Ever summed yourself up as a failure, not good enough, worthless or other sweeping negative description? You’re not alone. This tendency to downgrade ourselves if things aren’t going the way we want in life is common place. Self esteem can come crashing down when we do this. In CBT, we call this a global negative evaluation of ourself, and it’s helpful if we can learn to notice when we are doing this and work towards an understanding of the self as far too complex to rate and sum ourselves up with unhelpful all-encompassing evaluations. All too commonly, people suffering from depression, anxiety or stress can sum themselves up as ‘a failure,’ ‘not good enough’, ‘useless’ and so on, when the truth is that none of these can be proved to be 100% true.
Ever noticed yourself doing this? Some of us label ourselves down when things have gone badly in a particular area of our life, but then proceed to sum our whole self up as a result of one mistake or failing. Each person on the planet has a unique and interesting combination of strengths, weaknesses, traits, roles, history, attributes, thoughts, beliefs, emotional responses, so when we explore a ‘global negative rating’, it’s just never true. Each person is so much more than the sum of their parts.
I recently heard this story of the two waves, which I think explains in a vivid way how we are much more than we imagine we are.
There are two waves racing towards the shore, one large and one small. The larger wave is frightened and he says to the little wave, “Oh no, this is it, it’s all over for us. I can see the shore and the cliffs and we are doomed.” The little wave looks back at him and says, “No, we’re fine. I can’t see what the problem is.” The big wave replies, “Look, I am bigger than you, I can see over the top of you and I can see the foam and the shore – I can see that our journey is over.” The little wave looks back and replies, and says, “The end? Not at all you’re not just a wave, you’re the ocean.” The big wave has given himself a self-limiting label, just as we often do, and that has increased his distress as he chases in to shore. Consider for a moment how you might limit your own progress with your own negative labels.
Perhaps you can work on this idea for yourself? Grab a pencil and note down everything you can think of that makes up you. For example, make a note of all your strengths, weaknesses, neutral points, roles in life, beliefs, ideas, attributes, thoughts, likes, dislikes, and feelings. If it’s hard, you can ask a close friend or family member to get you started. When you’re done, take a look. Now does it make sense to ever sum yourself up in global terms? Can it also be true that you are so much more than any label you give yourself?
Can you begin to learn to accept yourself for who you are – this wonderful one-off and complex human being. There will never be another like you! Sure, you make mistakes, from which you are welcome to learn, or you have weaknesses you'd rather you didn't, but that’s where you’re not alone. Welcome to being human!
I work as an accredited CBT therapist in Bath (MNCS Accred, National Counselling Society) and see self acceptance as one of the keys to improved mental health. If I can help you, please feel free to get in touch via my Contact page or email firstname.lastname@example.org