Dear Therapist:

I am a young adult with anxiety and I constantly beat myself with mistakes that I make. I was wondering if you can please give me insight on how to deal with it. I'm a bit impulsive. Ex: I spent a bit too much on food recently and now I'm upset that I don't have any money left for more important things that I need. I think very bad thoughts that are not letting me move on in life. I get very tense and have negative thoughts like “You did a terrible thing.” Are there any tools that might help me? Thank you.



At first glance you seem to be referring to three distinct problems.  You state that you have anxiety, and add that you beat yourself up for your mistakes.  You then mention your impulsivity, and go on to further discuss your negative thoughts about yourself.  Although people can have separate issues that are only peripherally related to one another, there is often an underlying problem that contributes to multiple issues.

You identified three issues.  Although they might need to be dealt with separately, it’s quite possible that they all stem from one central issue.  In the only sentence in which you mention anxiety you immediately comment on your self-denigration.  You then state that you are “a bit impulsive,” which is again immediately followed by a discussion of negative thoughts toward yourself.  This seems to point to an underlying problem that makes you feel negatively toward yourself, which is leading to the other problems.

To what degree is your impulsivity a problem per se, and to what degree is your issue the fact that you belittle yourself when you act impulsively?  If you never felt badly about yourself because of an impulsive action (and were only upset about the consequence of the action) how much would it bother you?  Would there be some things that you would be completely fine with, and simply try not to repeat?  In fact, putting ourselves down often makes it much more difficult for us to correct problematic behavior.  This is partly due to the focus on ourselves instead of on the behavior and its consequences, and partly because when we denigrate ourselves we give ourselves the subliminal message that we’re not capable of change.

A very common underlying issue is low self-esteem.  If your tendency to feel badly toward yourself is not generally attributable to the specific problem at hand, the cause of these negative thoughts is often the basic inability to like who you are (or in fact to have any clear sense of who you are as a person).  If you don’t know how to feel toward yourself, you’ll focus on things that you do or accomplish to gain some sense of self.  Therefore, when you act impulsively—leading to a negative consequence—you point to this as an indication of something negative within you.

In previous responses (see The Couch, October 24, 2017), I have discussed the difference between a “true” intrinsically-based sense of self and a “false” sense of self based on actions, abilities, accomplishments, and other externally-based factors.  The goal in this regard is to view yourself similarly to the way in which you view others (and the way in which others view you). 

Ask yourself this:  If I always felt positively toward myself (similar to how I feel toward someone in my life who I really like), would I continue to put myself down?  Would I be better able to focus on the actual problem (like trouble with budgeting)?  Would this possibly help me to become less impulsive?  If you recognize that generally feeling better about yourself would alleviate your other issues, you would do well to begin working on building an intrinsically-based sense of self.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317


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