Mental Health

5 Ways To Overcome Self-Defeating Thoughts

What you think impacts your self-esteem and your ability to achieve your goals. With the right mindset, you can reprogram yourself to ignore self-defeating thoughts. Empower your mind to unleash its true potential with these tips from a mental health expert.

By D Tejaswi
31 Aug 2022

Have you ever experienced thoughts such as, “I’m not good enough. They are better than me. Do I even deserve this?" These self-defeating thoughts can take a toll on your body and mind, hampering your health and wellness. A 2017 study titled The Impact of Self-Criticism and Self-Reassurance on Weight-Related Affect and Well-Being in Participants of a Commercial Weight Management Programme found that that negative self-evaluation is the primary predictor of depression and decreased well-being. Plos One, 2013 explains that when we self criticise, we activate areas of the brain associated with processing negative information including the amygdala, insula, medial-prefrontal and lateral-prefrontal. Our cognitive control centre focuses on negative emotions distracting us from thinking rationally.


“Any negative views you hold about yourself and the world around you are self-defeating. While the act of pointing out flaws, can be a healthy way to increase self-awareness and achieve personal growth, being overindulgent in self-criticism sabotages your self-esteem and peace of mind,” says Dr. Sandeep Vohra, senior consultant, mental health and psychiatry, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi.


Persistent self-criticism, also known as faulty beliefs, prevents us from taking risks, asserting opinions, developing personal abilities, and maintaining relationships. While it impacts our logical thinking, there is also a general tendency to go into negative rumination that involves repetitively and passively focussing on distress. This further leads to anxiety, sleeplessness, and even depression, says a 2021 study done on Czech students and published in International Journal Of Mental health and Addiction.


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Types Of Self Criticism

The Levels of Self-Criticism Scale, developed in 2004 by Thompson and Zuroff, measures the two types of self-criticism: comparative and internalised. Comparative self-criticism often involves comparing oneself to others and finding oneself to be lacking. People who have this kind of self-criticism frequently evaluate their self-esteem on assumptions about how others feel about them and perceive others as superior.


Internalised self-criticism includes the idea that one cannot possibly live up to one's own standards or aspirations. As a result, even success is deemed as a failure. A person with a high level of internalised self-criticism, for instance, can get 75 per cent on a test but still feel dissatisfied and like a failure.


How Do Self-Critical Tendencies Develop?

Negative experiences with caregivers in childhood can sometimes lay the foundation for being self-critical, discusses a paper in Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 2009. For instance, if you had a parent who taught you to be overly adaptable, forced you to say ‘yes’ to every new request, and set high standards, you are likely to grow with a low sense of self-esteem.


“But, as you grow up, problems begin to appear when the standards become increasingly unattainable and you feel the need to be perfect in all the parts of your lives. The issue gets further deeper if you also think that everyone else around is perfect and that you need to be, too,” says Dr Vohra.


On the other hand, if you grew up with a sense of security regarding your own choice, when your caregivers, in the past, had given autonomy, encouraged you to try things on your own, and allowed you to make mistakes without punishment, you are likely to have better self-esteem” notes Parenting Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices.


Ways To Overcome Self-Critical Tendencies

So, how do you choose self-harmony instead? Here are 5 ways to overcome self-defeating thoughts.


1. Test your reality

One of the most critical steps to overcoming self-defeating thoughts is to put your thoughts against the test of reality. Ask yourself questions that challenge the current notions you hold about yourselves. For example:

  • What is the evidence of my thought?
  • Is it a fact or a creation of my mind?
  • Would anyone else think such about me?
  • Is the situation really as bad as it seems to me?


Once you ask yourself these questions, you will realise that most often you are too hard on yourself. Take this opportunity to show yourself some kindness. Stop the spiral of self-defeating thoughts by putting yourself on more constitutive endeavours. “Activities such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga or aromatherapy give space for your mind to think in the right context,” says Dr Vohra. By being in a calm meditative state you’ll be able to undergo such reality tests with more honesty and grace for yourself.


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2. Try ACT therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an intervention developed by psychologist Steven C Hayes, helps increase psychological flexibility. This method uses a variety of strategies to help overcome uncomfortable feelings you hold about yourself. A study published in Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 2020 finds ACT to show positive effects for a broad range of target conditions, including the habit to self- criticism.


ACT uses thought exercises such as cognitive diffusion, sing it out method and ‘thank your mind for the story’ technique to help switch narratives when feeling overwhelmed about your thoughts. For instance, the cognitive diffusion method asks you to say the negative thought loud several times (For instance, “I am incapable”) and then diffuse the sentence by saying “My mind is creating a thought that I am incapable.” You can further diffuse the statement by saying, “I notice that my mind is creating…”.


You can try different phrases with an idea to reduce the intensity of your actual thought. By the end, you feel a distance from the thought making you feel better.


In ‘Thank the mind’ method you thank the mind for the story it created. Science says that your mind actually loves to create stories about self. When you thank the mind, you distance yourself from the thought and make more logical decisions.


3. Work on your language

The language you speak to yourself is fundamental when it comes to changing narratives. “Approach the inner critic with love. Practice the act of forgiveness,” says Dr Vohra. When you confront your inner critic with kindness and patience, you delve deeper into the root cause of the outburst. You might come to realise that there is no basis for the animosity you have towards yourself.


You can take the help of the quote you like to practice forgiveness, for instance, as Oprah Oprah Winfrey quotes in an article on her website, “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different, it's accepting the past for what it was, and using this moment and this time to help yourself move forward.” “In situations that are not under your control it better to check your expectations and see what you can do for yourself, says Dr Vohra.


Embrace positive language, speak to yourself with kindness and love. Learn to reframe a negative dialogue into a positve one. For instance, you may say, “Why am I so poor at Math?” Reframe that to, “While I need to practice Math regularly, History comes to me easily.”


4. Evaluate what self-criticism does for you

“Ask yourself what you may believe your self-criticism does for you. Although it may sound strange, many people believe that their self-criticism motivates them,” says Dr Vohra. But realise that if the criticism was going good to you, why do you often feel bad!


“If you think that you use criticism to keep yourself in check or perform better, then you’re approaching the problem unrealistically,” writes Dr Robert Leahy, Director, American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in his book Beat the Blues Before They Beat You. The key is to look at the positives, let yourselves be human and find that we are all part of the same flawed human race.


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5. Live without fear, face your self-critic

No matter what you do, that voice will still try to guide you, telling you that you can't get things right. Face it, and say with utmost sincerity, “Hello, I hear you, but while criticising me is your job, I have to get on with my life. No matter what you think, I am going to finish that class, work on my relationship and go to the gym.”


“Once you begin to act in spite of your inner voice, you find that it is irrelevant. You take control and live your life fully,” says Dr Vohra.


Further, you can always take the help of a therapist or a person you trust to overcome your tendency to self-criticise. Wellness starts with you, all you need is to take control.








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