Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life

In his book How Dante Can Save Your Life, the journalist Rod Dreher tells of his return to Starhill Louisiana, the community where he grew up. Rod expected to happily reintegrate with his family, but instead found a web of troubled relationships and misunderstandings. The stress of the family problems was so great that Rod descended into anxiety, depression and fatigue. With his immune system compromised by the stress, Rod contracted a debilitating—and potentially life-threatening—virus. Rod’s rheumatologist urged him to flee from the stress by relocating again. This advice seemed to make sense given that his disease went into remission during the times when he was away from the Starhill community. However, instead of packing his bags and leaving the area, Rod decided to follow his wife’s promptings to see a therapist.

Rod recounts his first session with a man named Mike Holmes, a Southern Baptist preacher who was also a professional counselor. After hearing about Rod’s story, Mike said that instead of trying to fix the situation, he would help Rod view circumstances in a different light.

“‘…I’m not going to tell you how to fix it,’ he said. ‘But what I am going to do is this. We are going to explore all these stories you’ve told me, and look at them to see where you might be misreading the situation, and where there might be room for positive change.’

‘Here’s what I want you to focus on,’ … You cannot control other people, but you can control your reactions to them.’”

The rest of Rod’s book is a fascinating journey of healing and self-discovery, as he weaves a transparent account of his psychological and spiritual adventures with insights from Dante’s Divine Comedy. As the reader journeys deeper with both Rod and Dante, it gradually becomes apparent that the primary cause of Rod’s sufferings is not actually the discord and misunderstanding in his family but the narrative Rod was telling himself about these problems.

By the end of the book, all the same problems and misunderstandings still persisted in the Louisiana community. But Rod was able to achieve recovery through learning to perceive the situation in a new light, to move out of a narrative in which he was a passive victim. As he quotes his therapist saying towards the end of the book, “You have power over the images you want to let into your mind. You control them; they don’t control you.”

I’m sure we can all relate to Rod’s struggle. How often do we compound the problems in our life by the narratives we tell ourselves about those problems? Sometimes these narratives are downright false, but more often they are simply incomplete. Often when we think we are making an objective observation about a situation, we are actually reacting to the situation as viewed through the lens of a certain narrative. The narratives we tell ourselves have enormous power because of the web of reciprocities linking how we think with how we feel and behave. These reciprocities are shown on the CBT triangle below:

Given the causal link between how we think and how we feel and behave, when problems in your emotional life start to appear insurmountable, it can be helpful to stop and take a thought-life inventory, asking yourself questions such as the following:

  • How might my thought-life be feeding disordered emotions?
  • What am I spending my time thinking about?
  • Am I dwelling on everything that is wrong in my life, ruminating about the future or engaging in cognitions that make me feel sorry for myself?
  • Are the narratives I am believing about myself, my life and my relationships, distorted or incomplete?

The Serbian Orthodox monk, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica (1914-2003) regularly encouraged people to engage in this type of thought-life inventory. Drawing on principles that had helped him to overcome anxiety in his youth, Elder Thaddeus taught people to watch their thoughts and feelings, constantly asking questions like “Am I feeling empty or sad right now? If I am, why? What’s going on inside of me?”

“Our thoughts, moods and desires set a path for our life” Elder Thaddeus said. He continued:

“Our thoughts reflect our whole life. If our thoughts are quiet, peaceful, and full of love, kindness, and purity, then we have peace, for peaceful thoughts make possible the existence of inner peace, which radiates from us. However, if we breed negative thoughts, then our inner peace is shattered….

“Look at us: as soon as our mood changes, we no longer speak kindly to our fellow men, but instead we answer them sharply. We only make things worse by doing this. When we are dissatisfied the whole atmosphere between us becomes sour, and we start to offend one another.”

Ancient Wisdom and the Ghost of Freud

Epictetus

Ancient wisdom has emphasized that disordered feelings often arise because of prior problems in thinking and behavior. For example, the first-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught that our interpretations of events have a greater impact on us than the events themselves. Accordingly, Epictetus taught that the way to avoid unnecessary suffering is to engage in correct thinking. A similar idea can be found in the desert fathers of the Christian tradition, who often taught that the way to address problems in one’s emotional life is to attend to what is happening in the realm of thinking and behavior. (For more information on the desert fathers’ teaching about this, see Fr. Alex Trader’s book Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds.)

1856-1939

It may seem common sense that a change in one aspect of the human ecosystem will have an impact in other areas, and that our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are linked in a web of reciprocities. However, throughout much of the history of psychology, very little attention was given to the notion of changing maladaptive feelings through addressing thoughts and behavior. Under the influence of Freud and his successors, much late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century psychology saw feelings as uncontrollable impulses from a dark unconscious, connected to thoughts of which we are often not even aware. In the mid-twentieth century, there was a swing of the pendulum as Behaviorist theories emphasized only what is observable and measurable. While behaviorism yielded significant insights about the ways that human beings and animals learn and develop habits, it often resulted in a simplistic approach to feelings and thoughts, as if these are merely responses to controlling variables rather than aspects that can be controlled by agency (behaviorists like Skinner actually rejected free will).

