Have you ever had a time in your life when nothing seems to go right?
Maybe struggles at work are spilling over into your relationships and you’re just generally tired of life. You start obsessing about all the things you should have done differently. Looking at your recent failures, your mind starts to play tricks on you. Have all your past success just been a result of luck?
Suddenly you’re caught in a negativity trap. A career that gave you a deep sense of personal meaning and self-worth is falling apart. You’ve been eating or drinking too much to cope with the stress, have gained weight, and feel self-conscious about how you look. You’re struggling to make ends meet and can’t afford to buy new clothes that fit well.
You may ask yourself, “Why do I suck at life?” Is it that you’re just not smart enough? Maybe something is wrong with you morally, socially, or psychologically? Perhaps you’re cursed or are being punished for past wrongdoing. Whatever the specific reason is, the problem must be you, because no one else’s life is this much of a mess, right?
Nope. But the negativity trap will definitely make you think so.
What Makes You Think You Suck at Life?
For over 40 years the American psychiatrist Aaron Beck has studied these kinds of thoughts. What he has found might come as a surprise. Beck’s theories are now supported by decades of psychological research. His emphasis is on cognition as a defining factor, and he believes our largest error is not in our under achievements, but in how we respond to them.
Beck was a pioneer in the development of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is based on the idea that thoughts are a primary cause of feelings and behavior. Therapists who practice CBT believe that thoughts should be our target for change if we want to better manage the emotions that are linked to them.
One of the primary goals of CBT is to help people identify cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are the irrational thoughts that make us unhappy and cause us to engage in self-destructive behaviours. Since the 1960’s Beck has identified a series of these distortions that CBT practitioners still address with clients today. By understanding these errors of the mind, we can conscious identify when they arise and try to minimize the influence they have on our behaviour.
Common Cognitive Distortions
- All-or-nothing thinking. This is a form of perfectionism in whereby we identify anything short of a flawless performance as a failure. People prone to all-or-nothing thinking often give up after any small setback, and struggle to take a step back and get some perspective on their achievements. Related cognitive distortions include polarisation, black-and-white thinking, and splitting, in which people define events or other people according to one of only two opposing categories.
- Magnification (catastrophising). When people magnify or catastrophise, they give too much weight to negative events. This distortion takes a single instance as evidence for a generalisation. For example, a person might commit a social faux pas at work, the room may laugh and the individual concludes that they have completely ruined their chances of ever being taken seriously in a professional setting.
- Minimisation. When people minimise, they come to a self-destructive conclusion by underemphasising the importance of one or more key details. For instance, someone might conclude that something they do well at work doesn’t matter as much as something they don’t do well and give up on a project or goal. A related distortion is known as disqualifying the positive, in which people dismiss the importance of a positive skill or trait or reject one or more positive events as meaningless.
- Personalisation. People who personalise conclude that the cause of an event (usually something negative) was something that they did, when the actual cause was impersonal. For example, they might blame themselves for an action a friend took, saying it was their fault for not being there to stop them. They might even tell themselves they ruined an event by scheduling it on a day that it rained. The opposite of personalisation is blaming, in which people blame others for outcomes for which they are responsible.
- Emotional reasoning. People who use emotional reasoning interpret their feelings as facts. For example, a person might conclude that because they felt sad after comments another person made, that person intended to hurt them, doesn’t care about them, or is a bad person. In other cases, people might not blame another person for how they feel but still misattribute the causes of their feelings, such as thinking that they’re anxious because something bad is about to happen when lack of sleep or external stressors are the real cause.
- Cognitive filtering. This is a broad term for a kind of cognitive distortion that includes magnification and minimisation, among others. People interpret what they observe according to an internal filter, schema, or story about the world. These stories are often flawed. For example, a person might filter interactions they witness through their belief that other people are selfish and in doing so dismiss experiences in which another person was generous.
- Jumping to conclusions. This occurs when people make sweeping conclusions based on scant evidence. Two ways people jump to conclusions are mind reading, or inferring others’ intentions, and fortune-telling, or predicting the future. What distinguishes these distortions from magnification or minimilisation is that instead of incorrectly inferring a pattern from a single piece of evidence, people often jump to conclusions with no evidence whatsoever outside of idiosyncratic interpretations and magical thinking.
- Moralising. People who moralise make conclusions based on what they believe they or other people should have done. There are often two separate fallacies at the heart of this distortion: broad assumptions about what is normal or morally right and false ideas about how much control people have over certain outcomes. For example, a person might say, “He should have been on time,” when expectations about timing were vague or when a person was late for reasons that were outside of anyone’s control.
