Cognitive psychologists have been studying self-esteem for decades. They have identified thirteen kinds of mental distortions that people use that result in negative feelings. There are 10 ways to feel bad about yourself. Spot your most commonly used distortion and consider how it affects how you feel about yourself:
2. Shoulds, musts, oughts.
These are the demands we make of ourselves. For example, “I should have known better”, “I should be more efficient with my life”. We think that we motivate ourselves with such statements when in fact they make us feel worse.
3. The fairy-tale fantasy
This means demanding the ideal from life. This kind of expectation results in feeling things are not fair or feeling a victim of circumstance. The fairy-tale fantasy is one where life should be ideal, without pain, suffering, or failure. The reality is that everyone has to carry the unavoidable burden of such experiences. When you measure your life against the ideal life you inevitably feel disappointed or stressed-out.
4. All or nothing thinking
This kind of thinking is when things are either a complete success or a total failure. You hold yourself to the impossible standard of perfection and when things fall short of it you conclude that it was a total disaster. You might assume that just because one person does not like you at work, that work is therefore intolerable. If you cannot give yourself between 95 and 100% in your how-I-did-today score, you feel you have failed. Try to see that a score of 75% is very good, and with such a score you are entitled to feel very good about yourself!
This is when you decide that a particular negative experience should be generalised to your entire life. For example, “I always ruin everything”; “I always make a mess of things”; “I never do well in maths”. Such global statements make generalizations from specific incidents to everything else which is unkind and always inaccurate. Instead of saying “I can never cope with being a parent”, say, “Sometimes I cannot cope, but overall, I am doing okay”.
Here you give yourself a label, which is a form of name-calling. You will say to yourself that you are ugly, stupid, awkward, boring, uninteresting, etc. The truth is that you care so much more than what your name-calling of yourself. You are usually only about 5% right in what you say. 95% of you is very different. Putting yourself down in such derogatory ways should not be acceptable. You would not treat another person that way, why do it to yourself?
When you obsess about the negative you go over and over the same unpleasant incident that either has happened or might happen. This distortion makes you re-run action replays of unpleasant incidents over and over again. Or else it runs action pre-views of the mistakes you expect to make. Instead of obsessing about unpleasant incidents that you imagine will occur, try running previews in your head of the positive experiences that can happen.
8. Rejecting the Positive90% of your daily events could be described as positive, 1% might have been negative, with the other 9% as neutral. However, what the person with poor self-esteem will do is react to themselves as if it was 95% negative and 1% positive. Most people have a tendency to do this. For one day, see if you can give yourself credit for all the small successes you achieve. Went to the shop, tidied out the cupboard, phoned Mom, made a lovely dinner, showed sympathy to a neighbour, posted those bills, had 20 minutes with my sister, read a nice piece in the paper, spoke to husband about the holidays, made out a Christmas list, etc. Instead of giving yourself a zero on all of these – give yourself one unit of credit in your self-esteem bank where ten units equal a GREAT DAY!
In this instance you see yourself as much more involved in negative events than you really are. You make be taking all the responsibility for your teenagers bad moods, or may feel responsible in some way because your husband is under stress, or may feel unable to get everything done at work. Think again. You may have some influence on things but you are not the cause! Ask yourself, am I the cause of this or do I just have some influence, along with a lot of other influences?
In this instance you turn an unpleasant event into a catastrophe. You convince yourself that something is so overwhelming that you cannot cope with it. “I cannot cope with my children!” “I cannot handle the fact that I am so shy”; “If that happens, I will literally fall apart”. Some people create enormous dramas in their head where difficult situations are dramatised into soap-opera’s over which they feel they have little control.
Remember, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.
It is most revealing to observe how so-called rational people behave in long-term intimate close relationships. In some embarrassing ways, most grown ups literally act like babies when they are in the throes of relationship conflicts. Let me explain: There are three basic beliefs that influence our behaviour as adults that have their origin in very early childhood.
The first of these beliefs is that “If I cause you enough distress you will give me what I want!” This belief influences most people in adult relationships. There is hardly a reader who does not try to get what they want or need by creating some form of distress for the potential giver. In marriages this includes such behaviours as nagging, whinging, complaining, persistent requests, sulking, etc.
The idea is that if I make my partner upset enough he or she will give in to me and provide what I need. This belief is of course the essential survival strategy of the newborn infant. The cry of a small baby is uniquely designed to get the attention of the mother and to distress her so much that he or she is impelled to take action. When you think of this from the perspective of evolution and survival you will appreciate that a baby that does not do this will get ignored. So if a baby has a wet nappy, is hungry, or is in pain he/she creates minor distress by crying that results in the mother coming and rectifying the problem. Adults, in trying to get their needs met, very often do the same thing. People operate on the belief that “If I annoy and pester my partner enough then he/she will eventually give me what I want!” It’s crazy when you think of it this way, but it is nonetheless a strategy of choice for many.
