The Fourth Cardinal Sin of Thinking

maui sunset image

 

Life is unfair. There are no declarations, contracts, scriptures or any such writings which proclaim life to be fair. And yet, for some reason, most people believe life is supposed to be fair, reliable, and predictable. It’s somewhat understandable when children scream out “that’s unfair!” But, as adults, it’s somewhat juvenile that we continue to hold on to this idea. We may not blurt it out with the innocent outrage of a child, but we think it with just as much vehemence. Perhaps we were past over for a promotion, terminated from our job, caught in a traffic jam and already late for a meeting; perhaps we find ourselves married to a person we only recently discovered is an alcoholic or perhaps everything is going extremely well for us and then we are diagnosed with a serious illness. Life is just so unfair! We get mad at life. We get angry at God. We become bitter and caustic.

It might be different if our philosophy of life were not based on this assumption that life is fair. We wouldn’t get so upset when things that appear unfair happen to us; we might just shrug it off as “that’s life.” And, indeed, some people do just that. They have a different philosophy and a different collection of words and phrases they use within their mind when life hits them with unfair situations. They don’t complain or criticize; they don’t get bitter or caustic about life. What is it these people have? The answer is simple. A different philosophy; a different belief. Different internalized self-talk.

The assumption that life is fair is one of the several irrational beliefs we hold and which can cause us to get upset, depressed, angry and even self destructive. It is a belief which demands everything be going the way we expect it to and that nothing bad will happen to us. It is a position of privilege – and arrogance. It is self centered, ego centric and very small minded. Anyone serious about improving their life, feeling better about themselves and the world in which they live will need to uproot any belief they have that life is fair. Sometimes bad things happen to good people – and sometimes good things happen to bad people. That’s just the way it is. But, that doesn’t mean that life is unfair – all the time, as an absolute. Life may indeed be unfair, sometimes. But, it may be fair at other times. But, the blanket statement “life is unfair!” is unconditional and absolute and that’s what makes it so irrational.

Life’s fairness or unfairness is really not the issue. The issue has more to do with “deserving.” Many people, and in particular those raised in the post industrial western world, believe they deserve. They deserve a good, high paying job – right out of college, they deserve a nice home, they deserve to be treated with respect and love. And when they don’t get what they believe they are entitled to, well, life is just so unfair! But again, there is nothing written in stone stating that everyone shall receive what they believe they deserve. However, it may well be that everyone does in fact receive what they do deserve, even though it may not be to their liking. The popular saying “you may not get what you want but you get what you need” has some merit. There are several world philosophies which expound the doctrine of cause and effect suggesting that our present condition, no matter how positive or negative, is the effect of previous causes which we ourselves initiated. Be that as it may, every single person is faced with a host of situations throughout their life which appear to be unfair. Life is unpredictable. The only question of any value is how do you respond to life? And then, are there alternative responses which may bring about more positive consequences? For, although life may not be fair to us, we can choose to be fair, just, honest, kind, compassionate and understanding, towards life. Does this mean we should become pollyannish? Not, of course not. Tough love, a firm hand and discipline can just as easily play a role in appropriate responses to life’s unpredicatable unfairness as can leniency, mercy and forgiveness. It all so much depends on the situation at hand – and the response ability of the actor. The more responses one has in their repertoire, the more choices one has; and, the more choices one has, the more able is that person to act in a manner which is appropriate, as opposed to being merely reactive, imprudent and rash.

One of the better methods of counteracting our belief in the lack of fairness of life (so often sourced in self centeredness) is to volunteer in civic activities which help support those who are disadvantaged. By so doing, we find life’s unreliability, unpredictability and capriciousness something which can add meaning and purpose to our life, not to mention a new, broader perspective on the plight of others – and maybe even some compassion.

