The tone of your inner dialogue says a lot about you. If you worry excessively or is anxiety prone, your thinking may be biased to the negative and reflect your insecurities. If you have low self-esteem, you may be giving too much power to your inner critic and allowing it to have the last word. Whatever mental health problems you are facing, there is a high probability that they are being fuelled by dysfunctional thoughts. A natural and effective way to revert this scenario is through the conscious use of affirmations. Affirmations are assertive statements that make you feel more confident and empowered. When formulated immediately after an uncomfortable thought or image, they can accelerate change by directing your mind’s focus to the here and now, and the person you want to be. Below you will find a list of affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts to help you regain control over your thinking and wellbeing:
I am now in control of my thoughts
I am now ready to let go of fear inducing thoughts
My focus now is on thoughts that favour me
My focus is on the here and now
I choose to focus on the good
I am good to myself and my thoughts are good to me
I am clearing up my brain of all the cognitive rubbish
I am now ready to let go of negative thinking patterns
My brain is now in harmony with what I want for myself
I am now ready to move on with my life
I now favour positive beliefs about life, myself and others
My healthy self always has the last word
I am calm and centred and can trust my own judgement
I now favour an objective outlook
My thinking is now aligned with my calm and centred self
I always decide what I want to focus on
I am the master of my attention
I am in charge of directing the focus of my attention
As you can notice from the above suggestions, affirmation do not contain the word “not”, be it by itself or attached to another, as in “don’t”, “can’t”, etc. This is because affirmations are about mentally confirming and validating what you want for yourself and your life, or in the words of Gawain (2002), “The practice of engaging affirmations allow us to begin replacing some of our stale, worn-out, or negative mind chatter with more positive ideas and concepts”. To get the most out of affirmations, increase self-awareness and start actively monitoring your thinking and using them whenever your notice you mood being influenced by a negative thought.
Gawain, S (2002). Creative Visualisations, Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life. Novato, CA: New World Library.
If you find it hard to enjoy your achievements, be they big or small, you might be struggling with perfectionism. Perfectionism makes it impossible to love and accept yourself for whom you are and what you do with confidence. That is because perfectionist attitudes, rules and assumptions take everything a step further. “Big” becomes “bigger” and “good” becomes “better”. The language of perfectionism is never satisfied with the present, but it revolves around past – and often idealistic – future experience. Thoughts such as “if I had done it better, that wouldn’t have happened”, “I’ve done it better before” or “I need to get it absolutely right next time” take the power away from the here and now. You become obsessed with results, like a hamster on a wheel or a greyhound chasing a fake rabbit around a racetrack, focused but slightly delusional.
Perfectionism has the potential to kill the little pleasures that make life worth living. That beautiful moment of lying in bed after having just changed the sheets, while enjoying their fresh smell, can be ruined by the thought of “Designer sheets are much softer”. Perfectionism also makes your efforts seem pointless. After realising you have managed to meditate successfully for 15 minutes, you feel a little pride building up. Then, the thought “If I had managed it for 30 minutes, I would be feeling much more relaxed” comes racing through and completely changes your mood. Perfectionism makes you feel as if you were in a constant battle against yourself and the world around you. A moment of joy becomes something unattainable.
Feeling good and fulfilled in life also relies greatly on your ability to have a good relationship with yourself. A perfectionist attitude, however, hinders that process. That is because perfectionist thinking and self-criticism are partners in crime when it comes to murdering one’s self-esteem. Perfectionism does not only make you second-guess yourself, but it fuels self-denigration. Under its spell, you may easily find yourself stuck in a fault-finding cycle that only ends when you feel completely taken by guilt, shame and/or anxiety. Perfectionism threatens your mental health and is at the core of problems such as depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem. Contrary to popular belief, perfectionism does not lead you down the path to success and happiness, but it makes you weak and miserable, as if you had lost your own sense of self and self-direction.
To put an end to perfectionism, start actively monitoring and challenging your own negative thoughts. If you need help with that, I highly recommend starting a Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts to identify and target them effectively. After challenging automatic thoughts with a DRDT for a reasonable period, try doing it without the help of a piece of paper, but mentally or even orally if you are in a private environment. Create the cognitive habit of being very suspicious of thoughts that seem to try to convince you that who you are, what you do or achieve is not good enough. Quiet the voice of your perfectionist gremlin by introducing a compassionate attitude towards yourself, as if you were your own best friend. Forgive and praise yourself, always recognising the value of your efforts in the here and now. Learn how to live in the present and for, not against yourself.
