This Disqualifying Others information handout forms part of the cognitive distortions series, designed to help clients and therapists to work more effectively with common thinking biases.
A brief introduction to cognitive distortions
Cognitive distortions, cognitive biases, or ‘unhelpful thinking styles’ are the characteristic ways our thoughts become biased (Beck, 1963). We are always interpreting the world around us, trying to make sense of what is happening. Sometimes our brains take ‘shortcuts’ and we think things that are not completely accurate. Different cognitive short cuts result in different kinds of bias or distortions in our thinking. Sometimes we might jump to the worst possible conclusion (“this rough patch of skin is cancer!”), at other times we might blame ourselves for things that are not our fault (“If I hadn’t made him mad he wouldn’t have hit me”), and at other times we might rely on intuition and jump to conclusions (“I know that they all hate me even though they’re being nice”). These biases are often maintained by characteristic unhelpful assumptions (Beck et al., 1979).
Different cognitive biases are associated with different clinical presentations. For example, catastrophizing is associated with anxiety disorders (Nöel et al, 2012), dichotomous thinking has been linked to emotional instability (Veen & Arntz, 2000), and thought-action fusion is associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (Shafran et al., 1996).
Catching automatic thoughts and (re)appraising them is a core component of traditional cognitive therapy (Beck et al, 1979; Beck, 1995; Kennerley, Kirk, Westbrook, 2007). Identifying the presence and nature of cognitive biases is often a helpful way of introducing this concept – clients are usually quick to appreciate and identify with the concept of ‘unhelpful thinking styles’, and can easily be trained to notice the presence of biases in their own automatic thoughts. Once biases have been identified, clients can be taught to appraise the accuracy of these automatic thoughts and draw new conclusions.
Since it is impossible to experience every part of the material world directly, many of our judgments and perceptions rely on what others tell us (Christov-Moore et al., 2023). In many ways, this is an act of faith: we can never truly know other people’s thoughts or experiences, so we usually assume (rightly or wrongly) that what they communicate is benevolent and accurate. For this reason, accepting what people say represents a crucial part of human interactions, enabling individuals to engage supportive and mutually beneficial relationships (Balliet & Van Lange, 2013). It follows that automatically disqualifying what others say can lead to distress, isolation, and impaired functioning.
Disqualifying others is a common thinking style whereby individuals discount information that comes from other people; many therapists will be familiar with clients who dismiss positive feedback because other people are ‘just being nice’ or ‘don’t really know me’ (Gilbert, 1998). Unfortunately, these disqualifications can maintain negative beliefs in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence and contradictory interactions. In other words, disqualifying others stops people learning from their interpersonal experiences.
Ashokkumar and Swann (2020) suggest that disqualifying others may be driven by ‘self-verification striving’. Individuals are motivated to maintain a stable, coherent view of themselves (even when negative) and so prefer confirmatory evaluations. As a result, individuals with negative self-beliefs often feel threatened by positive feedback, prompting disqualification (Ayduk et al., 2013). Research supports these ideas, demonstrating that individuals with low self-esteem often devalue compliments (Kille et al., 2017), derogate the person making them (Vázquez et al., 2018), and feel anxious when they succeed (Wood et al., 2005). Similarly, individuals with social anxiety tend to disqualify positive interactions (“They only smiled at me because it’s polite”) and find encouraging social feedback uncomfortable, resulting in an aversion to positive interactions and evaluations (Weeks et al., 2008). Furthermore, individuals might believe that positive feedback communicates standards of behaviour that they will fail to meet, also motivating disqualification (Weeks et al, 2010).
Disqualifying others may stem from negative interpersonal experiences. Fonagy and Allison (2004) suggest that secure attachment experiences play a role in the formation of ‘epistemic trust’: “an individual’s willingness to consider new knowledge from another person as trustworthy, generalizable, and relevant to the self”. On the other hand, insecure attachments are likely to result in epistemic mistrust, uncertainty, or hypervigilance, leading to suspicion about others’ comments and/or reduced confidence in one’s judgments and perceptions. Moreover, a lack of epistemic trust often results in rigidity “that is perceived by the communicator, who expects the recipient to modify his/her behaviour on the basis of the information they received and apparently understood; yet in the absence of trust, the capacity for change is absent”. However, research is yet to examine associations between disqualifying the other and attachment experiences.
Interpersonal trauma might also contribute to disqualifying others. Betrayal trauma theory (Freyd, 1994) posits that trauma perpetrated by close individuals results in difficulties deciphering others’ intentions and trustworthiness. Indeed, traumatized individuals often describe themselves as being trusting in the past, but are now less trusting of people in general (e.g., Bell et al., 2019). Moreover, individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are distinguished from those with depression by reduced interpersonal trust alone (Cias et al., 2000). Gobin and Freyd (2014) conclude that sometimes “survivors of early interpersonal trauma never fully develop the capacity to make accurate trust judgments, or they lose faith in the reliability of their trust judgments, and, as a result, are unwilling to trust anyone” (p.509).
