We usually don’t realize we have them and yet they are powerful enough to dictate our decisions. They are powerful enough to steer our lives in specific directions, directions that may not be supportive or healthy, directions that may not lead to a fulfilling life. They become the lens through which we see ourselves. And all we see is negative.
Self-defeating thoughts are “automatic and habitual, slightly below our consciousness,” said Barbara Sapienza, Ph.D, a retired psychologist and novelist. These thoughts tell “us we are not good enough, worthy or deserving of being happy, causing us to lose our determination to move forward toward our potential.”
Self-defeating thoughts take on many different faces and forms.
For instance, Sapienza shared these examples: “If I am assertive, he will leave me.” “If I get that job, she will feel bad.” “I am unlovable, and therefore no one will want me.” “If I’m too loud, I’ll be abandoned.” “If I speak up, I will spoil it for her.”
According to Maine clinical psychologist Mary Plouffe, Ph.D, if you’re looking for a job, and self-defeating thoughts start to arise, they might sound like: “I’ll never get the job, so it’s foolish to apply. If they choose someone else, I’ll be humiliated and everyone will think I’m a loser. If I fail again, I might as well give up. I can’t stand the feeling of trying and losing. If I don’t get it, it was a mistake to try.”
According to Brooklyn-based psychotherapist Rena Staub Fisher, LCSW, other examples include: “I’m not good, smart, rich, pretty, etc., enough.” “I have to earn someone else’s approval to feel OK about myself.” “If people really get to know me, they won’t like me.”
The Origin of Self-Defeating Thoughts
Self-defeating thoughts stem from infancy. Which is when we make assessments to ensure our safety and to protect our loved ones, the very people we depend on for sustenance, said Sapienza, author of Anchor Out: A Novel. This is how children start to believe they’re responsible for family trauma, like illness, divorce and death—and carry these beliefs into adulthood, she said.
“When I was a child I cried incessantly and drove my poor mother nuts,” Sapienza said. “She was not equipped for this crying infant. According to my grandmother, she threw me across the room onto the couch. I stopped crying. As a graduate student, my supervisors often told me my voice was timid. Did I begin to learn, then as an infant, to squelch my needs to protect the important dyad?”
Our families also provide templates for navigating the world. For instance, your well-meaning parents might’ve taught you that: “The world is a pretty dangerous place, you should stay close to home and avoid what is unfamiliar,” and “You are not ________ enough to handle the world,” said Plouffe, author of I Know It In My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child.
This is different from the template or attitude that the world comes with challenges, and you already have, or can develop, the ability to handle these challenges and be resilient when you fail, she said.
In other words, “If our parents are terrified to let us spread our wings, we grow up believing we don’t have what it takes to fly.”
In addition to messages from our families, we, of course, absorb messages from our society. “An indirect but insidious message for many has been, ‘Don’t be needy,’” said Fisher, also a blogger. Because our culture values and glorifies self-reliance, being needy is seen as shameful. (It’s not. All of us have needs, and that’s a good thing.) Which translates to: “Your natural way of being is not OK; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are,” as meditation teacher Tara Brach has said.
Self-defeating thoughts can be very convincing. We interpret them as cold, hard facts that encapsulate our true nature. But, thankfully, we can work on diminishing them, on not letting them rule our lives.
Spotting Self-Defeating Thoughts
The first step is to identify these thoughts. Plouffe noted that self-defeating thoughts can include the words “always” or “never”: “I’ll never recover.” They’re generalized statements: “I failed so I’m a failure.” They’re extremely pessimistic: “Nothing good could come out of trying.” They’re hopeless: “There’s nothing I can do about this.”
“Self-defeating thoughts tend to make us feel small, unworthy, ashamed and closed off,” Fisher said. She shared another way to identify these thoughts. Ask yourself: “How do I feel, emotionally and physically, as I experience this thought? Is this thought giving me energy or taking it away?” If you feel yourself shrinking, then it’s unhelpful self-criticism, instead of constructive self-reflection, she said.
Sapienza suggested free-spirited journaling, like Julia Cameron’s morning pages. After each journal entry, underline the sentences that are self-defeating, she said. (Also, underline the sentences “that bring joy and intention for freedom in moving toward our true nature, creating more sustaining life choices.”)
Fisher recommended writing down your self-defeating thoughts on a piece of paper and replacing the word “I” with “You.” This helps you get some distance from these thoughts. She stressed the importance of realizing that self-critical thoughts “do not come from our truest, deepest selves.” Again, they stem from the parts that have internalized messages from others. “Often, these parts are in need of our attention and healing.”
Once you’ve identified the self-defeating thoughts you tend to have, pay attention to when you experience them, Fisher said. This helps you figure out what situations and people trigger them, she said.
Transforming Self-Defeating Thoughts
Plouffe suggested transforming self-defeating thoughts into more constructive, useful thoughts. To do so, consider these questions: “Would I say that to anyone else I wanted to support? If not, why am I saying it to myself? Is there anything useful that can come out of my holding onto this thought? If not, how can I transform it into something I can use to help me? Does it reflect the truth or just my worst fears about myself and the world?”
For instance, Plouffe said, you might change the thought, “If I fail again, I might as well give up. I can’t stand the feeling of trying and losing,” to “If I fail again, it will hurt for sure. But I’m building resilience, and getting better at the rough and tumble out there. Plus, I might learn what I need to improve.”
Similarly, instead of seeing things as black and white or success/fail, broaden your perspective. Plouffe prefers the idea of a “success continuum.” She shared this example of taking on a project at work: “Is it a success if I show my boss how willing I am to take on a challenge? Is it a success if I meet others in the organization I want to get to know? Is it a success if the project fails but I get to show my ambition and integrity (or maybe my super math skills)?”
You also might evaluate what happens if you decline the project: “If my boss has faith in me, and I don’t take this on, will he doubt my self-confidence? How will I feel if the next person does no better at it than I would have? How will I feel if I let fear or uncertainty alone make my decision? Taking on my fears, and challenging my uncertainty is a success for me, no matter the outcome.”
Fisher has found that changing self-defeating thoughts can be hard, which is why she suggested seeking support. “We tend to need a safe, supportive and kind person—a friend, a coach, a mental health professional, or a clergy person—to help us identify the erroneous beliefs we are carrying without even realizing it.”
Self-defeating thoughts convince you that you are deeply deficient and undeserving. They convince you that not only will you fail, but when you do, it’ll be too terrible to manage so you shouldn’t even try, Plouffe said. But this doesn’t mean that you’re doomed or stuck or shackled to these supposed truths (which are anything but true). Rather, you can identify them. You can name them. And you can work through them so they don’t stop you from living the life you want to live.