Your emotions can get the best of you if you do not know how to handle criticism. If you have a history of trauma, had a tough upbringing and was raised by overtly critical and perfectionist parents, or in an environment of emotional neglect, you could be especially prone to taking criticism badly. Even if that does not correspond to your background, criticism has the potential to hurt when it is not delivered properly. What is more, it is often difficult to identify the real motivation behind criticism, if its aim is to foster learning or belittle, or a mixture of both. Notwithstanding all the confusion, it is possible to help yourself deal with either constructive or destructive criticism in a balanced manner and without affecting your self-esteem negatively. The secret is to monitor your reaction to criticism closely and correct any cognitive errors that give your thoughts an antagonistic tone, as the ones mentioned below. To raise your awareness, help improve your mood and the quality of relationships, here are 4 cognitive errors that make it hard to take criticism well:
The language of high self-esteem and self-confidence loves a rich and detailed evaluation. Global statements such as “Because I have been criticised, it means I am incompetent”, on the other hand, make one feel worthless instantly. It is inaccurate and irrational to assume that only because you have been criticised about one particular act or characteristic your whole being is as bad as one single – and often quite insignificant – part. You can be a wonderful person and still do something not great. Learn how to embrace your own humanity by accepting that ambivalence. The meaning of our complexity exceeds the dichotomy between good and bad.
For those whose negative core beliefs are the most active, taking everything personally can become an unhealthy habit. When your self-esteem is low, you can be easily hurt by others even when it is not their intention to upset you. Caring a lot of guilt and shame, or other unresolved feelings of inadequateness, can make you more susceptible to feeling hurt by criticism. Automatic thoughts such as “He criticised me because I am not good enough” are most likely incorrect because we all have our own motivations for behaving the way we do. Not everything is related to you. Next time you are criticised, take some distance from the process. Look at it objectively and ask yourself, “What reasons – other than myself – could have motivated the critic?”, or even “What can I learn from this person and his/her criticism (if anything)?”.
3- All-or-nothing thinking
Thinking in black and white terms tends to be one of the root causes of a great array of mental health problems, such as perfectionism, depression and anxiety. Cognitive errors such as “Because I have been criticised, everything is a complete disaster” is a self-confidence killer. Learning also takes place through trial and error. If you do not allow yourself to make mistakes, you will not learn. Simple. There is no shame in learning, since life is a long journey of growth. Open yourself to feeling vulnerable and to the experience of learning. Your relationships are bound to be greatly improved by a more compassionate and forgiving attitude to criticism, be it towards yourself or others.
4- “Should” and “must” statements
You have probably made a mistake, were criticised for it and – if that was not enough – decided to punish yourself with “should” and “must” statements! “I should have known better” only makes you feel more miserable. You could not have known better, because you did not or “the right thought” did not occur to you at the time. As obvious as that sounds, it is worth reminding yourself of such technicalities if you would like to handle criticism better. It is humanly impossible to be at your best 100% of the time. While perfectionism is not a skill, self-criticism undermines learning and development. Have a zero tolerance to “should” and “must” statements that are only there to discredit your efforts. Why kick yourself when you are already down, when you could be helping yourself get up and dust yourself off? A good start could be to use “could” instead of “should” whenever you are tempted to chastise yourself, as in “Next time I could try something different” instead of “I should have done (it) better”.
Before feeling like a target, take some time to reflect. Challenge dysfunctional thoughts that are filled with cognitive errors, which are notorious for making us nervous and vulnerable. Objective thinking that allow us to evaluate a situation from a more sensible perspective can us help calm down at such moments. When our emotions are in control concerning criticism, we tend to see it more clearly. If you still find it wrong, unfair or misplaced after considerable deliberation, however, it is OK to ask for clarification when it reflects genuine curiosity.
A great way to start looking into the reasons why you feel so unenthusiastic about life or constantly on edge is to explore your cognitions. Your thinking, or what you believe about yourself, the world and others, can say a lot about you and the mental health problems from which you might be suffering. In CBT, beliefs are commonly explored in their hierarchical order, from the most apparent and present in personal discourse (intermediate beliefs), to the least obvious but more fundamental and deep-rooted ones (core beliefs). Below you will find a list of core and intermediate beliefs such as attitudes, rules and assumptions, as well as the mental health issues to which they are connected:
1- I need to be successful in order to have a right to feel good about myself.
Making your self-esteem conditional and dependent solely upon achievements and other positive external stimuli, such as material goods or the approval of others, is a sign that you may be suffering from issues surrounding self-esteem. High self-esteem is nurtured from the inside out. A confident attitude means that you have enough psychological resources to accept yourself in a loving and compassionate manner, regardless of what is going on in your personal, academic or professional life. The more your emotional well-being is bound to appearance, social status or the impact you have on others, the more susceptible you become to developing problems with excessive worrying and self-criticism, perfectionism and low self-esteem.
2- If someone rejects me, it is because there is something wrong with me.
