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

Important but not Urgent

The four quadrantsIn Stephen Covey’s book, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a persons actions and activities are divided into a matrix of four quadrants. The first quadrant is comprised of things that are important and urgent in our daily living such as emergencies, crises, deadlines that are fast approaching, etc. The second quadrant includes things that are important but not urgent. In recovery this might include reading a relapse prevention book, making amends with a person or making retribution.  The third quadrant is urgent, but unimportant activities like interruptions from a child, needing to have a cigarette, etc. The fourth quadrant is neither urgent nor important.  This would include time wasting activities like playing  solitaire on the computer, random web surfing and video games.

A very useful exercise for someone attempting to make meaningful changes in their thinking and their lives is to fill up these four quadrants with the activities of ones day and estimate the percentage of time that was spent in each quadrant.  A person who is crisis oriented will spend most of their time in quadrants one and three.  A person not actively pursuing goals or changing distorted thinking patterns can spend a significant amount of time in quadrant four doing many mindless things.  A person actively attempting to change the bad habits and errors in their thinking will purposely make time for activities that are very important, but not necessarily urgent. Quadrant two is the heart of recovery and thinking change!

The next blog will discuss the thinking errors that keep us rooted in quadrants one, three and four and the corrections to those errors that will lead us to increase the time spent in quadrant two.

NCAA Basketball and Criminal Freedom

Watching the VCU Rams basketball team beat the U of K Jayhawks to enter the NCAA final four is a great example of the many character traits required for criminal freedom.  The NCAA tournament is a long, hard series of games that results in one team beating every team they play on their path to the national collegiate championship.  Key traits that have led the VCU team to the final four include:

  • persistence
  • stamina and effort
  • leadership

Persistence is a word that has described the VCU team since its first round one win.  The team was initially derided by announcers for even being chosen to participate in the NCAA tournament.  Other teams were seen as more worthy of the selection and they were continually expected to fail in each of their successive games.  In a similar way, people searching for sobriety and criminal freedom must engender dogged persistence to remain on the straight and narrow path of responsible living.  Ex-offenders are often expected to fail in their attempts to live responsibly.  They face numerous obstacles to employment and sobriety and usually return to the same environment where they face all the problems they left when incarcerated.  Persistence in the face of criticism, reduced expectations and even name-calling can be used as a source of positive motivation like it has for VCU.  The attitude of ‘doing whatever it takes’ to win the game, or remain crime free, is the driving force to success.

Stamina and effort are also hallmarks of successful NCAA teams.  When facing bigger and more experienced teams, VCU has had to exert and sustain extreme amounts of effort to achieve their current ranking.  By contrast, criminal thinkers typically quit at the first sign of failure which is an example of the thinking error “Lack of Effort.”  Criminal thinkers lack effort for anything that is boring or disagreeable.  Putting in the intense hours of practice required of a collegiate team while still maintaining college level coursework is a testament to the stamina and effort required for success.  Similarly, job searching, staying sober and following through with responsibilities and retribution will also feel like a herculean effort for the changing person.  Maintaining a focus on the long term goal of positive living, which is a metaphorical parallel to the national championship, can help the ex-addict and/or offender make the choices needed for the day to remain drug and crime free.

Leadership to a criminal thinker means power and control.  It means getting what they want at the expense of others.  True leadership, as demonstrated by NCAA teams, means trusting others to make decisions and providing feedback so that the team will benefit.  VCU coach Shaka Smart was asked by an analyst why he didn’t call time outs more often especially when the other team started to make a run of points.  He said he trusted the decision-making ability of his team.  Good coaches, good leaders and good teammates provide timely feedback to people they lead.  They don’t pretend to have all the answers and they consistently defer personal praise to their team.  They would rather pass the ball to make an assisted score than try to shoot every time they get the chance.

Life lessons for criminal freedom can be gleaned from every day events and even March madness.

Closed Channel Thinking

The essence of criminal thinking is the closed channel.  Criminal thinkers are closed off from being receptive, are closed to any interest in being self-critical and also shut down from disclosing the truth about their destructive behavior.  These three components of criminal thinking must be replaced with their natural corollaries, i.e. receptivity,  self-criticism and self disclosure.

