Tag Archives: negative thinking

Do You Feel Like an Underdog?


Harry Potter. Katniss Everdeen. The Chicago Cubs.

These are a few of the underdogs many of us have rooted for. (OK, if you’re a Cleveland Indians fan, you weren’t rooting for the Cubs, but millions of people were!) They are people who seem to have the deck stacked against them, but who persevere anyway.

Why do we love underdogs?  One idea is that we believe life should be fair, which leads us to favor the underdog. Underdogs are also perceived to work harder than their rivals. A team or entity that seems likely to lose is not, however, championed as an underdog if it has a lot of money or other resources. (retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/news/2007/12/24/why-do-we-root-for-the-underdog/1699.html) That last statement might have thrown the Cubs’ underdog status in doubt, as they clearly had lots of resources at their disposal. Still, 108 years without a World Series win carried a lot of weight! [I will also say, as a side note, that it seems the statement excludes a certain presidential candidate from underdog status.]

I think another reason we root for the underdog is that we can readily identify with him or her. Of course, there are people who are used to success and expect to win, but many of us don’t. In fact, a person can easily feel like an underdog even when she isn’t one, just because she’s used to that mindset. I think experiences of being “one down,” particularly in childhood when we’re at our most impressionable, translate into a lifelong feeling of being an underdog. There is still a part of us that identifies with the powerless child we once were.

It’s no coincidence that characters like Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen are children fighting adults. This accentuates the seeming futility of their quests. Knowing how these stories go, we expect them to win in the end, but that doesn’t stop us from being afraid that they won’t. In cheering for them, we also cheer for ourselves and our own chances to triumph.

What are some of the challenges that you face? Do you believe that you can prevail, as you believe the novels’ protagonists (or the baseball team) can, or do you feel like you’re not good enough to rise to the challenge?

I’ve written before about Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs. These ANTs tell you that you won’t come out on top. For instance, if you own a business, you question the worthiness of your product or service and wonder why anyone would want to pay you for it. If you aren’t self-employed, you feel “less than” other employees and assume someone else will always get the big project, promotion, etc.  If you’re on an online dating site, you figure that your profile will be overlooked by anyone worth dating.

The thing about ANTs is that they’re usually exaggerated or false; if there is some truth to them, there’s often something that can be done about it.

The next time you find yourself assuming you’re going to be the loser in a situation, step back and look again. Look at yourself as if you’re a friend who’s on the outside looking in. What are the chances that you’re right? Is there any truth at all to your belief? If there is, can you do something to improve your chances?

If you’re a business owner, look at your business history. Unless you’ve just started your business, I’ll assume you have succeeded in finding at least one customer or client, probably many of them. What was it that attracted them to you? Is that point of attraction still there? What can you do to make your product or service even more appealing? There’s nothing more empowering than finding specific actions that will help you to improve your chances of success.

If you’re worried that you won’t be assigned a big project or get a promotion at work, remind yourself of what has happened in the past. Have you been assigned projects or gotten promotions in the past? If so, did you rise to the challenge and do a good job? If you did, chances are good that you will continue to succeed and get noticed by your employer. Success breeds success, right? If, on the other hand, you haven’t been assigned big projects or gotten promotions (and there are projects and/or promotions to be had), or they haven’t gone well, look at what you can do to change that. Can you get more training? Can you speak up more on your own behalf? Can you take some initiative to show what you can do? If it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere in your current job, can you consider looking for another job?

And regarding online dating…as I tell my clients, there are lots of potential partners out there, and you only need to find one. What are the chances that there isn’t even one person with whom you are compatible? (Here come the ANTs again…take a moment to stomp on them. Look at this situation from the perspective of one of your friends. Would he or she say that there’s no one out there for you? Probably not!)

How will you rise to the challenge today (or maybe tomorrow)?