Because people have this internal program that impels them to ‘act like babies’, most people find it hard not to. So grown men whinge, complain, and sulk. Grown women nag, wear-down, and flood their partners.
There is a second common belief that has its origins in infancy which you probably also do. This belief is that “You should know exactly what I need without my having to explain it to you.” In infancy every child has to operate on this assumption. Small babies cannot explain to their mothers exactly what is wrong with them; the mother or caretaker has to figure out what the need is and then to rectify it. Whether its hunger, soiling, tiredness, or discomfort – it is up to the mother to figure it out.
We also do this in adulthood. Most people still carry that belief that they should not have to explain things to their partner and grow resentful if they have to. Most people carry this childlike expectation that, in an intimate relationship, they should be able to relax back and have their needs understood and catered for. In fact the rage and resentment that erupts when a spouse discovers that their partner does not have a clue what they need, is indeed most intense. How often have we heard the refrain that “if I have to explain to you what it is that I want then there is no point in even asking in the first place!”? Unfortunately love cannot always be like that, but our infantile beliefs have us almost convinced that it should.
The third belief that we hold is that “If I am not getting my needs met then the reason for this is that my partner is withholding it!” This belief operates on the assumption that the reason that your husband or partner does not love you properly is because he is stubbornly withholding what you want and need. This belief automatically results in angry attempts to coerce the person into handing over that which they withhold. I have seen couples caught in this pursuit for 20 years. The alternative conclusion, that he/she does not have it in the first place, is a scarier one and often not considered by the frantic mate. Again, it has parallels in infancy because the little baby has no option but to operate on the belief that the mother or carer has what they need. Hence the little innocent will cry for hours waiting for the mother to come and rescue them. However, it does not work in adulthood. In fact, in adult relationships the carer tends to withdraw further in the face of such demands.
The message for today is to remember how childlike we all are and though we like to portray ourselves as being imminently reasonable, in the confines of our close relationships we reveal an innocence that is all too humbling.
Last week I presented a Bill of Rights that presented basic human rights within the context of a family. Living as a member of a family implies that there are essential rights and responsibilities that need to be assumed. While most families honour these things automatically, some families struggle to appreciate what these rights and responsibilities are.
As we know, both parents and teenagers can be abusive in their families. Last week I spoke about parent’s rights and responsibilities but it equally applies to teenagers. Many abusive teenagers I come across in my work see their families as places where they get their needs met, but have little sense of the responsibilities they also have to carry. In extreme cases a defiant teenager will want to live in their family on their terms. That is, they want the benefits and privileges of being a family member without assuming any of the responsibilities. They want their rights honoured but feel they have no responsibilities. This kind of environment is never good for children or parents.
Rights and benefits must always exist side by side with responsibilities assumed. The list of rights is presented below and it is worth considering how it applies to you in your domestic, work, or personal life.
YOUR BILL OF RIGHTS
YOUR BILL OF RIGHTS:
As a family member you have a responsibility to:
Think about your rights and responsibilities and how the climate of your everyday life has fuzzied your thinking about these things.
When working with couples or families it is often necessary to articulate based human rights – particularly as they apply to family life. Just as there are many people caught in social and cultural environments where they are persecuted, discriminated, and abused it is equally so in domestic life. As most of you know, there are many adults and children caught in family situation where they are abused, controlled, and even terrorised. In less extreme situations, there are chaotic families where all family members abuse and are abused by others. In these families the climate of the family is ‘crazy’ – there is little respect given or received and each family member basically has to fight for him/herself all the time.
At times in working with people we will of ten walk someone through their rights. This is done in order to offer an alternative view to what they are experiencing. When one gets used to a family life where one receives little respect, is verbally and emotionally abused, is not permitted to be different, and is the subject of daily hassle and emotional pressure one begins to adjust to this and begins to feel it is normal. One’s emotional and mental life gets used to the crazy life and begins to believe that walking-on-egg-shells is just the way things are.
The truth is, we are entitled to and deserve much more from life. In our centre we will therefore walk someone through the list of rights presented below to encourage people to reflect on their own and others attitudes and to begin to think that every person has basic rights that should be honoured.
YOUR ADULT BILL OF RIGHTS
There are some essential issues identified in this list that should make you think – even if you are living in a relatively stable family. All of us can get caught up in other people’s lives to such a degree that we lose touch with ourselves.
Equally, I could write out that Bill of Rights in terms of a Bill of Responsibilities within which you could look at yourself critically as someone who neglects others – this would be more applicable to the self-centered or self-absorbed type individual who only thinks of themselves and their entitlements. Therefore, the controlling or abusive personality needs to be challenged to honour a Bill of Responsibilities while the controlled or abused person needs to be reminded of their rights.
Think about your rights and responsibilities and how the climate of your everyday life has fuzzied your thinking about these things. Next week I will look at how these rights and responsibilities might apply to children and teenagers.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.