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.

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?


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.

Putting Someone Else in Your Shoes

Try this exercise to put your mistakes in proper perspective.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Don’t judge a man unless you have walked in his shoes.” It reminds us that we can’t avoiding self-judgmentknow or judge another person’s choices or actions unless we haven’t been in his situation. It is a good idea. Keeps us from being quite so judgmental.

Today, I want to recommend a different version. Consider this version, “Don’t judge yourself until you have put someone else in your shoes.”

Every day, I meet people who judge themselves harshly. They treat their mistakes as horrible, and worse, unforgivable. They get mad at themselves when they mess up. They criticize themselves harshly in their minds. Sometimes their self-talk borders on self-abuse.

Also, there doesn’t seem to be an end to their self-judgment. The mistake may have occurred yesterday, or many years ago. It doesn’t matter. Their self-judgment for the mistake is constant over time. I sometimes ask them exactly how long their sentence is. I’ve seen murderers get off with shorter sentences. These self-critical people have no date for parole or release.

To put our mistakes in better perspective, I ask these people to imagine putting someone else in their shoes. I ask them to identify a person in their mind that they like and respect, but someone they could imagine possibly being in their situation.

I ask them to imagine that this person was in their exact situation. Imagine that they made the exact same mistake, under the exact same circumstances. Then, imagine that they felt the same remorse or self-criticism; same situation, same mistake, same reaction to the mistake.

I then ask them how they would judge the person in their mind. Not what they would say to the person, because they might be nice or kind, but what they would think in their mind.

Almost immediately, they will say that they would judge the other person less harshly. They would usually see the mistake as less catastrophic, and they would see it as more easily forgivable. They would see it as just a mistake.

Our judgment of the other person more accurately reflects our true assessment of the situation. It isn’t biased by our tendencies to be hard on ourselves. This exercise helps us put our mistakes or deficits in better perspective.

I have used this technique with myself most of my adult life. Whenever I make a mistake, I put someone else in my shoes, and ask myself how I would judge them. I don’t let myself be any harsher with myself or any easier on myself than I would the other person. It has helped me many times. Try it and see how it works for you.

Helping A Loved One With Low Self-Esteem

We often feel helpless when trying to help someone with negative beliefs about self.

Do you have that friend who believes that she’s ugly, even though she is actually very attractive? Or perhaps you haveHelping someone with low self-esteem a friend who gives up on his dreams because he thinks he lacks the ability, but you know he could do it. Do you have a loved one who suffers from depression or anxiety because she believes she is less than she really is?

We all know someone like this, and it hurts. It hurts to love someone who doesn’t love or respect himself. It hurts to see them living a limited life, because of self-limiting, and false, beliefs.

We want to help. We try to help. But, how do we do it? If you’re like most, you try to argue with the person. You say things like, “You are not ugly. You are beautiful. You are intelligent. You can do anything you want to do.”

How does that work? I suspect not very well. They don’t believe you. They think your words are kind, but untrue. They don’t change their beliefs. They continue to suffer.

I like this quote from Seth Godin:

People don’t believe what you tell them.

They rarely believe what you show them.

They often believe what their friends tell them.

They always believe what they tell themselves.

This is particularly true when it comes to helping someone change a negative believe about self. We have to take our time, listen first, then try to help them look at their belief from a different perspective. It still doesn’t always work, but it definitely works better than an argument.

Of example, I have found the technique of “putting someone else in your shoes” to be very helpful. Let’s say that I have made a mistake. I’m not imagining that it was a mistake. I actually did mess up, and I’m tempted to be very self-critical and beat myself up. I immediately picture someone I know in my mind. I identify someone that I like and respect. I imagine how I would feel if my friend made the exact same mistake, under the exact same circumstances. I also imagine that they are feeling badly like myself.

I then ask myself how I would judge that person. I don’t ask myself what I would say to them, because I might tend to be kind. I ask myself how I would actually feel about that person making the same mistake, under the same conditions. Then, I never let myself be any harder on myself, or any easier on myself, than I would to my friend.

If my conclusion for my friend would be that he couldn’t actually help it, or that he should let it go, then that is what I tell myself. If my conclusion would be that he should be more careful and make amends to the hurt party, then that is also what I tell myself. In other words, I apply the same rules and consequences to myself that I would apply to anyone else.