The Third Cardinal Sin of Thinking

road through woods

 

In Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), there are several words and phrases used in self talk which are often pinpointed as problematic. In previous articles, I have discussed a couple of these word phrases and in this article will elaborate on a few more. However, it can be noted that these problematic self-talk word phrases arise up out of a mind that has been conditioned by our culture and our society along with its beliefs and values. Many of these beliefs and values are strongly held and often defy criticism or examination. REBT and CBT attempt to not only to point out and help change irrational and unproductive self talk, but also to explore core beliefs and values – and change them. A case in point is our socio-cultural pre-occupation with perfectionism. Whether in the form of body image, academic achievement, financial success or general relationships, we appear as a people to highly value and strive for perfection. Somehow, we have learned to believe that “I should be perfect” or “I could be perfect.” We often hear “I could have been better” or “I should have been stronger.” Who says!?

The trouble with perfectionism is, of course, that we often have no objective criteria to establish the achievement of perfection. And even if we did, it probably would not be good enough. “Not good enough” is one of the perfectionist’s mantras. And, since the perfectionist is often falling short of their goal, the “I should have done it better” “I could have done it differently” type statements are other mantras. Although the “shouldacoulda” statements are not, necessarily, in themselves problematic, they often become so when attached to the self incrimination and self demeaning tone these statements carry. What is often uttered, silently, after the “I shouldacoulda done it differently” statement is “I’m so stupid” or “I’m such an idiot.” For example, after receiving a B+ on a final report, a perfectionist student’s self talk might go something like this: “I should have put more into it, I’m just so mediocre.”

The “shouldacoulda” self talk also takes on a very limiting role in our life when it is used to prevent us from reaching out, doing something new and different as in “I should not do that” or “I could not do that.” Generally, this self talk is based in our desire to be normal, respectable, and not foolish. We decide to not engage in some behavior and say we should not or could not to shield us from possible embarrassment. This is part of perfectionism as the perfectionist is not allowed to be silly, foolish, erroneous or embarrassed. That would be “bad.”

In our desire to be a “good” person, we have unwittingly created an equation where good is equal to perfect. Mistakes are viewed as indicators of stupidity, errors idiocy and a simple over-sight or even silliness a sign of under achievement. Many of us have internalized this kind of thinking and whenever we are inaccurate, at fault or just slip-up, we automatically begin with very negative and demeaning self talk preceded by the reprimand I “shouldacoulda” done it better or different or simply shoulda “not” done it, the gist being that we were wrong, i.e., not perfect. This view of our behavior can not only make us depressed, it can significantly lower our motivation, make us terribly unhappy and can even cause physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches. The perfectionist’s life is often not a joyful one.

So, the question then becomes how does one fix this? The first step is to acknowledge the problem of perfectionism. There may be symptoms of tension, anxiety and stress in everyday life, especially during times when goals and achievements are at stake; there will most likely be a strong sense of not being good enough – no matter how successful nor how much effort is put into being successful. There may even be an awareness of the “shouldacoulda” self talk along with the negative put downs which often accompany it which is the place to be for beginning the next step.

The second step is to challenge the internal dialogue about behavior and performance. The “shouldacoulda” and demeaning self talk needs to be replaced. For example, “I should have known better” can be replaced with “I would have liked to have known better.” Or, “I could have been more prepared” can be phrased “Next time I intend to be more prepared.” Like the phrase “have to,” “should” and “could” and “ought to” suggest an external force making us behave in some way. Self talk is more empowering and quite a bit healthier when it leans more towards self motivating statements. The self deprecating statements such as “I’m an idiot” “I’m a jerk”, etc., should simply be dropped of completely, If you hear yourself make those statements you simply counter with a “no, that’s not true.”

The third step is, through repeated use of new self talk, build a belief system which accepts mistakes as part of growth, understands that errors are part of reaching the goal and recognizes that slip ups are all too human, and that you are a human. Since, as the saying goes, “nothing is perfect,” if you really seek perfection, you will end up with nothing.

