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• “I can’t afford to pay all of my bills again this month. I feel hopeless and depressed. There is no solution to my problems.”
• “Oh my gosh, why did I bring up that movie!? It’s ten years old; everyone will think I’m so out of touch. I’m such a bore at all these parties.”
Engaging in the cognitive distortion of emotional reasoning means that you are taking your emotions as evidence. Whatever you feel right now is whatever reality you find yourself in. That’s a difficult way to live.
While engaging in this behavior, observed evidence is discarded in favor of the “truth” of your feelings about the event. Humans tend to believe that how they feel must automatically be true. If you feel stupid and boring, then you must actually be stupid and boring. This is commonly referenced by the phrase “I feel it; therefore, it must be true.”
Emotional reasoning is one of the most dangerous of the cognitive distortions because it can be so wildly different from reality and in the span of minutes can change. Is reality actually shifting moment by moment? Of course not! Only your emotions are changing that quickly.
Being conscious of and allowing yourself to feel your emotions is important to maintaining your emotional health and energy; however, that does not mean you should take your emotions to heart as a true expression of reality. In fact, your emotions often have very little to do with the status quo of reality. Remember, reality is neutral, yet your emotions cause you to perceive reality as either positive or negative.
To escape the trap of emotional reasoning and take control of this “automatic response,” question whether your emotional state of mind is preventing you from viewing events clearly. Ask yourself what the objective bystander interpretation would be, compare it to your emotional response, and try to mediate the difference. Just like you wouldn’t go grocery shopping when hungry, you shouldn’t evaluate anything when emotional. Always take time to return to a calm state before making decisions or committing yourself to a specific course of action.
Viewing a situation while emotional, or with emotional reasoning, is like watching a completely neutral scene with horror music being played over it. And then joyous music. And then the next minute, music fitting for a clown’s entrance. You won’t know what’s really happening in front of your face because the music will influence you a certain way.
Finally, although not a true cognitive distortion, viewing life through comparisons with others has the same tendency to create a negative reality while wasting an unhealthy amount of energy on something you cannot change.
Regardless of whatever strengths and qualities you bring to the table, you will become miserable when you compare yourself to others. We have a tendency to compare ourselves to other people around us or to some kind of imagined ideal—and neither of these situations is good.
Comparing is a learned habit that destroys your confidence because it tries to put all your value and worth into one tiny aspect. You have to understand that you are a compilation of many different traits and talents. You have your appearance, your earning ability, your ability to play sports, how fast you type, and so on. These all matter.
Unfortunately, when we measure ourselves against others, we ignore or throw out all the things we are good at and only focus on the one thing we’re not good at or that we imagine others excel at. The problem with comparing in a social setting is that we often carry with us a fictionalized ideal of how a “perfect” person would get along in particular social situations.
This person is about as real as Superman. Unfortunately, we treat that notion as if it’s absolutely real, and we allow ourselves to feel crappy and inferior when we don’t measure up. When we compare ourselves to this imagined ideal, we fail to see our strengths, value, and worth.
When you compare, you only see what’s on the outside, what people allow others to see about them. But what you’re viewing isn’t the whole picture, and is not necessarily who these other people really are—it’s just their very best version of themselves, the one they are willing to present to the world. You end up degrading yourself by choosing your darkest and worst view of yourself to compare.
Other people aren’t only what they show to the world. Most people put on a good show. You probably know a couple that appears to get along great and be very much in love. They seem totally happy and as if they truly connect with each other in an enviable way. But do you really know what might be going on in their private life?
Hopefully you can understand that these distortions are not only falsehoods, but enormous wastes of our mental and emotional energy. The more time we spend in our own heads agonizing about the possibilities of our internal world, the less energy we can expend toward the external world.
Unfortunately, these cognitive distortions reflect our core beliefs and are part of our personal psychological networks. They’re instilled at an early age and reinforced by our experiences. Many of us have been trained to waste emotional energy catering to these distortions. That’s why they’re hard to nail down—they are how you view the world, and don’t require conscious effort. And yet, we still feel their effects on us through triggering events and emotional distress. An ungodly amount of energy is squandered here.
Challenging and changing distortions from an analytical perspective is what is known as cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT for short. The main strategy of CBT is to teach people how to deal with their negative core beliefs, head-on, and reprogram them into something less harmful.
There are two primary methods for intervention in the cycle of low confidence. The first is cognitive restructuring—a technique for identifying negative cognitive patterns and untrue assumptions we make about ourselves and altering them.
Cognitive restructuring is a treatment intended to show people why they are stuck in these negative feedback loops and what they can do to significantly alter their thought and behavior patterns in order to remove themselves from the vicious cycle. By recognizing a negative thought pattern and understanding why it persists, we can react differently to it and steer ourselves in a positive direction.
How does one build their awareness about their counterproductive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors? Generally, the first step of those methods entails identifying subconscious thoughts—the ones providing us with a continuous commentary on our experiences as we are living them. These thoughts are constantly affecting our moods because we tend to simply accept them as accurate reflections of reality and ourselves.
When we stop accepting the narrative being written by our subconscious, we are able to consider alternative points of view. Suddenly the cycle is broken, or at least altered. This shift leads to a more sensible and stable way of thinking about whatever is causing us distress at any given time, preventing us from falling into those vicious cycles mentioned earlier.