Jennifer Beall is a psychotherapist in private practice near Annapolis, Maryland. She is the author of  “Me” Time: Finding the Balance Between Taking Care of Others and Taking Care of Yourself, available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com in print editions, and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and all other major e-readers.



Don’t talk. Don’t trust. Don’t feel.


In my last post, I wrote about the “committee” meeting inside a person’s head; the committee is composed of all of the critical voices that bring us down and make us question ourselves. The committee is at its most powerful when we don’t talk to other people about our negative thoughts. People who grew up in dysfunctional households typically have very strong committees. The committee thrives on the three main rules in a dysfunctional family, which are “Don’t talk. Don’t trust. Don’t feel.”

First let’s look at “Don’t talk.” Members of a dysfunctional family don’t usually talk about anything important because it feels dangerous. If they talk about things below the surface, they might end up talking about Dad’s alcoholism or Mom’s verbal abuse. If they don’t talk about these things, they might be able to pretend they don’t exist.

Family members don’t talk to others about what’s going on, either, because it’s all a big secret. If it’s too dangerous to talk about things in the family, it’s even more dangerous to share them outside of the family. A dysfunctional family is very invested in making things look perfect on the outside, no matter what’s really going on. This brings us to the second rule.

The second rule that dysfunctional families follow is “Don’t trust.” Let’s say the father is an alcoholic. It’s likely that no one in the family trusts him because his behaviors are erratic, based upon whether he’s been drinking. He, in turn, doesn’t trust anyone else in the family, because they’re probably critical of his drinking, making him feel attacked.

Each member of the family feels some level of responsibility for what’s going wrong, which leads to a deep sense of shame. This shame contributes to the family’s isolation from the rest of the world. Who really wants to talk about something they’re ashamed of? It’s unfortunate that this leads to distrust of others, because people outside of the family can be helpful. They aren’t part of the family dysfunction, so they can offer a different perspective and resources that family members don’t have and probably can’t even imagine.

The third rule is “Don’t feel.” If you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you learn that your feelings usually don’t matter. Sure, you’re allowed to act happy, like nothing’s wrong. But it’s not likely that you’ll be encouraged to express feelings of sadness or fear. Expressing these things might seem to your parents to be indicators of what’s wrong in the family, and they can’t have that! Plus, they’re probably too wrapped up in their own worries to be concerned about yours. It’s also unlikely that you’ll be encouraged to express feelings of anger, particularly towards your parents. And don’t forget that sharing feelings can make you vulnerable to others; this is certainly not a comfortable thing in an environment where it feels like it’s every person for him- or herself.

What happens when you stop expressing your feelings? You lose track of them entirely! I start every session of my “Discovering ‘Normal’” counseling group with a feelings check. After a lifetime of ignoring feelings, it’s hard for group members to identify what they’re feeling, so I give them a chance to practice that in group. Remember that, as uncomfortable as so-called “negative”* feelings are, we need to feel them in order to be able to feel the “positive” feelings. It’s a package deal; you can’t feel one end of the spectrum without also feeling the other.

Did you learn these three rules in childhood? Are you still following them today? If so, what can you do to change that?


*I often tell my clients that there are no “positive” or “negative” feelings. There are only feelings that are more or less comfortable. All feelings are needed, even sadness and anger, and all feelings can be put to positive, as well as negative, uses. Think, for instance, of the women whose anger at losing their children to drunk drivers led them to form MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers). They used the energy of their anger in a positive, life affirming, way.


Jennifer Beall is a psychotherapist in private practice near Annapolis, Maryland. She is the author of  “Me” Time: Finding the Balance Between Taking Care of Others and Taking Care of Yourself, available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com in print editions, and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and all other major e-readers.

Your Mind Is a Dangerous Place

Committee signs

“Your mind is a dangerous place. Don’t go in there alone.”—author unknown

For several years I worked at Chrysalis House, a residential treatment center in Crownsville, MD for women with addictions. Chrysalis House residents who spent significant amounts of time by themselves were regularly warned of the danger of “isolating.” Many of them had a problem with this, as they felt a need for time away from the other 20+ plus residents of the house. How were they to tell the difference between healthy solitude and “isolating?”

