Friday, October 26, 2012

Cognitive Distortion # 3, Mental Filter

Mental filtering is akin to "discounting the positive" (distortion #4).  Have you ever played a  game and missed a goal you were positioned well for and then kicked yourself mentally for days over that missed shot?  Or sung in a choir and come in loudly a measure too soon in one of the pieces and cringed for weeks afterwards as your mind reviewed it again and again?  Or served as a missionary for a couple of years and, like most young missionaries, made a couple of really bad cultural faux pas in the course of your mission that still come leaping back to the forefront of your mind every time you reflect on your time there?  Or made a presentation where most people responded positively but one person made a mild critique of it and you just can't stop feeling constantly awful about the thing he pointed out?  Or had a medical procedure that was painful and then healed and all you focus on is how horrible the pain was?  I know I have done some of those things.

When you have an experience that has a single negative detail and you dwell on and suffer over that one detail more than any other aspect of that experience you are doing mental filtering.  I do it sometimes. It's hard to get my mind off that one negative.  I think that's partly due to the fact that I, like many people, have grown up in a culture that teaches us to try to eliminate failures and mistakes in our lives, so we tend to notice and focus on them.  However, there is a difference between noticing a mistake enough to change and avoid making it again and focusing on that mistake and beating yourself up about it for days, weeks, months or years afterwards.  The former is being clear-eyed and on the road to improvement.  The latter is called identifying yourself by your errors.  

I think it's clear that identifying someone we know by her errors is one of the heights of disregard and cold-heartedness, that doing so makes it even harder for that person to have hope she can change or live an error down.  We know that for the vast majority of people, including you,  loving-kindness, not error-rehashing, is what enables them to change for the better.  But those of us who wouldn't dream of doing that error-rehashing to others often easily do it to ourselves.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cognitive Distortion #4, Discounting the Positive

Mental filtering (above) is when you focus on one negative.  Discounting the positive takes that one step farther, not only focusing on the negative but also actively rejecting the positive.  It is when you reject positive experiences by telling yourself they either don't count or that they are not genuine.  Here are some examples:

You are baking cookies for fun .  You make five batches of chocolate chip cookies.  The last batch burns because you were distracted by something else.  You tell yourself  "What a mess.  I stink at making cookies."   You have totally discounted the fact that you made four good batches of cookies and identify your success rate only by the one batch that burned.  The positive has been completely discounted in the face of one negative.

Or you have accepted a new job with a new company and you are understandably a little nervous about this  new chapter in your life .  Your cousin tells you he's been reading up on that company and that he is really excited for you to be able to work there.  He thinks their work is good and their company policies enlightened.  And he says that he thinks you will really like working there.  You tell yourself, "He's just saying that to make me feel good."  You discount the positive observations and you also discount the value of the opinion of your cousin who is honestly expressing what he really thinks.  

Discounting the positive not only brings you down but it also can sadly stifle your relationships with the people whose words you discount in your cognitively distorted thinking as well as prevent you from learning truths when they are spoken.  Fortunately, when you recognize what you are doing you are on the first step to eliminating this nasty source of depression.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cognitive Distortion #5, Maginification and Minimization

Magnification is when you blow negative things way out of proportion and minimization is when you shrink good things down to almost nothing.   For example, you are trying hard to reduce the amount of time you spend reading news and social media on the internet and you end up, one Saturday morning, spending 45 minutes online instead of the 30 you planned and you think, "Agh!  I blew it!  This is terrible!  How awful!  This is so, so, so disgusting I can hardly stand myself!   That afternoon you spend three hours helping a young family move their furniture into their rented moving van, including wrestling their upright piano with five other guys down a flight of stairs.  And when the mom in the family stops and expresses appreciation for all your help you say, "Nah.  We didn't do much," and on the way home you berate yourself for being such an ineffective help when you are sure there are so many other people in the world who do so much more than you do to help their neighbors.

If you magnify all your errors and minimize all your good work, of course you are going to go through your days feeling like a loser or a failure, or at the least, quite hopeless about your ability to become who you wish to be.   But the problem isn't you.  Most of us, including you, fall within the normal range in our mixture of good choices and not-so-good ones.  The problem is the lens through which you are viewing your particular mixture.

And that can be fixed.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Sermon on the Mount for 8 Year Olds

A brief respite between cognitive distortions.

