Most days, I don’t feel like I do anything. I definitely don’t feel like I accomplish things – and to me, an accomplishment is anything from finishing a book to getting out of bed. I’d chalk this up to the anxiety and depression I live with, but it’s also part of my personality to downplay achievements and minimize success. Despite this, I know that I (like everyone else) accomplish things in life, and I knew that the longer this problem persisted, the less I’d be able to acknowledge any sort of success. Now, I constantly work to make sure that I’m viewing achievements in a positive light – even if I don’t always believe myself.
When I was younger, I read a lot about how to build a successful mindset. I’m all for creating a mindset where you continue to build on things with one achievement after another, but I rarely heard about advice for people who minimize success. There was an innate confidence involved that I didn’t identify with. How can you build on a success when, in your mind, you didn’t really do anything?
One of the most important things I’ve learned in therapy is that I have a tendency to downplay accomplishments. I know that’s not unique, but it’s one of those feelings where you can feel like the only one with this struggle. Over the years I’ve learned that’s not the case, but I’ve also had to learn how to manage those feelings and challenge the instinct to minimize. This approach is centered on two things: 1) acknowledging what I’ve done and 2) acknowledging the ways that I minimize what I’ve done.
Acknowledging What We Do: Harder Than It Sounds!
Humans have a habit of editorializing our lives. What does this mean? When we tell stories and share experiences, they tend to be pretty subjective. We’re viewing the world through our own lens, and that’s not always a bad thing. What can make it difficult is when that lens is powered by negative thoughts. What we think about our accomplishments is what we tell people, instead of what we actually did.
Here’s an example: my therapist asked me how my weekend was, and I told him I had a pretty fun day because it sunny outside and I was with my girlfriend. Five minutes later, as we continue to dissect that accomplishment, I end up telling him that day was also good because I bought spontaneously bought an album because I wanted it (which I NEVER do). He asked, “why didn’t you include that earlier? That sounds awesome!” And he was right. But I minimized a positive thing because it’s my automatic response, and naming our accomplishments for what they are is the first step – but it’s ongoing work, and it’s not easy!
Acknowledging How I Cut Myself Down
This aspect of my approach is easier to recognize, but harder to put into practice. I’ve been told many times about my habit to minimize accomplishments or downplay good things, but I’m a person who needs examples. And let me tell you, people have told me. It’s hard to listen to, but it’s extremely important to hear. If I’m talking with someone they have to take me at my word. If my word is extremely negative, it shows.
I’ve become more aware of my negative thoughts through years of CBT, but it’s difficult to come to grips with just how invasive those thoughts have become. They play a major role in how I view the world, and also how I view myself. Naming those thoughts for what they are – cognitive distortions that have gone unchallenged for a long time – has been helpful to build myself up instead of cutting myself down.
I feel like a lot of this post has just been rambling on, so I’ll try to tie it together with this: a common aspect of mental health disorders is negative thinking, which leads to downplaying achievements and progress. By creating ways to fight against that instinct, we’re acknowledging that we’re real people who deserve real success, just like everyone else. My version of success might look different than yours, but it doesn’t make it any less valid. And that’s the part of this work that I’ll continue to shout the loudest.