These findings suggest that disqualifying others exists on a continuum. At one end, individuals tend to doubt other peoples’ positive communications. At the other, individuals hold rigid beliefs about the malevolent and persecutory intentions of others, resulting in pervasive mistrust and paranoia. Research indicates that individuals with paranoia and psychosis tend to distrust others (Ellett et al., 2013; Prasannakumar et al., 2022). Furthermore, individuals with psychosis struggle to modify their trusting behaviours in response to information highlighting the trustworthiness of others (Fett et al., 2012).
Disqualifying others may play a role in narcissism. Research indicates narcissistic individuals tend to objectify others and view them as less trustworthy and competent (Dong et al., 2020; Kong, 2015; Lachowicz-Tabaczek et al., 2021). In this context, disqualifying might be a strategy for devaluing others, reducing the threat posed by potential rivals (“He’s not as smart as he thinks”) and/or enabling narcissistic individuals to use people in instrumental ways (“He’s just a pawn I can use to get what I want”).
Examples of disqualifying others include:
- Disqualifying compliments (“She doesn’t really think I look pretty – she’s just being nice”)
- Disqualifying positive feedback (“My manager only praises me because that’s what managers are supposed to do”)
- Disqualifying reassurance (“He says I’ll give a good presentation, but he doesn’t know how anxious I’ll get”)
- Disqualifying others’ intentions (“She’s doesn’t mean that – she just wants something from me”)
- Devaluing others (“He only won against me because he got lucky”)
It should be noted that some individuals disqualify positive experiences more generally. This is discussed in more detail in the Psychology Tools Disqualifying the Positive resources.
People who disqualify others may have ‘blind spots’ when it comes to:
- Accepting or giving praise and positive feedback.
- Recognizing strengths, talents, and positive qualities.
- Trusting other people and their intentions.
- Equivalence and reciprocity in relationships.
- Attending to information that does not fit their negative beliefs.
As with many cognitive biases, there may be evolutionary reasons why people disqualify others. Animals sometimes need to behave selfishly and in their own self-interests to survive. Accordingly, humans have evolved a capacity to detect deception by others, leading to a better-safe-than-sorry style of reasoning about others’ intentions (Gilbert, 1998). In threatening environments, failure to use this defensive strategy, and wrongly assuming that others are trustworthy, is likely to have been extremely costly (Raihani & Bell, 2019). However, this sensitivity to deception can become overactive: individuals sometimes assume that others have hostile intentions, or that praise means they have somehow deceived other people. Unfortunately, individuals tend to become more sensitive to these threats when they are depressed or distressed (Gilbert, 2009), or in response to traumatic interpersonal experiences.
Disqualifying others is believed to be associated with a wide range of difficulties, including:
- Avoidant personality disorder (Beck et al., 2004).
- Body dysmorphic disorder (Veale, 2004).
- Childhood trauma (Gobin & Freyd, 2014).
- Depression (Gilbert, 2009).
- Low self-esteem (Ashokkumar & Swann, 2020).
- Narcissism (Kong, 2005).
- Paranoia (Beck et al., 2004; Ellett et al., 2013).
- PTSD (Bell et al., 2019).
- Psychosis (Prasannakumar et al, 2022).
- Relationship problems (Kille et al., 2017).
- Social anxiety (Weeks et al., 2008).
Many people tend to disqualify others, and it sounds as though it might be relevant to you too. Would you be willing to explore it with me?
Clinicians might begin by providing psychoeducation about disqualifying others and automatic thoughts more generally. Consider sharing some of these important details:
- Automatic thoughts spring up spontaneously in our minds, usually in the form of words or images.
- They are often on the ‘sidelines’ of our awareness. With practice, we can become more aware of them. It is a bit like a theatre – we can bring our automatic thoughts ‘centre stage’.
- Automatic thoughts are not always accurate: just because you think something, it doesn’t make it true.
- Automatic thoughts are often inaccurate in characteristic ways. One common type of bias in automatic thoughts is ‘disqualifying others’: we sometimes discount the things other people say or do. For instance, we might dismiss a compliment we receive, or discount a person’s strengths if we envy them. This can make it difficult to change negative thoughts about yourself and other people, recognize how others truly perceive you, and develop healthy relationships.
- Signs that you are disqualifying other people include dismissing compliments, discounting positive feedback, being suspicious about other people’s motives, or devaluing them in your mind.
