A short while ago, I was sat opposite a very normal, very sweet, young girl and we were discussing her anxiety. Let’s call her Daisy. For context, Daisy is a cheerleader, a dancer and had been diving competitively up until a few months ago.

Talking about anxiety is not easy and we’d talked in circles a little and so I asked her, “What do you think I see, when I look at you?”

Daisy looked uneasy and shrugged.

We had a good ‘therapeutic relationship’ – vital for conducting successful Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and so I said with a smile, “Okay, here’s a thing – I am completely impervious to being offended, I’m a pretty resilient guy and you know you can say anything you like and I won’t mind. Read my mind and tell me what you think I see when I look at you.”

I can’t be offended but, as it turns out, I can be surprised.


That I’m fat, ugly, stupid, annoying and worthless.

“Why do you think I think that?”

Because I am…


I smiled, “Ah yeah. Remember when you walked in here earlier and I said, ‘Good morning ugly, just thought I’d let you know, you’re so annoying and worthless, I’ve decided to give up doing therapy with you!’?”

Daisy gives a little laugh – No you didn’t…

“So, tell me more about why you think you’re stupid, annoying and worthless…”

I made a mistake in cheer practice and one of the girls had a go at me…

“Okay, that sounds uncomfortable, what other evidence have you got that supports your theory?”

After a long pause – None really, but I am the base in cheerleading, I flip the flyers so I have to be stronger – if I make a stupid mistake, I could drop someone, and we’d lose the competition. I look at other girls and think…


Here we see two things that are causing young people a lot of angst. Negative Thinking Styles and Comparisons.

IF I make a mistake

I look at other girls and think

Many of us experience negative thinking styles in our day to day lives and, for the most part, it doesn’t really affect the way we think or feel too much. People suffering from anxiety or low mood tend to experience these thoughts more intensely and emotions begin to overrule logic.

Some of these examples could be:

Mind Reading (thinking that we know what other people are thinking) – “He thinks I’m fat.” “She hates me.”

Emotional Reasoning (using how we feel as evidence that something must be true) – “I feel really anxious / I’m going crazy!” “I feel really low / I am worthless.”

Discounting the Positives (ignoring the evidence that doesn’t fit with your worry) – “I passed my driving test – what an utter fluke!” “I just got a certificate at school – that doesn’t count, everyone gets those…”

Jumping to Conclusions (thinking that something is automatically true without testing the truth of it out) – “There’s no point in trying, it won’t make any difference.” “I won’t bother doing that exam, I’m going to fail anyway.”

Tunnel Vision (focusing on one detail, whilst ignoring other details) – “My friend said I look like I’ve put on some weight.” Compared to the 10 other positive comments you’ve had about how you look.

Overgeneralising (thinking that because something happened once, it will always be like this) – “I tried talking to a friend about my problems, but it didn’t work so there’s no point in talking to anyone.”

Catastrophising (exaggerating the significance or importance of an event) – “I failed my mock exam – that’s it, I’ll never get into University, I’ll end up without a job, I’ll end up homeless. I’m a failure!”

Personalisation (blaming yourself for anything bad that happens) – “It must be my fault, I’m to blame because I’m useless!”

Black and White Thinking (thinking that something is all good or all bad) – “I felt a bit better going out to see my friends, but not much, so it’s useless.” We do this with people a lot too – “I’ve given up dating because all men are pigs!”


There are undoubtedly a lot of overlaps on these thinking styles that bolster and support our negative thinking and make it much harder to see clearly.


During my time working in Low Intensity CBT and my time working in the classroom as a teacher I have seen these thinking styles erode self-confidence, damage self-esteem, cripple our social skills and fuel our anxiety and low mood.


Let’s go back to my conversation with Daisy – how many negative thinking styles can you recognise in our short conversation?


That I’m fat, ugly, stupid, annoying and worthless.

“Why do you think I think that?”   (Mind Reading / Emotional Reasoning / Jumping to Conclusions)

Because I am…

I smiled, “Ah yeah. Remember when you walked in here earlier and I said, ‘Good morning ugly, just thought I’d let you know, you’re so annoying, I’ve decided to stop doing therapy with you!’?”

Daisy gives a little laugh – No you didn’t…

“So, tell me more about why you think you’re stupid, annoying and worthless…”

I made a mistake in cheer practice and one of the girls had a go at me…  (Personalisation / Tunnel Vision)

“Okay, that sounds uncomfortable, what other evidence have you got that supports your theory?”

After a long pause – None really, but I am the base in cheerleading, I flip the flyers so I have to be stronger – if I make a stupid mistake, I could drop someone, and we’d lose the competition. I look at other girls and…    (Catastrophising / Personalisation / Black and White Thinking)


Here, Daisy has demonstrated a few of these thinking styles.

