Why saying ‘You’re not bad really’ doesn’t work (and what to do instead)

Written by Carolyn Spring
23 May 2017
Why saying ‘You’re not bad really’ doesn’t work (and what to do instead)

I used to think that one day, maybe one day (a long time in the future), I’d be ‘normal’ and then I wouldn’t have these thoughts any more.

You know the ones I mean:

  • ‘You’re stupid’
  • ‘No one likes you’
  • ‘You mess everything up’
  • ‘You’re such a waste of space’
  • ‘Things won’t ever get better’
  • ‘I feel so ashamed’
  • ‘I hate myself’
  • ‘I wish I could die’.

There’s a tonne more. They blare out in my head like the world’s worst playlist, always nagging away at me, undermining me, picking me apart.

I used to think that I needed ‘something’ to happen (the nature of that something was undefined – it was fundamentally magic, and so didn’t need definition) and then I wouldn’t think these thoughts any more.

‘How do I stop thinking these things?’ I asked one wise person. He nodded at me seriously and told me to start confronting them with ‘truth’. So I began confronting the thoughts, one after another:

  • ‘I’m not stupid! I went to Cambridge!’
  • ‘I have a few friends who do really like me!’
  • ‘I don’t mess everything up, just some things …’
  • ‘I’m not a waste of space. Not completely …’

But I was like a toddler shouting against bedtime, arguing that it’s not time yet. There was no conviction in my denials. I knew I was just trying to shout louder. And the more I thought about the things I was supposed to be contradicting, the more I ended up believing them. Because my brain had plenty of evidence to back up the complaints. There were a fair few people who actively didn’t like me, and there were plenty of people with whom I’d never hit it off. So, unsurprisingly, I began to doubt that even my close friends could tolerate me. Big-time backfire.

Sometimes I would sit in bed, unable to move, unable to get up and get dressed and get on, because I felt so demoralised at the incessant torrent in my head. I was paralysed with the overwhelm of my self-hate. Ironically, the one thing I thought I was good at was finding fault with myself.

I was talking about it in therapy one day. I hadn’t mentioned it that much, because I didn’t want to admit just how mad I actually was. Therapy always felt like a fine line between not admitting enough, and so not getting help, or admitting too much, and being overwhelmed with shame, or freaking out the therapist to the point where they referred you on. You have to be just the right amount of mad to get help, I figured.

But the constant chorus of accusing voices was becoming unbearable. It was starting to affect me physically: milkshake-like diarrhoea, cramps, nausea, pain, headaches. I don’t know why I figured that it was causing the squits, but it seemed self-evident at the time. At any rate, I couldn’t go on like this.

I can’t recall how I talked about it. I just remember one line from my therapist, brilliant like the sunshine, casting the rest of the session into shadow.

‘Maybe those voices are keeping you safe.’

It felt like my face had been twisted sharply to one side while I was being slapped on the other. This didn’t make sense. These voices were attacking me, not keeping me safe. How could their attacks be for my benefit? This particular therapist was a stickler for positivity, but I wanted to grumble that this time she had gone too far.

‘How?’ I ask, eventually, trying not to sound as sulky as I feel.

‘How do you think?’

They do that, these therapists. They’re sneaky. You ask them a question, and they ask you one back. Damn, it’s frustrating. My head already hurts. Don’t make me do the hard work.

‘I don’t know.’

Stock response – but I’m too quick to reply, so it’s obvious I’m not even trying.

‘How do you think?’

Trick number two: they ask a question, and then they just repeat it, until you make some effort to answer it. Sneaky and persistent. That’s what they teach them in therapy school.

I force the levers and gears of my mind into motion, trying to crank out a thought. I feel that familiar sense of dread, as if I’m about to realise something I don’t want to know.

But I’ve been in this therapy game for a while, and I’ve learned a few tricks of my own.

‘How might they be doing that to keep me safe?’ I ponder out loud. At least it buys me more time. Maybe she’ll forget I’m supposed to be answering it and she’ll jump in, in overdue frustration at my ineptitude.

