All human beings create mental maps which tell us who we are and what we can expect from life and from other people. Unfortunately, most of the content of our maps form fairly early in childhood, when our brains aren’t fully developed and we aren’t capable of comprehending the complexities and subtleties of life. That’s why it’s inevitable that most people’s maps contain at least some faulty assumptions and distorted thinking.
Here’s one example of what I mean: Children quite naturally assume that they’re responsible for whatever is happening around them (“Mom and Dad are getting a divorce, so I must have been a bad kid.”) When this misunderstanding of the limits of our centrality to other people’s lives persists as part of our adult mental map, we tend to feel excessive responsibility for the difficulties of those around us (“My partner is depressed because I haven’t given him enough attention.”) This assumption of omnipotent responsibility is usually the culprit when people are plagued by irrational guilt.
Another example: cognitive research discovered decades ago that some of the chief causes of depression are the ways that depressed people explain the painful events in their lives to themselves. They tend to explain these events in three pessimistic ways. The first is permanence, which means that the causes of unpleasant events are seen as long-lasting instead of temporary (“I’m burned out and can’t go on”, rather than “I’m exhausted today.”) The second characteristic is pervasiveness (“Nobody thinks I’m hot,” rather than “That person isn’t interested.”) The third characteristic is personalizing, which means blaming disappointments exclusively or excessively on one’s own defects (“I’m too stupid to pass this class,” rather than “This teacher didn’t present the material effectively.”) When we explain disappointments as personal – “It’s my fault”; permanent – “This is forever”; and pervasive – “I’m a complete failure” – the result is the paralysis and despair that characterize severe depression. Depression results, then, not just from painful events in our lives, but also from how we think about them.
Issues with excessive anxiety, too, often result from distorted thinking. The basic distortion is the belief that if something terrible can happen, it will happen. When we live with this unconscious assumption, then our healthy capacity to foresee possible dangers leads to catastrophizing, which, at its worse, can cause us to be paralyzed with fear whenever we think about the future.
It’s difficult to examine our mental maps because the brain evolved to believe itself. When we have believed an idea for a long time, we usually experience it as mere common sense, and so obviously true that it’s hard to look at it skeptically.
Nevertheless, it is possible to develop the habit of critical self-examination. One way to do this is to be on the look-out for sudden changes in your mood. When you suddenly find yourself feeling blue, or discouraged, or fearful – even though external circumstances haven’t changed – then stop and examine your internal monologue. Ask yourself what you were just thinking just before your mood changed. You will usually find a train of thought which might otherwise have passed under the radar. Once you become conscious of what you have been thinking, it then becomes possible to utilize the cognitive therapy practice of disputation to examine the content of your thoughts critically. Ask yourself “Is what I’ve just been thinking really true? How do I know? What does the evidence, pro and con, tell me?” If you can do this repeatedly, over time you will gradually be able to identify the faulty beliefs that may be holding you back. An excellent resource for learning disputation are the written exercises for changing cognitive distortions in David Burns’ excellent self-help manual, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.
“Don’t believe everything you think,” would be a helpful personal motto for all of us. It goes against the grain, because our natural tendency is to trust that our perceptions of things is reality itself, especially when it’s accompanied by strong emotions. Developing the habit of critical self-examination takes work and a healthy dose of humility, but it is indispensable for true emotional maturity. The unexamined life, as Socrates said, is not worth living.