How you think can be toxic to your emotional health. Nicolle, a 32-year-old art director for an advertising firm, who was the subject of a previous post on this blog, had difficulty handling rejection. She had given up dating, believing she could no longer tolerate the pain of rejection. When a relationship ended, she would fall into a pit of depression. Any rejection by a man, any man, was proof positive of deep-seated flaws in herself, which she took as confirmation of her underlying belief that no one would ever want her.

Nicolle's depressive reaction was not a rational response to disappointment. Rather, it was colored by errors in thinking, or cognitive distortions, that characterize the types of thinking patterns we often see in people with depression, flaws in thinking such as the following:

Negative thoughts are typically distorted or irrational, either because they are exaggerated or magnified out of proportion to the reality of the situation or because they are unduly negativistic or pessimistic. Left unchallenged, a negative thought bounces around in your head, discoloring your emotions. Negative thoughts can be changed, but first we need to snag them. We can then take a closer look at them, expose them in the light of reality, and substitute rational thoughts in their place.

In Nicolle’s case, the question was whether her reactions were proportional to the situations at hand. Was her romantic life really as bleak as she depicted it to be? Or had disappointment become despair because she was making it so?

In examining her beliefs, she asked herself whether a breakup truly prevented her from finding a more suitable partner, or whether the only possible reason the relationship ended was because of a basic flaw in herself. Like Nicolle, we might benefit from taking a fresh look at ourselves, sizing ourselves up but not putting ourselves down, identifying what is up to us to change and letting go of the rest.

Depression-prone people tend to look at life through a glass darkly. Molehills are turned into mountains, disappointments into disasters. Frustrating events become major catastrophes. Rather than rebounding from disappointment, depression-prone people focus singularly on the negatives, thinking how terrible things are, how they have only themselves to blame, and how a given unfortunate event foreshadows a never-ending series of negative events to come. Though not every depressed person thinks this way all the time, these are common themes that emerge in working with depressed patients.

When we hold rigidly to negative beliefs, we look for evidence that confirms our beliefs and discount evidence to the contrary. We see reality as conforming to our perceptions rather than the other way around. This cognitive bias saps our motivation to change. For example, if we perceive ourselves as helpless, we are likely to withdraw from efforts to improve our life situation. We operate according to an internal logic that seems on its face to be compelling:

(a) The situation is truly hopeless, and so

(b) I am powerless to change the situation, therefore

(c) there is no point trying.

The logic may seem compelling, but it rests on faulty premises:

(a) The situation is not as hopeless as it seems, and

(b) the future is not fixed but is a story that has yet to be written.

(c) Therefore, I am not powerless to make changes in my life.

To counter the confirmation bias, we need to challenge our assumptions and not put our finger on the scale by focusing only on the negatives and discounting the positives.

If you are depressed, you’re likely to think that things seem dark and dreary because that’s the way they truly are and must be, not that your perceptions might be distorting your field of vision. The basement dweller can go to the roof to feel the warmth of the sun. When we struggle with depression, we need to step outside our perceptual boundaries to see things from another perspective. I liken the process to opening your mental shutters to let rays of light pass through.

How can we counter the tendency to mistake perceptions for facts? The ability to challenge the validity of one’s perceptions begins by posing thought questions of the sort, “Is it necessarily so? What am I saying to myself to bring myself down? How do my thoughts affect my moods?” Practicing this personal Q&A is a first step toward removing the veil and seeing things more clearly.

We often become boxed into a way of thinking that limits our ability to explore alternatives. We might learn from the mistake of the explorer Christopher Columbus, which was also discussed in an earlier post. Columbus spent the last years of his life in a futile effort to prove he had landed on the southeastern tip of Asia. He died holding to the false belief that he had found a westward sea route to Asia. The mistake in this case was not that he was wrong about where he had landed. The mistake was clinging to an unyielding belief that led him to reject any possibility of error.

Like Columbus, any of us can become a prisoner of our belief systems. But we can take stock and recognize that the beliefs we hold dear are but interpretations of reality—opinions really, not facts. Shifting our perspective leads us to consider what alternative beliefs might work better for us.

General Disclaimer: The content here and in other blog posts on the Minute Therapist is intended for informational purposes only and not for diagnosis, evaluation, or treatment of mental health disorders. If you are concerned about your emotional well-being or experiencing any significant mental health problems, I encourage you to consult a licensed mental health professional in your area for a thorough evaluation.

© 2024 Jeffrey S. Nevid

QOSHE - On the Toxicity of Negative Beliefs - Jeffrey S. Nevid
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On the Toxicity of Negative Beliefs

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27.02.2024

How you think can be toxic to your emotional health. Nicolle, a 32-year-old art director for an advertising firm, who was the subject of a previous post on this blog, had difficulty handling rejection. She had given up dating, believing she could no longer tolerate the pain of rejection. When a relationship ended, she would fall into a pit of depression. Any rejection by a man, any man, was proof positive of deep-seated flaws in herself, which she took as confirmation of her underlying belief that no one would ever want her.

Nicolle's depressive reaction was not a rational response to disappointment. Rather, it was colored by errors in thinking, or cognitive distortions, that characterize the types of thinking patterns we often see in people with depression, flaws in thinking such as the following:

Negative thoughts are typically distorted or irrational, either because they are exaggerated or magnified out of proportion to the reality of the situation or because they are unduly negativistic or pessimistic. Left unchallenged, a negative thought bounces around in your head, discoloring your emotions. Negative thoughts can be changed, but first we need to snag them. We can then take a closer look at them, expose them in the light of reality, and substitute rational thoughts in their place.

In Nicolle’s case, the question was whether her reactions were proportional to the situations at hand. Was her romantic life........

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