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Moving from Self-Defeating to Powerful Thoughts

In a different frame the same picture can look very different. Likewise, re-framing your thoughts can help you see events or situations differently. For example, an experience that seemed negative when it happened can have a positive effect if you look back and learn something from it. The event does not change, but you re-frame it so the outcome becomes positive.

Re-framing can help you change self-defeating thoughts and feelings into empowering, positive ones.

Self-defeating thoughts

Your thoughts are self-defeating when you focus negatively on something you’ve said or done or when you put yourself down. Self-defeating thoughts often begin with sweeping statements like

  • I should never have…
  • I’ll never be able to…
  • I always…
  • I’m too…

Putting yourself down leaves you feeling discouraged and doesn't help you cope with problems or come up with solutions. A more effective approach is to re-frame the situation using one or more of the following suggestions:

  1. Understand how your past affects your present.
    Self-defeating thoughts sometimes come from experiences you had as a child. For example, if an older brother or sister said you were “dumb” often enough, you may have learned to believe it. If a teacher told you “you’ll never amount to much,” you may be fulfilling that prediction. It's worth comparing these old messages with the facts—identify some of the things you’ve learned and some of the successes you’ve had since you were a child. See Other Relevant Tips at the end of this article.

  2. Be specific.
    When you catch yourself thinking something like “I'm a failure,” look closely at the thought and be more specific. For example, did you fail or did your plan of action fail? Did you make mistakes that you could correct next time? If you tell yourself you’re a failure, you are less likely to try again. If you see your plan as the failure, you are more likely to change the plan, try again and succeed next time.

  3. Look at the evidence.
    Ask yourself what evidence there is to support your negative thought. For example, if you think you’re too old to go back to school, what evidence do you have that this is true? Is your belief based on myths like “You can't teach old dogs new tricks” or memories of negative school experiences? How much do you really know about what it’s like for adults to return to school? Have you talked to people who’ve gone back to school.

    Many adults discover that, because their perspective has changed and they've learned a lot since they were last in school, they do much better and enjoy school much more than they did when they were younger.

  4. Change negatives to positives.
    Write down your negative thoughts and rephrase them from a positive point of view.

    I can't do it. could become I've overcome difficulties before...
    When I set my mind to it, I usually do well...

    I should never have... could become Next time, I will...

    I'm no good at anything. could become I'm good at...

    What's the use? could become I won't let this stop me.
    Things can always get better...

  5. Practise your positives.
    Practise saying positive things about yourself, to yourself. For example, complete the following sentences.

    • I feel really good when…
    • I was most successful when…
    • It made me feel good when someone told me that…
    • I am happy when…

  6. Create positives.
    • Identify what you can do, instead of focusing on what’s not possible. Spend time thinking about how to build on your strengths and improve on or get around your weaknesses—don't waste your time on regret and bitterness.

    • When you are concerned about an upcoming event, imagine yourself being confident and successful and getting what you want from the situation. Replay this mental movie frequently before the event.

    • Talk to people you respect who have a positive outlook. If you’re having trouble re-framing negative thoughts, ask them to help you.

    • Stay active to stay positive: walk, run, swim, do volunteer work. Activity will help you feel good about yourself.

Learning to re-frame negative thoughts and feelings takes time but as with most other skills, the more you practise, the better you get. Eventually you’ll notice that positive thoughts come easily and often to mind.

Relevant Tips (

Additional Reading (


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