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Disqualifying The Positive: What It Is + How To Overcome It

Nobody likes being around someone who thinks they’re the best, right? People who brag and go on and on about their achievements all the time or boast about their skills or wealth are the worst. They suck the oxygen out of every room. 

The flip side of that personality is the person who tries to downplay their achievements and skills. Some of us are even raised to believe it’s impolite to talk about your accomplishments. 

But what if you’re so good at dismissing the positive things about you and your life that you can’t even see them anymore? 

In fact, you can downplay the positives to such an extent that you wonder if there are even positive things about you anymore. 

There’s a name for that – disqualifying the positive. And it’s far from harmless.  

What Is Disqualifying the Positive?

Disqualifying the positive is when we dismiss, discount, or ignore positive experiences or traits. It’s a cognitive bias where we see positive things as “not counting” for some reason. 

A cognitive bias, however, implies that an individual has an inaccurate perception of things – you have adopted a default pattern of thinking that creates an erroneous reality.

If you struggle with this thought pattern, it’s likely that even if something good happens to you, you cannot see it for what it is. Because you disqualify the positive, you tend to dismiss its importance. Maybe you write it off as luck or a one-off event that isn’t because of you or your efforts. A fluke. 

A woman wrestling with the cognitive distortion disqualifying the positive stares in concern to her right, resting her mouth on her fist in thought

Why Do People Do It?

There are honestly a lot of reasons people fall into this type of thinking. Let’s address a few of them starting with how you’re raised. 

If our environment is focused only on the negatives or on our inability to live up to expectations, it stands to reason that we, too, would dismiss the positives. This is the price of perfectionism. 

There’s also evidence that suggests people with anxiety disorders, depression, panic disorders, and severe trauma suffer from disqualifying the positive. It’s closely linked to low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and a belief in your lack of inherent worth.

There might also be a cultural component to it. If you were raised in a culture that values modesty and views recognizing the positive aspects of oneself as arrogant or prideful, you might fall into these thinking patterns as well. 

Sometimes this thought pattern arises out of a fear of complacency. If you’re someone who is constantly hustling, but feels like stopping to appreciate your efforts will somehow demotivate you to keep pushing, you might also fall into this trap. 

Why Is It Harmful? 

When you can’t perceive a relatively accurate picture of yourself in your environment, it generally results in feelings of being out of place, not being good enough, and inherently lacking worth. 

This can lead to intense anxiety and even fear or hopelessness. Think about it. If you believe you’re not worth good things or that the good in your life is always, somehow not good enough, what does that do for your future outlook?

Plus, it affects your relationships – all of them. 

When we are in a space where we can’t recognize positivity, we are less likely to experience joy. It can be exhausting for others to constantly try to uplift you when you always feel down and refute everything they say.

It’s like Rachel Dratch’s “Debbie Downer” character on SNL. 

For some, this thought process can become so self-defeatist that they stop trying. If failure and not quite getting there is inevitable, why bother?

I’m sure you can imagine how harmful this kind of thinking would be in a career setting or among colleagues. 

Even the person who disqualifies the positive out of a fear of complacency risks burning themselves out. 

Disqualifying The Positive and Alcohol Use Disorder

A lot of people who abuse alcohol also wrestle with a range of cognitive distortions. Disqualifying the positive is no exception. Research has shown a correlation between the two. 

And since many people use alcohol to “take the edge off” or help to numb negative emotions, it’s an easy trap to fall into when you catch yourself wrestling with a barrage of negatives every day.

But drinking in itself can trigger or worsen such thought patterns. 

Since alcohol is a depressant, it tends to lead to negative feelings over time, including anger, depression, and anxiety. 

All of these feed into your inability to see the positives and will only highlight the negatives even more. And, when you inevitably sober up, you’re likely to feel guilty – cementing the negative ideas about yourself that caused it.

Examples of Disqualifying the Positive In Everyday Life

To help you get a clearer picture of what disqualifying the positive looks like in practice – and all the problems it brings – here are some real-world examples:

Example 1: You’ve put in hard work to study for an exam, and you’re expecting ace it. When the results are in, and you realize you’ve missed your 100% goal by two points, you discount all the 98% achievement and write it off as “not being smart enough.” 

Similarly, if you do get 100%, you may shrug it off because “so did everyone else” or “it’s because it was so easy,” negating your effort and intellect entirely. 

Example 2: You go on a blind date with someone, and while it’s not all bad, it doesn’t blow you away either. On a scale of 1-10, you rank it a ‘meh.’ 