- Disqualifying people is helpful sometimes. Being on the lookout for deception and withholding trust can ensure you don’t get hurt or exploited by other people. Some people can’t be trusted, in which case it’s good to question what they say. If you tend to devalue other people in your mind, you may find that this helps protect your self-esteem. However, disqualifying other people too much or in the wrong situations can leave you feeling isolated, unhappy, and uncertain.
Many treatment techniques can be used to address disqualifying others:
- Decentering. Meta-cognitive awareness, or decentering, describes the ability to stand back and view a thought as a cognitive event: as an opinion, and not necessarily a fact (Flavell, 1979). Help clients to practice labeling the process present in the thinking rather than engaging with the content. For instance, they might say “I’m disqualifying someone again” to themselves whenever they notice these thoughts.
- Cognitive restructuring with thought records. Self-monitoring can be used to capture and re-evaluate disqualifying thoughts as they occur. Useful prompts include:
- If you took the ‘disqualifying’ glasses off, how would you see this situation or person differently?
- What evidence supports the idea that this feedback ought to be disqualified? Is that evidence of good quality?
- How do you know that this individual isn’t being honest or truthful with you? Is there any evidence to suggest that they can be trusted?
- Why would this individual want to misguide you? Is there any proof of that? Why else might they these positive things to you?
- Would you discount this feedback if it related to someone you cared about? Why not?
- Would someone who cared about you disqualify this feedback? Why not? What would they say about it?
- Is this positive feedback an isolated occurrence or have you been told similar things in the past? If the message is consistent, what does that tell you?
- If this individual said something negative about you, would you be so quick to discount it? Does that seem fair to you?
- How does discounting positive feedback make you feel? What would you need to do to feel better?
- Cost-benefit analysis. Explore the advantages and disadvantages of disqualifying others. Note that some clients may believe that disqualifying other people is functional (e.g., “I’ll get hurt if I accept positive feedback at face value”). Useful prompts include:
- What problems does disqualifying other people cause you?
- How would things improve if you accepted what other people say?
- Does thinking this way fit or conflict with your goals?
- What will the consequences be if you continue disqualifying others?
- Exploring the other person’s perspective. Clients are often unaware of how their disqualifications are experienced by others. Discuss what other people might think and feel when their positive comments are rebuffed. Role-play can be used to demonstrate the negative impact disqualifications have on others (“I felt like you pushed me away when you dismissed my compliment”) and rehearse new ways of responding (Pugh, 2019).
- Reframing positive feedback. Drawing on linguistic framing and abstraction, Zunick and colleagues (2015) have developed a written intervention to help individuals with low self-esteem accept (rather than discount) positive experiences, called ‘directed abstraction’. In summary, individuals are asked to explain why they received positive feedback (“Explain why your partner complimented you, what it meant to you, and it’s significance for your relationship”) (Marigold et al., 2010). Abstract compliment reframing helps individuals accept and generalize positive feedback in three ways:
- It elicits more abstract, positive interpretations of complimentary feedback (“She complimented me because I am caring”).
- It presupposes that the individual is personally responsible for these remarks.
- Reflecting on the meaning and significance of compliments encourages individuals to see these evaluations as enduring.
- Counting the positives. Help the client acknowledge and accept positive feedback in their current life or past. This might take the form of a daily or historical positive data log. Clients who often disqualify others find this task difficult, in which case, consider asking them to:
- Record the data, even though they might not fully believe it (at first).
- Record data that they think would ‘count’ for another person.
- Take on the perspective of a caring individual who would agree with the positive data while they complete their log.
- Accepting the positives. Encourage the client to experiment with responding differently to positive feedback. For example, the client might practice saying ‘thank you’ for compliments. How does the client feel when they change their response, and how do others react?
- Using metaphors. Ask the client to imagine that positive feedback is a gift from another person and explore the implications of this Socratically:
- Why do we give people gifts?
- How do you feel when you give someone a gift?
- How do you hope they will react to it?
- What would you do if someone dismissed or rejected your gift?
- What’s more important – the gift or the thought behind it?
- How does this apply to the positive comments you receive?
- Testing beliefs and assumptions. It can be helpful to explore whether the client holds beliefs or assumptions which drive disqualifying the positives, such as, “If I trust and accept what others say, I will be vulnerable to harm” and “Positive feedback will expose faults, so I should reject it”. If assumptions like these are identified, clients can assess how accurate and helpful they are. Their attitudes toward healthier assumptions can be explored, such as, “I can accept positive comments without coming to harm” and “I have strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone else”. Assumptions can also be tested using behavioural experiments, including surveys (e.g., “Let’s see if a larger group of people agree or disagree with the positive feedback I have been given”).
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