She felt she could understand my opinion of her – she felt low and anxious so that gave rise to her negative thoughts about her appearance – because she felt that my (and others) opinion of her was low  she had settled into that thinking style – because I am = I must be worthless. There was no evidence for that.

She had made a mistake during practice – It was my fault because I’m useless! Further discussion revealed that this was the only mistake she’s made during a number of practice sessions; therefore she had also been discounting the positives alongside focusing solely on that singular mistake.

Finally, she admitted that making one mistake (even dropping someone) would only lose the team points – it wouldn’t necessarily result in a team loss. People made mistakes all the time in practice and especially under the pressure of competition. All teams dropped points at some point – 100% scores were virtually unheard of.


What had fuelled a lot of her thinking was her last admission:

I look at other girls and think…


Comparison – the act of evaluating two or more things to determine what is similar, what is different and then to determine which is best suited to a particular purpose.


The act of comparison is an important and logical part of improvement: Is this drill better for a concrete wall, a piece of wood or finding oil in Nigeria? Is this job better than that job – what are my perks and prospects?

Comparison is less helpful using social media – especially when we are comparing ourselves and our lives to others. Comparison in this way can be extremely damaging.

Daisy spent a lot of time looking at other people’s profiles on Instagram – including world championship cheerleaders, celebrities, athletes, fashion models and her friends.  Her negative thinking styles caused her to compare herself unfavourably with other people.

One thing that we should remember is that social media, particularly Instagram and Facebook, are highlight reels. These are clip shows of people’s lives demonstrating either the absolute best or sometimes worst of life: That time I was drinking cocktails in a waterfall in the Bahamas versus that time I broke my ankle playing tennis.

Invariably, we highlight the positive moments because we want attention from people and for them  to validate our experiences. Everyone enjoys getting positive comments so why would you not post a photo of you looking your best?

People rarely post photographs of themselves hoping their followers would say, “Wow, you look awful!” – unless they were looking for sympathy. (Sadfishing, is something we will look at in a later blog).

That said, we are now jumping on the bandwagon of no make-up / no filters; this is, in itself, an attention seeking action. We know our friends and family are going to say, “Wow, you look so pretty without make-up!” We are being brave by showing the world our real face – but are we really? We have already subconsciously risk-assessed the situation because we know that our friends and family are going to give us positive feedback and thus validate our bravery in posting a no make-up selfie. This is known as the bandwagon effect – a cognitive bias, or an error in our thinking that influences our behaviour or judgement – we are doing it because everyone else is doing it. Think about the recent 10-year challenge, the ice bucket challenge (what was that for again?), the press up challenge, the annual ‘Back to School’ photos, or that time Rage Against the Machine made Christmas number one…

Of course, there is always the chance someone will post something negative, but we also know that instantly that person will be jumped on and vilified by our followers and even more positive comments will follow.

How brave are we really being by following a virtually risk-free trend that everyone else is doing?


Notwithstanding the no make-up selfie, a lot of the time, when we look at ourselves, we compare ourselves to others and other photos of a similar ilk. I wish l was a little slimmer, I wish I was a little more tanned, I wish my hair was a little darker or blonder or straighter, I wish I didn’t have those crow’s feet around my eyes…

If only there was some way of altering that…

Then we start to filter. We make the sky a little bluer on holiday, our skin a little more tanned, we filter out the wrinkles and people say, “Wow, you look great! There’s no way you look 40!”

Before long, we don’t recognise that we have filtered ourselves into some weird, glossy pâté that doesn’t even resemble human skin. The positive comments keep coming and we keep offering up our alien fish photos because we think we’re fooling people into thinking we look better than we do – when in fact, we’re battling to keep up with people who are doing the same.

None of us are immune to comparisons. We’ve all looked at a mate kicking back with a poolside Margarita in Greece and thought, “Ahh, I wish I was on holiday…”

Such comparisons may well prompt us to action – to book that holiday, mix that cocktail, take some well-deserved time off, but for a lot of us that may not be practical or affordable.

On my rather small list of Instagram friends, I have a friend, Jeff. Jeff was bullied at school for being a photography nerd. He was well-spoken, creative and spent a lot of time working on his own projects, taking photos and hanging out in the school library. In the 1980s this wasn’t considered particularly cool and so, as a result, he was harassed, teased and bullied by the other boys.

Fast forward 25 years and Jeff now owns a very successful media company in Los Angeles, where he works alongside celebrities to ensure they can handle an obtrusive paparazzi and that their exposure is positive and beneficial to their image. I caught up with Jeff, in LA, a few years ago – he was hung over after hanging out at a party with David and Victoria Beckham and was due to go for dinner at Tom Cruise’s house during the week. Whereas this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it was clear that his life was a world-apart from mine. Scanning his Instagram is a disaster for anyone’s self-esteem. When he’s not partying in Vegas, he’s relaxing on a beach in Australia with his lovely wife, or parasailing in the Bahamas, or taking photos in Japan or simply kicking back in his big LA house.