Yet when you don’t get asked for a second date, you discount the fact that you didn’t click with the person either. Instead, your brain goes into, “I’m clearly not lovable” mode.

Example 3: You’ve prepared a presentation for some senior VPs at work and delivered it well despite being a little nervous. At the end of the presentation, your manager tells you that they think you did a great job, but you respond with, “I was so nervous, I fumbled a few sentences there, and I didn’t make much sense.”

In your mind, you feel your manager has only complimented you to make you feel better, not because they genuinely mean it – despite the opposite being true. 

Signs You’re Struggling With Disqualifying The Positive

Many of us tend to downplay our achievements in an attempt to be humble and avoid sounding arrogant, so how do you know if you’re actually struggling with a cognitive distortion like this? Here are some signs that may guide you:

  • You struggle to recognize your skills, strengths, and abilities
  • You find it hard to set reasonable expectations for yourself
  • You have a generally pessimistic attitude about yourself, the world around you, and the future in general
  • You can’t acknowledge your achievements or areas of self-growth
  • You struggle to accept compliments and praise from others
  • You relate all the positive events that happen to you to luck or something out of your control

Disqualifying the positive is a type of cognitive distortion that stops you from seeing an accurate picture of yourself and the world around you. But there are many similar distortions that often go hand-in-hand with disqualifying the positive. 

Mental Filtering

Mental filtering is a pattern of thinking that sees only certain parts of reality. Instead of seeing a bigger picture, which often includes good and bad things happening to you throughout the day, mental filtering ignores any positive aspects and fixates on the negatives you’ve had to face.

For example, if you receive feedback on a project at work that is mostly positive but includes a minor suggestion for improvement, mental filtering would lead you to ignore all the positive comments and fixate only on the criticism.

It’s very similar to disqualifying the positive. 

Control Fallacies 

This type of cognitive distortion pertains specifically to your perception of whether or not you’re in control of a situation. Control fallacies are beliefs about your lack of control – or the extent of your control – in your life. There are two types of fallacies to consider here.

  • Out of control: This type of control fallacy is when you feel completely out of control in a situation or think you can make no impact. You are left feeling powerless like you are just a pawn in a chess game.

An example of this external control fallacy is when you feel that no matter what you do, you will never achieve good marks at school, get a promotion, or never meet a suitable romantic partner.

  • Hyper control: Focused internally, hyper control is when you presume you are responsible for everything around you. Thus, you take it personally as criticism or believe it’s your fault when something goes wrong. You may feel you are responsible for others’ behavior.

For example, your best friend may be struggling with depression, and your inability to help them leaves you feeling like a bad friend and a failure.

Black and White Thinking/All-or-Nothing Thinking

As the name implies, black-and-white thinking is an all-or-nothing pattern of thought where you interpret everything as either good or bad, with no in-between. This tendency sees people thinking only in extremes. Anyone can wrestle with this, but it’s particularly dominant in people with Borderline Personality Disorder and is referred to as BPD splitting.  

This cognitive distortion can manifest in seeing someone as a bad person for making one mistake or assuming someone is perfect or ideal simply because you saw them do something good. The same can apply to your thoughts – you’re either brilliant (the best in your field!) or an utter failure.

How To Refute and Overcome Disqualifying The Positive Thoughts

Having thought patterns like these can impact your life negatively, so finding help and support through counseling is always a good plan. This is especially true if your thought patterns hamper your ability to function. 

But are there ways you can overcome it on your own?

Here are some strategies that can help you refute your tendency to disqualify the positive:

  • Learn to recognize when you’re downplaying positive events in your life – journaling or keeping notes will be helpful here. You can even ask someone you trust to help you identify it, although this may initially make you feel worse about yourself.
  • Once you recognize a disqualifying thought, take a breath and a step back. Try to see the bigger picture and consciously identify and acknowledge at least two positives instead.
  • Question yourself – learn to ask yourself whether you’re experiencing an emotion or are confronted with a fact? Is it true that you’re not smart enough when 98% is a result the vast majority struggle to achieve? Would you say the same of a friend?

Bottom line – we’re all guilty of engaging in cognitive distortions from time to time, including disqualifying the positive. But we don’t have to be held captive by them. We can learn how to recognize and refute them and change our thought patterns for the better.

You don’t have to figure this out on your own.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a qualified therapist who gets you, try BetterHelp. Get 10% off your first month when you click the link below.

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