- Mislabelling. When people mislabel, they misattribute the cause of something that they experienced. They might mislabel someone else’s social anxiety as “rudeness” or “snobbery.” In many cases, people apply broad labels to themselves instead of accurately linking their behavior to a specific cause. For example, someone might say harsh words in a moment of acute stress and use that as evidence they are a “bad person.”
Beck identified these basic patterns, but cognitive distortions come in a nearly endless variety. Another pattern to consider is sensitisation, in which people react in a heightened way to events that remind them of something that happened in the past. They fear the same kind of event that preceded past misfortunes signals a recurrence, operating on the false assumption that events always play out according to the same pattern. People who have post-traumatic stress disorder, other trauma-related conditions, and anxiety disorders are vulnerable to this way of thinking.
Cognitive Distortions That (Falsely) Make You Think You Suck
One of the most insidious aspects of cognitive distortions and statements like “I suck at life” is that they appear to be rational when they are far too imprecise to ever be disproven.
One reason we’re drawn to such dramatic statements when we feel overwhelmed is because they’re so vague. Making generalisation abdicates us of a sense of responsibility, we no longer have to deal with the difficult nuances of life challenges. By saying we are innately and irreversibly flawed, we can temporarily free ourselves from any new demands to change or improve.
By re-examining negative thoughts such as “I suck at life” in the light of cognitive distortions, you can gain significant insight into yourself. One of the greatest paradoxes of self-improvement is that we only become capable of it when we can accept ourselves and our flawed circumstances first.
A closer look at these negative self-beliefs will tend to reveal that they are based on one or more cognitive distortions. Let’s take the example of this articles namesake, “I suck at life”:
- All-or-nothing thinking. A few specific mistakes – which are out of your control – have made it impossible for you to have the perfect score by which you define success in life.
- Magnification or minimization. You magnify the significance of things you don’t have a talent for and minimize the significance of areas where you are competent or skilled.
- Personalisation. You blame yourself for misfortunes that were not your fault, including random events or negative interactions with toxic people.
- Emotional reasoning. You’ve been depressed and conclude that the only way you could feel this bad is if life is inherently bad or if you’re a failure.
- Cognitive filtering. You grew up with a highly critical parent and interpret everything that happens to you through the story they told you about yourself.
- Jumping to conclusions. You conclude that not only are you a failure now, but the future will continue on the same trend of events and feelings.
- Moralising. You feel guilty or ashamed about things you think you should have done differently and feel like you’ve failed at life because of them.
- Mislabeling. You have an undiagnosed mental health condition, such as social anxiety or attention-deficit disorder, but attribute its symptoms to a moral failing or lack of competence.
It’s important to understand that in most cases, cognitive distortions are caused by real struggles. It’s not that you don’t have problems, but that you blame them on the wrong thing. Your mistakes don’t mean what you tell yourself they mean.
What Your Actual Problem Might Be
If life’s basic patterns and truths were taught in school, people would recognise them more quickly and know how to respond. Instead, most of us only learn through trial and error. We rarely know when we’re completing a necessarily life lesson; it’s usually only later in life that we learn what the real problem was.
There are a lot of reasons life can suddenly change for the worse or become much more difficult. Consider whether any of the following apply to you:
You don’t actually suck at life.
There are many reasons your mind may trick you into believing your life isn’t as good as it is. You might be comparing your worst private days with people’s best public stories, which have been airbrushed and tweaked to look good on Instagram or Facebook. You might be suffering from status anxiety and failing to account for social and political realities that give some people unearned advantages.
If this is the case then you should be actively looking for cognitive distortions in your thinking. If you’re blaming yourself for things that are difficult for most people, you’re personalizing. You might be magnifying your failures relative to your successes. Or you might be focusing solely on one aspect of life in which you are genuinely struggling and overgeneralizing your struggles in that area to your life as a whole.
Saying that you suck at life confirms a feeling, not a fact. Life is vast and wide and failure and success are hard to meaningfully define. After thousands of years of philosophical thought and spiritual practice, people still can’t agree on what life is, what we’re supposed to do with it, or what makes it good (or successful for that matter). You’re free to discover your own definition of the good life.
In hindsight, the times we struggled don’t prove that we suck, but the opposite. If we can learn from our hardships and grow from them, life’s challenges start to look different. Instead of feeling embarrassed by our mistakes or disheartened by our struggles, we can look back and feel proud of how we survived and grew into braver, wiser people.