I look at my Instagram and remember that time I went to Newquay on the train and it rained and I lost my wallet.

Of course, Jeff’s life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and Long Island Iced Teas – it just looks like it.

Many of us, though, struggle to see past that. We compare, compare, compare and nothing is ever good enough.  Social Media is a fantastic tool but what is does do, is show us that the grass is always greener on the other side and there is no way of refuting that because all it does is improve upon itself.

Daisy saw this. Her Negative Thinking Styles played havoc with her self-esteem and eroded her confidence. She simply couldn’t compete with the people she was looking at in the same way little Johnny kicking a ball around in the park can’t compare himself with Ronaldo.

Her friends were posting ‘my best life’ and that was all she saw: smiles, sunshine, rainbows. Her idols were posting ‘my best life’. Celebrities were posting ‘my best life’. Models looked perfect. Everyone was slim and tanned and hey, look at how porcelain white their teeth are!

Everyone was winning.

Everyone but Daisy.

Daisy was struggling with the motivation to get out of bed, struggling with concentrating, worried about failing exams, worried about making mistakes, worried about being fat, worried about feeling sick, worried about being sick, worried what her parents thought, worried about what her friends really thought, worried about what strangers thought, worried about how she looked, worried about how she felt, worried about being worried. She stopped eating, she felt weak, she felt worse – everyone else was winning.

Everyone but Daisy.

Instagram 1 : 0 Daisy


We undertook some Cognitive Restructuring. A method we use to change the way we think about certain thing. We looked at the evidence that supported her negative thinking and then sought alternatives to those ideas.

We challenged her thinking styles.

“Do I really think you’re fat, ugly, stupid, annoying and worthless?  How can you know that? How can you take those thoughts out of my head?”

We looked at FACT versus OPINION. I showed her a simple drawing of a clown.

“Tell me what you see. Describe it to me…”


I see a clown. He has a red nose, red curly hair and a hat with a flower on it. He is smiling. He looks a bit creepy. I don’t like clowns so if I met him he’d probably scare me. He’s probably evil. He has star make-up over his eyes.

We then divided up the information she had given me.


FACT                                                                            OPINION

Red Nose                                                                      Creepy

Red curly hair                                                              He would scare me

Hat with flower                                                           Probably evil

Star make-up                                                               I don’t like clowns


We talked about the things that we knew as FACT and then the OPINIONS that she had formed. When we are in a highly emotional state, our opinions take over our logical thinking and replace or cloud the facts.  We could do the same with a dog – we know it’s a dog, but is that dog good-natured or is it vicious? If you love dogs, your opinion would differ to that if you were afraid of them.

We then aligned that to what she was thinking. Did her friends think she was ugly or fat?

How many times had someone said she was ugly? Never.

How many times had someone said she was fat? My Dad said I was chunky a few weeks ago.

Okay, how many times has he said that? Once.

Who else has said that? No one.

How many people have NOT said that you were fat? Lots.

In what context did your Dad say you were chunky? He was watching me compete in cheer and said that my legs were chunky.

What were you doing at the time? I was holding someone on my shoulders.

So, your legs were tensed? Yes.

What do you think your legs look like when they are tensed? I don’t know… strong, muscly?

What would happen if your legs weren’t strong? I couldn’t hold their weight.

Thinking about the athletes you look at on Instagram. Do they all have super skinny chicken legs? (Laughing) No they don’t – they have… chunky legs.

Are your legs much bigger than theirs? No – nowhere near as muscular…

How would your Dad describe, say… Venus Williams’ legs? Super chunky.

So… bigger than yours then? Yes, a lot bigger.

Is she fat? No. Not at all.

That’s weird… so her legs are super chunky… but she’s not fat. (Smiling) No she’s not.


We took similar thoughts and broke them down.  We looked at her evidence (much of which was baseless opinion) and then looked at alternative ways to view them.

It took a while, but Daisy slowly started to see that much of her unhelpful thoughts and comparisons were groundless, unfair or simply incorrect.

We concluded our sessions after about 8 weeks and Daisy continued to work hard on picking apart her thoughts and slowly started to feel better about herself. Slowly her mood lifted and her anxiety levels lessened. She started to grow in confidence and her self-esteem returned and she could see herself for what she was, a completely normal, happy, active teenage girl.


Of course, not all people are able to see things as clearly or recover from their negative thinking style without help and social media continues to dog many young people. Continued comparison, the Fear of Missing Out and the struggle to match or exceed what we see, read and hear is taking its toll on people’s mental health every day – our failure to be as skilled or as strong or as beautiful or as happy as the people we look at, drives our self-esteem and confidence down. Our resilience is eroded, and we are left with a very poor opinion of ourselves. We cannot compete with a lie because the lie shifts and we are not strong enough to see through it.