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Oct 12, 2020

How to Change a Self-Defeating Belief (SDB)

Many of you have expressed an interest in my free Tuesday training group for mental health professionals. Today, you can attend, thanks to the generosity of our group in allowing the group to be recorded on Zoom, and thanks Zeina, the group member who courageously volunteered to have us work on her “Achievement Addiction.” I also want to thank my beloved and brilliant co-teacher, Dr. Jill Levitt, who always adds tremendously to our group, on so many different levels.

Last week, we taught the group members how to pinpoint Self-Defeating Beliefs that trigger depression and anxiety, and we promised to show them how to challenge and modify a Self-Defeating Belief in the group you’re about to “attend.” We decided to focus on the Achievement Addiction, which is the belief that your worthwhileness as a human being depends on your achievements and productivity.

Perhaps you share this belief! Most people do.

Here’s how a Self-Defeating Belief works. Let’s say that you base your self-esteem on your achievements. As long as you think you’re achieving and being successful, we would predict that you’ll feel happy and contented. But we would also predict that you may experience episodes of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt when you fail or fall short of your goals and expectations. That’s when you’ll be most likely to start beating up on yourself with distorted negative thoughts, like “I’m a loser,” or “I shouldn’t have screwed up,” or “I’m not good enough.”

So, in short, the combination of an SDB (“My worthwhileness is based on my achievements”) plus a negative event, like a perceived failure, triggers distorted thoughts (like “I’m a failure” or “loser”) which trigger negative feelings, like depression, anxiety, shame, inferiority, or even suicidal thoughts. In addition, cognitive therapists believe that if you modify the SDB, it will not only help you in the here-and-now, but it can also make you less vulnerable to painful mood swings in the future. But how in the world can you do that?

If you like, take a look at the list of 23 common Self-Defeating Beliefs and see if you can find any of yours!

Zeina said she wanted help with her tendency to base her feelings of happiness and self-esteem on her accomplishments. In the group, we demonstrated four techniques for changing this or any SDB, including:

  1. The Cost-Benefit Analysis.  You list the advantages and disadvantages of the belief you want to change. You can find the one we worked on with Zeina during the group if you click this link. If you want a blank one you can work with, you can find one on page 2 of this link.
  2. The Semantic Technique. This involves change at the intellectual level. if the SDB is not working to your advantage, could you modify it so you can keep all the advantages you listed while getting rid of most if not all of the disadvantages. This is a bit of practical personal philosophy exercise with significant emotional implications.
  3. The Feared Fantasy. Here's where change at the gut level begins, and you also can begin to challenge the idea that high achievers really are more worthwhile.
  4. The Double Standard Technique. Here's where change at the gut level continues, and you can hear a beautiful example in Zeina's dramatic interaction with Dr. Levitt.

In today's part 1 podcast, we completed the Cost-Benefit Analysis. I would urge you to do your own CBA while you're listening. When you're done, balance the advantages against the disadvantages on a 100 point scale. Put two numbers in the circles at the bottom to show whether the advantages or disadvantages are greater. For example, if the advantages of this belief greatly outweigh the disadvantages, you might put 80 - 20 in the two circles. If the advantages and disadvantages of this belief are about equal, you can put 50 - 50 in the two circles. And if the disadvantages are somewhat greater, you might put 45 - 55 in the two circles.

When you do your own weightings, please note that the number advantages or disadvantages is not important--that's because one advantages could outweigh several disadvantages, and vice versa. Instead, look at the lists as a whole and ask yourself how they feel, and how this belief is working for you.

In addition--and this is super important--remember that you are NOT evaluation the advantages and disadvantages of achievement. There probably aren't any disadvantages of achievement! Instead, you are evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of basing your self-esteem and feelings of worthwhileness on your achievements and productivity.

At the end of the group work with the CBA, I emphasize that the goal of the CBA is simply to find out if you (or in this case Zeina) want to change your SDB. This is a motivational question. If the advantages and disadvantages are about equal (50 - 50), or if the advantages out weight the disadvantages (eg 60 - 40), then there may be no reason to change the belief. But when the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, you can then change the belief so that all the disadvantages diminish or disappear entirely, while at the same time you keep all the advantages.

That sounds like a pretty good deal! In next week's podcast, you'll learn how to make this happen with the help of the Semantic Technique, Feared Fantasy, and Double Standard Technique!

There are a great many additional techniques for challenging and modifying any SDB as well. The four I listed above are just a kind of “Starter Kit” for SDBs to give you a feel for how some of the techniques work. If you like this podcast, we may focus on other SDBs as well, such as the Approval Addiction, the Love Addiction, and more. Let us know if you’d be interested, and which beliefs interest you the most. We’ve already done a podcast on perfectionism, as well as a popular Live TV program on perfectionism on Facebook that features Jill and me, but there are tons of beliefs we haven’t yet addressed.

To make today’s podcast more dynamic, you can do your own Cost-Benefit Analysis while you watch, and make sure you do your own weightings at the bottom, just like the therapists in our Tuesday training group. I think you’ll enjoy it, and it might nudge your thinking a little, too!

Please let me know if you've enjoyed "eavesdropping" on my Tuesday training group, and if you'd like more Feeling Good Podcasts like this in the future. Let me know, too, if you'd have an interest in attending a weekly TEAM therapy training group for therapists or for the general public.

My new book Feeling Great, is now available on Amazon (see the link below) as a hardbound volume or as an eBook. It features all the new TEAM therapy techniques, and is geared for therapists as well as the general public.

Rhonda and David