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Becoming aware of our negative thought processes

As a practitioner, I have noticed many commonalities exist with my clients.  Although each individual or couple is unique and brings with them their own set of belief systems or ideals, I often hear: “I should be doing this,” or  “He always,” or “This is going to stick with me forever.” These types of statements not only magnify issues, but they also create a negative narrative that can be very difficult to shake.  Shame and guilt can begin to rule thoughts and eventually dictate identity when this type of repetitive negative dialogue continues. Many others place blame on themselves for certain events that simply have little to do with them.  

Too often when life throws us a curve-ball, we automatically believe that we are primarily responsible for the misfortunate event.  I hear statements similar to this one: “I made her leave me because I had too many work-related problems that she just couldn’t stand hearing about any longer.”  Certainly, consistently bringing home stress from work can wear on a partner’s patience and moral; but, if that partner is committed to the relationship, there are other ways of ensuring boundaries get established to keep work stress from interfering at home—rather than terminating the relationship.  In this situation, many other factors are at play, not just one.  This type of personalization often leads to increased levels of anxiety and depression, as we take on the full responsibility for the changes in our relationships, despite the fact that we are only half of a partnership.   

With this in mind, I wanted to share the top 10 “Cognitive Distortions” as described by David D. Burns, MD.  You may have already come across this information in your own therapeutic setting; if so, my hunch is that you saw some part of yourself and the ways in which you think/process somewhere within these distortions.  

I love this list as it helps my clients [and it helped me] quickly and easily recognize automatic negative thoughts that may be getting in the way of daily life and shaping internal belief systems and external behaviors.  Do you see yourself getting caught-up in these types of “Cognitive Distortions?” 

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories.  If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.  “My boss was unhappy with my presentation this afternoon.  I’m a terrible employee.” 
  2. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. “I just messed-up in my relationship, again. I guess it’s true, I’ll never be married.” 
  3. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened.  Ask yourself, do certain events that do not turn out as planned cause you to question all other aspects of your life? 
  4. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other.  You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.  How many of us know someone or we are that person that never seems to remember the positive affirmations we receive?  Instead, we focus solely on what we deem negative feedback or criticism.  Eventually we begin to identify with that criticism.  
  5. Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
    • Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don’t bother to check it out. “She must be upset with me, she hasn’t called me in a few days.” 
    • The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.  “I know my son won’t like the gift I made him. He’s 15; teenagers hate everything.”
  6. Magnification / catastrophizing or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your mistakes or other’s achievements), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other person’s imperfections—also called the “binocular trick”). “I wish I could be more like my friend, he’s the most popular guy in the world and everyone wants to be around him.”  Or, “I guess I’m somewhat likable, but I think I talk too much, I get really anxious around others at times, and I hate that I don’t have as much money as my friends.”  Thinking this way leaves little room to remember the fact that you are actually a likable person. 
  7. Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are.  Example: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” “I can feel it, we’re never going to recover from this financial disaster.  Life will never be the same again.”  
  8. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds, shouldn’ts, musts, oughts. “I should be engaging in more social networking events.” “I should be more outgoing.” “I shouldn’t have spent time in the garden today when I ought to have been sitting at my computer paying the bills first.”  The emotional consequence here is guilt.  “Should” is fantasy.  Try to stay in reality; it feels better and provides for less remorse, guilt and shame. Likewise, when you direct “should” statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment because they can not live up to your “unrealistic” expectations. 
  9. Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization.  Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. “I’m such a loser.”  When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a label such as, “He’s totally incompetent.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language and a narrative that is dramatic and emotionally loaded.  Remember this saying, “The problem is simply a problem, you are NOT the problem!” 
  10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible. Example: Your department is restructuring to adjust to financial cut-backs and you are let go.  Instead of seeing this restructuring as an event most likely completely out of your control, you personalize it and believe you were “fired” because you were not good enough for the job/department.  

[Adapted from Burns, David D., MD. 1989. The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William and Morrow and Company, Inc.]