It’s amazing how often this exercise tempers any tendency to be harsh with myself or to beat myself up. Try it some time, and see how it works for you, or for your loved one. Again, if we can get them to see themselves from a different perspective, they may be able to tell themselves a different story about who they are. Wouldn’t that be nice?


Comments: Have you found some ways help someone, or yourself, see themselves in a more positive light. Please share.

Motivation by the Carrot or the Stick

Does reward or punishment work better as a self-motivation?

Do you tend to use a carrot or a stick on yourself? This idiom refers to the idea that a cart driver can use a carrot or amotivation by reward or punishment stick to motivate a horse to move forward, thus pulling the cart. The horse will either move forward by the enticement of the carrot, or by the avoidance of punishment via the stick.

Research suggests that some people are more responsive to reward and others more responsive to punishment. Interestingly, it seems that genetics may determine which works better for you. Some people are genetically more responsive to dopamine, while others are more responsive to serotine, and this seems to make the difference.

Research also suggests, however, that punishment can create unexpected and unwanted outcomes. Sometimes punishment can backfire by actually increasing the undesired behavior, creating negative emotions or increasing aggression.

The impact of the carrot or stick choice can really be seen when we are trying to motivate ourselves. We can motivate ourselves by setting up rewards for getting tasks done. For example, we might give ourselves a night out as a reward for cleaning out a closet.

We can also reward ourselves by imagining or visualizing the natural positive consequences of working hard and completing a task. I did this during graduate school, as I imagined myself enjoying working in my private practice, as a motivation to work hard on my doctoral studies. It really did work to keep me going during the hard times.

People use punishment on themselves when they put themselves down or criticize themselves for poor performance. They beat themselves up, and claim this is necessary to make them try harder. It almost never works, and reminds me of the old poster saying, “The beatings in this company will continue until morale improves.”

So today, watch your thinking to see whether you use a carrot or stick on yourself. Consider the possibility that your self-punishment is actually hurting your performance. Try visualizing the positive results when you accomplish a task, or promising yourself a pleasurable activity for task success. I think you’ll find that it works better as a motivation, and doesn’t damage your self-esteem.


Comments: Please share some of your experiences with the motivators of reward and punishment.

Does Your Self-Esteem Suffer From Cherry Picking?

Selective Attention can maintain or worsen our self-esteem wounds.

Wikipedia (the on-line encyclopedia) defines cherry picking as “the fallacy of incomplete evidence” or the act of self-esteem cherry pickingpointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.” So, we do cherry picking when we pay attention to those instances that confirm our prior belief, while discounting or completely ignoring the instances that would refute our prior belief.

Cherry picking is a major factor in the maintenance and worsening of self-esteem wounds. It allows the person to maintain a negative belief about herself, despite a significant amount of evidence to the contrary. In cognitive psychology, this is called selective attention.

For example, a child who experiences harsh criticism learns to see himself as inadequate or a failure. As an adult, he “cherry picks” by focusing his attention on his failures, while ignoring or dismissing his successes. Any compliment he receives is discarded as a kind gesture. A 100 on a test is discounted in his mind by statements such as, “I got lucky” or “It was an easy test.” On the other hand, his failure experiences are analyzed, reviewed, and long remembered as indisputable evidence of his inadequacy.

Another example of cherry picking is occurs when the person with low self-esteem compares herself with other people. She selectively pays attention to a positive trait of one acquaintance, wishing she could be more like her. She then pays attention to a different positive trait in another person, wishing she could be like him in that way.  She ignores the negative traits of each person, leaving her with a strengthened belief that she is inadequate, compared to most people.

A wife and mother may envy another woman who keeps a spotless house, while ignoring the fact that the woman seems very irritable toward her children. She then envies another mother, who seems to have more patience with her children, while ignoring the fact that her house is cluttered. She is, thus, left with the impression that she is a failure as a housekeeper and a mother.

Sometimes when I hear someone cherry picking, I ask them to identify any person that they know well, with whom they would completely change places. I ask if they would they exchange all their own traits and characteristics with all the other person’s traits and characteristics. In others words, they would have to exchange all the good and bad traits of the other person. I’ve never had anyone to say that they would.

