Feeling Good

So, its the holidays- the season of Joy and Gladness.  Anyone else out there feel the occasional winter blues?

I was visiting with a few friends today and we all started talking about how stressful this time of year can be and not really for the shopping, decorating, budgeting requirements countless Christmas specials would have you believe.

The weather and propensity for illness are part of the yuletide stress but it also seems to be a stressful time for every job.  Whether it is end of the year responsibilities, finals or a million other things December brings loads more work than other months.

As my friends and I vented our stress we started talking about all of the things we ‘wish we could do’ or that ‘we should be doing’.  Do you ever play this mental game?  It made me think of my favorite book on cognitive therapy- the classic Feeling Good by David Burns.  In the book he describes how distorted thinking tears us down. For example,

“I think the words ‘should’ and ‘must’ are almost always unhelpful and should(!), wherever possible, be deleted from your vocabulary. ”

I love this idea.  Take ‘should’ out of your vocabulary.  (I quoted this exact quote to my friends tonight.  You’d be surprised how often I end up quoting this book.  A few months back I recommended it to my trainer and the other day she quoted it back to me. Funny being quoted from your own recommendation!).

Not that we shouldn’t set goals or be ambitious but doesn’t a goal mean we are doing something, not feeling guilty for not doing something?  Guilt saps us of our positive energy and it distorts our self-image.

Anyone else feel this way? Ironically it seems like the time periods we are doing the most is when most of us feel like we should be doing more.  In my experience women are particularly bad about this.  Nothing is good enough (that old comparison bug can be so deadly!)

In the hopes of being helpful here are other forms of distorted thinking that Burns talks about (it really is such a good book.

The 10 forms of distorted thinking.  I’m sorry but I just think this list is SO BRILLIANT.  Which distortion do you relate to the most? How can we do more to support each other? Really, share your thoughts!

1. All-or-nothing thinking. This is when you look at things as absolutes : good/bad, success/failure, black/white. There’s no room for shades of grey. For example, ‘If I don’t get an A on this test I’ll be a total failure,’ or ‘If this relationship doesn’t work out I’ll be lonely and miserable for the rest of my life.’ In both cases, neither helpful nor true.

2. Overgeneralisation. You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat, or take one situation that doesn’t work out to mean that life is always this way. ‘No-one really enjoyed that lasagna – I must be a terrible cook,’ or ‘My partner seemed really grumpy with me last night. I think she’s going off me.’ As with all these forms of distorted thinking, we fail to look at the bigger picture. Perhaps she was tired, not feeling well, had a stressful day at work, was preoccupied with money worries, had an argument with a friend on the way home… there could be a dozen good reasons, but you assume it’s all about you and extrapolate that out to make it a large-scale, global catastrophe.

3. Mental filter. You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives – so, if your university tutor marks an essay and, in the middle of a glowing assessment, he includes one mild criticism, that’s what you fixate on. Think of a beaker of clear water – it only takes a single drop of ink to make it look murky and cloudy. In the same way, obsessing about a single negative remark and ignoring all the compliments or praise is a surefire way to darken your mood.

4. Discounting the positive. You reject all positive experiences by telling yourself, ‘They don’t count’, or ‘They’re just saying that to be polite.’ If you get an A-, you tell yourself it should have been an A+. If your boss praises you for a brilliant piece of work, you immediately shrug it off and say it was all down to your team, or anyone could have done it. This is a particularly unhelpful way of thinking because it drains all the joy out of life and constantly makes you feel inadequate and unappreciated. Not good.

5. Jumping to conclusions. This is when you interpret things negatively even though there are no facts to support your conclusion, and falls into two categories:

a) Mind reading. You immediately assume that someone is thinking negatively about you (‘I just know this girl thinks I’m an idiot. She obviously finds me really boring.’)

b) Fortune-telling. You predict that things will turn out badly (‘I definitely failed that test.’ ‘I’m bound to be the one who gets made redundant’).

In both cases, the key is checking out the evidence – in the vast majority of cases you’ll find your negative assumption was quite wrong.

6. Magnification or minimisation. You exaggerate the importance of your problems and less-desirable aspects of your character, while minimising your desirable qualities. ‘I wish I didn’t lose my temper – I’m a horrible, angry, unpleasant person,’ or ‘Yes, I’m quite good at maths, but I’m terrible at writing essays.’

7. Emotional reasoning. This is when you assume something is true because you feel it so strongly it must be, assuming that your negative emotions reflect the way things really are. ‘I feel sure this plane is going to crash – let’s take the next one,’ or ‘I’m so worried about my best man’s speech, it’s bound to be a disaster.’ As with distortion 5, if this is true you have an uncanny ability to predict the future!

8. Should statements. I think the words ‘should’ and ‘must’ are almost always unhelpful and should(!), wherever possible, be deleted from your vocabulary. This can work two ways: you can either tell yourself that you should do this or that, have done something better, be more skilled at something else… or that the world should be a certain way. It’s so unhelpful because should (like must, have to and ought to) have a punitive, critical edge that makes you feel bad. And if you apply shoulds to the world (‘This train should be on time! Now I’m going to be late’) it’s a guaranteed way to crank up your negative feelings.

9. Labelling. This is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of saying, ‘I didn’t cook that spaghetti very well – I’ll concentrate a bit more next time, you tell yourself ‘I’m such a rubbish cook! Why am I a failure at everything?’ This is not only unhelpful but inaccurate – are you really a failure? At everything? Have you never succeeded at a single thing in your life then? Was every meal you ever cooked rubbish? Of course not. Also watch out for labelling others: ‘She’s such a bitch,’ or ‘He’s a nightmare.’ Again, neither true (she may be bitchy sometimes, but is that the totality of her character?) nor helpful.

10. Personalisation and blame. In the first instance, you hold yourself completely responsible for something that is only partially, if at all, your responsibility (‘I know there’s a recession on, but it’s still completely down to me that my business failed.’) In the second, you blame others 100% for your circumstances or problems. In both cases, the key is to be realistic and fair – you might have made some mistakes with your business, but countless businesses fail during a recession, so stop beating yourself up! Instead, take responsibility for your mistakes, learn from them and move on.


2 thoughts on “Feeling Good

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