Becoming more aware of our cognitive distortions is the first step in changing self-defeating and negative thought processes.  When we recognize that we have automatic thought processes that often times put a negative tone or spin on our situations, we can step back and be free from identifying ourselves in such finite terms. (There is nothing finite about the body, mind, and spirit.) Reframing these types of thoughts with more flexibility and eclectic answers will decrease depression and anxiety symptoms, while increasing self-esteem, self-worth and enhancing our relationships.  



Therapy is not just for the wearisome…

Many of us believe counseling and psychotherapy are only intended for those exhibiting serious pathology or for individuals, couples, or families that are somehow “weak,” “sick,” or “dysfunctional.” While psychotherapy and pharmacological therapies can and do significantly improve the quality of life for those dealing with more serious pathologies—name any one of the more acute or chronic disorders you hear on the television every day followed by the latest miracle pill advertisement; those participating in some form of consistent counseling or therapy are far from weak, feeble, or ill!   

Unfortunately, therapy has long-held a social stigma reflecting images of disturbed, ill, or helpless patients or victims.  Thankfully, due in part to high profile clients (no names) and the spotlight that is cast upon their lives because of their positions of fame or power, the general public is becoming more sensitive to topics related to pathology, mental health and sustaining healthy wellbeing.  Advancements in our neurosciences have proven beyond a shadow of doubt that pathologies such as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, behavioral addictions, personality disorders, obsessive or compulsive thinking, etc. are just as real as any medical illness.  Like diabetes, the flu, cancer, or heart disease, mental illnesses are all too real and should be treated as such.  Modern technologies and the internet have also helped those in the field of psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy communicate to and educate the public on what it means to live with certain disorders; thus, helping the public to have more empathy and respect for individuals battling with certain pathology.  But, most influential of all, YOU are helping to breakdown the negative stigma and social disgrace that once closely followed psychotherapy and mental health counseling.  

Each time we learn about someone courageously reaching out to find resources, support, and education to help assist them and their loved ones through difficult and challenging times, we become a little more receptive to the idea and benefits of psychotherapy.  As our influential leaders seek support [our bosses, managers, parents, CEOs, CFOs, teachers, our President!, our preachers, the list goes on…], and as we seek support, we let others around us know that it’s not only okay to reach for a helping-hand during challenging times but it’s admirable.  

Working on our intrapersonal or interpersonal issues takes fortitude, self-awareness, great strength, flexibility, wisdom, patience, and a certain level of self-worth and self-care.  Those are certainly not negative, weak, or feeble characterological traits in any fashion; rather they are traits that prove a level of responsibility and maturation.

The mental health industry has proactively embraced the ideology of “prevention” rather than “treatment.”  As we enter a new decade, I challenge us to see therapy not as a consequential treatment for the weak or ill-minded, but to instead see it for what it is: a resource and a tool for sustaining resiliency, evading more serious circumstances, and becoming self-empowered—characteristics of impassioned, strong, and reasoned individuals and couples.  


Here’s to looking forward instead of backwards!

As 2009 comes to a close, it’s tempting for many of us to look back and to dwell on the hardships, the struggles, the turmoil or the uncertainties that we faced.  After-all, for many, we lost loved ones or we suffered the loss of a job.  Families watched as their loved ones went off to battle, and we all observed the devastating personal, economic, and global aftermath of fighting two wars.  For others, we battled the anxiety and depression that comes after struggling for years to hold on to a relationship or to a marriage that wasn’t meant to be or that we just couldn’t “fix.”  With our economy struggling to come back from a recession that hit everyone hard, it’s easy to sit and stew-over monies lost or retirements that dwindled over night.  And, with the hope of “change,” (despite the already observable many accomplishments of our new President) also came the reminder that “politics as usual” is deeply ingrained in our government and legislative stagnation can and does occur even in times when so many desperately need movement.    

However difficult 2009 might have been, I challenge all of us to dwell not on the hardship or struggles but rather relax into the idea that “it was what it was.”  In whatever ways you want to categorize 2009 (I can imagine the harsh descriptive words being used at this very moment), it was our reality.  For many of us, we had no control over such painful circumstances; for others, we may believe that somehow we contributed to or created our own suffering (that’s for another blog).  Regardless, we can’t go back and change what has already occurred.  

