What are the thoughts that make me anxious and depressed?

Even though a negative self-image originates from the false conclusions drawn from either the presence or the absence of certain experiences, once it exists, a feeling of low self-worth establishes itself, and becomes embedded in the body like a parasite. It may initially go unrecognized but eventually its harmful effects will begin to appear, and problems in living and relating will begin to occur. Even though these problems may take many different forms, what they all have in common, is a particular way of thinking that will cause you to feel bad about yourself.

This style of thinking distorts reality in the same way that a funhouse mirror in an amusement park distorts the images reflected in it. The difference is that when we see our reflection in these funny mirrors we know that what we are seeing is not an accurate representation of reality but with a negative style of thinking we don’t see that our thinking is flawed and therefore we believe that the conclusions we draw must be accurate. This, of course, is not true because a conclusion cannot be correct if the premise on which it is based is false.

As a result close attention must be paid to specific kinds of thoughts or negative patterns known as cognitive distortions, and these thoughts must be challenged just as vigorously as a lawyer challenges the truthfulness of a witness’s testimony. Practice is necessary to challenge these cognitive distortions and to replace them with more positive and realistic thinking.

This process begins by learning to become more aware of your stream of consciousness. Just like the mechanism of a clock is in continuous motion, our minds are continuously producing automatic thoughts. These thoughts hover just below the surface of awareness, and similar to breathing and walking we no longer pay close attention to them. In the beginning, paying attention to our thoughts will not be easy, since “thinking about thinking” takes practice, but with time you will be able to tune into them.

And since our thoughts are the direct cause of our feelings and actions it is necessary to test the validity of them because irrational thoughts are likely to create painful negative feelings and self-defeating behaviors. It is helpful to write them down and capture them on paper so that they won’t escape. If they can be pinned down by being penned down they can be analyzed to determine whether or not they are accurate or if our mind is telling us that something is true when in fact it is false.

Aaron Beck, one of the pioneers who focused on thoughts and the relationship between them and feelings and actions believed that changing a person’s feelings could be achieved by changing their thoughts, and that the requirement for changing thoughts had two parts, first the thought needed to be brought into conscious awareness and put into words, and second the thinking error embedded in the thought needed to be identified. A helpful technique to use if you are finding it difficult to access your thoughts is to rather pay attention to your feelings because each feeling originates from a particular kind of thought. And so if you are able to identify the feeling then you can extrapolate the thought from the feeling. Let me explain by using a color analogy. On the color wheel there is a distinction the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors but for the purpose of this analogy I am only going to consider the primary and secondary colors.

Primary colors are those colors that are pure but when combined will make different colors. A secondary color is a color made by mixing two primary colors together; red and yellow together for example, produce orange; yellow and blue together produce green; and red and blue produce purple. If you know your colors then you will know which primary colors create a particular secondary color. It is the same with emotions, if you can identify the feeling, then you can identify the kind of thought that is responsible for producing that particular feeling. The following are examples of the different feelings and the kinds of thoughts that produced them. This list has been modified from the Feeling Good Handbook written by David Burns. (David, Burns D. The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: Plume, 1999. Print. )

  • Guilt: Guilt is a feeling that originates from a perception of “badness”, a belief that you have done something wrong or that you are inherently bad. Guilt also stems from the belief that you have disappointed, or even hurt another by failing to live up to their expectations. It can also result from the belief that you have failed yourself by acting in ways that are contrary to your values.
  • Shame: Shame is caused by a belief that you are fundamentally inadequate and others recognize this about you and therefore look down on you as being inferior.
  • Sadness: Sadness originates from the belief that something important has been lost or is unlikely to be attained.
  • Depression: Depression is caused by loss or the belief that you are worthless, the future is hopeless, and your suffering will never end.
  • Frustration: This stems from the belief that things should be different and therefore it usually involves disappointed expectations.
  • Anger and resentment: This is in response to the belief that you are being treated unfairly, and disrespected.
  • Anxiety and worry: Worry and anxiety occurs when you feel vulnerable, and believe that you are in danger. You feel that something terrible is about to happen, and when it does it will be so catastrophic that you won’t be able to cope.
  • Inferiority and inadequacy: You compare yourself to others and believe that you are not “as good as” or “less than” what others are, and so see yourself in a diminished way.
  • Aloneness and detachment: You believe you will never be fully understood and appreciated and are destined to be alone and unloved.
  • Hopelessness and discouragement: You believe that you are powerless to change your circumstance, and that your problems can never be fixed.