Next time you notice that you are comparing yourself with others, consider the possibility that you are cherry picking. Also, notice where you focus your attention. Make a deliberate effort to notice your positive traits, characteristics and circumstances, as much as you do your negatives. See how that makes you feel.

Consider the Source of Your Self-Esteem Wounds

Recognizing the True Nature of Those Who Hurt You

Most people with self-esteem difficulties can trace their wounds back to a family member or caretaker who was yelling_parentharshly critical, rejecting, abandoning or abusive. Those people’s behaviors toward the child conveyed messages that he or she was defective, bad or not good enough.  Later, those self-esteem wounds were deepened by a few relationships where the individual received similar negative treatment.

Often, the individual can identify others in their lives who treated them with love and respect, but the negative messages seems to dominate. I’m not sure why this occurs, but the child’s self-esteem seems to be impacted more by the negative caretakers than by the positive ones. Oh, they love the positive people and enjoy spending time with them, but their self-beliefs tend to be molded by the negative people.

A few years ago, I created an exercise where I ask clients to compose a list of people who have conveyed positive messages about them, and a list of people who have been negative about them. The lists can include people from their past and present. They can also include family members, friends, co-workers and teachers. When finished, they have two lists of names; those who made them feel valuable and competent and those who made them feel inadequate or unimportant.

Try doing this now. Write down (or at least mentally identify) your personal list of positive and negative people. You may have some people who could fit on both lists, but try to put most on one side or the other. Now consider the following questions.

  1. Which group would you say that you like the most, the positive or the negative? You may love people on both lists, but which do you like most?

Almost everyone says that they like the positive people most. The choice isn’t difficult.

  1. Which group would you say that you trust the most, positive or negative?

For example, if you needed an opinion about someone you had never met, which group’s opinions about the person would you trust most? Most choose the positive group.

  1. Which of the two groups are the most mentally healthy or stable?

In your estimation, which group demonstrates characteristics of mentally healthy people? Most say the positive.

  1. Do people in the negative group treat others negatively as well, or are they just negative toward you?

Have you seen them treat others as they treated you? Do you recall thinking that their treatment of someone wasn’t fair or warranted? Most say the negative people treated others negatively as well.

  1. Which group’s opinions of you do you seem to think about the most?

Which group has had a more powerful impact on your perceptions of yourself? Which group most deeply influenced the way you defined yourself? Unfortunately, most people say the negative group. The wounds of the negative group seem to dominate.


So, the end conclusion is that most people allow their self-esteem to be defined by people they don’t like, don’t trust, consider to be mentally ill and who treat others badly as well. Read that sentence again. Does it surprise you?

This exercise is designed to help people “consider the source” of their negative self-esteem beliefs. Hopefully, it will help you put the negative messages they conveyed in a more proper perspective.


Comments: How did this exercise impact your perspective on the negative people in your life?

Is Your Self-Doubt Killing Your Dreams?

You Can Conquer Self-Doubt and Achieve Your Purpose!

Self-doubt is a ruthless dream killer.

Yesterday, I talked with someone who has huge potential. He is intelligent, kind, thoughtful and has a good depressed_man_001personality. He described a dream he has held since middle school. His dream was a good one. I could feel his excitement as he shared the plans he had made, his educational goals, and his visions of his future day-to-day activities.

He then shared how his dreams fell apart. He lamented that he was now in his mid-thirties, and that he had totally given up on the dream. He explained that, while his interests and personality led him in the direction of the dream, he had “realized” that he just didn’t have the ability.

He related a series of events that made him question his abilities. He felt he just was not smart enough to do it. He had settled for a lower, less demanding path. He gave up on his dream. Actually, his self-doubt had killed the dream.

Self-doubt seems to be found deep in our core being. It is often just under our conscious awareness. We don’t consciously think about self-doubt. Rather, we think the thoughts that are generated by our self-doubt. Thoughts such as, “I don’t think I’m cut out for this” or “I’m not smart enough for that” or “Nobody will want to read my writing.” The thoughts slip through our minds so easily that we barely notice them.

As I talked with the young man, I asked him what he would recommend to a friend in the same situation. He quickly said he would tell the friend to go for his dreams. He then added that his friends had told him the same.

We then discussed small steps he could take to move forward toward his dreams. The small steps seemed much more manageable for him. He made a commitment to start investigating his options.