But she doesn’t take the bait. Just makes one of those ‘therapy noises’ – you know, ‘Hmmm, aahh, uh-huh?’ I imagine they spend a whole term just learning those sounds.

And then – it’s always when I’m not expecting it, like the first thunderclap of a storm – a thought occurs to me, and before I have a chance to edit it, it’s coming out of my mouth.

‘Because if I beat myself up first, it’ll protect me from other people beating me up …’

Was that it? Do I pass?


Ker-ching to me: I have solved the puzzle of what the therapist wants me to figure out.

But still she’s looking at me. Dammit, she wants me to apply it now.


‘So …’ I echo, buying more time. ‘So if I beat myself up, it’ll be less painful than if someone else beats me up. If I beat myself up, I might manage to stop myself from making mistakes that will be punished or mocked by others. If I beat myself up, I might manage not to be the evil person I really believe I am …’

Damn. She’s smiling at me in a way that shows she can’t contain herself, as if I’ve just won the lottery.

‘So …?’

She’s relentless. This is what distinguishes psychotherapists from mere counsellors, you know.

‘So … the thoughts I have … that I’m crap and useless and bad and mess everything up … are not necessarily true reflections of reality. They’re just a way that part of me is trying to warn me … They’re me trying to keep myself safe. They’re trying to help. It’s just … it doesn’t help really. Not any more. But it used to. It was my best attempt at surviving a hostile environment. But I don’t need to keep doing it now because the environment has changed.’


That was the unmistakeable noise of ‘well done’. It’s completely different to the others. I could almost change the conversation at this point. But, no, she’s greedy, this therapist. Always wants more.

‘So what are you going to do the next time you hear those voices?’

Resistance is futile now. I might as well have the epiphany.

‘I’m going to recognise that it’s a part of me who’s afraid that we’re going to get hurt by other people, and they’re warning me and trying to make sure that I don’t slip up so that I don’t give anyone a chance to attack me. I’m going to thank them for helping me. But I’m not going to believe that I’m crap. I’m going to reframe the thoughts as warnings instead of truth.’

‘Well done.’

I think the torment is over.

Now, let me be clear: I didn’t figure it out as neatly as that, in one session. Oh no. This was a conversation that I’d had at least half a dozen times by this point. I’m a slow learner (which is an ironic nod to the voice that tells me I’m stupid.)

Sometimes we don’t make any progress because we keep trying to solve the wrong problem: I think I’m stupid; therefore I must tell myself that I’m not stupid. And it doesn’t work. Because then I’m bad, as well as stupid; and I can try to tell myself that I’m neither bad, nor stupid, but then I’ll be stubborn too, and the list will just go on.

Instead we have to figure out what the real problem is, that’s presenting as this symptom. For me, it was a part of me trying to keep me safe in a hostile environment. The course correction I need is to remind that part that we’re not in that same environment any more. We don’t need to keep arguing like a toddler about bedtime. We don’t solve You’re bad with You’re not bad. We solve it by stepping out of the argument (putting the toddler to bed) and addressing the deeper issue.

I had to start doing that with myself. I’m not going to argue about whether I’m bad or lazy or stupid or unlikeable, I began to say to myself. I’m just going to step out of the argument, and recognise that there’s a part of me who’s trying to keep me safe by speaking to me in the language of my abusers; he or she or it is trying to prepare me for the accusations that might follow. And it’s okay, I can say to that part of me, you don’t need to do that any more. Because the abusers aren’t here any more. We’re safe. And it’s bedtime.

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  • Sue on 24 May 2017 at 3:13 am

    Thank you Carolyn. So helpful!

    • Fiona Oliver on 13 July 2017 at 6:33 pm

      Hello Carolyn. My psychologist suggested I read your articles and as a well behaved patient, I complied. I’m so glad I did. I downloaded and read your book on Kindle last night and it was so wonderful to find someone who knew how I felt. I thought those bizarre nuances of thought and behaviour were solely mine and that there was the ubiquitous “something the matter with me”.