The fourth step is a bit more provocative and will assist in the second and third steps. It is useful to purposefully make mistakes, mess up and generally try to be less than perfect. As you do this, challenge your self talk and beliefs about what this means about you as a person. Are you less than desirable because you make mistakes? Are you bad because slipped up? Are you less than human because you erred? Are you a failure if have not mastered a task right away? Of course not. Essentially, perfectionism is anti-human. As you become more accepting of your own mistakes and errors, you will be accepting more of yourself as a human being, nothing more and nothing less. You will also begin to find yourself more relaxed and easy going; you will notice yourself being more understanding, accepting and compassionate towards yourself and towards others. You might even find yourself being a happier person.

The Second Cardinal Sin of Thinking

mountain meadow

 

“I’m never going to be promoted,” “I’m always going to be left out of the group,” “I’m never going to have a lasting relationship,” “I’m always going to be the one who gets the short end of the stick.” Sound familiar? Have you ever heard anyone, or even yourself, use the words “always” and “never” in a sentence like these? If so, you are among the hundreds of millions of people who over generalize and use these very unrealistic, absolute terms. Wendell Johnson, the American semanticist, psychologist and author of People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment, is quoted as having said, in a somewhat paradoxical and humorous manner “Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use.”

So, what’s wrong with using “never” and “always?” Basically, it’s so often untrue, unrealistic and irrational. These two words may be the most common culprit to purely cognitive based depression. Cognitive based depression is brought about because our thinking is depressing. If we tell ourselves that we will never get a good job, we would get depressed, and with good reason. If it were true that we would “never” get a good job, who wouldn’t get depressed? But, it’s not true. It may not be probable that we get a good job soon, but it is possible that a good job will come at some time. By using “never” we cement the idea of never, ever, at all, getting a good job into our mind. How depressing! Even if it’s untrue, the mind accepts those internal statements, subtle, subconscious and so hard to discern, as absolutely true statements. Furthermore, there is no evidence about the future so it is very unrealistic to use “never” in the context of a future event or happening, such as finding a good job, a loving relationship or whatever one might be needing or wanting. When we do use “never” in such contexts, the mind accepts it as the real situation and naturally we feel depressed. So, for those who might be depressed, examine your self talk and if you are using “never,” stop it!

Perhaps we have made statements such as “I’m always messing up” or “I’m always behind” or “I’m always going to be just average.” Statements like this are based on the past and then assumed into the future. As with “never,” “always” is an absolute statement without any possibility of change. Because life is change, statements such as “always” make the process of living and growing stagnant. For this reason, “always” is considered faulty and should not be used in our internal dialogue, our self talk, or, for the most part, in conversations with others. “Always” can also bring about cognitive based depression, and anxiety. If, for example, you tell yourself “I always get nervous when speaking in front of groups” and are going to be speaking in front of a group in a few days, guess what? You’re going to get nervous. Why, because you have been telling yourself that you “always” do – why should this time be any different? If you want to stop getting nervous when speaking in front of groups, you first need to stop telling yourself that you always do!!

There are a few alternatives which can be used to replace “never” and “always.”

The statement “I’m never going to get a good job” can be rephrased “I am currently having difficulty seeing myself in a good job” or “It may be a while before I am able to get a good job.” Or, the statement “I’m always going to find myself in an abusive relationship” can be changed to “In the past I have been in several abusive relationships, but no longer want that.” “I always get nervous when speaking in front of groups” can be changed to “I feel nervous when I’m about to speak in front of a group.” There is certainly nothing wrong in being honest with yourself about a current feeling, such as nervousness. The problem comes when ascribing a permanent all encompassing time frame on that feeling.

The words always and never are considered irrational. That means, they are not reasonable. Yet, they are used excessively in everyday language both to others and to ourselves. Take some time to listen to others…at the coffee shop, at work, in line at the market, on television. Try and pick out these two words, always and never, and then figure out how the statement these words were used in could be rephrased to be more rational, more reasonable. Let’s say you hear someone at the market saying “I’m never going to be able to quit smoking.” How would you rephrase this statement to be more realistic – and less depressing? Then, when you have a handle on listening to others, take some time to listen to yourself. Try and catch yourself using these over generalized, absolute terms and change them to a phrase that is more realistic, more rational – and more conducive to your mental health.