Receptivity is being open and responsive to ideas, impressions and suggestions.  When a responsible person makes a suggestion about changing a bad habit or doing something that is positive, the recovering person must listen intently to what is being suggested.  They should practice active listening skills which have deteriorated with their destructive thinking patterns.  Active listening is listening to the message without interruption, clarifying the content of the message, restating what the person said to ensure you understand the message and being aware of your feelings and the sender’s feelings.  Changing criminals and even addicts must realize that they do not have the solution to their problems and must rely on responsible others for guidance, correction, and advice.

Self-criticism is pointing out the faults in your own behavior and thinking.  Criminal thinkers are skilled at pointing out the faults of others, but continually fail to see the harm in their own behavior.  An excellent exercise to promote positive change is to look at the role you play in every negative situation that has happened during the week.  What could you have done differently or thought differently to prevent the negative outcome.  Even in situations where the criminal thinker is truly victimized, they should focus on the lifestyle of crime, drugs or victimization that has allowed them to be victimized themselves. There are always people who have experienced more harsh conditions and life problems than ours, and still made positive choices that didn’t involve drugs, crime or abusing others.

Self-disclosure is another area of extremes for the criminal thinker.  Criminal thinkers relate minimal information about themselves and only do so when they can use that self-disclosure to take advantage of someone.  They gather information about others but don’t talk about themselves.  For true change to occur the changing criminal must begin to share their distorted thinking with people who can help correct their distortions and thinking tactics.  They are wise to take the advice of the 4th Step of AA which suggests that addicts “take a searching and fearless moral inventory” but they cannot do this by themselves.  Their distorted thinking will no doubt make the search superficial and less than fearful!

Access our free “Closed Channel Thinking” worksheet on

The Ability to Respond

Stimulus Organism ResponseIn Psychology 101 class we learned about the the Pavlovian stimulus-response (S-R) theory.  When a particular stimulus is offered it will illicit a particular response. For example, when a stimulus, such as an opportunity to steal, is available to the criminal thinker they feel compelled to respond and take advantage of the opportunity.  The changing criminal will often say they just react to situations. They blame the victim for leaving items unattended.  They see their actions as disconnected from their thoughts.

The wonderful thing about the human psyche is the ability to think before we respond.  A theory offered by a psychologist named Clark Hull added an “O” to the S-R cycle.  In his theory “O” stands for Organism, i.e. Stimulus, Organism, Response, S-O-R.  When a stimulus is offered it must be processed through the ‘organism’ before a response is made.  The organism is you!  It’s your brain, your thoughts and your decision to make another choice.  Just because the criminal thinker has always responded to a situation negatively does not mean they have to in the future.  The entire field of cognitive-behavioral therapy is built upon the notion that we can think before we respond.  We are not animals that only salivate ever time they hear the food can opening.  We can condition ourselves to turn the other way when opportunities to use drugs or commit crimes present themselves.  The key to this change is becoming increasingly aware of what is going on in the area between stimulus and response. In criminal thinkers, distorted reasoning, blaming, minimizing, diverting attention and other games are played in the area before response.  Actively involving responsible people, mentors, counselors and therapists into our thought lives is they key to recognizing our thinking distortions and accepting the challenge to change.

When was the last time you reflected on a negative outcome and the role your thinking played in the situation?  When was the last time you changed your typical response to a challenging situation?  What could you have thought differently to change your response?

Reflection and Change

Reflection is a key component of change for the criminal thinker.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers nine different definitions for this word and several of them provide insight for persons seeking a positive change in their lives.  One of the first definitions of the word is “the production of an image by or as if by a mirror.”  This is an excellent definition of the role of change agents in the lives of offenders.  Many cognitive-behavioral counselors and therapists see their purpose as holding up a mirror to the victimizer that enters treatment.  Their job is to help abusers see the truth and consequences of their actions.  They succeed when they are able to build a sense of self-disgust in the client.  Criminal thinkers must develop a healthy sense of self-disgust for what they have done and what they have become.  Self-pity is self-defeating, but self-disgust motivates positive change.  Unless the criminal thinker can view themselves honestly in the mirror and experience the disgust that goes along with acknowledging the harm they have caused, they are bound to continue repeating patterns of violence and abuse while minimizing, blaming and distorting the truth of their actions.

