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In part 7 of my series on Cognitive Therapy, let’s meet Sarah.
Sarah’s an amazing person who works hard and succeeds at most things she does. Her teachers praise her; her friends admire her.
The only one who doesn’t seem to appreciate Sarah is…Sarah herself.
When others say, “Great job, Sarah!” She often says, “That wasn’t so great.” Or, “I didn’t do nearly as well as I should have.”
To Sarah, her success feels fake. Every achievement is shaded with a sense of worthlessness and fear of making a mistake next time.
Have you ever felt this way?
Do you ever criticize yourself or talk down your accomplishments?
Do you ever describe yourself as a loser, failure, or worthless?
These feelings are created by a distorted thought pattern called:
Minimization is the opposite of the “magnification” distortion we talked about last time.
Magnification is like using high-powered lenses to magnify our faults and problems.
With minimization, we flip the lenses around and look through the other end, minimizing our talents and successes to pitiful points of nothingness.
Over time, minimization chips away at our self-esteem. Poor self-esteem feeds directly into feelings of depression and anxiety.
In psychological terms, healthy “self-esteem” means:
- We like and respect ourselves;
- We don’t downplay our skills and talents, but we don’t exaggerate them, either; and
- We believe we have inherent worth as human beings.
One way to think of self-esteem is a pool.
A shallow pool has fewer emotional resources to draw from when times get tough. A deeper one gives more.
So, when life gets stressful, the person with more resources has an easier time riding things out. They’re more self-confident, trusting themselves to handle stress successfully. They’re persistent in the face of problems. And they’re also more flexible, so they know when to quit or pivot strategies when what they’re doing isn’t working.
But as a brain researcher myself, I should point out that the concept of self-esteem is a little tricky. That’s because the spectrum of self-esteem can keep going, putting some people into the equally distorted and unhealthy high end.
Unrealistically high self-esteem takes on troubling qualities of its own: not just pride, but arrogance and narcissism.
You might think that narcissists would have an even easier time riding out life’s problems, but sometimes they don’t. Their feelings of superiority and entitlement create their own set of problems, like hostility and conflict.
Those with healthy self-respect will respect and value others. But narcissists are too self-absorbed to care much about others. They may even try to knock others down in order to make themselves look even bigger and better.
So, our goal is to avoid both extremes: thinking too low of ourselves, but also thinking too high. To do this, we want to put our self-esteem into more realistic terms.
Cognitive therapy can help.
In this series, we’re using four principles of cognitive therapy.
Principle #1: Do Your RESEARCH.
- Why are we minimizing our strengths or successes?
- Would most others agree with our minimizing, or would they think we’re taking it too far?
- If we saw the same strengths or successes in others, would we minimize them to the same degree? Why or why not?
Principle #2: Be a REALIST.
Second, we can learn to measure self-esteem in a more REALISTIC way. True self-esteem includes self-acceptance, respect and inherent worth.
We often measure our worth in terms that don’t make any sense.
Many use achievements to measure their worth. This is a problem because just one stroke of bad luck, one business failure, or one illness that decreases our productivity will destroy our sense of worth.
And here we start to see an important distinction between self-esteem and self-worth.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment in our work. This can bolster self-esteem.
But work does not equal worth.
If this were true, then we would mistakenly think that more wealth and success would make one human being valuable than another.
Others use attractiveness. There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in a beautiful face or body.
But beauty does not equal worth.
Here’s a quote I like by philosopher/writer C. Joybell C.:
And still others use affection. And of course, having loved ones, friends, and family will make life richer.
But relationships do not equal worth.
Others’ approval or disapproval of us have nothing to do with our value as human beings.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with achievement, attractiveness, or affection. They just don’t measure our inherent value as human beings.
It’s like using apples to measure oranges – “Man, I have a lot of apples, so that must mean I have one big orange.”
If it helps, think of each as being on different scales, naturally going up and down over the course of a lifetime.
Now, think of self-worth as a completely different scale. And unlike other factors, it does not change. Our value as human beings stays the same for life.
As psychiatrist David Burns wrote, “Since you can’t measure it or change it, there is no point in… being concerned about it. Leave that up to God.”
Principle #3: Find the Right RATIO.
And let’s be honest.
There is at least one benefit to minimizations: we avoid getting a swollen head, thinking that we’re somehow better than everyone else.
Still, in avoiding the deep end of narcissism, we may wade right into the shallows of poor self-worth.
So, we need to ask questions like,
- What are the costs of minimizing my strengths and success?
- What are the costs of poor self-esteem or self-worth?
- What benefits may I get from evaluating my strengths more fairly?
Principle #4: Follow the Golden RULE.
Fourth, following the Golden Rule will also keep us in the middle of the self-esteem spectrum, because we will value and respect others as well as ourselves.
As Dr. Burns wrote,
You will fully acknowledge your positive attributes without…a sense of superiority, and will freely admit to all your errors and inadequacies without any sense of inferiority… This attitude embodies the essence of self-love and self-respect. It does not have to be earned, and it cannot be earned in any way.”
Some believe that self-worth is a meaningless term that has no value.
Others, like myself, believe that self-worth is a God-given gift of infinite value.
Regardless of which you believe, it’s helpful to remember that every person has the same amount.
This puts us all on an equal plane. There’s no room for magnification or minimization here.
We are free to love and respect others, not because of what they have done, what they look like, what they own, or who they know; but because we have the same, inherent value.Become a Patron!
 Zahn, R., Lythe, K. E., Gethin, J. A., Green, S., Deakin, J. F. W., Young, A. H., & Moll, J. (2015). The role of self-blame and worthlessness in the psychopathology of major depressive disorder. Journal of affective disorders, 186, 337-341.
 Iancu, I., Bodner, E., & Ben-Zion, I. Z. (2015). Self esteem, dependency, self-efficacy and self-criticism in social anxiety disorder. Comprehensive psychiatry, 58, 165-171.
 van Tuijl, L. A., Glashouwer, K. A., Bockting, C. L., Penninx, B. W., & de Jong, P. J. (2018). Self-Esteem Instability in Current, Remitted, Recovered, and Comorbid Depression and Anxiety. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1-10.
 Tracy, J. L., Cheng, J. T., Robins, R. W., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2009). Authentic and hubristic pride: The affective core of self-esteem and narcissism. Self and Identity, 8, 196-213.
Bushman, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence? Journal of personality and social psychology, 75(1), 219.
 Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. 344.
 Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. 345.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.