badly, it usually says more about who they are, at least in that moment, than it says about who you are.

In Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy, we call our tendencies to blame ourselves personalization. We all do it at times, but it’s rarely healthy. Watch your thinking. Notice how often you assume others are watching you and judging you, even though you have no real evidence. Also notice how often you blame yourself for a negative situation, even though you can’t identify what you might have done wrong. Remembering that it’s not all about you can be a good thing.


Calling Yourself Names

You hurt your self-esteem when you call yourself names in your mind.

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.

How do you react when you hear someone call another person a negative name? Does it bother you if a parent calls a child “stupid?” Would you cringe if you heard someone say that a person at a restaurant was “fat” or “ugly?” What if the person overheard the comment?

Most often, negative names are used behind the other person’s back. The words aren’t meant to wound, but rather a way of “building myself up by putting that person down.” It feels innocent and harmless. At best, it’s a sad way of building up one’s ego. At worst, particularly if overheard, it creates a significant self-esteem wound for the criticized person.

Negative names, like idiot, fat, failure, ugly, loser or stupid, create a significant self-esteem wound because they are all encompassing. Such names are labels. They inaccurately define the person.

For example, I might say that I’m sitting in a chair. I use the word “chair” to label the object. In this case, the label is correct. The object is a chair in every way. The label is entirely accurate. No problem.

But, what if I call you a failure? In that instant, I have used the label to define you. That label suggests that you are, in every way, a failure. It says that you fail in everything you do. It hurts.

Most of us would never think of calling another person such negative names. You wouldn’t even consider calling anyone an idiot or a loser. You wouldn’t ever tell someone that they were fat or ugly. Yet, you may do it every day.

What do you call yourself? In your mind, do you ever call yourself negative names? Do you ever use the label fat, ugly, stupid or failure to define yourself? Do you do it without thinking about the impact?

In cognitive therapy, calling yourself names in your mind is called “labeling.” It wounds the self-esteem and can worsen depression and anxiety. It hurts.

You may intellectually realize that the label isn’t always true (No one is a failure at everything.), but your self-esteem hears it as if it is true. The name creates an overall impression. The damage is done.

Monitor your thinking for name calling, or labeling. Try to replace the damaging name with a more moderate statement. For example, rather than calling yourself a failure, acknowledge that you failed at the one task. Don’t say anything to yourself that you would not say to a friend or loved one.

Are You Doing Emotional Reasoning?

Just because you "feel" like something is true, doesn't mean that it is.

Do you trust your emotions? Have you ever made a decision because you just had a “gut feeling?” Do you tend to see your emotions as an indicator of truth?

Sometimes, we listen to our feelings about a situation, and believe that they will provide an accurate indication of what is really happening. We believe our gut intuition will provide a more accurate perception of events, or tell us what we should do in the situation. We’re often wrong.

Our feelings respond to our assumptions, beliefs and perceptions, and these are created by our prior experiences. For example, as a boy Jeff was criticized harshly throughout childhood. Later, as an adult, he has to give a presentation in his new job, and receives a positive reaction from co-workers. Yet, he leaves work with the feeling that his audience was just being kind to him, and that they really didn’t like his work. He expresses his disappointment to his wife. She points out that the co-workers said it was good, but he argues that he just has a gut impression that they weren’t sincere. He trusts his emotions over the facts. He is making the mistake of “emotional reasoning.”

Emotional reasoning occurs any time we try to use our emotions as a guide for truth, or when we see our emotions as a compass to guide our decision making. When we assume that our emotions reveal truth, our prior beliefs and perceptions are strengthened. Jeff’s belief that others criticize him is strengthened by his emotional reasoning. He is then more prone to perceive criticism in future situations.

While we may have a helpful intuition at times, our emotional reactions more frequently deceive us. Next time you are tempted to listen to your emotions as guide for truth, consider two points. First, is your emotional reaction telling you a message that is consistent with your prior negative beliefs? Are you feeling rejected in a current situation because you experienced rejection as a child? Or are you feeling criticized because you experienced early life criticism? Second, do the facts support your emotional response? Do you have actual facts to indicated that you were rejected or criticized? Could it be that your “gut feelings” are leading you to painful misperception?

Try to be a bit more skeptical of your emotions as a guide for truth. Consider the actual facts. Check out your assumptions if possible.

