This is part 2 of the article Change These 6 Thoughts Patterns to Overcome Depression
Part 1 of this article is here.
4. Jumping to Conclusions
Suppose you walk down the street in your neighborhood. On the other side of the street you see a friend walking towards you. As he approaches, you say hello but he doesn’t respond. Your friend keeps his head down and keeps walking.
What conclusions do you draw from your friend’s behavior? If ten people experienced this event you would get ten different responses. Some would say, “He doesn’t want to be my friend anymore” or “He must be mad at me.”
For others it might be something about the friend’s personality: “I always knew he was a jerk”. Other interpretations might be that he didn’t hear the greeting or is preoccupied with recent news and is not in an emotional space to interact. The possibilities are limitless.
The take away here is that many of the events we experience are blank slates upon which we can project our fears and personal conclusions about self and the world. Be careful not to buy into the negative interpretations that automatically populate the mind. Ask yourself, “What other interpretations might there be?”
“I feel like a bad person.” One of the hallmarks of childhood trauma, whether it be physical or emotional, is the sense that at your core you’re a bad or “toxic” person. It’s almost as if the child absorbs the badness of the environment into her person.
It provides an explanation to the young mind as to why she is being punished. I am being treated this way because I am bad.
When she leaves the neglectful or abusive environment, she doesn’t leave the feeling of being inherently bad behind.
She carries it into the workplace. She carries it into every significant relationship. To one degree or another the feeling of being a bad person lurks in the background. And with it comes a fear that if others get too close they will run into this unlovable part of self and reject her, so even her closest relationships are kept at a safe distance. In addition, because she is “bad” she is not worthy of good things.
And sometimes it goes further, where she feels worthy of bad things and punishment and may allow herself to be mistreated because it fits with the view of self.
This is but one example of emotional reasoning, where the feeling inside you makes it so. The feeling becomes reality, becomes your fate. But feelings are often just that—feelings. Your emotional experience doesn’t necessarily speak to reality. In fact, the opposite may be true. As I am writing this, for example, I am thinking about the clients in my practice who feel that their very essence is “bad.”
Every person coming to mind, without exception, is loving and kind. They are good people. Others who know them would be shocked to learn that they carry feelings of being a bad person because it’s so far from the truth.
Frequently, at the core of depression, is the overwhelming sense of being a failure.
Part of what feeds this belief is assuming too much responsibility for the things that go wrong. We refer to this as personalization, where negative events are connected back to self. Either you are directly responsible or the universe has your number and is out to get you. That is why you can change the narrative on this thought process and help overcome depression.
If your spouse is in a bad mood, it must be because of something you did. On a weekend getaway, if your friends are not having a thrilling experience it’s your fault. If the family dog develops a medical condition, you’re responsible because you could have exercised the dog more and been more vigilant about his health.
Or sometimes it’s less about responsibility and more about being singled out. You’re under the impression that life treats you differently than other people. If your car breaks down, you throw your hands up in the air with the statement, Why does this kind of thing always happen to me?
This cognitive distortion, when taken to the extreme, can veer into the realm of magical thinking or a kind of negative omnipotence where one’s private, internal experience is the cause of or connected to misfortune.
One therapy client felt responsible for the death of a loved one because in an angry moment, at the age of ten, he had the fleeting thought, “I wish she were dead.”
Months later when the aunt died he felt responsible, that somehow his angry wish had caused her death. It was a secret and a burden he carried for close to forty years.
If you’re someone who struggles with negative mood states, here are four simple steps to start breaking the cycle and help overcome depression.
- Reflect on each of the cognitive distortions discussed in this article, asking yourself, Do I tend to think this way? Does this describe me?
- For each one you identify with, write down the specific thoughts that come into your mind, as well as the specific circumstances that tend to generate this type of thinking. When you’re on social media, for example, you might have the thought, Why does everyone else get to live a full happy life except for me?, which could be the Confirmation Bias (seeing what you want to see) and Emotional Reasoning (the current feeling state informing your view of self and the world).
- Once you’ve identified the thought patterns getting you into trouble, start monitoring your thinking with a new level of awareness, catching yourself from investing in those thought channels that darken the mood. This is a wonderful way to overcome depression. One way to get started is doing a spot check several times per day. Throughout the day pause and ask yourself, Where is my mind right now? When you find yourself mentally drifting with negative content, rotate your attention and life energy to the external world. In other words, do everything you can to get out of your head.
- Lastly, don’t just play defense. Boost your mood by making a point to look for and capture at least 2 meaningful moments each day. Maybe that’s laughing with a friend, looking into the face of a loved one or feeling inspired by something you see or read. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it registers as personally meaningful.
Dr. Scott Symington is the author of Freedom from Anxious Thoughts and Feelings: A Two-Step Mindfulness Approach for Moving Beyond Fear and Worry. He is a licensed clinical psychologist dedicated to helping adults overcome worry and anxiety, negative moods, addictive behaviors, and other conditions stealing people’s joy and freedom. For more information, please visit, www.drsymington.com and connect with him on Twitter, @drsymington.