As you can see, each of these feelings is caused by specific kinds of thoughts, and so, if you are able to identify and label the feeling then you can know the kinds of thoughts responsible for these feelings.
The next step is to identify the cognitive distortion or thinking error embedded within the thought. The following is a list of the different kinds of thinking errors:

  • All or nothing thinking: Those with this habit have a perspective or a filter through which events are seen only in black-or-white extremes. So if your performance, for example, is not perfect then it is seen as a complete failure instead of recognizing there are degrees of success. Would you think, for example, that a toddler had failed because he wasn’t able to walk after having just learned to stand?
  • The I-can’t habit: This is the tendency to assume that you won’t succeed. If you have this habit then you have convinced yourself that your efforts are futile and you cannot make a positive difference. Now it is true that there are some things that are beyond our control, and we cannot change certain events but we are not powerless, we can problem solve, and come up with solutions to make a difficult situation more tolerable.
  • Focusing on the negative: Your brain is designed to protect you from becoming overwhelmed by too much information coming at you. It does this through a process called selective attention, which allows us to ignore what is irrelevant, and pay close attention to what is important but often this filtering action ignores information that is important, and needed to see the whole picture clearly. Unfortunately, our brain zooms in and only pays close attention to the negative events and ignores the positive ones so that your field of vision eventually becomes darkened. If you only focus on the negatives and ignore the positives in your life then you will end up feeling bad about yourself, disappointed in others and pessimistic about the future. It is necessary to pay attention to everything that happens, the ups, the downs, and even the so-so moments. By paying attention to the big picture the negatives will shrink to their proper size and you will be left feeling more hopeful and optimistic and less depressed.
  • Overgeneralization: This is when one generalizes based on a single event. Words like “always” and “never” are often used when engaged in this negative thinking. If you are rejected for a job, for example, you may tell yourself that you will never get hired because disappointments are experienced as an indication of a never-ending cycle of defeat.
  • Discounting the positive: When engaged in this type of thinking error any achievement is minimized or dismissed as unimportant. If you don’t allow yourself the opportunity to feel your accomplishments you will sadly come to believe that you are a failure.
  • Jumping to conclusions: You presume the negative when there is no evidence to support this conclusion. You imagine that you can read a person’s mind and know that their thoughts about you are negative. You also believe you can predict the future, and that failure or embarrassment is always likely to happen. This habit fosters a feeling of hopelessness, which is a recipe for depression, and predicting failure will always create anxiety.
  • Emotional reasoning: You reason from how you feel and therefore believe that what you feel is reality or truth. So, if you feel shame then you believe you must be inadequate. If you feel guilt then you believe you are a bad person or have done something wrong. If you feel angry you believe that someone must have wronged you, and if you feel discouraged then you believe you have failed.
  • Using Should statements: Those who engage in this negative thinking habit hold themselves and others to a set of rigid rules regarding how they “should” behave. Some expectations of course are reasonable but when you impose expectations on others based on what you would like to happen, you set others up to fail you because it is easy to become disappointed when those expectations are not met. It’s important to understand that there is no such thing as a universal ‘rule book’ and the choices that one person makes may be perfectly reasonable from their perspective even though you may feel let down. Should statements also assign blame, and so these statements that are directed toward the self result in guilt or shame and those directed towards others result in anger and resentment.
  • Labeling: Assigning a label to your-self such as failure or loser, has no value and serves no purpose other than to punish yourself and diminish your self-esteem.
  • Personalization: When you personalize you hold yourself personally responsible for something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you. Also, if someone is in a bad mood, for example, you believe that you must be the cause.
  • Blaming: Some people will automatically hold others responsible for their negative feelings. They can’t imagine how they could feel bad if someone hadn’t done something bad to them to cause it. A bad feeling inside, will automatically trigger a search to find a villain instead of being reflective, and considering the possibility that this feeling already existed and was triggered by something that happened. If you reflexively assign blame, you will spend a lot of time being angry with yourself or with others. In order to break this pattern it’s important to remember that we all goof up sometimes and that when we do it’s appropriate to acknowledge our mistake. Sometimes, though, no one is to blame but rather factors beyond our control are responsible. Instead of getting stuck in the past on fault and blame it is best to figure out a solution in the present.
  • Magnification and minimization: This is when a relatively insignificant event is blown out of proportion, and the significance of an important event is diminished. Greater weight or importance is therefore given to weakness and failures, and less weight is given to strengths and successes.
  • Catastrophizing: Those with this habit when faced with uncertainty automatically imagine the worst possible outcome, and believe that they won’t be able to cope. They engage in “what ifs”, and over-estimate the likelihood of something awful happening, which causes chronic worry and anxiety. It is helpful in this situation to remember that the mind is generating these fearful thoughts, and that you have control over your mind.
  • The Control Conundrum: If you believe that you are controlled by external factors you will feel powerless, like a dry leaf blowing in the wind or an apple bobbing in the ocean. On the other hand, you may fear that your power is destructive, and will cause bad things to happen. What is more realistic is to accepts that some thing are beyond our control and other things are within are control, and the trick is to learn to distinguish them.
  • Fantasy of fairness: You believe there is a universal standard of fairness and become angry when others don’t see things your way. Unfortunately, the world is not structured to be fair because it is not possible for all things to be equal. I imagine the Impala in the veld, doesn’t think it very fair that he is dinner for the lion but the lion thinks its quite fair since he needs to eat the impala in order to survive. If you have this habit you will often feel victimized.
  • The fallacy of entitlement. You believe that your happiness is dependent on controlling others so that they don’t hurt you, and therefore you feel justified controlling and coercing them into doing what you want.

