Last week was the first week of living in my new home apart from my wife and children. I missed my children terribly. I work from home and I’m accustomed to seeing them frequently every day. But now we’ve begun shared custody and I’m only with them on the weekends. It was painful, and I missed my wife. I felt very lonely. By the end of the work week I had relapsed. I felt angry and sorry for myself.
Friday morning I had a session with my therapist. What he shared with me moved me off the dark path I was thinking and walking. I want to share it with you here.
He calls them Cognitive Distortions. They are common patterns of unhealthy thinking, especially prevalent in the minds of people who suffer from major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and others. I imagine all of us have thought in one or more of these ways whether or not we suffer from a mental disorder.
- 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.
- OVERGENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
- RATIONALIZATION: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
- DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
- JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusions. One form of this is also known as “Mind Reading.” You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out. There’s also the “FortuneTeller Error.” You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already established fact.
- MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement). Or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”
- EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
- SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
- LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of over-generalization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
- PERSONALIZATION: You see yourself as the cause
I had fallen into all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, and rationalization, among others: “I have failed at the most important thing in life—my family. I’ve lost everything important to me. I should have known this would happen because I always fail at everything to do with this addiction. Why did I think I could beat this addiction? I’m an idiot for getting into this addiction. I hurt Jess and my children, and now the pain has spread into both our families through this divorce. I want to be with my children. I am miserable and depressed. I can’t change this. I don’t want to live separated from them during the week. I miss my best friend. I can’t be happy without my children and wife.”
Interestingly and surprisingly, simply reading the list of cognitive distortions out loud helped me see the truth. It awoke my brain. I could clearly see the error in my thinking and I felt as if a fog was lifted from my mind: “Yes, this is extremely painful for many people including myself, but I can still be healthy and happy in this life. I can still be a good father to my children; they need me. I can still beat this addiction with God’s grace. I am in pain and I am sick but my soul is not dead.”
Last night, however, I felt the same fog descending on my mind and heart, and my addiction called to me. This morning I woke up feeling depressed and forlorn. I remembered the cognitive distortions. I read them and the fog lifted from my mind, but my heart still felt heavy. I couldn’t focus. So I took the day off from work to focus on my wellbeing. I cleaned, read scriptures, watched uplifting videos on lds.org, listened to uplifting music, showered, told a couple of friends what I’m feeling, and more. And now I’m writing this blog post. I still feel the pain but it is bearable now, and I feel important.
Hopefully readers will find similar relief by referring to this list of cognitive distortions in moments of pain and darkness.