While preparing my Sunday lesson it occurred to me that it might be helpful for me as I went about that to synopsize the Sermon on the Mount in a more accessible vocabulary.  So I did.  Here's the first draft for the first chapter, Matthew 5, starting with verse 16:

When you know a good and right way to live, live that way. That helps other people to see goodness and recognize the goodness of God.

You may get angry sometimes and that anger may make you want to do stupid or bad things. Anger can cause you to make very bad choices  Be very wise.  Be sure your reasons for anger are good ones.  And no matter how much anger you feel, do good things because of it, not bad things. And certainly do not ever let your anger cause you to put down other people, no matter who they are.

Just don't make fun of other people, period.

So...instead....when you have a disagreement with someone or you are mad at them, work hard to find a solution that works for both of you.  Working on that will make it much easier for you to hear and understand God's words when you worship at church.

Keep your thoughts focused on what is good, not on what feels exciting and pleasurable, because your thoughts are important as well as your actions.


Speak the truth plainly.

Don't swear.

Don't try to make things right by getting even.

When someone makes you give away something or to do extra work, be nice about it and generous too.

Love your neighbor.

Love your enemy.

Be good to people even if they are nasty to you.

Pray for people who are mean.

Do your good deeds quietly. Don't feel like you need to get other people to praise you for doing good things.

Pray privately.

When you pray, say what you think and be respectful.

Be thankful.

Ask Heavenly Father for help and for forgiveness and for the things you need.

Forgive others.

When you fast, don't complain and groan about it.

Be focused on being and doing good, not on getting stuff.

See life clearly and recognize goodness.

Put God ahead of money in your heart.

Be merciful.

Don't judge unkindly.

Worry about your own sins, not other people's sins.

Treat sacred things with respect and share them wisely and with wise restraint.

When you need God's help, ask for it, seek it. You will find it.

Treat others the way you like to be treated.

Seek to live the way God wants you to live and to do what he wants you to do. Doing that leads to eternal life.

Watch what happens when other people make choices and do stuff. That will help you to tell whether or not they are honest and true and good and whether or not their ideas can be trusted.

Be sure that when you are doing something in Jesus' name that it really is what he wants you to be doing.

When you learn Jesus' teachings don't just listen to them, actually do what he teaches.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cognitive Distortion #6a, The Fortune Teller Error

There are two cognitive distortions that fall into the category of "jumping to conclusions", ie: jumping to a negative assumption that is not justified by the facts of a situation..  One of these is the fortune teller error.   This is when you imagine something negative that might happen and you jump from imagining that it might happen to being pretty convinced that it will.  

For example, you leave a couple of messages for a parent of one of the children in your Sunday school class, asking her to call you back and let you know whether or not she can come help with the class the following Sunday.  Days go by and you don't hear from her.  You assume that she didn't call you back because she's avoiding you and hates helping in Sunday school (see mind reading, distortion #6b below) and when you start feeling bitter and disillusioned by what you perceive as her evasiveness and unwillingness to help you decide not to try to call her again because you are sure that she will only avoid and dislike you more and you will feel like a fool.  You believe this prognostication, which leaves you disappointed, disgusted and resentful and you don't call her.

A few days later you find out that she never got your messages.  You had done all that stewing over the yucky things that you predicted would happen if you tried to contact her again, for nothing.

Fortune telling.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cognitive Distortion # 6b, Mind Reading

The second cognitive distortion that falls into the category of "jumping to conclusions", ie: jumping to a negative assumption that is not justified by the facts of a situation, is mind reading.  This is where you assume that others are disappointed in you or looking down on you and you are so convinced of that that you don't bother to notice or ask or investigate whether or not that is true.

For example, you are giving a talk in church and a fellow in the middle of the center section is falling asleep.  You immediately assume that it's because you aren't a good speaker or because he thinks your talk is boring.  In this case, it's actually because he was up late the night before driving kids home from a dance, but you don't know that.  You just automatically assume that it must be because he finds you lacking.

Or your co-worker passes you in the parking lot without saying hello because he's absorbed in trying to memorize a bunch of facts he needs for his next presentation .  You erroneously conclude that his silence is because he doesn't value you as a worker or that he is mad at you because he doesn't like your last report.

Or your spouse is watching television and doesn't answer you when you ask her a question.  Your heart sinks as you assume that your questions are not as important to her as they used to be.  And you feel your levels of frustration rising.

Or you commit a sin and your mind tells you that God must be totally exasperated with you, or, at the least, completely disappointed in you, ignoring the facts that though he does not condone sin he also completely understands why you did it and totally and lovingly wants to help you do better.