Our culture worships youth, but there are actually a lot of downsides to being young. One is that you haven’t had enough life experience yet to learn who you are, what you’re best at, and how to avoid or overcome some of life’s most common obstacles. As you gain experience in life, you build skills and knowledge that provide insight into your strengths and limitations, and meet your goals more consistently. To master anything takes thousands or even tens of thousands of hours. If you’re barely out of college you likely haven’t had the time to practice anything enough to be considered world class.
You’re playing to your weaknesses instead of your strengths.
Sometimes, you get the wrong idea about who you are and pick a career that doesn’t suit your natural strengths or desires. You might have chosen your career as a result of financial or social pressures. This has lead you to a practical job in which you can survive but not flourish.
If you spend all of your time working to improve something that is not a strength for you, you will make progress, but it will be slow. You’ll also be out-competed by people who have more natural talents in that area, despite having put in more effort, which can be disheartening.
Take time to get to know yourself and what you’re best at. It can take a long time to learn what you really like and where your talents and passions overlap, but it’s worth the effort. Finding fulfilling work can transform your life.
You have a problem or disorder that you haven’t addressed yet.
People with learning disabilities often feel like they’re stupid when they just have difficulty with one subject or area that they can overcome with the right help and by marshalling their strengths. Mental health conditions also lead people to false conclusions about what’s possible for them.
Having untreated depression or anxiety makes everything immensely more difficult than it would otherwise be. People with major depressive disorder can lack the energy even to shower or get out of bed. Just to get through the work day, those of us with anxiety may need to push ourselves through levels of fear that most people would simply turn away from.
Cognitive distortions are a common feature of many mental health conditions including depression, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders. Common cognitive distortions in depression include personalization, filtering, and all-or-nothing thinking. People with social anxiety often magnify perceived social failures, while people with generalized anxiety frequently have catastrophic inner narratives in which they project doom and ruin as feared outcomes of even the most basic mistakes. Depressive and anxiety-driven cognitive distortions can have a negative impact on social, occupational, and academic performance.
Having a mental health condition is a challenge, but not an impossible one. Life can get better. Not only can you learn how to live with your symptoms without being ruled by them, you can resolve some of them completely. Getting therapy and other mental health help can help you overcome these challenges and stop having to struggle so much.
You’re burned out.
Millennials have been called the burnout generation. Challenging political and socioeconomic circumstances and a culture that lionizes work as the core expression of identity keep many people working around the clock. The result is a slow-burning exhaustion that can reach into every corner of life.
Burnout can lead to intellectual, emotional, vital, and even spiritual fatigue. And the more tired you get, the harder things become. When you try to push yourself through exhaustion, you draw from deep but limited inner resources. Your instincts press you toward rest, but you resist them.
Fatigue can have negative effects on cognition, judgement, and motor coordination, making you more prone to mistakes and accidents. These mishaps can make you feel weak, stupid, or like you simply suck at life, when you’re actually doing incredibly well, considering what you’re putting your mind and body through just to survive.
If you’re burned out, consider reaching out, asking for help, looking for a new job, or scaling back your current projects. You can only push so hard for so long. The cycle of burnout often ends in crisis, especially for people with a lot of willpower who keep pushing themselves past their limits. It’s better to make a planned emergency landing than to wait for a sudden crash.
How to Feel More Confident in Life
Changing habits and reaching goals is difficult for everyone. For many people, it’s easier in school and college, when goals and milestones are neatly defined and spaced out. The older we get, the less we have clearly defined maps or guidelines for how to succeed. We’re not encouraged by society to develop the existential intelligence and critical thinking necessary for us to find our way through life and succeed on our own terms.
Many of life’s most important lessons are intangible. Finding fulfilling work and friends who understand you takes as much emotional insight as rational analysis. Still, as you go through life and learn from it, you discover things that light you up and draw the best from you. As you discover what life’s essentials are for you—the things you can do to keep fit and healthy, happy and engaged, connected to others, and self-sustaining in your work—you can start to refine your life vision, define achievable personal goals, and set realistic expectations for yourself.
It’s not tragic when soaring youthful ambitions give way to more grounded adult goals. You don’t have to give up on your dreams, but you do have to learn what they really mean. There are so many ways to channel your inner rockstar without having to literally become one. Maybe you’re here to write a book, or help people heal, or build a community for people like you. Learn what sets your heart on fire and follow it, and it won’t matter when and where you arrive. Life won’t feel like such a drag when you change how you think and honour your own definition of success.