      I felt hugely empowered and encouraged to read your story. Thank you so much – truly. I am beginning my life – my very own life – at 50 years of age. It is both scary and wonderful. I wish it had been sooner but better late than never. I will be returning to your site and to PODS as my friends and supporters as I take the journey forward.

      Bless you for being candid and bless you for all that you went through and survived. I honour you.


    • WISP on 13 January 2018 at 7:49 pm

      Yes, that.

  • Firefly on 24 May 2017 at 10:48 pm

    Your post started off so cringingly, depressingly and hilariously familiar… (laughed out loud at the bit pondering ‘the right amount of mad’ – I fret about this every week!) Anyway – thanks for this! It’s a really helpful way to look at exiting the loop of misery.
    I’ve just been reading ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ and this paragraph reminded me of your post…
    “… it’s best to treat those those thoughts as cognitive flashbacks – you don’t argue with them any more than you would argue with someone who keeps have visual flashbacks of a terrible accident. They are residues of traumatic incidents: thoughts they were thinking when, or shortly after, the traumas occurred that are reactivated under stressful conditions.”
    It has taken me a long time to understand that feeling bad, or thinking that I am a bad person, is not the same as necessarily *being* a bad person. But then I got a bit stuck because I still felt the same & experienced the same derailment, even when I could question things a little more! As much as my brain tried, my body wasn’t listening. I feel very fortunate to have been signposted to PODS & your website. It has helped me to start to understand and make sense of my difficulties in a completely different light… I really appreciate your openness in sharing your experiences and insight.

  • Rachel on 25 May 2017 at 5:53 pm

    This is so well written, I appreciate the way you have explained so well and with humour what the negative voices are all about and also what you did about it. Thanks for your insights.

  • wisp on 3 June 2017 at 7:38 pm

    “You have to be just the right amount of mad to get help, I figured” – lol – that!!!

    • Rosie on 23 April 2018 at 10:46 pm

      This is actually so true though. Sadly.

  • Tim on 5 June 2017 at 9:55 pm

    Wow, can relate to this journey through therapy. We all build our own walls to keep us safe, the trick is to fit a few doors and windows to the structure to let people look in or even pop in every now and again.

    There’s something paradoxically (is that even a word?) liberating at becoming accountable for something. Understanding my processes and defence mechanisms helps me to decide through conscious choice if I choose to change them or not.

  • Cass on 21 June 2017 at 3:10 pm

    You had me at “milkshake-like diarrhoea.” Thank you for being so frank and humorous about your hardships. Your book has been a constant resource to me and has resonated with me more than anything else I’ve read. As someone in DID recovery, I hope I can one day lighten the journey of recovery for others as you have done for me.

  • Barbara McNeill on 22 June 2017 at 9:23 pm

    Enjoyable read. Thank you. Not sure how much of this account is verbatim but I didn’t make a judgement on it being ‘humorous’. Some clients, especially those who find it hard to trust will be very aware/observant of the process of psychotherapy and will make ‘jokes’ to help or even avoid the seriousness of the issues. That said the account of the ‘client’ appears to have attended a significant amount of therapy, given the ‘smooth flow’ of their responses. .
    I would add that the therapist was reinforcing the client to ‘think’ as a mature person to resolve issues whilst updating old childhood messages.

  • Kelly Williams on 24 August 2017 at 9:15 am

    Mere counsellors do this too Carolyn! We just get less money and less recognition for it 😉

  • Danna on 14 January 2018 at 10:43 pm

    Simply brilliant. One of the best I’ve read. And I’ve read a lot.

  • danna on 14 January 2018 at 10:46 pm

    And you had me laughing out loud and hard too. You’re a brilliantly funny writer , as you dispense utter truth and wisdom.

  • Rosie on 23 April 2018 at 10:38 pm

    I love the way you have written this – it made me laugh so much because i can so relate! Oh it’s so nice to not feel alone in the way my mind works. THANK YOU

  • Helen on 12 May 2018 at 5:36 pm

    Wish I had found you earlier, my reaching out to others was so painful that I stopped, I will try again now.

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