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  • Writer's pictureJennifer McCrackin

Fall Down, Get Up: How You Can Stop Feeling Negative


Limited "willpower," past mistakes, and more.

  • Cognitive distortions often lead to feeling bad about oneself.

  • Problems or shortcomings that feel personal are actually just aspects of being human.

  • Rather than fighting against themselves, people can learn to work with themselves and their humanity.

  • If you spend a lot of time feeling down on yourself, you're not alone. Self-criticism is an almost universal part of being human. But you don't have to keep berating yourself for what you see as shortcomings. The vast majority of the time, guilt or self-blame comes from mistaken ways of seeing ourselves.

Here are seven things you can stop feeling bad about and the thinking errors (or "cognitive distortions") that can fuel self-criticism.

1. Limited Willpower

If you struggle to exercise consistently, go to bed on time, avoid binge-watching, stop using social media excessively, or resist junk foods, there's a simple explanation: Because these are things that people struggle with. They're nothing unique about you. Giving in to temptation isn't a failure of discipline but an inevitable result of having only so much willpower. There's nothing wrong with you for sharing this aspect of the Homo sapiens constitution.

Cognitive distortion to watch out for: False sense of responsibility, which is believing you have more power than you actually do. Question self-berating thoughts when your willpower fails you. It was never dependable to begin with, so you can let go of the shame and blame.

2. Mistakes

Even though you know everyone makes mistakes, your own goof-ups probably feel more personal and less forgivable. If I'd just been more careful, you think, I could have prevented it. But mistakes always seem avoidable in hindsight when present-you judges you in the past.

The truth is, you can never avoid mistakes entirely. Maybe all they say about you is that you're an actual person and not an idealized version of a human being!

Cognitive distortion: Catastrophizing or thinking a mistake is much worse than it is. Is your mistake a total disaster—worse than bad? Is it unforgivable and beyond the scope of mistakes that any imperfect human being can make? Consider the possibility that the judgments you’re making have less to do with your actions and more to do with a tendency to think the worst of yourself.

3. Physical Limitations

These bodies we have can be a source of shame or self-loathing. Maybe you see yourself as not good-looking enough or not as thin, tall, or fit as you need to be. Or you've struggled with a health condition or physical injury that has made it hard to live life the way you want to.

But judgments about the "right" look or body type say nothing about your value as a person. And physical limitations are a natural part of having a physical body. We're subject to all the risks that come with taking up space in this world.

Cognitive distortion: Black-or-white thinking, which is seeing things in terms of all or nothing. It's easy to focus on your limitations and zero out the good things about your body. For example, maybe you struggle with mobility, but your immune system works well, or you're not as tall as you'd like to be, but you have healthy lungs and a strong voice. Look for shades of gray too.

4. Emotions

You might have learned early in life that your emotions were a "problem"—that you were too anxious, too excited, too sad, too stressed, too much. Maybe you criticize yourself now for having difficult feelings or for feeling "too little." But you don't choose your emotions. They arise based on your physical and mental state, your personality, and the nervous system's response to stimuli.

Cognitive distortion: Shoulding, which is thinking things ought to be the way we want them to be. You might tell yourself you "should" feel happier or you "shouldn't" feel so down. See instead what it's like to make room for your emotions, allowing them to be without trying to get rid of them.

5. Mental Health

It's understandable if you're frustrated by struggles with things like anxiety, depression, or substance use. And ongoing stigma about psychiatric conditions can lead to thinking there's something wrong with you for struggling in these ways.

However, most people (about 5 out of 6) will have a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their lives. Again, the things you're blaming yourself for are simply a part of the human experience.

Cognitive distortion: Emotional reasoning, which is assuming our feelings convey useful information. For example, maybe you think that feeling bad about yourself means there's actually something wrong with you. Start to challenge these emotion-based beliefs.

6. Personality

It's hard not to take your personality personally since it seems to be about you. You might not like how you tend to be defensive at times, or introverted, or prone to forgetfulness. But we know from decades of behavioral genetics studies that personality is the result of both genes and your specific life history—neither of which are things you choose. What's more, you may be overlooking the great parts of your personality that others love about you.

Cognitive distortion: Discounting the positive, which is minimizing evidence that goes against your negative thoughts. Maybe the parts of your personality that you dislike are just the flip side of strengths, like rigidity and conscientiousness. And perhaps you downplay the best parts of yourself because you take them for granted.

7. Trauma History

Trauma almost always comes with a heavy dose of self-blame. I should have seen it coming. There's something wrong with me now that can't be fixed. I should have prevented it. I shouldn't still be upset.

In reality, trauma happens to all of us at some point. And your reactions to traumatic events are predictable and understandable responses of the nervous system to overwhelming stress.

Cognitive distortion: Personalizing, which is thinking that an event is about you even though it's not. For example, you might see yourself as "the kind of person this happens to," rather than being in the wrong place at the wrong time through no fault of your own.

How to Work With Yourself

Even if you're tired of feeling bad about yourself, a part of you might think that you need to so you can "do better." But accepting who you are is the best foundation for living in line with your goals. Rather than beating yourself up, start to work with yourself just as you are.

Ask yourself the following types of questions that can guide you in the direction you want to go:

  1. How can I arrange my life to minimize temptations when I know my willpower will be low?

  2. What can I learn from this mistake that will help me in the future?

  3. What are the behaviors that help me to feel well physically?

  4. What are constructive ways I can channel my emotions?

  5. What people, activities, and mindsets support my mental health?

  6. What are the conditions that help me to express the full force of my personality?

  7. How can I support my nervous system as it heals from trauma?

See what it's like to collaborate with yourself as you would with a dear friend. Get to know the human whose skin you occupy, and learn how to support them as best you can.


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