In addition to these cognitive distortions identified by David Burns, another psychologist called Albert Ellis believed that how we interpret and assign meaning to events in our life influence how we feel and how we behave. He believed that irrational beliefs cause emotional distress and destructive behavior but if we can learn to identify our irrational beliefs, and replace them with more reasonable and realistic ones then we will be able to change our negative feelings and our self defeating behaviors.
Ellis identified several common irrational beliefs, and if you interested in learning more then please refer to Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy, revised and updated by Albert Ellis, Birch Lane Press, 1994.

The following are examples of irrational beliefs and illustrations of how to challenge them, and replace them with more reasonable ones.

Example 1: I must get the approval of everyone otherwise I am worthless. Rational Response: It would be nice for everyone to like me but that is not reasonable because some people will like me for the exact same reason that other people will dislike me. My self worth is not dependent on how other people see me. I am perfectly acceptable the way I am.

Example 2: People must please me and make me happy otherwise they don’t see me as important. Rational Response: It is an unreasonable expectation that other people have an obligation to put my needs first especially if my needs are in conflict with theirs. If that demand was made of me I would be angry and resentful.

Example 3: I must be perfect at everything I do. Rational Response: According to a quote by the famous poet, Alexander Pope (1688-1744), “ To be human is to err”. We are imperfect and each of us has our own inherent limitations and shortcomings. Mistakes and limitations are not the same as failure or flaw. Even the most accomplished person is not equally as strong in all areas. The goal should be to try as hard as you can, and with each attempt to become better, and hopefully make different mistakes.

Example 4: It is horrible when things don’t work out the way I believe they should. Rational Belief: Sometimes unfortunate things happen, and sometimes tragedy strikes. Some things are within our control, but some things are beyond our control and it’s important to make that distinction. We can’t always change a situation but we can always change our perception of the situation.

Example 5: My anger is proof that I have been wronged. Rational Belief: A feeling cannot be used as evidence of a truth. A bad feeling on the inside is not necessarily caused by mistreatment. It is possible that this feeling was already present, and the person interacting with you activated awareness of it. They are not to blame for your feelings. You are not a victim.

Example 6: If there is something causing me anxiety I should avoid it. Rational Belief: Avoidance is a strategy that may bring you temporary relief, but it ultimately magnifies the perception of the threat, and this will only increase your anxiety. In fact, when Harry, a character from the children’s book Harry and the Terrible Whatzit by Dick Gackenbach, embraced his fear and went down into the basement, he discovered that when he confronted the monster he had been avoiding, it becomes smaller, and smaller until eventually it was seen as harmless.

Example 7: Life should be easy and so I should avoid difficult and stressful situations Rational Belief: Responsibility goes hand in hand with being an adult and living an independent life. It is not possible to have the benefits of adulthood without the burdens. Shrugging responsibility only creates more anxiety and more problems in the long run. Difficulty should not be seen as an obstacle but rather as an opportunity.

Example 8: I am not able to take care of myself and succeed on my own. Rational Belief: Taking a risk, and doing something new is scary for everyone but unless you find the courage to do this, and step out of your comfort zone you will never acquire the skills or the confidence needed to be self-reliant, and you will always believe that you are inadequate and need others to take care of you.

Example 9: I must be the best at everything I do otherwise I am worthless. Rational Belief: Being good at something does not make you a better or a more worthwhile person.

Example 10: I can never escape my past, it defines who I am. Rational Belief: We are more than the sum of our parts. Our experiences may contribute to who we are, but they are not responsible for who we become. The past does not determine the future because we have agency.

Example 11: I need to always be in control so I can guarantee the outcome in every situation. Rational Belief: Life is not predictable, and instead of looking at this fact with foreboding, not knowing can be seen as exciting. To reference a quote from the movie Forest Gump; “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” Of course, predictability eliminates the unexpected, but it also eliminates the possibility for adventure and the opportunity to learn resiliency when things don’t work out the way you want.

Example 12: I should always be happy. Rational Belief: Happiness doesn’t just happen. We need to make an effort to engage in the world. It won’t happen if we sit back and wait passively to feel happy. It’s also not possible to always be happy, we are human and so we have moments when we feel disappointed, sad and discouraged and that’s okay, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with us.

Example 13: I am powerless to change how I feel. Rational Belief: Since your emotions originate from your thoughts and how you interpret a situation, you can in fact change how you feel. If you are waiting for a friend, for example, and he or she is late, you will feel differently if you think your friend has flaked on you rather than getting into an accident. The kinds of thoughts you have directly influence the kinds of emotions you experience. By changing what you think you can change how you feel.

If you are able to identify your cognitive distortions and irrational beliefs then you can challenge them and replace them with more reasonable ones. This is necessary because it is precisely your negative thoughts that create your negative feelings. Since feelings are mediated not only by thoughts but also by actions, another way to change negative feelings is to identify and stop engaging in self-defeating behaviors. This will be the topic of the following podcast.