In the latter half of the twentieth-century, researchers working within the framework of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy made huge strides for better understanding the interconnectedness of behavior, feelings and thoughts. Psychologists began to see that before effective behavioral modification can occur, there needs to be internal changes of attitude and thoughts, not simply altered variables in one’s external environment. For example, Aaron T. Beck, currently professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, identified different ways that our thinking distorts reality, leading to disorders like anxiety and depression.

Despite these advances in psychology, on a popular level many people still hold to Freudian-type assumptions. We often perceive our feelings as having a life of their own outside our control. Thus, it’s easy to make a false dichotomy between feelings and skills, assuming that feelings lie completely outside the control of our volition. However, because we are whole people, and because our will, mind and emotions form complex webs of multiple reciprocities, the way to work transformation in our emotional life is often first to bring our thoughts and behavior into a healthier condition. The next section will assist with that by identifying some common thinking errors that often lead to disordered emotions.

Negative Framing and Thinking Errors

Research shows that much of what we experience in life is fundamentally ambiguous and open to a variety of interpretations. (I have discussed this aspect of perception in more detail in my TSM article ‘Gratitude as a Way of Seeing.’) One of the ways we make sense of life’s circumstances is by the meanings we ascribe to those circumstances. The problem arises when we impose meanings onto our experiences that stem from a distorted or incomplete view of reality. Here are some common thinking errors that cause many people to frame their experiences with unnecessary negativity.

Filtering

One very common distortion is to look at an entire situation or set of conditions and hone in on specific negatives while overlooking positives that might balance things out. How many times do we think about our day, our job, our relationships or our family in a way that filters out what is good while giving inordinate attention to what is bad? It’s easy for negative details to become so magnified in our thinking that we filter out more positive aspects that could bring things into perspective if only we had eyes to focus on what is good. Filtering often happens in married relationships, where a wife will become so accustomed to her husband’s good qualities that she will overlook those qualities, allowing his imperfections to become magnified in her thinking. Filtering can also occur in the other direction, when a person filters out negative aspects of a situation, ignoring problems that need to be addressed. This is the error of escapism and denial.

The point is to let our thinking and reactions be based on fact, not on an outlook that is unreasonably pessimistic or optimistic. To be overly optimistic is to filter our problems that need to be faced; to be overly pessimistic is to filter out the things we can still be grateful for in a given situation, despite the problems.

The English Puritan teacher Richard Baxter (1615 –1691) often had to counsel husbands who seem to have been filtering out the good qualities in their wives, giving unbalanced attention to what was negative. In Baxter’s “sub-directions for maintaining conjugal love” he wrote as follows to husbands:

“Take more notice of the good, that is in your wives, than of the evil. Let not the observation of their faults make you forget or overlook their virtues. Love is kindled by the sight of love or goodness.

Richard Baxter (1615 –1691)

“Make not infirmities to seem odious faults, but excuse them as far as lawfully you may, by considering the frailty of the sex, and of their tempers, and considering also your own infirmities, and how much your wives must bear with you.

“Stir up that most in them into exercise which is best, and stir not up that which is evil; and then the good will most appear, and the evil will be as buried, and you will more easily maintain your love. There is some uncleanness in the best on earth; and if you will be daily stirring in the filth, no wonder if you have the annoyance; and for that you may thank yourselves: draw out the fragrancy of that which is good and delectable in them, and do not by your own imprudence or peevishness stir up the worst, and then you shall find that even your faulty wives will appear more amiable to you.

“Overcome them with love; and then whatever they are in themselves, they will be loving to you, and consequently lovely. Love will cause love, as fire kindleth fire. A good husband is the best means to make a good and loving wife. Make them not froward by your froward carriage, and then say, we cannot love them.

“Give them examples of amiableness in yourselves; set them the pattern of a prudent, lowly, loving, meek, self-denying, patient, harmless, holy, heavenly life. Try this a while, and see whether it will not shame them from their faults, and make them walk more amiably themselves.”


Polarized Thinking

Polarized thinking, or “splitting”, happens when we divide the world into extreme black and white. For example, you might think that all conservatives are good people and all liberals are bad, or visa versa. Or you might observe something another person said and conclude that they are either trustworthy or untrustworthy. Or you might reflect on something you have done and conclude that either you are a success or a failure, smart or stupid, good or bad. But most people and situations are not so black and white, and it’s easy to make sweeping judgments that overlook the role context plays in informing a person’s behavior.

Polarized thinking is closely related to the all-or-nothing fallacy. Sometimes a person will look at a potential project and think that unless they can do it perfectly, there is no use working on it at all. Or we might approach problems with our spouse by thinking that unless problems can be solved perfectly, they are not worth trying to solve even partially. By contrast, a mature person is able to live with ambiguity and accept that sometimes people and situations are too complex to be dividing into black and white.

Overgeneralizing

Overgeneralizing is very similar to polarized thinking and happens when we hastily infer a pattern out of a single incident. For example, if something bad happens in the morning, a person might think “Now I’m going to have a bad day.” Or if you make a mistake at something, you might be tempted to think, “I always fail when I try things like that.” If something unpleasant happens in a relationship, people sometimes think, “We never get along” or “he’s always doing things like that.”