The Impact of Should Thinking on Self-Esteem

Should statements add an element of self-criticism and guilt to 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.

Sometimes the difference between healthy and unhealthy thinking is simply a matter of tone. The difference may be subtle. For example, the statement, “I want to lose some weight” expresses a healthy desire, but the statement, “I’m so fat” damages the self-esteem.

You may think the difference between the two statement to be inconsequential, because you know what you mean, but it’s not. The human brain processes self-talk literally. Much like a computer, it processes exactly what you put into it.

Research has clearly demonstrated the importance of the actual words used in our thinking. You may rationally know better when you say, “I can’t do anything right.” You may know that you can do some things right. After all, you got dressed this morning, and you did that right. But your self-esteem hears the actual words, and you feel as if you can’t do anything right. The damage is done.

So now, let’s consider a situation where you want to make some change or take some future action. It could be anything. You want to spend more time with your children or with your aging parents. You want to clean your house, or get more involved in a worthwhile organization. The motivation may be admirable.

You might think, “I want to …” do some action. You’re expressing a healthy desire, and hopefully, you will follow-up with actions to make it happen. It’s all good. Or you might think, “I should …” do the action. In this case, you’re still expressing the desire, but you add a little jab. The “should” statement suggests guilt, shame or inadequacy, and provides a bit of chastisement.

The “I want to…” statement leaves the self-esteem intact. It may even engender a little excitement as you visualize accomplishing the action. The “I should…” statement tends to lower your mood, leaving you feeling inadequate. The damage of each statement may be minor, but the repetition of such statements can be devastating.

“Should” statements remind me of a little known religious group of the 14th century called the Flagellants. They believed they should punish themselves because of their sins, so they marched through the streets whipping themselves on the back with leather whips. Frequently using “should” statements is little like whipping yourself throughout your day. Like the whip, each “should” creates a little more damage.

Pay attention to the words you use in your self-talk. They really are important. Try substituting “I want to…” or “I would like to….” for the more negative, “I should…” See how it works.

Are You Catastrophizing?

We hurt ourselves when we overreact to life's problems.

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.

How do you estimate the severity of a problem? Do you tend to overreact? Do you “make a mountain out of a molehill?” Most of us do at times.catastrophizing

We all have bad things happen. We make mistakes. We mess up. Sometimes we mess up royally. (Not exactly sure what that means.) Sometimes bad things just happen, even when we didn’t do anything wrong. We can’t avoid negative events. The question is how do we react.

When something bad happens, the degree of our upset reaction should be consistent with the magnitude of the problem. A small problem should trigger a small reaction, and a big problem a big reaction, but that often isn’t the case. We react to relatively small difficulties as if they are big problems. We turn a difficulty into a catastrophe in our mind.

I developed this little exercise to illustrate the process. Imagine one of those games at the fair, designed to test your strength. It’s a tower with a bell on top. You are given a large hammer to hit a pad on the base. If you hit it hard enough, you can ring the bell. Now, imagine that the tower is numbered from zero to one-hundred.

Imagine this zero to one-hundred scale as the measure of the magnitude of a problem. The score of zero means that there is no problem at all. A score of one-hundred is equal to global annihilation, where everyone you know dies. Every other problem gets a score between the two extremes.

Now, think of some problems you’ve experienced lately. Give each one a score according to how bad each problem would be in reality. This score should not reflect your reactions to the problems, but how bad they really are. Small problems should get low scores, while larger problems earn higher scores. As you assign scores, keep in mind that one-hundred means global annihilation. Not many events would come close to that severity.

Now imagine another scale numbered zero to one-hundred, with the same extreme points. This scale is for your reactions to problems. Consider what your reaction would be to global annihilation, and then the non-reaction to a zero problem. Now assign a score to indicate how strongly you reacted to each of the problems you scored on the first scale. How upset did you get relative to global annihilation?

Do the numbers match? Chances are that your reaction scores were significantly higher than the reality scores. A problem may have been scored 20 on the reality scale, but you may have reacted like it was a 60. Your reactions should be fairly consistent with the actual severity of each problem, but they often aren’t.

To avoid catastrophizing, we should try to react to our problems in a manner that is consistent with the actual severity of each problem. By the way, I call this exercise, “It’s not the end of the world.” Try it next time you’re overreacting to a problem. Realizing the problem is not the “end of the world” may help us keep it in perspective.