The Mirror of Self-Disgust

Building self-esteem and developing a positive view of oneself is the goal of many therapeutically sound programs.  There are numerous assessment tests that measure self-worth, self-esteem and positive self-image including Rosenburg’s Self-Esteem Test,, and others.  Most people are taught at a young age to take pride in their accomplishments and are given praise and compliments for their successes. We begin to identify with numerous role models and are connected formally and informally to mentors who help guide our positive self-image and direction in life.

For the criminal thinker who is beginning the thinking change process, positive views of oneself is not a road to recovery.  The criminal thought process is so distorted that a normally positive idea in a responsible person life is actually a distortion of reality for the criminal. A criminal thinker who is donating money to charity or bringing flowers to their mother is avoiding and contradicting the reality of the extreme harm they are causing through their other arrestable and irresponsible actions.  Doing something good for someone while still maintaining active irresponsible or criminal thoughts only furthers their destructive lifestyle. For the criminal thinker, change is not about doing good things, it is about actively identifying, challenging and changing ones distorted thinking patterns.

Early in the change process offenders should focus more on the harm they have caused than on the good they have done.  Creating an honest balance sheet of their lives should result in a scale that is tipped strongly towards the negative.  Correcting the false view of oneself as a good person should be replaced with honest self-disgust which motivates change.

Positive self-perspective can be viewed on a continuum for the criminal thinker with self-hate on the far left and narcissism on the far right.  Self-disgust is the result of an honest and balanced self-assessment developed with the help of responsible ‘others.’  The change agents role should be to consistently hold up a mirror to the offender so they see a true and undistorted vision of themselves. The offender will begin to identify the thinking patterns that have caused others harm and the replacements to those errors in thinking.  As a result, they will begin developing the skills to hold up the mirror for themselves.  Over time, looking into the mirror of self-disgust will motivate change and begin replacing a distorted sense of self-worth with a healthy self-perspective. The negative ripple affects of a life of crime will begin to fade and new ripples of healing and hope will become stronger.


Next to ‘closed-channel thinking,’ victimstance is the most pervasive thinking error in irresponsible and criminal thinkers. Criminal thinkers continually blame others for situations they have caused themselves.

Victimstance thinking moves to the extreme in persons actively engaged in victimizing behavior. If a criminal thinker gets arrested they will claim they are victims of overzealous police actions. They will lie and deny doing anything wrong even when confronted with the obvious facts of their offenses. They will often blame the violence they have perpetrated on an addiction or drug and alcohol use.  When a criminal thinker enters treatment or therapy they will use their new found diagnosis to rationalize and excuse their behavior instead of using that knowledge to take the necessary steps to make meaningful change.

The common victim rationales used by the offender fall into four destructive categories including, psychological, sociological, an ex-con and genetic.  Examples of thinking distortions in each of these areas are as follows:


  • If drugs were legal like in Denmark this wouldn’t even be an issue.
  • Everybody steals and lies, I just happen to have gotten caught which is not fair
  • I couldn’t help it that my friend decided to rob that store. I’m a victim of circumstance.
  • If you would have left me alone this wouldn’t have happened.
  • It’s not my fault, I warned her that I get violent when she keeps nagging me.


  • I was raised in the projects. This is the only way I learned how to make money
  • I live in a neighborhood that is controlled by gangs. If I wouldn’t have joined a gang I would have been killed.
  • I am constantly being discriminated against because of my race so committing crimes is how I learned to cope.
  • If I was white I wouldn’t have even been arrested for this crime.


  • I can’t get a decent job now that I have a record so I have to sell drugs to survive.
  • There are no good options for someone with a criminal record.
  • Society has branded me a criminal so I might as well just accept it.


  • My parents were both incarcerated so I was bound to be a thug.
  • Drug addiction runs in the family, I don’t have a choice.
  • I just have bad blood.