The difference, I think, lies in what is going on inside a person’s head when she’s alone. Twelve step groups speak of the “committee” meeting, meaning that a person’s unhealthy thoughts are getting the better of her. The committee causes isolation; solitude alone does not. Isolation, therefore, can happen even when a person is surrounded by other people.

What does the committee tell you? Nothing good! Here are some of the messages you may get from your committee:

“You’re not good enough.”

“You’re going to fail.”

“Nobody likes you.”

“You’re unlovable.”

“You’re on your own.”

“You don’t have the right to exist.”

You’re not [thin, smart, rich…] enough.”

Do any of those sound familiar?

The committee plays a significant role in anxiety and depression. One reason that depression and anxiety tend to persist is that we use our minds to understand our world. If you are dealing with anxiety or depression, your means of perceiving and interacting with the world is filtered through negative thoughts and feelings. This is the committee at work.

A great way to defy the committee is to get an outside perspective, possibly from a family member, a friend, a therapist, or a member of the clergy. He or she will be able to look at your situation more objectively and help you to see the flaws in your internal logic. If you are self-critical, talking to someone who cares about you will help to cut the committee down to size.

The committee uses a variety of techniques, often called cognitive distortions, to make you feel inadequate or just plain wrong. These cognitive distortions can also be called Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTs. There are different types of ANTs, including mind reading; fortune telling/catastrophizing; a negative mental filter; maximizing and minimizing; and all or nothing/black and white thinking. For more information on ANTs and how to “stomp” on them, sign up for my free “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” e-course by filling out the form on this page.

Be Mindful!

Enjoy The Moment sign with clouds and sky background

When was the last time that you ate a meal without doing something else at the same time? Can you remember a time when you drove somewhere familiar and were actually aware of where you were at all times? Have you ever been completely focused on your work while doing a household chore?

Most of us spend a lot of time focusing on the past or the future; we are rarely fully focused on the present moment, which is the basis of the practice called mindfulness.

When you are practicing mindfulness, you are not thinking of something that happened in the past or anticipating something that might happen in the future. You are completely aware of the present moment. You are observing, but you are not judging.

A basic exercise in mindfulness is to mindfully experience a raisin, engaging all of your senses as you do so. Click here for a demonstration of this.

The key to mindfulness as I use it with my clients is to observe without judgment. If you were my client, I would encourage you to develop an observing ego (self) that essentially “steps back” from the rest of your mind and just notices what is going on. This observing ego notices your thoughts, but does not label them as good or bad. It does not label you as good or bad, either.

This is related to what I spoke of in my post on meditation. While meditating, you don’t judge a thought that comes up, nor do you judge yourself for having the thought; you just notice it. Then you let it go.

You can do a similar thing with feelings. There may be times when you experience overwhelming, powerful emotions. It’s easy to be overcome by those feelings and to identify with them completely; they become your reality and you cannot imagine not feeling them.

This is where the observing ego comes in. This part of your mind steps back and notices the emotion without judgment. It knows that the emotion is neither good nor bad and that it’s not permanent; feelings, like ocean tides, ebb and flow.

Imagine yourself on a beach, experiencing the waves. Can you stop them from coming? No. Can you hold on to them and keep them from receding? No again. This is how feelings are. They come and they go. They will always come, but they will always go again. You will never be permanently stuck in a feeling, no matter how it might seem.

What do you think would happen if you ate an entire meal mindfully, or did a chore mindfully? And, more importantly, at least from a therapist’s point of view, what would happen if you experienced your thoughts and feelings mindfully?



Jennifer Beall is a psychotherapist in private practice near Annapolis, Maryland. She is the author of  “Me” Time: Finding the Balance Between Taking Care of Others and Taking Care of Yourself, available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com in print editions, and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and all other major e-readers.












