The Sixth Cardinal Sin of Thinking

close up of pink flower

“I can’t do it !” It’s certainly a common enough phrase; I can’t do this, I can’t do that. It probably gets run through much more inside our mind than out. I’m not going to tell you it’s not true, that you can do anything you set your mind to. There are some things you can’t do. I know there are some things I can’t do. The problem is that when we use that phrase “I can’t” it suggests that we are not able to do it at some time in the future; that we are not able to learn how to do it. So, using the “I can’t” phrase doesn’t really do our potential any justice. And regarding our internal self talk, there is no distinction between fact and fiction. So, when the mind hears the self talk “I can’t” it simply says “ok.” There is also no time frame involved our self talk, the “I can’t” phrase has no expiration date. As far as the mind is concerned, “I can’t” means you never have been nor will ever be able to. That’s not quite accurate.

Many in the field of mental health or self improvement suggest that “I can’t” be replaced with “I won’t.” In some cases, that is a good suggestion. There are quite a few times when a person who says “I can’t do that” is really saying they choose not to do that. In such cases, saying “I won’t do that” is not only appropriate but more accurate and more empowering. You can try this out for yourself. If you can catch yourself about to say “I can’t” when in fact it’s a choice on your part not to do it, simply say “I won’t” or “I refuse” or “I choose not to.” Don’t say “I can’t” when in fact you can but don’t want to.”

But, what about those situations when in fact you really are not able to do it. You don’t have the skill, the experience or the capacity? In those cases, it’s still much better to use an alternate phrase. For example, if someone asks you to help them edit a book in a foreign language that you don’t speak, you can say something like “at this time, I am not able to” or “I have not yet learned how to speak that language.” By avoiding the use of “I can’t” we don’t shut down the future possibilities. The mind remains open to the potential.

But, what about a person who is clinically depressed, severely anxious or diagnosed with terminal cancer or some other serious physical condition. Are they not justified in saying “I can’t get better?” It would be somewhat cruel to suggest to them it’s their choice and they should say “I won’t get better.” The latter statement is not just a choice based phrase it is also very deterministic. It could itself be cause for depression as it is an affirmation of the problem. Yet, “I can’t get better” isn’t that accurate either. There are anecdotes of individuals who have overcome these types of problems and if any one individual can accomplish something, it is at least in the realm of possibility that others too can. So, more realistic self talk than either “I can’t” or “I won’t” is called for. What might work? Well, this is the kind of thinking that is required of a person interested in adjusting their self talk. They need to think about alternative phrases and then begin to use them when they catch themselves using the old more irrational or less than realistic phrases. Before reading on, think for yourselves what might work in this situation…..

Because the issue of choice is somewhat secondary in these kinds of situations; that is, we can assume that nobody consciously chooses to be depressed or terminally ill, the “can’t” and “won’t” don’t quite apply. Willpower is not the issue either. According to Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, the beginning of real change occurs when we acknowledge and accept where we are right now in the present moment. So, perhaps we can take the “I can’t” and make it into an “I can” if we “can” simply accept our present condition. “I can accept my problem” or “I can accept my illness” can be the precursor openings which may prove helpful and perhaps even somewhat healing. Of course, acceptance of an illness is itself not a task which is accomplished right away. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has delineated the stages of loss and acceptance is near the end. Nevertheless, we can transform our “I can’t” into an “I can” by changing what it is we think we can or can’t do. “I can’t get better” can become “I can accept this.” Here, of course, the initial response to terrible news or a fatal illness is “I won’t accept this” which is the first stage of loss, denial. But, the truth is, it can be accepted and, as one passes through the stages of loss, is accepted. And then, there is often much more peace, less resistance and openness to the possibilities so often found in “I can.”

The Fifth Cardinal Sin of Thinking

california coastal scene

Some people think in extremes. They just don’t allow any middle ground. It’s kind of like “you’re either with me or you’re against me” or “you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.” A person with this “either/or” and “all or none” mentality can be very demanding requiring total allegiance. Any hint of deviation is paramount to a total abdication of that allegiance. A spouse may become insanely jealous, to the point of violence, if their partner is perceived to be paying attention to another person. It is, in the mind of an “all or none” thinker, inconceivable that a spouse could be friendly with many different people of both sexes and still absolutely devoted to the partner. The perfectionist also often suffers from totalitarian thinking when they say something like “I should have done better, I’m such an idiot.” It’s as if you’re either an idiot or perfect, nothing in between.

This kind of thinking, referred to as totalitarian thinking, in which the only possibilities are “yes” or “no” “on” or “off,” “all” or “none” is characteristic of very young children, before the age of 2. At this stage of development, a child believes that, for example, when the mother leaves the room, she is gone forever, she no longer exists. The child’s world is based purely on perception, not a bit of logic. The child does not yet understand “conservation” in which objects which disappear still exist. This is an all or none situation in which the object (or person) either exists in its totality or it does not exist at all. There is no middle ground. There is no “maybe it will come back.” It is an infantile position and one which some people do not outgrow – at least in some aspects of their life. Jealousy is one symptom of this kind of infantile thinking. It is an all or none proposition put into place by a totalitarian thinker. Perfectionism too can exhibit symptoms of all or nothing thinking. To a perfectionist, it’s either perfect or it’s a failure.

Jealousy often comes along with a host of associated feelings including distrust, envy, suspicion and resentment to name a few. All of these emotions arise from irrational an often infantile self talk which is only able to understand the all or none, either/or proposition. It can only see black or white, no shades of gray. This is unfortunate because life is seldom as clearly defined as black and white. More often than not, life is a confusing blend of numerous different shades of gray. More problematic is that jealousy is an extremely emotional state; it is not conducive to logical and rational explanations. Perfectionists are a bit more open to reason.

Whether a jealous person or a perfectionist, totalitarian thinking is behind it. Self talk may shed some light on the source of these intense feelings; however it’s usually difficult to capture the fleeting sentences flying through the mind that triggers these emotions. More often than not, it is mental pictures, or even a single snapshot, that does it. A husband sitting at home in the evening awaiting his wife’s return may become jealous when a picture of his wife with another man flashes through his subconscious mind. Without warning and for no apparent reason, he becomes angry at his wife. The mental picture is completely invalid. But, that does not stop it from passing through his mind and acted upon as valid. At that moment all the evidence of the past suggesting his wife’s devotion is wiped away in an all or nothing interpretation of a single imaginary snapshot in the mind. When explained logically, it is recognized as a ridiculous situation and yet that logic is often unable to overcome raging emotions. The perfectionist, in an explosive fit of self incrimination for making a simple and relatively minor mistake, becomes a totalitarian thinker believing that if it’s not perfect, the effort was a total waste of time. Perfectionists can also unload their negative energy on others demeaning and berating them for making simple errors.

Though not an easy task, the solution to this behavioral and mental health problem is tracking and changing the internal self talk and the internal mental pictures. This is often accomplished by keeping written records of the self talk/mental pictures on a piece of paper along with the resultant emotion. A third column on the paper is for the new, more rational self talk. CBT and REBT utilize an A-B-C theory. A = Activating Event, B = Belief about the event and C = Consequential emotion and behavior. The key to changing our negative and often destructive emotions and behaviors is B, our belief about the event, which is upheld through self talk and mental pictures. Change those, and C, the emotions and behaviors, will also change, even though the actual event, A, remains the same.

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

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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.