Although generalizing can sometimes be rational when there is evidence to support it, we have to be careful not to infer negative patterns out of isolated incidents. When we overgeneralize, we are prone to overlook important factors of context that may account for why things happened as they did. Overgeneralizing can often lead us to label ourselves or others with attributions like “idiot”, “stupid”, “failure”, as well as hastily to assume that a person’s behavior must be a symptom of their intrinsic character instead of a result of external circumstances.

Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is closely related to overgeneralizing. It involves inferring a dramatic pattern from insignificant events or interpreting undesirable circumstances as the worst possible outcome. For example, we’re often tempted to put a catastrophic context around our own shortcomings (“the fact that I did that means I’m a complete failure is a mother!”) or to dramatize other people’s mistakes and shortcomings (“the fact that my wife believes that about me proves we’re incompatible” or “only a manipulative and controlling husband would say that to me!”).

Catastrophizing also happens when we forecast disastrous consequences about the future, a habit that is sometimes called “fortune-telling” in the psychological literature. Here are some common examples of catastrophic forecasting:

  • “Things have gone so smoothly for so long that tragedy is bound to be just around the corner”
  • “If I go on a diet, I’ll probably just gain weight.”
  • “If I compromise with my wife in this one area, then everything I’ve worked to achieve in our marriage could begin to crumble”
  • “The fact that I can’t pay this bill proves we’re on the road to bankruptcy”

It can be particularly easy to fall into the error of catastrophizing during times of stress, tiredness and heartache. The key is that when you begin thinking catastrophic thoughts to recognize the error, and to remind yourself that you do not need to be subject to disordered cognitions. It’s always possible to reframe catastrophic-based thoughts with a more realistic assessment of the situation. For example, instead of saying to yourself, “I think this is finally going to push me beyond coping point”, you could say, “I know from the past that I’ve been able to endure a lot more than I thought I’d be able to. I have a basis for confidence as these further challenges arise in my life.”

Mind-Reading

Mind-reading occurs when we make hasty assumptions about what another person is thinking or what is driving their behavior. You’ve probably had the experience of being with someone who responds to things you say by announcing what you really meant, or who interacted with you as if they understood your thinking, motives and intentions better than you do yourself.

Sometimes mind-reading is practiced by people who are controlling and verbally abusive, and who may things like, “you think you’re so gaddamn smart whenever you use big words,” or “you think you’re so spiritual don’t you?”.

Mind-reading might also be practiced by people who suffer chronic insecurity, and who might say or think things like, “she must have really thought I was stupid when I said that,” or “I just know everyone at the party was judging me because of my tattoos.”

When mind-reading becomes chronic, a person may end up habitually twisting another person’s words to confirm their preconceived interpretations, making healthy communication impossible.

Often the more we get to know someone, the greater the temptation becomes to assume we know what they are thinking. To illustrate this, imagine the following scenario. Steve returned home after a long and tiring day at work. His wife, Jennifer, had also had a long day. She had intended to have a warm dinner waiting for her husband, but all day she had been harried by unexpected distractions. When Steve came home, all that was waiting for him was a big pile of dishes. A few minutes after his arrival, Steve asked Jennifer, “What did you do today?”

Angrily, Jennifer responded, “You only asked that because you want to know why I didn’t make dinner! You aren’t actually interested in my day at all.”

In this exchange, Jennifer is mind-reading, imposing a narrative onto Steve’s words that may not be accurate. To be sure, Steve might have been asking his question as a subtle way of finding out why there was no dinner, or maybe he was genuinely interested in his wife’s day. It may even have been a little bit of both. Whatever may have been Steve’s real meaning, it would have been better for Jennifer to respond with another question, perhaps asking something like, “Honey, are you asking that because you are genuinely interested in how my day went, or only because you want to know why I didn’t make dinner for you?”

The point is not that we can never read between the lines to pick up non-verbal cues. Often we really do intuit what other people are thinking, especially with people we know well. For example, in the above exchange, if Steve had asked, “What did you do today?” while looking at the pile of dishes and rolling his eyes, then Jennifer would have good reason to infer a subtext to his question. But even when you are pretty sure you know what another person is thinking, hold it lightly and don’t be afraid to check in with the other person.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning occurs when we allow our feelings to drive our thinking, or when we treat our emotional reactions as if they are self-authenticating. Often our emotional reactions are correct, but we cannot know that simply on the basis of how we feel. We need to first check if our feelings are rooted in fact.

Here are some common examples of emotional reasoning:

  • “What he did made me feel hurt; therefore, it must have been wrong.”
  • “If I’m this scared about moving, then I shouldn’t do it.”
  • “I know my spouse is behaving inappropriately, because otherwise why would I feel jealous?”
  • “I feel like I can’t cope with this; therefore, I can’t cope with it.”

Having explored these various thinking errors, it’s time to switch gears now and look at positive ways to frame our experiences.

Further Reading

Some of the material above on thinking errors, was originally published in an article I wrote for the Taylor Study Method, titled ‘Six Thinking Errors and How to Avoid Them.’ It is reprinted here with permission.