What’s Wrong With You?

Woman looking through dirty broken glass

Probably a lot less than you think!

If you grew up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family, there’s a good chance you grew up feeling like you were just plain wrong or unfixably broken.

In your early childhood, when you still believed the world revolved around you, you learned to feel responsible for everything that went on in your family. At that age, you were entirely dependent upon your parents, so you couldn’t risk thinking there was something wrong with them. Instead, you decided there must be something wrong with you. Why else wouldn’t (or couldn’t) they meet your needs, including your need to be seen, loved, and nurtured?

Many people, rather than learning as they grow up that they are not really failures, continue to listen, without realizing it, to that hurt, self-defeating child inside.

This generally leads to a continued negative self-image; you notice your faults, but not your positive qualities. You make a big deal about the times you mess up, but barely notice the times you do something right. Even though you don’t really want to feel this way, it’s comfortable, because it’s what you’re used to.

You can change these negative thinking patterns, although it will take time. I’ve created a free 5-part e-course called “Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Five Simple Ways to Change Your Thinking and Change Your Life” that will help you recognize and change your negative self-talk. You can sign up for it here.

It is actually possible to rewire your brain so you can think differently about yourself. Give it a try—what have you got to lose?


Jennifer Beall is a psychotherapist in private practice near Annapolis, Maryland. She is the author of  “Me” Time: Finding the Balance Between Taking Care of Others and Taking Care of Yourself, available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com in print editions, and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and all other major e-readers.

From Your Thoughts to Your Destiny

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”


Start with your thoughts, end with your destiny?

Yes, this quote can seem overly simplistic, but it’s more accurate than you might think. A thought may not seem like much, but think one similar thought after another and they will become a significant force in your life.

What do you think and feel about yourself? How do you talk to yourself? Are you generally positive or generally negative?

If your outlook is generally negative, it’s time to consider changing that. What are the criticisms you usually make of yourself? Where do they come from? How much basis do they have in reality? How can you change them into more positive thoughts?

Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Laura grew up in a family where she was constantly criticized. When she brought home her report card, her parents didn’t notice the good grades; they only noticed the ones that weren’t so good. Her parents also constantly compared her unfavorably to her brother.

Laura was overweight, so she was often teased at school. Because she did well in her classes she was often called the teacher’s pet. Her only real friend and ally was her dog.

Not surprisingly, Laura had low self-esteem. Like the other significant people in her life, she learned to criticize herself constantly. She called herself fat. She noticed all of the times she was socially awkward. She didn’t believe she could succeed at anything.

Laura went from job to job, losing (or quitting) one after the other because of her lack of belief in herself. Somehow, though, she finally managed to find a job at which she was naturally gifted, and had a boss who recognized her gifts.

At first she didn’t believe the compliments her boss gave her; she became embarrassed and denied that she had done anything worthy of praise. Over time, though, she began to realize that her boss was right. She began to take more pride in her work. Her coworkers noticed, and they started to treat her more respectfully. This began to snowball, and eventually Laura was truly able to believe the good things that were being said about her.

If you are self-critical, what can you take from this story? Is there anyone in your life who notices your good qualities more than your bad ones? What does that person say about you? Can you believe that it might be true?

If you can’t think of anyone in your life who encourages you in that way, you can do it yourself. Just as you have traditionally noticed all of the bad things about yourself, you can start to notice the good ones. Instead of giving more weight to the bad thoughts, try tipping the scales in favor of the good thoughts.

Just as the quote at the beginning of this post says, your thoughts are powerful. Why not use them positively?


If you’d like to learn more about how to start treating yourself better, check out my book, “Me” Time: Finding the Balance Between Taking Care of Others and Taking Care of Yourself, available on Amazon.com in both print and Kindle formats.








How Independent Are You?

