To be neither negative nor naive…

This is some background relating to the previous exercise.

At every moment we receive huge amounts of ambiguous information which our minds called on to sort, prioritize and complete. This can be something as banal as the face of a passer-by, to speculation about the motivations of other people. Speculations about motivations of other people can have particularly profound consequences. Consider our reaction to someone who cut us off in traffic (”What a selfish asshole.”/”They must have some kind of emergency.”), a romantic partner (”They’re being self-centered and insensitive.” / “They must have had a difficult day.”) or a murderer (”They planned and murdered in cold blood.”/”It was a spontaneous act in a fit of uncharacteristic rage.”).

We make thousands such judgments every day, and our mood – specifically whether we’re anxious or happy, influences how we judge things. When anxious and depressed, we’re much more likely to think negative thoughts than when we’re happy. This relates to questions of motivation but also any kind of ambiguous situation.

The result is that “perceived reality” is produced through a collaboration between external events and cognitive mind. Our minds tell us what is important and also what is likely at any given moment, and we partly choose what to see and how we interpret it.

For our purposes, we’re particularly interested in the connection between mood and cognition. This is what the American psychologists Aaron Beck and David Burns worked on when they studies negative thoughts that both arise from and result in anxiety and depression. Beck lists a number of such “cognitive distortions” where interpret experiences in an overly-negative way. Very summarily, these are:

  • Black-and-white thinking. E.g. “I’m a total failure”, “It’s hopeless”.
  • Over-generalizing. E.g. “Everyone hates me”, “I’ll never find a job”.
  • Focusing on the negative. E.g. Seeing only the negative and not the positive side of a relationship/job/situation.
  • Dismissing a positive or a success as not significant, E.g. “That was just lucky”, “I didn’t really deserve that”
  • Mind-reading: assuming people are thinking negatively about you, even though you don’t know that for sure.
  • Fortune-telling: You expect things to go badly or make negative predictions.
  • Catastrophizing. Exaggerating the importance of things.
  • Emotional reasoning. Mistaking your feelings for who you are. E.g. You feel stupid and conclude that you are stupid.
  • Labeling. E.g. “He’s an asshole”, “I’m a loser”.
  • Personalization. Feeling “somehow responsible” for things beyond your control.
  • Should-, must- and ought-statements. Feeling obligation or guilt as a motivation rather than want, desire or passion.

Do any of those sound familiar? I think we all fall prey to these at some point – and some of them are useful (even partly true) in certain situations. However, they can all lead to a cycle of distorting thoughts that keep us trapped in a state of anxiety.

There are some legitimate objections to this model. For example, it might just be that when someone thinks “I’m an asshole”, that they are in fact an asshole and should change their behavior rather than their perception. Or if someone thinks, “my life is meaningless”, that the way forward is to explore what they might change in their life, rather than change the way they perceive it.

So, when do you know when a thought or attitude is a cognitive distortion or has some important truth? Well, it’s complicated. But asking that question is already a pretty good start.

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