If you have depression, anxiety, and/or another mental health issue - or even if you don't - it can be common to experience the negative thought "I'm stupid". In particular, according to members of The Depression Project's community, it's common to think "I'm stupid" when, for example:
- You make a mistake (even a small one);
- Your results for something fall short of the expectations you had for yourself (e.g. scoring lower than you'd hoped for on a test);
- You take personal responsibility for a disappointing outcome (such as when your team at work doesn't perform as well as you / they wanted to, for example).
However, as we often say at The Depression Project, just because you experience the negative thought "I'm stupid", it does not mean that it's true. In fact, when it comes to the negative thought "I'm stupid", it's extremely common for it to be grounded in cognitive distortions, which falsely convince you that this negative thought is true even when it isn't.
What Are Cognitive Distortions, And How Can They Make You Think "I'm Stupid" When You're Not?
Cognitive distortions are distorted thinking patterns that are grounded in some form of bias, and which commonly result in you viewing yourself and/or the world much more critically, judgementally and negatively than you otherwise would1. And, when you're experiencing the negative thought "I'm stupid":
- The are five cognitive distortions that this negative thought is commonly grounded in;
- If you're able to identify the negative thought “I'm stupid” as being a cognitive distortion – as opposed to being an accurate perception of reality – then you'll likely find it much easier to dismiss it and push it from your mind (as opposing to buying into this negative thought and believing it to be true).
With that being said, let's now talk about the five cognitive distortions that the negative thought "I'm stupid" is commonly grounded in.
"I'm Stupid" Cognitive Distortion #1: Catastrophisation
This distortion is present when you observe a single mistake, setback, or bad decision you believe you've made and blow it out of proportion. For example:
- Thinking "I'm stupid, I shouldn't even try" in response to getting a bad grade on a single exam;
- Thinking "I'm stupid, I shouldn't ever leave the house" after tripping on the stairs in public and feeling embarrassed;
- Thinking "I'm stupid, I've ruined my whole career" after making a mistake in a presentation at work.
"I'm Stupid" Cognitive Distortion #2: Should Statements
The negative thought "I'm stupid" is often grounded in having unrealistic expectations of yourself, and believing that you, for example:
- Should always make the right decision;
- Should be perfect / do something perfectly;
- Should never find it difficult to do [insert task].
And, if you don't meet these expectations that you believe you should meet, then it can trigger the negative thought "I'm stupid". For example:
- Thinking "I'm stupid, I should be able to do this easily" when learning a new skill for the first time;
- Thinking "I'm stupid, I should have known all the answers" after a challenging job interview;
- Thinking "I'm stupid, I should be over this by now" when you're going through a painful breakup.
"I'm Stupid" Cognitive Distortion #3: Labelling
Labelling involves branding yourself as something based on limited information or evidence. In particular, when it comes to the negative thought "I'm stupid", this could take the form of, for example:
- Labelling yourself as "stupid" in response to a disappointing outcome - such as being let go from your job or your business going bankrupt, for example. However, in these scenarios, while you may be able to say that you made some mistakes that you wish you hadn’t made, it would be an overgeneralisation to label yourself as “stupid”. After all, if you can learn from your mistake(s) and figure out how to perform better moving forwards, then in the future, you give yourself a good chance of achieving the success that you want.
"I'm Stupid" Cognitive Distortion #4: Mind-Reading
This is where you assume that others perceive you as "stupid" or are judging you as "stupid", without considering any of the other thoughts or interpretations they may have of you / a particular incident. For example:
- Let's say you give the wrong answer to a question in class or a work meeting, and consequently think that everyone thinks you're "stupid". However, this may not be true at all, because, for example, some people may not have known the answer themselves, while others may have been "zoning out" and thinking about other things happening in their life as opposed to paying attention.
- Similarly, let's say that you misunderstand a joke or sarcasm in a group conversation and assume that everyone thinks you're "stupid" as a result. However, this may not be true at all either, because, for example, everyone else may have already shifted their focus to a new topic of conversation and completely let go of what you'd said; and/or because they simply may not judge you as harshly as you judge yourself.
"I'm Stupid" Cognitive Distortion #5: Filter Thinking
“Filter thinking” is where you filter out all of the “good” or the “positive” in a situation, and only focus on the “bad” or the “negative”. In practice, this can take the form of, for example:
- Filtering out all the questions you've answered correctly in an exam, and thinking "I'm stupid" because you're focusing exclusively on the few you got wrong;
- Filtering out all the good work you've done at your job, and thinking "I'm stupid" in response to receiving some negative feedback on a project;
- Filtering out all the times you've remembered the date of an event, and thinking "I'm stupid" after making a mistake and turning up on the wrong night.
Anytime you think the negative thought "I'm stupid", it's important to question what cognitive distortions may be present - in order to help you recognise that this negative thought is not a fact. Additionally, to get practice and improve your ability to recognise the presence of cognitive distortions more effectively, we encourage you to reflect back on times in the past when you've thought "I'm stupid", and make note of the cognitive distortions that were present.
Additionally, when you identify that cognitive distortions are causing you to think "I'm stupid", then you may find it helpful to gently tell yourself one or more reminders / positive affirmations. For example:
- "I am worthy of love and forgiveness, just like everyone else"
- "I give myself grace and compassion"
- "I am not defined by my worst moments."
- "I choose to acknowledge the good I do"
- "I accept I am an imperfect human, and that's okay"
We really hope that you've found this blog post helpful.
All our love,
The Depression Project Team.
P.S. If you'd like to learn a lot more cognitive behavioural therapy strategies to help you cope with and overcome negative thoughts like "I'm stupid", then we've created a Bootcamp to help you do just that!
Access to this Bootcamp and lots of others are included as part of our Depression Bootcamps Membership Platform - which you can learn more about by clicking the button below.