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Berating Ourselves into Change: Why Doesn't it Work?

One of the most common issues therapy clients face is holding negative beliefs about themselves. While these thoughts exist for a variety of reasons, being hard on themselves is often a key factor. So what's wrong with being hard on oneself? Let's explore what happens when those thoughts add up over time.

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I regularly ask clients whether the thought they're having is helpful or accurate. Here's a super diluted example of how this conversation can go:

  • Client: I always wait till the last minute to complete my projects and then turn in subpar work. I'm a really bad student.

  • Therapist: Is the thought that you're a bad student helpful?

  • Client: Yes, because it makes me want to do better, and if I don't hold myself accountable, I'm going to just keep turning things in last minute.

I hear this over and over from clients - that they are holding themselves accountable and it's motivating them to improve. They think that without the punishment of the negative thought, they will get even worse. This is a logical line of thinking if you take it at face value, but it's not exactly what's going on here. Instead, they are forming negative beliefs about themselves based on what's happened. The more they continue this line of thinking, the more entrenched these beliefs become.

Imagine this: You're standing with your feet in an empty bucket that comes up to your mid-calf. Suddenly someone shovels a bit of wet cement into the bucket. Naturally, you would flench or try to fling or wipe it off or get out of the bucket altogether. That's an unpleasant feeling, and you know if it dries, you will begin to get stuck.

For the imaginary client above, the bucket is the belief that they're a bad student, and each negative thought associated with that belief is more cement shoveled into the bucket. Some examples of negative thoughts might be, "I'm a disappointment to my parents." "My teachers know I could do better, and I'm letting them down." "There is no point in trying when I am always going to do things wrong." When the thoughts come so fast and so often, it's hard to notice the cement piling up.

So sure, maybe some negative thoughts can temporarily motivate someone to get out of the bucket, but if the thoughts continue over time, it becomes impossible to move without changing your thinking.

As Carl Rogers stated, "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change." If someone is labeling themselves as "bad student/mom/partner/worker," it becomes incredibly difficult to accept themself. Through these labels, they erect the biggest barrier to change.

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