Not long ago, someone referred to me as “fiercely independent,” something which, at one point in my life, I prided myself on being.  I had learned growing up that it was best to be independent and to take care of myself because I couldn’t count on anyone else doing it for me. Being dependent on someone else was dangerous and to be avoided.

But I’ve learned in adulthood that fiercely independent “ain’t always what it’s cracked up to be.” So I do my best to find that middle ground between dependence and independence. I don’t always do very well at that, though, as a current situation demonstrates.

For almost five years now I have had bouts of iritis, which is an inflammation of the iris of the eye that causes redness, pain, and extreme light sensitivity.

Last year I had the worst bout I have ever had. It lasted from late June into October. I knew that I should go to my retina specialist, but I didn’t want to. First of all, I hate going there when I’m in the midst of an iritis attack, because believe me, it’s not fun to have someone dilate your pupils and shine bright lights in your eyes when you’re in pain and extremely light sensitive! But I was also afraid that she would recommend a more aggressive treatment than the steroid eye drops I was already using, and I didn’t want to go there.

In childhood I had also learned to try to deal with health problems on my own for as long as possible before going to a doctor. And I knew that my doctor had, on more than one occasion, discounted my experience, so it was easy for me to put her in the category of people who should help but can’t be counted upon to do what’s best for me. And I was getting acupuncture, which was helping, so I was able to tell myself that I was being responsible; what I was actually doing, though, was taking more responsibility for my health than I was qualified to take.

Mercifully, the iritis episode finally ended. I was still getting acupuncture, and I’d found an article written by American doctors who have found a way to help their patients’ iritis stay in remission using nutrition and herbs. So my acupuncturist referred me to another acupuncturist who is certified in Chinese herbalism and I added this to my iritis-treating repertoire.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t really see out of my right eye. This had happened the last time I’d used the drops for an extended period of time. The drops were milky, and they left a coating on my eye that took months to go away. So I figured I just needed to wait it out. I also noticed that my right pupil no longer dilated, which seemed strange.

When I went back to the retina specialist for a checkup, she did not believe me when I said that the drops caused my inability to see out of my right eye; she said that I had a cataract. I knew what my experience told me, and I knew that it wasn’t a cataract.

So, last week I ended up going to Johns Hopkins hospital to see an ocular immunologist, because my retina specialist (and just about everyone else I know) had asked me to get a second opinion. He was respectful, and did acknowledge that the “milky” drops I’d been using could affect vision. But, like my retina specialist, he told me that there was something covering my eye (he called it a “dense membrane” and said it’s common in uveitis, which is the larger category of eye diseases that iritis fits into) and that my iris had “scarred down” on it, which is why my pupil wouldn’t dilate.

Again, I resisted this interpretation. But, the next morning during a meditative walk on the trail that’s across the street from my office, I realized what I was doing: I was falling into the “all or nothing thinking” that I frequently talk to my clients about. I realized that the doctors and I could both be right—I could have blurring from the drops, but also have the “dense membrane” that would not go away on its own.

So I agreed to get surgery to remove the membrane and break up the scarring.

So much for “fiercely independent”—right now I’m waiting for the doctor’s office to call so I can schedule the surgery*, and the earliest it will be is a month from now. And there’s not a thing I can do to change that. Meanwhile, I’m wondering if I would need the surgery at all if I’d gone to the doctor when I was in the middle of the iritis episode last year. And the “fiercely independent” part of me is not at all happy about the vulnerability that comes with having surgery.

But I do trust the doctor at Johns Hopkins, and I am doing better at staying in the middle ground between complete independence (acting as my own doctor even when I’m not qualified for that) and complete dependence (blindly—if you’ll pardon the pun—accepting and following anything the doctors tell me).

So, how about you? Do you ever act “fiercely independent” even when that’s not necessarily in your best interest?

*Update 4/29/11: the surgery has been scheduled for May 23rd. So now, at least, I know when it’s going to be.