Personalization, or the assumption that peoples’ negative behaviours are related to you, is a classic cognitive error that is either reflective or leads to feelings of low self-esteem and social anxiety. A productive way of thinking which will boost your self-confidence instantly is to be suspicious of any cognition that influences you to judge yourself negatively too quickly and easily. Peoples’ social behaviours are products of their own psychological and emotional states. Before rushing to blame yourself for the reaction of others, remind yourself that the world is much bigger and people much more complex than your biased perspective cares to explain.
3- I cannot get anything right.
Really, nothing at all? Even on your worst day, it is humanly impossible to get everything you do, absolutely wrong. Magnification/minimisation – or focusing on the negative in a global and exaggerated fashion – can make you feel incompetent and small, even when it does not correspond to factual truth. Such prejudiced and inaccurate core belief is at the hearth of feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem.
4- If I don’t worry, something bad will happen.
Worrying that takes over your time and does not lead to a solution – a process also known as rumination – is not productive. If thinking did have magical powers, there would be no such thing as anxiety disorders. The assumption that worrying gives you a sense of control over reality is not only false, but it stops you from trusting yourself, getting things done and enjoying life.
5- I should have total control over my emotions, especially when negative.
There are two big no-no’s in the above rule. Firstly, should statements are counterproductive, since they do not make you feel relieved for whatever you think you may have done wrong, but only add to your suffering, resulting in even more feelings of powerlessness. Secondly, the habit of supressing or rationalising every single negative feeling you experience, as if they lacked purpose entirely, is extremely prejudicial to your psychological and emotional health. Perfectionists as well as anxious, depressed and unconfident people often use should statements when ruminating over their problems, in a maladaptive attempt to regain a sense of control over themselves (without success).
6- If I feel insecure and inadequate about trying something new, it is because it won’t work.
Emotional reasoning is another cognitive error that makes one believe his/her thoughts and feelings are the same as actions. Thoughts are what they are – just thoughts. Feelings of inadequacy, such as insecurity and anxiety, are not predictors of an outcome, but a sign that there is an internal conflict that needs to be addressed and dealt with.
7- If people found out who I truly am, they would reject me.
That assumption is wrong for the great majority of its believers. Somehow along the way towards becoming an adult you have registered the message that being yourself is unproductive, or simply not good enough. You may have felt rejected by your parents whenever you expressed negative emotions or acted in a way that went against their own beliefs and/or expectations of you. As time went by, that knowledge created a barrier between your true self and your self-esteem, as if to be accepted by others you had to supress your essence as much as you could. That myth is not only damaging to your psychological wellbeing but it significantly affects quality of life. Incongruence between the self and behaviour can lead to intense feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, personal frustration and a depressive attitude of general discontent towards life.
In order to help yourself adopt a more positive attitude or feel more in control over your moods, be mindful of beliefs that are too rigid, be they intermediate (rules, attitudes and assumptions) or core. To correct negative beliefs that are causing you to feel depressed and/or anxious, challenge automatic thoughts whenever you feel a negative shift in your emotional state. Ask yourself, “What does this thought say about me?” repeatedly, or until you get to the root of the problem. Then, restructure your belief so that it reflects a flexible and compassionate perspective.
Excessive worrying feels very debilitating since it gets you stuck in rumination mode. Going over the same thought without dealing with it productively can be a mood killer. The best way forward for those who often find themselves struggling to let go of negative thoughts is through self-awareness. Start actively monitoring your thoughts. More importantly, begin to challenge them whenever they fail to lead you to any useful or creative solutions. Then, if you are new to CBT, use the questions below to help you problem-solve.
Here is a list of questions to ask yourself when worrying excessively:
Does my thought make sense from a realistic perspective?
Would this thought be considered logical?
What is the evidence for my thought/belief/evaluation?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of believing in this thought?
Would the intelligent and mature people I know agree with my thought? Why?
Am I am being too hard on myself?
Would I think/say the same about/to my best friend?
Am I being reasonable?
Is this situation as bad as I am portraying?
Are people as judgemental as I am imagining them to be?
Am I equating my thought with a fact?
How would I evaluate this situation 2 months from now?
Is this going to matter to me tomorrow?
Is this worry productive?
Is this criticism constructive? What – if anything – have I learned from it?
Am I only focusing on the negative?
Am I basing my thoughts on mind reading?
Am I exaggerating the relevance of this thought?
What is the worst-case scenario? What is the best-case scenario? What is the most likely outcome?
How is this thought affecting my mood?
Is it guiding me towards my goals or is it distracting me from them?
Am I using labels to define the situation in a way that does not do it justice?
Am I being overcritical?
Am I being fair?
Am I problem solving in an objective way?
How could I consider this problem more objectively?
