Are self-defeating thoughts actually useful?

Thoughts can play a key role in a person’s emotional life. The way we appraise, judge, interpret, or address an emotional event can determine whether emotional arousal goes up, stays the same, or goes down.

One way of addressing thoughts in psychotherapy is by looking at the accuracy of self-defeating thought and challenging oneself to come up with more realistic appraisals of a situation. For instance, if one setback leads a person to remember all past failures and to predict all future failures, that person may be asked to evaluate the reality of this possibility. The person may also be asked to attend to times in which setbacks did not lot lead to failure. This is very characteristic of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT. Remembering times when things have gone well is one way in which people can regulate their own mood.

Just like thoughts influence emotions, emotions influence thoughts. A predominantly unpleasant mood may lead to a person’s tendency to predict his or her own failings. People often cling to non-useful, self-defeating, and highly judgmental thinking in the hopes that emotional pain might somehow be solved. Asking a highly distressed person to assess reality may result in more examples of failures. He or she may continue to persist in a self-defeating fashion, engaging others in arguments about self-hatred, self-worth, deserving or not deserving. The overall problem with these types of conversations is that they generally don’t get people to feel better and they don’t solve problems. In addition, these conversations can really kill relationships.

Another way of addressing thoughts in psychotherapy is with mindfulness. The focus is not on getting the thought itself to change (despite the fact that the thought might be a self-hating thought). Instead, the focus is being able to identify thoughts and to notice how they get in a person’s way. Being mindful of a thought might include asking “What is the usefulness of this thought right now?” If the thought is not useful, it may be of benefit to focus attention elsewhere.

Sometimes it is difficult to notice when these thoughts arise. Our brains may automatically generate defeating, harsh, rigid, and automatic thoughts when distressed.   Mindfulness also includes “catching” oneself in automatic thinking patterns by starting to notice such thoughts.