By simply considering alternative possibilities, we can balance out our emotions and thoughts and reduce the sadness and hopelessness that occurs when we get trapped in a negative feedback loop. This, in turn, enables us to engage in behaviors and activities which promote our well-being, pulling us out of our dark mindset and making us stronger and better.
Few people are actively aware of their thinking patterns, even though they engage in these patterns every day. CBT allows you to address errors in your thinking to correct your behavior and in turn change your life. You might assume that you require a therapist, or at least an incredibly patient friend to conduct CBT, but that’s where thought diaries and worksheets come into play.
The concept of the thought diary was borne from the desire to identify the core beliefs that inform our actions and emotions. It uncovers the relationships between our behavior, thoughts and feelings. Basically, it’s the process of cognitive behavioral therapy, and similar to how a counselor might help one get to the root of their psychological issues.
A typical entry in a thought diary outlines a triggering event or thought, the self-messaging that comes from it, and the resultant emotions that emerge. Sifting through all this information brings up your core beliefs so you can challenge them. Remember, we want to try to isolate and analyze the automatic thoughts we have, and replace them with healthier versions.
Steps in a thought diary entry can be arranged in the easy-to-remember A-B-C format—although for the purposes of this process it’s actually A-C-B:
Activating Event. This is simply the origin point of your emotional change. It could be an actual, physical event. But it could also be an internal event—a thought, memory or mental image. It’s whatever caused your emotional status to change from calm to agitation:
• Hearing an old song that reminds you of someone you were close to
• Running into an old friend on the street
• Being criticized by a supervisor
• Remembering being bullied by a high school classmate
Consequences. In this step you identify the specific emotions and sensations that arose. Start with the most basic of emotions—sad, glad, mad, and scared—and then branch out. These could be simple feeling words—“anxious,” “unhappy,” “sickened,” “panicky,” “melancholy,” “confused,” and so forth. To get more specific about the emotions involved, you may want to rate how intensely you felt them on whatever scale works for you. Maybe you were 65 percent panicky and 35 percent confused. Your feelings of sickness may have been a ten, and your anxiety may have been a five. Underline or circle which emotion was most relevant.
Beliefs. This is where the action begins. How do you link the activating event with the consequences? What unconscious narrative or story did you tell yourself to achieve the consequence? What leaps in logic or to conclusions did you make to arrive at your current negative state? Getting to the bottom of these beliefs involves some drilling of yourself with progressive questioning, until you finally get to the root of your situation—your core beliefs:
• “What was I thinking?”
• “What was going through my head when this happened?”
• “What’s wrong with that?”
• “What does this all mean?”
• “What does it reveal about me?”
Yes, it’s a lot of work, and you might struggle at points to obtain the answers you’re looking for. But the effort to peel away layers of self-messaging will eventually pay off. When your investigation finally brings you face-to-face with your core beliefs, that’s when you can start the process of challenging them.
Let’s take an example of seemingly benign activating events and put them through the ABC ringer. They may seem a bit abbreviated, but you’ll find that they closely mirror real-life situations.
- Steve is having a conversation with his new friend Emily at table at a bar. They’re having a good talk, until Steve’s acquaintance Jack walks up, pulls up a chair, and starts chatting, oblivious to the fact that he stopped Steve and Emily’s conversation cold. Steve is angry. You won’t like him when he is angry.
Steve’s activating event is Jack stopping his conversation. That’s easy.
What is the consequence—what did this event activate, feelings-wise? Steve felt flustered, for one. That was probably the dominant emotion. He’d give it an “8” on a scale of 1 to 10. He also sensed anger and frustration, but not quite as powerfully as the panic. Maybe a “4.” He felt the front of his head get a little heavy. Steve qualifies that as “confusion.” But he’s not sure why, so he gives this a “3.”
Now Steve has to figure out why this particular event made him freak out. What is the connection from the action to the consequential emotional state? Does he dislike Jack? No, not at all, he decides. He’s an okay guy, if sometimes a little overexcitable.
So, Steve asks himself what was going through his head at the time. He was having a good conversation with Emily, feeling like they were both talking earnestly and actively about shared interests. And then it got interrupted. He felt flustered.
Why? Because he was disappointed that the conversation was derailed, and that Jack wasn’t self-aware enough to know he was interrupting.
What does that mean? He feels that Jack was being careless about his ego and personality and thought nothing of imposing his will over Steve’s.
Why is that? Because Steve doesn’t think he asserts himself enough.
And why is that? Because Steve believes he’s too modest to ever be able to speak up for himself.
And what does that mean? Steve doesn’t feel he deserves respect, and Jack’s interruption was just a reminder that he isn’t worthy of it.
That’s Steve’s core belief: He has little if any self-regard and thinks he lets people take advantage of his recessive nature to “bowl him over” and take over in social situations, without regard to what he really wants. Because of that, he doesn’t see himself as somebody respectable. It’s not easy to reach this point just from analyzing a reaction to an interruption, but doing so is how you come to understand and change your core beliefs.
Challenging beliefs does have the temporary effect of requiring even more of your emotional and mental energy, but this will ultimately decrease the ways in which your brain runs itself in exhausting circles.