The First Cardinal Sin of Thinking

orchid flower

 

“I gotta go to work,” I gotta take care of the kids,” I gotta go to the market”, “I gotta get a job.” There are so many things we “gotta” do. Gotta, of course, is a somewhat slang expression for “got to” or “have to.” There may be no more insidious phrase in the English language than “have to.” No one likes to be forced or coerced into doing anything and “have to” is a coercive phrase. It not only suggests force, but that we have no choice in the matter. With no choice, there is no freedom, and that can make a person very angry.

Many people respond to “have to” statements with resistance, sometimes active resistance such as verbal outpourings of abusive language, and sometimes passive resistance by simply not doing what they have to do, getting ill so it can’t be done or forgetting. Some people become passively aggressive and lash out in very subtle ways when put into the apparently choiceless corner of “have to.”

What we often don’t recognize is that we use this kind of coercive language on ourselves, in our own self talk, and then respond with resistance, anger or aggression. We might tell ourselves that we “have to paint the kitchen walls this weekend” and then find that we couldn’t sleep on Friday night so we’re too tired on Saturday to start painting. Or, we might tell ourselves that we have to go to work, which is an extremely common phrase, and find ourselves going to work, but in a bad attitude, thinking we’d rather be sailing or fishing or…..You’ve certainly seen some bumper stickers which state that I’d rather be doing just about anything than what I “have to” be doing.

The use of the “have to” or “gotta” phrase within our own mind through our own internal dialogue, our own self talk, can cause us to feel lethargic, a-motivated, apathetic and even angry simply because we feel, subconsciously, as though we are being coerced and that we have no choice in the matter. The truth is, we do have a choice in the matter. Certainly, there are consequences to every choice we make. However, it is critically important to recognize that we do have choice, and in that choice, we have freedom. You can choose to go to work, or choose not to go to work. “But,” you say, “If I don’t go to work, I’ll be fired.” That could likely be the outcome, the consequence, of that choice, yes; but, at least there is a choice! There is freedom to make that choice!! Every morning upon awakening, we start making choices. We make choices all throughout the day. We are not coerced or forced into any decision or action that we do not choose. We are even free to choose how to respond to the consequences of previous choices we have made.

Because we have been intensely conditioned by our culture and our language, changing common linguistic phrases, such as “have to” can be very odd and feel quite strange. Nevertheless, it is an excellent exercise to replace “have to” with “choose to.” It is much more truthful and it empowers a person to make such self affirming statements. For example, “I gotta go to work” is transformed to “I choose to go to work.” I have to go to the meeting tonight” is changed to “I choose to go to the meeting tonight.” Any person who makes this simple linguistic change will feel differently. They will feel more confident and more self assured. They will feel less resistance, more energy and greater sense of meaning and purpose in their life. They will feel more liberated, and more responsible. Everyone has freedom to make choices. No matter how restrained, how confined and how limited our circumstances may appear, everyone has the freedom to make a choice if even to have a negative or positive outlook on their current situation.

A Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven

Iao Stream, Maui, Hawaii

 

Somewhere in England during the 1600’s, the poet John Milton, in his epic Paradise Lost, stated, through the voice of his character Satan, “the mind is its own place and, in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” I can think of no better nor more eloquent statement to summarize the teachings of Cognitive Therapy. Cognitive Therapy acknowledges that the mind is a powerful place; it operates on the premise that our thinking is the precursor to moods and emotions, both heavenly and hellish. It is not the outer event that makes us feel any particular way but how we interpret and evaluate that event that makes us feel happy or sad, depressed or joyful, frightened or safe, energized or lethargic.