The biggest immediate problem with this mind reading thing is that most of the time it propels you unnecessarily into actions of either a) withdrawal or b) resentment or of c) counter attack.  Not only do these responses worsen relationships but it's a stark tragedy when you are propelled to make them based on assumptions that aren't true.  So when you are mind reading, you are not only misunderstanding in ways that discourage you, but you also are more likely to respond in ways that make things worse.

Whether dealing with God, your grandmother, your neighbor or anyone else, mind-reading can take you quickly into the frying pan and from there into the fire.  So much better, when you catch yourself mind-reading, to ask a question or two and find out what's really going on and then respond to that reality, instead of your mind-reading assumptions.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Cognitive Distortion #7, Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning happens when you take your emotions as evidence of truth.  For example: " I feel like this job will never get done, so it won't."  Or, "I feel overwhelmed and hopeless, therefore my problems will be impossible to solve."  Or, "I feel angry at you and misunderstood by you therefore you must be an insensitive jerk."  Or "I feel like a failure, therefore I am one."

Because you feel things are negative, you assume that they must be negative.  And the fact is, emotions are simply emotions.  They are not "things as they really are" to quote a very wise man*.

Perhaps you will recognize this phenomenon in your life.  Most of us have it to some degree.  One of the most common manifestations in my life is when I walk out into the garden and see all the weeds in it.  My first reaction is discouragement at the work that will be involved to weed the garden.  It feels like a disheartening, never-ending task which makes me feel lousy and want to put it off.  But actually, when I finally get past my emotional reasoning and go do it, it's not disheartening work, it actually goes pretty well and I end with a sense of satisfaction.

The challenge is to be able to discern your feelings about things and separate those from your comprehension of things as they actually are.

*Thank you, Neal A. Maxwell

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Cognitive Distortion #8, Should Statements

This is where you try to motivate yourself by saying "I should do this" or "I really ought to do that.  Such statements to yourself generally cause you to feel pressured and guilty or pressured and resentful.

Similarly, when you direct should statements towards others it increases your sense of dissatisfaction and frustration.  Thinking to yourself "he really should stop typing and pay attention to what is being said" will invariably increase your dissatisfaction and give room in your mind  for further statements of resentment of the other person and discouragement about creating what you want to happen.   (One of the most common ones to follow this are the "always" and "never" thoughts that are part of cognitive distortion #1.)

Should statements can generate a lot of unnecessary turmoil in your daily life and actually decrease your progress towards becoming the sort of charitable, loving, patient person that you should want to become.  They have great power to create loathing, guilt and discouragement about yourself or bitterness, disillusionment or self-righteousness in your reactions to the human failings of others.

Ultimately, you have to realize what God realizes; that people, including yourself, are imperfect and make mistakes and that He expects that.  It's part of the plan.  And the thing to do instead is to expect the imperfections of reality gracefully, respond wisely to them when you encounter them, and love and appreciate in spite of them, not reduce your reaction to a bunch of frustrating "shoulds".

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Cognitive Distortion #9, Labeling and Mislabeling

Labeling is when you create a self-image based just on your errors.   For instance, you put your foot in your mouth during a conversation and you say to yourself, "I'm a fool."   Or you eat three pieces of fudge and you think, "How disgusting.  I'm a pig."

You can also fall into the habit of labeling others.  Your roommate never makes her bed and you think, "she's such a slob."  Or your boss is often abrasive and short tempered and you label him as an "insensitive chauvinist" and complain about him every day.

Labeling yourself is depressing and labeling others makes you feel helpless and alienated.  And it's also irrational. Your self and your value cannot be equated with any one thing you do or don't do.  And neither can anyone else's.   You, and every other person you know, is a complex, multi-faceted conglomerate of a multitude of learning, responding, thinking, ebbing and flowing, progressing and regressing, flow of emotions, responses, thoughts and actions.   I believe that knowing that is one of the things that God sees and that makes it so easy for Him to see the worth of each soul. He, as well as we, can see that some of us are sometimes more in control of ourselves than others but none of us, even the worst of us, are just one thing and it is irrational to define any of us, in any moment of time, just by our inadequacies.

Labeling involves describing yourself,  another person, or an event with words that paint a broad swath of emotionally laden negativity, instead of seeing and acknowledging the nuanced and intricate complexity and multi-faceted nature of human life.