The more time we spend focusing or dwelling on the past, the more time we remain stuck and in turmoil.  I’m not suggesting that this is an easy task or simple exercise to accomplish; it certainly is not.  I am suggesting, however, that in order to move forward into the new year and in order to be present, we must try and let go.  Accepting the good, the bad, and the ugly for what it is and for what it was allows us to free up space and energy to feel and experience anew.  Remember the old saying, “Energy flows where attention goes?”  The more time we spend thinking, contemplating or hashing over what was or what could have been, the more time we spend stuck in the past with our focus derailed from the present and the future.  In that sense, we remain stuck in a hypothetical past (an unreal fantasy world) and we miss the real world moving forward with or without us.   

Acceptance is the only way that we can refocus our energy, attention, and consciousness toward what is happening now and what will come next. Accepting the difficult emotions that surfaced, the anxious thinking that kept us up at night, the compulsive or impulsive behaviors that masked difficult situations, and the grim experiences themselves will allow us to let go and to live more at peace in 2010.  Simply by stating and restating, “It is what it is,” or “It was what it was,” we allow acceptance to creep in and fill the space that was once occupied by pain, fear, resentment, or frustration. Calmness will follow as we find peace in what was—for many—a very difficult and trying year. 

My hope for all of us that faced some type of adversity in 2009 is that “acceptance” will be part of our New Year’s resolution.  It will allow us to move from thinking or believing that we somehow created, deserved, brought-on or became the victim of hardships and struggles; instead we will begin to see ourselves again as the resilient individuals that we are (in spite of the challenges that we face), and we will find renewed energy for a new year!  

Happy 2010!


The Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference 2009

I have just returned from The Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference hosted in Anaheim, C.A., Dec. 7th-13th.  The conference, hosted every five years, offers the largest gathering of mental health professionals from around the world and brings together the pioneers and geniuses of psychology, philosophy, psychiatry, and psychotherapy.  This year’s conference was wondrous, prodigious, and mind-blowing!  

Keynote speakers included the provocative Deepak Chopra, Aaron Beck, the legendary Salvador Minuchin and Irvin Yalom, Robert Sapolsky, Andrew Weil, & Philip Zimbardo.  

In addition, clinical presentations and lectures where given by the literate and fascinating minds of clinicians and theorists such as Meichenbaulm, Linehan, Weiner-Davis, Johnson, Burns, Madanes, Gottman, Rossi, Polster, Zeug, Kernberg, Hendrix, Siegel, Sue, Amen, Glasser, & many others. 

After hearing directly from some of the greatest philosophers, clinicians & physicians from around the world—many of which I had only read about, written about, or studied through my research and clinical experience during my Masters in Counseling, I am both humbled and emboldened.  It is such an amazing and exciting time to be engulfed in the field of psychotherapy!  

The physiological discoveries of our mysterious and once thought static and hardwired brains are now proving to be fluid and changeable.  Neuroplasticity (the ability of our brains to change in response to our experiences and by utilizing the power of the mind) is now considered not only possible but the “norm” in scientific circles. For all those naysayers who love to say “watch out, people never change,” they couldn’t be more misguided.  Through evolution in the studies of the humanities, sociology, and psychology, we are seeing that no matter what the situation an individual is born into or regardless the experiences they live through, trauma and suffering can be turned into resiliency and strength.  Individuals have the ability to change unhealthy behaviors and self-defeating thoughts and crippling emotions; couples have the ability to enrich their relationship after infidelity or after years of dissatisfaction; and, communities have the ability to reshape disastrous situations and entire environments through altruistic actions.  In the darkest or bleakest of times, anything and everything is possible!

I am excited, energized, humbled and grateful to be in the field of psychotherapy.   

Click on the following link to learn more about The Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference 2009, to read bios and excerpts from the conference, and to listen to free audio & video from some of the greatest thinkers of our time!        

Here’s to resiliency in 2010!