 
Basically, our thinking (i.e., our mind), determines whether or not we feel as though we are in heaven or hell. We could be in the middle of a snowstorm, cold and wet, and feel as though we are in heaven – or hell. Likewise, we could be on a tropical beach walking along a white sandy beach during sunset totally depressed – or elated. It depends so much on the workings of our mind. The underpinnings of Cognitive Therapy, now referred to as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), go back a long, long way. Phrases such as the Christian based “as a man thinketh, so is he” and the Buddhist based “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world,” predate modern CBT. CBT is actually an outgrowth of Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), now referred to as Rational Emotive-Behavior Therapy (REBT). RET became popularized in the mid 1950’s by Dr. Albert Ellis whose classic book A Guide to Rational Living outlined the basic tenets of RET. Today, scores of books are available on this subject. Considering that CBT/REBT is considered one of the most effective non-chemical treatments of depression and anxiety, it’s worth some investigations. A great deal of literature on the subject is available freely on the Internet.

 

 

Essentially, CBT/REBT lays out several fundamental faults in thinking which can easily cause a person to feel depressed, anxious, frightened, frustrated or angry, to name a few of the more common negative emotions. Through awareness of these faulty patterns of thinking, which are often well established in the mind from years of repetition, change can begin. Once a person becomes aware of these irrational thoughts, they can be challenged and changed to more reasonable, realistic patterns of internal dialogue, referred to as “self talk.” Everyone engages in self-talk. It is as normal as breathing.
The problem is the content of our self talk. We are often terribly unaware of what we are telling ourselves. Self talk occurs subconsciously and quite rapidly. Unbeknownst to the conscious mind, our self talk can be excessively demeaning, demanding, degrading and downright mean. The result is often depression, or anger, or sadness,or frustration. Self talk can even prompt a person into violence. In fact, many domestic violence prevention classes throughout the nation base their curriculum on CBT/REBT information. Self talk isn’t the only culprit in creating our moods and emotions. We also think in pictures. Self talk is often the generator of mental images which also cause us to feel, and act.

 
Mental pictures can make us feel happy or sad, motivated or apathetic, depressed or highly expressive, heavenly or hellish. Mental pictures can prompt us into action with an effectiveness equal to repetitive television commercials Taken together, our self talk and our mental pictures are largely responsible for how we see the world, how we see ourselves, how we behave, what goals and dreams we have, how we engage in relationships, how we deal with failures, setbacks and obstacles in our life….basically, how we live – and who we think we are. Self talk and mental pictures create our self image, our self concept. Counselors and therapists aren’t the only ones who work with this information. Highly successful individuals are keenly aware of how important self talk and mental pictures are to performance. Top notch sales and marketing executives and athletes around the world spend a great deal of money attending workshops and seminars all about improving their ability to use self talk (often referred to as “affirmations”) and their mental pictures (referred to as “visualization”) to enhance performance and build a more positive self image. Because CBT/REBT is such basic mental health information, it really should be part of all high school curriculums. But, for the most part, it is not.

 
Unfortunately, most young adults, when they graduate from high school, don’t know how to use their most human asset: language. Specifically, the kind of language we use on ourselves, the kind of language that goes on inside the mind, beneath the surface, out of sight and yet extremely potent in its ability to determine our moods and our behaviors. Anyone can begin to learn about this field of psychology as a practical matter. It is one of the more respected and well researched areas of “self-help.” There is ample information readily available. Counselors and therapists in every area are versed in this “theory” and ought to be able to work with any client who requests CBT/REBT as it relates to their specific issues be it relationship issues, grief or loss, addictions, depression or anxiety, panic attacks, sexual dysfunction, eating disorders or any number of psychosomatic ailments. Even those who suffer from purely biological diseases can benefit from CBT/REBT because how we think about our illness can compound the illness – or can help heal the illness. CBT/REBT also works very well in the relatively new field of email based online counseling which is more geared towards thoughtful written expressions and replies – all through email.

 
Online counseling is anonymous, generally bypasses the rapport building, the beating around the bush and the resistance so common in face-to-face counseling and often provides in-depth, detailed information which can be re-read and re-viewed at the client’s leisure. Online counseling is also not bound by appointments, driving time, parking spaces and the “50 minute” hour. It is very flexible and accommodating.

 
Future articles will focus on the specifics of CBT/REBT providing basic information and instructions on how to apply this model of personal growth from dealing with negative emotions and a poor self image to improving relationships and achieving goals.