Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) places a lot of emphasis on cognitive distortions – essentially, thinking errors that can hurt our mental health. In this column, I want to talk about one of the most common and potentially damaging cognitive distortions – disqualifying the positive.
We disqualify the positive when we overlook, disregard, or downplay our positive traits and experiences. Someone praises your work and you say, “Oh, that was nothing”. Someone says you’re looking well, and you think they “didn’t mean it” and are “just being nice”. You finished your task ahead of schedule but you think, “Anyone could have done it”. You did well in your exams but that was “only because they were easy”.
These are common examples, and some readers might see some of them as harmless examples of modesty. However, as CBT expert Dr David Burns notes in his book Feeling Good, disqualifying the positive can drive some of the ‘most extreme and intractable forms of depression’.
He gives the example of a young woman hospitalised for severe depression. The woman believed she was an ‘awful person’ and that no one gave ‘a damn’ about her. Later, when she was discharged from hospital, Burns told her many patients and staff expressed great fondness for her. Instead of revising her beliefs, she disqualified this positive, saying the people in hospital ‘don’t count because they don’t see me in the real world’.
Burns replied by asking her how did she reconcile this belief with the fact she had numerous friends and family outside the hospital who clearly did care about her. ‘They don’t count’, she replied, ‘because they don’t know the real me’.
As is clear from this example, disqualifying the positive is a dangerous habit because it results in people maintaining negative beliefs even when faced with evidence that contradicts them. It stops you learning from experience. When you err, it’s proof you’re useless; when you do something good, you explain it away and disqualify it.
Little wonder, then, that disqualifying the positive has been linked to multiple mental health problems and interpersonal difficulties, including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), perfectionism, relationship problems, and low self-esteem, amongst others.
These issues aside, when you habitually disqualify the positive, it results in you frequently missing ‘genuinely positive things that have happened to you’, says Burns. ‘This removes much of life’s richness and makes things appear needlessly bleak.’
What should you do if you habitually disqualify the positives? The first step is simply to become more aware. Minimizing your (or other’s) accomplishments, not accepting compliments, rejecting positive feedback, not acknowledging your strengths or achievements, finding flaws in positive events and experiences, routinely assessing things in a pessimistic manner – these are all indications that you tend to disqualify the positives.
You might believe this is helpful in some ways. Perhaps you think it motivates you and keeps you on your toes, or that it makes you modest. If so, it’s important to also look at the disadvantages. Does it help or hurt your mood when you disqualify the positives? Does this diminish your motivation, and make things seem more hopeless than they are? Does it sometimes cause strain in your relationships, with others perceiving you as being negative or hard to please? Does it stop you from learning and growing from experiences? Does it make you optimistic about the future, or pessimistic?
Ask yourself: if a friend related some positive news to you – for example, they did well in their exams, or got positive feedback at work – would you discount these positives by saying, “That doesn’t count, the exam was easy” or “Your boss didn’t mean it, he was just being nice”? If you would not treat a friend this way, why treat yourself this way?
It can be useful to keep thought records, where you look at evidence for and against your thoughts and beliefs, as opposed to automatically disqualifying the positives.
A simpler approach for time-pressed people is to simply notice and label their unhelpful thoughts. When you catch a particular thought, say to yourself “I’m disqualifying again”. Over time, this will help you break a destructive habit that hurts your mood and mental health.
(First published in Southern Star on 7/12/2023)