Everyone has self-doubt at times. The severity of self-doubt depends on the individual’s experience. Those who experienced harsh criticism or academic difficulties usually carry a greater amount of self-doubt.

Pay attention to your self-doubt tendencies. Consider the possibility that your self-doubt is based more on your prior negative experiences, rather than on your actual abilities.

My hope is that you will pursue your dreams and not give up until you’re living them!


Comments: Share your experiences of pursuing and attaining your dreams, despite moments of self-doubt.

Seven Ways Your Self-Critical Brain is like a Terrorist

All too often, I have seen the damage done by self-criticism. I have shared the message that self-esteem wounds andterrorist self-critical thoughts are learned, but not accurate. I have pointed out the fact that such thinking is destructive and dangerous.

I thought that this comparison might get the message across. Here are seven ways that your self-critical brain is like a terrorist.


  1. Your self-critical brain and the terrorist began as innocents without hate.

You weren’t born self-critical. You were born innocent and precious just any other baby. You had no positive or negative self-esteem. Likewise, the terrorist was not born hating others. He was like any other innocent baby. You weren’t born hating or criticizing yourself either.

  1. Your self-critical brain and the terrorist were given the wrong messages.

The terrorist was taught to hate. The terrorist was taught that certain others were the enemy. The negative messages you received, early in your childhood, taught you to dislike yourself. The messages taught you that you were the enemy and you’ve treated yourself that way ever since. Those messages were destructive lies. The terrorist’s messages were as well.

  1. Your self-critical brain and the terrorist were restricted from hearing the right messages.

The terrorist was surrounded by people who preached a message of hate. In childhood, most terrorists were not exposed to outside influences. He didn’t have the opportunity to see that other groups were made up of humans much like him. Later in life, he may have been exposed to people outside his group, but he looked at them with distrust. His attention focused on the negative characteristics of the “others.” His skewed perceptions only strengthened his belief that the “others” were the enemy and should be hurt or eliminated.

Likewise, your self-critical brain restricts you from hearing right messages. You pay attention to the times when you are criticized or when you fail. Your brain discounts your successes as luck, or as unimportant. You imagine others are criticizing you, even when they aren’t thinking of you at all. As a result, you are impacted by the negative messages and are restricted from positive experiences.

  1. Your self-critical brain and the terrorist simply absorbed what was given.

A sponge will soak up whatever it is exposed to. If it is placed in pure, clean water, it will soak it up. If it is exposed to acid, it will soak that up as easily. The sponge doesn’t differentiate. Children are the same. If a child is exposed to messages of hate and terror, they will soak that up. If they are exposed to messages of criticism and inadequacy, they will absorb that as well.

  1. Your self-critical brain and the terrorist consistently act on their beliefs.

A terrorist seems to be consistent. His choices, thoughts and emotions are guided by his learned beliefs of hate. He may not be doing anything destructive right now, but he is simply waiting on the opportunity. Your self-critical brain is also consistent. Your choices, thoughts and emotions are dictated by your self-esteem wounds. A little self-examination will reveal that your self-critical perceptions infiltrate every aspect of your life.

  1. Your self-critical brain and the terrorist will hurt (or kill) you.

The terrorist is dangerous. His purpose is to hurt and kill those outside his group. He rejoices in the terrorist act, because that is his mission. Your self-critical brain will also hurt you. Each self-critical thought chips away at your sense of worth or competency. Your self-critical brain can also kill you. Most suicide victims believed the world would be better off without them. They mistakenly believed that they were a problem to the ones they loved. They then acted to eliminate the problem.

  1. Your self-critical brain and the terrorist can change.

There are a few examples of terrorists who changed their beliefs of hate. Somehow, they were able to see that those outside their group were humans just like them. They abandoned their terrorist mission. Your self-critical brain can change as well. Like the terrorist, you will have to be exposed to competing messages. You will have to see strong evidence that your self-critical beliefs were destructive and wrong. You will have to be deliberate at changing these beliefs. It will take time, but it can happen. Begin today.

You can master the tools to change your self-critical beliefs and thoughts in my book, “Parables for a Wounded Heart: Overcoming the Wounds to Your Self-Esteem and Transforming Your Perception of You.” You can find it at



Question: Can you see other similarities between the self-critical brain and a terrorist? Do you have any other comparisons? If so, please share.