Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Common Thoughts in People with Depression or Low Self Esteem

Do you have secret (or not so secret) fears about yourself? Things you fear might be true about you? Or things you fear other people might think about you?

Common secret fears include:

I’m out of control
I’m weak
I’m defective
I’m needy
I’m fundamentally different from other people
I’ve failed a lot/made a lot of mistakes
I’m powerless
I’m vulnerable
I’m trapped/stuck
I’m unlovable
I’m ugly
I’m worthless
I’m controlling
I’m selfish
I’m not good enough
I’m incompetent

Secret fears about “other people” or “the future” are also common:

Other people don’t care about me
Other people can’t be trusted
If I’m not perfect, other people will reject me
No matter what I do, other people will reject me
I’m going to end up abandoned or alone
If people found out the real me, they wouldn’t like me
Bad things are going to happen to me in the future

Secret fears about yourself and other people/the future are often linked.

For example, I’m unlovable and therefore I’m going to be rejected by others and end up alone.
Or, I’m incompetent and therefore I’m going to screw up my life.
Or, I’m vulnerable and therefore bad things are going to happen to me.

How secret fears snowball

1. When people have these types of secret fears they typically try to not think about them, which makes sense but tends to backfire.

– When you try to block out a thought, your mind typically tries to be helpful by “reminding” you about it. (e.g. If I said don’t think about pink pandas it makes you MORE rather than less likely to think about pink pandas).

– When you try hard to block out a thought, your shame and anxiety about that thought tends to increase. Trying to avoid something is like extra evidence of how scary and awful it is.

– When you try to avoid thinking about a thought, you don’t give yourself the opportunity to logically test whether the thought is true.

2. People tend to pay more attention to evidence that “confirms” the secret fear than to evidence that the secret fear isn’t true (or at least isn’t true all the time/isn’t completely true)

3. Secret fears affect our behaviour in unhelpful ways.

Sometimes people develop self-protective rules and behaviours that become self-fulfilling prophecies.

For example, someone who is fearful of being abandoned because they doubt their worth might sometimes behave in excessively reassurance seeking, mistrusting, or controlling ways, and this anxiety-induced behaviour might end up causing the thing they fear (being rejected) to come true.

The first step

The first step in taking some of the negative psychological power away from secret fears is to realize that it’s common for (even very successful) people to have these kinds of secrets fears.

***Just because you have a particular thought (that you’re weak, incompetent, a failure, excessively emotionally needy, or whatever) doesn’t make that thought true***

Working with a psychology PhD about your secret fears

The next best step is to work with a psychology PhD to change how you respond when your secret fears pop up so that the fears don’t get in the way of your happiness and relationships. Sometimes people are interested in understanding how their secret fears might’ve developed but other times people just want to know what to do about them now.

“What to do about them now” usually involves:

1. understanding what current situations trigger the secret fear thoughts,
2. understanding how the secret fears affect your current behaviour,
3. learning how to test the validity of the secret fears,
4. learning how to replace old “junk thoughts” with new balanced thoughts that better reflect reality, and
5. learning and practicing alternative coping behaviours for when the secret fears get activated.