This is the second post in the series I am doing about Cognitive Distortions. For more about what cognitive distortions are and how they negatively impact out life and world-view, see my first post on Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing.
This week I’m going to talk about another distortion called “Disqualifying the Positive”. Disqualifying the positive means we are recognizing only negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. Perhaps you receive a compliment or a positive statement on an evaluation you receive at work or a paper you have turned in, but you only focus on the single negative feedback you also received on your work. When you are in the habit of disqualifying the positive, it makes it hard to recognize the good things you have done, leaving you feeling inadequate, or sometimes even worthless or incompetent. Therapists sometimes refer to this as having a case of the “Yes, but…”s.
Have you ever had a friend that was feeling down, but when you tried to cheer them up, they just refuted everything positive you had to say? Perhaps you tried to compliment someone on a new opportunity they received at work, and the response was “Yes, but they only gave it to me because they already promoted Becky and she’s not around to do it anymore”. When we constantly disqualify the positive things we have going for us in life, or only look to the negative aspects of the situation, we are really not looking at the given situation with the true lenses of reality. Not only is it inaccurate, you’re missing out on the joy you could be experiencing by allowing yourself to recognize the positive things you have going for you.
In life there are few things that are all good or all bad. Even if you’re going to take a vacation in Hawaii, there’s no way you’re getting around that long plane ride. However, if you focus only on how long and cramped and boring the plane ride will be and how much you’re not looking forward to it, you’ll arrive at your vacation grumpy and tired. Some people have a special knack for disqualifying the positive wherever they go, and in general these people aren’t the most pleasant to be around. Other people always have to spend time pointing out to them the positive aspects of the given situation until they begrudgingly accept that there may be a positive to be found somewhere in there.
The antidote to this cognitive distortion is gratitude. Looking for places to find gratitude wherever you go can be a habit that you cultivate. When we look for the positive in any situation we face, we become happier overall, and we become more resilient to negative situations or feedback when it does happen. Some people can accomplish this with starting a gratitude practice, or you can journal about things you are grateful for. They can be very simple things. Even when negative experiences happen, there is usually a lesson that can be taken from the experience, or a kernel of gratitude that can be found if you look for it. If you lose a loved one, perhaps you choose to include a reflection of the positive memories you had with that person as you journey through your grief process, or perhaps you choose to honor their memory by giving back to a charity your loved one cared about. It doesn’t make the loss go away, but it can help with the grieving process and take something negative and insert a little positivity into the situation. There is a great list of simple things to be grateful for over at Radical Transformation Project here:
For some people, particularly if you have struggled with depression or low self-esteem in your life, looking for the positive doesn’t come naturally. That’s okay because it is a habit that can be changed if you want to start thinking in a more positive and realistic way about your life and your accomplishments. You do not have to automatically disqualify everything positive that happens to you just because there are also negative things that happen. When we ruminate on the negative and give that negativity more energy than we give positivity, the negativity starts to rule our lives. Sometimes, that negative voice that sneaks up on you when something good happens may really be the voice of someone who abused or neglected you, someone who convinced you that you were not worthy of enjoying your life, or that you didn’t deserve good things and didn’t deserve to be recognized when you did something well. Many of us have to learn to combat those negative voices in our heads by consciously choosing to listen to the positive. Think about it like having that little devil on one shoulder and that little angel on then other shoulder. The little angel is trying to say something positive to you, and that little devil just whispers in your other ear “Yes, but…”
Make a decision that you are going to start recognizing the good aspects of the situations you find yourself in, and stop disqualifying the positive. As with any problem, the first step is recognizing that the problem exists and making a commitment to want to change it. When you start to hear “Yes, but…” creeping into your vocabulary, that’s when you know it’s time to brush the little devil off your shoulder and listen to what your little angel has to say to you. It’s okay to be proud of yourself, it’s okay to be imperfect, and it’s okay to take the good along with the bad in any given situation. This doesn’t mean that we put on rose colored glasses and ignore negative situations that need to be attended to or dealt with. It just means that we don’t disqualify the positive at the same time, thereby robbing ourselves of the ability to see both the good and the bad in a situation.
Battling cognitive distortions is not about disqualifying the negative or never making a plan to deal with a bad situation. It just means that we are looking at the full picture with attention to what the reality of the situation is, so that we don’t over-emphasize negativity when it’s not warranted.