Your colleague gets a compliment about the quality of her work. A guy at a bar mentions how pretty your friend is. You overhear your mom telling your sister how smart she is. You know these things are normal and that everyone deserves to be praised. But for some reason, these types of situations sting. Maybe a little more than they should. You might begin to wonder whether your own work is high quality enough or whether you are pretty or smart too. Because, ultimately, when other people excel or are praised, you can’t shake the question- Am I good enough?
Most of us have, to one extent or another, struggled with this issue. We compare ourselves to others to see how we measure up. Why do we do this? Well, there is a lot going on here behind the scenes. Let’s talk about it.
Before we continue, be sure to grab my free guide on how to identify problematic thoughts and negative core beliefs!
Core beliefs: how they develop and are reinforced
We all have core beliefs about ourselves. Some are adaptive and accurate, while others are maladaptive and rather inaccurate. Core beliefs are deeply ingrained beliefs about oneself. They typically develop early in life through significant or meaninful experiences. Once developed, they are continuously reinforced throughout the rest of childhood and adulthood. Why are they reinforced? Because we seek out information that confirms this core belief and ignore or dismiss information that contradicts the core belief. People with anxiety tend to have core beliefs that fall into 3 main categories (helplessness; unlovability; worthlessness). Those with core beliefs related to helplessness tend to struggle with believing they are inadequate in some way or that they do not measure up to others.
So, let’s talk through the process for a minute. Let’s say you had a few significant life experiences during childhood that led you to believe you are inadequate in some way. Perhaps you had parents that had extremely high expectations of you and, no matter how hard you tried or how well you did, it never seemed good enough. Maybe you had an older sibling that was extremely high achieving in academics, sports or popularity. You compared yourself to them constantly and never felt like you measured up to them.
Spend a few minutes and think through your childhood experiences. Any one of these life experiences could have profoundly impacted you for some reason and led you to believe you do not measure up.
How it plays out
Once you started to believe this about yourself, you sought information that confirmed this core belief and ignored or dismissed information that contradicted the belief. You might have paid special attention to any praise your sibling received. You may internalize every comment your parents made about your grades not being good enough or you not getting into a good enough college. Thus, you continue to collect data as evidence of you not being good enough. However, you ignore or dismiss all the information that points to your competence and your measuring up to or even exceeding others’ achievements. Perhaps you got all A’s and B’s in high school, played on a competitive sports team or were really good at photography. But instead of using this information to help you see yourself as adequate and good enough, you make excuses for it. I like to call this the ‘yeah, but’ bias.
Yeah, but my boss complimented me on my work, but she was in a particularly good mood
Yeah, but my boyfriend is always telling me I am a good writer, but boyfriends are supposed to compliment you.
Yeah, but my parents were bragging about me to my aunt yesterday, but they were just doing that because I was in the same room
The process of change
Now, consider this. The process of reinforcement can go on for years and years. Let’s say for 10 or 15 years you have paid more attention to evidence of your being inadequate and dismissed any evidence of your being adequate. How strong do you think this belief would be? By now this belief is likely very strong. This is why I always tell my clients that core beliefs are more difficult to change than automatic thoughts. Because, by this point, they are likely deeply ingrained. But, don’t lose hope. Core beliefs are malleable! It just takes diligence and effort on your part.
CBT uses a variety of techniques to modify inaccurate core beliefs. Take the first step. Grab my free guide on how to identify problematic thoughts and negative core beliefs!