Disqualifying the Positive


This behavior goes by many names: Impostor Syndrome, disqualifying the positive, or confirmation bias. Regardless of how we refer to it, the behavior is toxic. At a minimum we should be equal in our acceptance of the negative and positive information that we allow to define us. Most times we disregard, or explain away, the positive, and hyper-focus on the negative. This is done under the guise that we are, “working on our weaknesses” or that “we don't want to get complacent”. While the intent is good, the outcomes aren't.

I tend to think that what we are unknowingly doing, when we behave like this, is that we are training ourselves to feel terrible about who we are. The message is that we aren't good enough, we're not where we SHOULD be, meaning we're behind, or that we're not doing enough. All are negatively skewed views of ourselves. That is, if we only allow negative information in, then how could we possibly feel positive about ourselves? I’ve had several clients that dismiss positive statements from others or from themselves, so much so, that they will often, purposefully, look for negatives to counter any positive statements made about them. I think this is a very common way of being for people struggling with Impostor Syndrome and is likely the result of some early childhood experiences that have been inappropriately interpreted.

I teach my clients to challenge these irrational beliefs they hold about themselves. This is accomplished through a variety of techniques. Sometimes, I will use Socratic questioning to get a client to become aware of, and evaluate, their logic, other times, I might assign a thought record to assist clients with awareness of their thinking and practice replacing irrational thinking patterns with more rational ways of thinking. One of my favorite interventions is to have the client engage in “othering” activities. That is, I ask the client how they might respond to a friend that was feeling the same way as them. You’ll find that people can easily identify all the positive aspects of a situation and counter negative thinking when it’s outside of themselves. I use these opportunities to question my clients on why they don’t treat themselves the same way they would treat others.

These aren’t one time fixes! I often tell clients that they’ve been thinking the way they have for years or decades and that it will take some time to undo the irrational beliefs they have. It takes consistent work to change, or modify, negative core beliefs about ourselves. Therapy is a way to be held accountable, on a consistent basis, for your thinking and your treatment of yourself. We shouldn’t allow one instance when we weren’t perfect to define who we are.

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