I was talking with my best friend, Steve, over some spicy noodles at our favorite Thai restaurant last week. We’ve been chums for the past 17 years. He’s a Political Science professor at the University at Buffalo here in town.
Steve’s grey beard and glasses make him look like a long-lost relative of Sigmund Freud. Our lunchtime talks are always illuminating and, frequently, laugh-filled. Steve has never suffered from depression. So he’s always curious about my experiences with it. During our chat, I talked about some hard-won wisdom.
I have listened to hundreds of people over the years tell me their story about how they experience depression and how it’s affected their lives. Over and over again, these folks have told me how poorly they think of themselves and how crummy they believe the world really is. What strikes me most about their revelations is their lack of perspective. They are ironclad in their self-condemnations and negative distortions of reality.
Depression expert, Aaron Beck, Ph.D. developed a theory about cognitive distortions and depression. Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions – telling themselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep them feeling bad about themselves. See which distortions you employ when depressed:
All-Or-Nothing Thinking: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never- ending pattern of defeat.
Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
Jumping to Conclusions: You make a negative interpretation though there are no definite facts that convincingly support conclusion. Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and you don’t bother to check this out. The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”
Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
Should Statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration and resentment.
Labeling and Mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a goddamn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.
Self-Worth: You make an arbitrary decision that in order to accept yourself as worthy, okay, or to simply, feel good about your- self, you have to perform in a certain way; usually most or all the time.
CHANGING YOUR MIND
Okay, then. What’s the antidote? How can you possibly change the way you view yourself and the world? Here are some ideas:
1. Identify Cognitive Distortions
We need to create a list of our troublesome thoughts and examine them later for matches with a list of cognitive distortions. An examination of our cognitive distortions allows us to see which distortions we prefer. Additionally, this process will allow us to think about our problem or predicament in more natural and realistic ways.
2. Examine the Evidence.
A thorough examination of an experience allows us to identify the basis for our distorted thoughts. If we are quite self-critical, then, we should identify a number of experiences and situations where we had success.
3. Double Standard Method.
An alternative to “self-talk” that is harsh and demeaning is to talk to ourselves in the same compassionate and caring way that we would talk with a friend in a similar situation.
4. Thinking in Shades of Gray.
Instead of thinking about our problem or predicament in an either-or polarity, evaluate things on a scale of 0-100. When a plan or goal is not fully realized, think about and evaluate the experience as a partial success, again, on a scale of 0-100.
5. Survey Method.
We need to seek the opinions of others regarding whether our thoughts and attitudes are realistic. If we believe that our anxiety about an upcoming event is unwarranted, check with a few trusted friends or relatives.
What does it mean to define ourselves as “inferior,” “a loser,” “a fool,” or “abnormal.” An examination of these and other global labels likely will reveal that they more closely represent specific behaviors, or an identifiable behavior pattern instead of the total person.
Often, we automatically blame ourselves for the problems and predicaments we experience. Identify external factors and other individuals that contributed to the problem. Regardless of the degree of responsibility we assume, our energy is best utilized in the pursuit of resolutions to problems or identifying ways to cope with predicaments.
8. Cost-Benefit Analysis.
It is helpful to list the advantages and disadvantages of feelings, thoughts, or behaviors. A cost-benefit analysis will help us to ascertain what we are gaining from feeling bad, distorted thinking, and inappropriate behavior.
The best place to learn to challenge your thinking is with a skilled Cognitive-Behavioral therapist. It’s much harder to try to do this by yourself because you can’t see the forest because of the trees.
Copyright, Daniel T. Lukasik, 2014