The changing criminal must begin to accept the role they play in every negative consequence that they encounter. They need to identify the thinking errors that prevent them from taking personal responsibility.  By asking what they could have done differently to change the outcome of the situation they will begin to learn corrections to their distorted thoughts.  They must learn and document how they have been a victimizer more than a victim.  Even when they are truly victimized, their criminal lifestyle is usually what has caused them to become victims themselves. Police understand this concept well when they arrive at a crime scene and discover that the victims could easily be yesterdays victimizers.

Failing to Learn from Experience

The past and futureCriminal thinkers do not learn from the past and operate without regard for the future.  They are often described as failing to learn from experience and tend to see behavior and events as isolated incidents. You might be thinking to yourself, “this sounds like my teenager!” If it does sound like your teenager, or even your spouse, don’t be alarmed. We all have errors in thinking and our teens often have many of them at the same time. The difference is that thinking errors in criminals continue to expand into almost all areas of their lives and they regularly fail to deter their distorted thinking which results in regular violence and harm of others.

Failing to learn from experience is one of they key components of the thinking error, lack of time perspective. If we repeatedly fail to learn from experience we will continually spend our time in ‘quadrant one’ of Stephen Covey’s time management matrix. [See previous post “Important but not Urgent”] Quadrant one is comprised of actions in our life that have become urgent and important. It is filled with things that we can no longer ignore because they are now looking us in the face. Continually ignoring our bills will eventually result in actions that are now important and urgent. The debt collectors have handed over our bills to collection agents and the pressure to pay has increased.  Similarly for the ex-offender, putting off meeting with a probation or parole agent will make the next meeting “urgent and important” since it could affect our freedom.  The more we ignore our responsibilities and keep putting things off to tomorrow, the more time we will spend in a state of urgency, and even panic, addressing the things that have gotten out of control in our lives.

For the ex-offender it is critical that they develop a clear sense of time perspective so they don’t repeat the same pattern of thinking and behavior that contributed to their incarceration and victimization of others. Identifying the amount of time we are spending in the Quadrant One area of our lives will be a good indication of trouble we are having with the lack of time perspective thinking error.

A natural deterrent to lack of time perspective is goal orientation. Developing goals in  various areas of our lives will help us combat lack of time perspective.  In fact, just developing a goal in a single area will often help turn the tide and create a ripple effect of other positive actions.  For example, instead of setting a goal of getting a job, staying sober and paying off all fines, it would be better to set smaller step objectives to achieve those goals.  For the job goal, identify smaller steps that will help result in getting a job. For example:

  1. Meet with a career counselor, probation agent and/or mentor to identify strengths, weaknesses, potential contacts, job goals, references, etc.
  2. Create a resume
  3. Identify 5 primary sources for locating jobs
  4. Send out 5 resumes and/or make 5 inquiries a week
  5. Find out about 2 volunteer opportunities that would help me in my chosen field
  6. Ask a friend for an introduction to someone who can tell me about jobs in a given field.

In the field of Quality Improvement, smart goals are defined with an acronym:

S – specific
M- measurable
A – action-oriented
R – realistic
T – time-bound

In the job goal example above, making the smaller steps to the goal ‘smart’ would involve adding the final “T” or time-bound element to each one, e.g. I will identify 5 primary sources for locating jobs by next Thursday.

When an offender is released from prison they often have an astounding set of goals and hopes for the future.  However, when the first sign of adversity comes their way they give up and claim the victim role, blaming society for not giving them a job, their probation agent for setting unrealistic expectations, their family for being too controlling, their girlfriend for not being sympathetic, etc, etc. Setting smart goals and holding oneself accountable to them is the best deterrent.

Criminal Thinking Factoid: The number of arrests or convictions a person has are not a good indicator of how distorted their thinking has become.  Personal conviction and/or arrest numbers are more a result of the increased presence of police in a particular community and/or the ineptness of the particular offender.

Criminal Thinking Worksheet: Access the free “Lack of Time Perspective” worksheet on

"An approach to the treatment of offenders which emphasizes the role of altering thinking patterns in bringing about change in an offender's life."