Am I blaming others or myself for things that are – realistically – out of our control?
Have I considered all the facts before jumping to conclusions?
Am I taking things too personally?
How am I assessing my/others’ ability to handle this particular problem? Am I overreacting or being too negative?
It is worth reminding yourself that thoughts are just thoughts, not facts. As we tend to negotiate meaning via our internal dialogue, make it work for and not against you. If you display a biased inclination towards perfectionism and self-criticism, for instance, expand your perception investing in a more flexible attitude. Restructure your rigid beliefs so that they reflect a more compassionate and forgiving outlook. Use metacognition as a tool against automatic thinking and learn how to gain more control over negative emotions.
Are you a perfectionist? Perfectionism is not a skill, but the number 1 enemy of a healthy self-esteem. Perfectionists have a hard time letting go of negative thoughts. They are extremely tough on themselves and often struggle to fully enjoy their own achievements. They also suffer from excessive self-criticism and self-doubt, which increase insecurity and give rise to feelings of inadequacy.
If you are wondering if this is your case, but would like to learn more about perfectionism, see below for its most typical behaviours:
All-or-nothing thinking: perfectionists see the world in black and white. The perfectionist scale contains only two opposite poles: ‘perfect/excellent’ and ‘rubbish/terrible’. There is no ‘adequate’ or ‘acceptable’, ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in the perfectionist’s classification system. According to perfectionist thinking, what is not a success is a total disaster.
Result obsession: achieving a perfect/excellent result is the main motivation of perfectionists. Perfectionists feel empty and unfulfilled without recognition. Because they struggle to love and accept themselves, they use external stimuli, such as praise, titles, acknowledgement, appreciation and validation to feel good about themselves. Perfectionists are approval junkies.
Mistake phobia: because perfectionists struggle with issues surrounding low self-esteem, the prospect of making a mistake is source of great anxiety. Contemplating failure is psychological torture for perfectionists. This result obsession added to their excessive judging and criticising generate a strong fear of the consequences of not attaining their incredibly high standards.
Aversion to criticism: perfectionists take criticism personally. Because they are extremely harsh on themselves, they have a tendency to interpret negative feedback as a personal attack. This is mainly due to their difficulty to separate their own selves from their actions and behaviours. If you tell a perfectionist that what he or she did is not very good, they believe they themselves to be bad.
Shoulds: why chase perfection like a hamster on a wheel? Because you should. You should always do your best. Forget feelings, moods or other idiosyncrasies, ‘best’ always means excellent, regardless of who you are. Perfectionism goes hand in hand with irrational absolutes and an intolerant attitude.
Discounting the positive: satisfying perfectionists is a big challenge. Nothing is ever good enough. Their worth can only be validated when in line with the highest of high standards. Anything below excellent is considered mediocre.
Rumination: perfectionists are time travellers. When they are not thinking about the past to find reasons for their supposed failures, they are trying to work out a way to transcend their own achievements. This lengthy and persistent consideration process, also known as rumination, feeds on itself. The more they ruminate, the more stuck they are with it.
Procrastination: why make all that effort when perfection is so difficult to attain? Rather than working so hard just to end up regretting your actions, it is easier not to decide. The most comfortable line of action is to put everything off. Without a decision, there is no risk, and no risk means no disappointment.
Self-denigration: perfectionists are masters of self-deprecation. Nobody criticises perfectionists as fervently as they do their own selves. They believe to be their duty to find faults with everything they do. Because nothing is ever good enough, they are constantly second guessing their own decisions, as if they were not competent to assess their own predicaments.
Guilt: feeling guilty for not being able to achieve their incredibly high standards is something with which perfectionists are very familiar. Perfectionism makes guilt seem like a plausible emotional reaction for not succeeding at everything you do. If you have failed to excel, you ‘should’ feel guilty. Guilt, allied with a long list of shoulds, reinforces perfectionism and feelings of low self-esteem, such as inadequacy and insecurity.
Shame: because perfectionists are always monitoring their own behaviours, they believe others are able to notice when they do not perform as well as they ‘should have’. They feel ashamed for not being able to comply with the demands of their own idealised selves, as if everyone else shared their inflexible views.
If you identify with the above, it is very likely that you are indeed a perfectionist. Perfectionism is a fairly common problem. To overcome perfectionism, make your priority to practice self-love and acceptance. Replace your overly judgemental attitude with a daily dosage of self-compassion. Become your own best friend and start telling yourself that it is OK to make mistakes. Learn how to laugh at the idea of being slave to a metaphor. Perfection is an illusion. Make ‘good enough’ the new ‘excellent’. Embrace your humanity and make peace with your weaknesses. Against a positive and forgiving attitude, your perfectionism will not stand a chance.