The second relevant definition of the word “reflection” for the changing criminal is a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation.  The most common meditation criminal thinkers perform is the premeditated actions of planning and committing crimes.  Meditation on the ripple effect of those crimes is far from their thinking.  In order for change to occur the changing criminal must constantly check their motivations and thinking.  They must reflect on the decisions they made each day and identify all the times they used harmful thinking tactics which have become a habit in their lives.  Thinking tactics such as manipulation, controlling others, belittling, minimizing, distorting the truth and divert attention away from themselves must be identified and replaced with their natural opposites.   Instead of minimizing the harm that their actions caused, they should maximize it.  Instead of diverting attention away from themselves when held accountable, they should keep the focus on themselves to experience full accountability for their actions.

A radical approach to change is needed for radically distorted thinking that has resulted in countless victims, violence, and pain.

Selective Perception and Memory

Don't ForgetCriminal Thinkers are notorious for having selective perception.  They pay attention to the details that benefit and support their way of viewing the world.  They remember events and situations that justify their irresponsible and criminal behavior and discard and forget the central role that their decisions and lifestyle played in their current reality.

Memory is a curious thing.  Many of us think that we have poor memories, especially when we quickly forgot someone’s name that we just met.  We sometimes forget what were just about to do or where we put our dang keys!  However, our memories are filled with millions of facts, figures, emotions, and ideas that we can recall in an instant.  The key to thinking change is using the great capacity that resides in our memory.  A person seeking lasting change in their lives must begin to redefine the meaning attached to their memories.  They must continually reevaluate negative situations in their life and discover the role they played in causing the situation in the first place.  The criminal thinker continually uses the thinking error of “victimstance” to blame others for situations they caused themselves.  When the thought about blaming others enters their mind, they must immediately focus on what they could have done, and what they can still do, to prevent further injury and victimization to others as well as themselves.

Re-scripting (aka: rewriting) one’s memory will only happen through intentional, continuous practice.  A common practice among self-help groups is to take a moral inventory of one’s life daily.  For the changing criminal/addict or abuser, that means thinking back through ones day and remembering all the thoughts and situations where they blamed others for their negative feelings and situations.  Writing these situations down in a journal or notebook is an excellent way to literally re-script our thoughts and therefore our lives.  Our thoughts define our actions.  Our actions define our character.  Our character defines our life.

Research is Required

Any positive plan for change involves a significant amount of research.  Research is a prescription for ignorance and requires an open mind, a spirit of discovery and a willingness to look beyond oneself for answers.  Many irresponsible thinkers have a ‘know-it-all’ attitude that prevents them from identifying changes that are necessary in their lives.  By acknowledging that they must look outside of themselves for change and growth to occur, they are taking the first necessary step in the change process.

Simple examples of looking outside of oneself may include:

  1. Asking someone what it takes to succeed in a boring job
  2. Asking someone to help you learn to read or write better
  3. Asking for feedback about your character flaws (and not contradicting, minimizing or arguing with the feedback!)
  4. Asking what it takes to live a clean and sober life
  5. Reading a book about recovery, a desired job skill or self improvement
  6. Searching the internet for local support groups, discovering the differences between them, and attending an upcoming meeting

Even if the changing person does not believe that research is required to change their life, they must act as if it is required in order for them to at least get started!  Going through the motions of change, even when the mind is not ready, can result in future meaningful changes.  To keep our bodies moving in the right direction we need to act as if we are responsible, as if we want to change and as if we desire sobriety so that our minds will eventually catch up to our actions.  In Alcoholics Anonymous it is said, ‘bring the body and the mind will follow.’  This axiom is also true for changes required in our thinking.

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