Your pattern of thinking—the thoughts you regularly invest in—has a big impact on your mood. Ever since the cognitive revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, it has been well established that certain reflexive ways of thinking about self and the world—sometimes referred to as “cognitive errors”—are a primary cause of depression. There are six common thinking patterns that fuel depressed moods and other nemeses to your emotional well-being. While the following list is not exhaustive in nature, it encapsulates the majority of cognitive beliefs and unhealthy thinking patterns implicated in chronic mood problems.
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
With this cognitive error the world and self are viewed as either all good or all bad. There is no gray. You are a success or a total failure. Your life is either good and worth living or completely miserable and worthless, with nothing in between. Interestingly enough, the people I know who tend to commit this thinking error, at least in the context of depression, rarely experience the all good side of the equation. Theoretically, at least in a fair universe, the all good and all bad would be spread around equally. Some days you would feel like the best employee ever and other days you would feel like the worst. But rarely does it work that way. If the all good side of the pendulum is experienced, it is short lived. Most of the time the person is stuck in the all bad camp, which feeds a depressed mood.
Much of the time this all-or-nothing thinking gets expressed in the form of perfectionism. These individuals believe or feel they need to be perfect. If perfection is attained then they get to experience being all good. One minor slip up, however, drops below the perfectionistic standard and is experienced as total and complete failure. Any instance when they’re not perfect often reveals a damaged self-concept—a deep feeling that they are less-than and worthless. The drive toward perfectionism is their attempt to cover up this wounded self and keep it at bay.
You can see, however, why perfectionism is problematic. You’re setting yourself up for the experience of failure, which will only confirm the negative views about self. It’s impossible to live and perform perfectly. And there are so many areas of life where measuring performance is highly subjective. How, for example, do you measure your performance as a spouse or a friend? In these domains, perfection is something elusive and unattainable. But even in those areas that do lend themselves to measurement, such as grades in school or a performance review at work, you can’t always get a perfect score. Ultimately, you have to change the underlying assumptions that give birth to perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking.
With overgeneralization you take one data point and make a global statement about your person or life, as if this one event speaks to “the way things are.” I had worked several months with a client who had a driving phobia. His greatest fear was having a panic attack and passing out while driving on the freeway. After two months of treatment he was back on the road with only mild anxiety symptoms. Once in a while, however, the anxiety would be more pronounced. It wasn’t debilitating anxiety but it was unpleasant and more than he found acceptable. He was still able to drive and successfully manage the episode by using the tools he learned in therapy. But when referring to such experiences, which were becoming less frequent, he would say statements like “I will never be able to drive without panicking.” The recent anxious event not only became exaggerated in his mind but it also spoke to a concrete fate that could not be changed. He thought to himself, I am doomed to be a highly anxious person. This is a depressing thought. But it didn’t reflect reality. He needed to work on seeing and holding on to the successes and the other data points that did not conform to his negative view. Overgeneralization is closely related to the next cognitive distortion.
3. Confirmation Bias
With confirmation bias people see what they want to see. A filter is erected in the mind that is on the lookout for data that supports an underlying theory. A successful female executive grew up in a family where she was regularly “brought down to size.” Because of her parents own immaturity and woundedness, my client was never allowed to be appropriately big in the world. It was never okay for her to be in the spotlight or be celebrated. Instead her academic and athletic achievements, which were many, were experienced as a threat. Her gain was their loss. Under the guise of not wanting her to have a “big head” they made sarcastic remarks, relationally withdrew and shifted attention to the younger siblings. As a result, the client internalized a powerful belief. “Whenever something good happens I get knocked down to size.” So when something good did happen she felt anxious and depressed, expecting to be knocked down at any moment. In an attempt to remove herself from the unbearable anticipation of the forthcoming attack that could not be identified, she was prone to generating situations that elicited the punishment she was expecting. It was her way of “getting it over with.”
When she had the experience of being unfairly “kicked” she would say, “When I feel good about my life something bad always happens.” In this statement she is skipping over all the other times, which are numerous, where nothing bad happens following a success or positive life event. This is the confirmation bias. It is latching onto data that fits your theory. An important part of therapy was helping her see and encode the experiences of life that didn’t fit the storyline rooted in her historical woundedness.
4. Jumping to Conclusions
Suppose you walk down the street in your neighborhood. On the other side of the street you see a friend walking towards you. As he approaches, you say hello but he doesn’t respond. Your friend keeps his head down and keeps walking. What conclusions do you draw from your friend’s behavior? If ten people experienced this event you would get ten different responses. Some would say, “He doesn’t want to be my friend anymore” or “He must be mad at me.” For others it might be something about the friend’s personality: “I always knew he was a jerk”. Other interpretations might be that he didn’t hear the greeting or is preoccupied with recent news and is not in an emotional space to interact. The possibilities are limitless. The take away here is that many of the events we experience are blank slates upon which we can project our fears and personal conclusions about self and the world. Be careful not to buy into the negative interpretations that automatically populate the mind. Ask yourself, “What other interpretations might there be?”
5. Emotional Reasoning
“I feel like a bad person.” One of the hallmarks of childhood trauma, whether it be physical or emotional, is the sense that at your core you’re a bad or “toxic” person. It’s almost as if the child absorbs the badness of the environment into her person. It provides an explanation to the young mind as to why she is being punished. I am being treated this way because I am bad. When she leaves the neglectful or abusive environment, she doesn’t leave the feeling of being inherently bad behind. She carries it into the workplace. She carries it into every significant relationship. To one degree or another the feeling of being a bad person lurks in the background. And with it comes a fear that if others get too close they will run into this unlovable part of self and reject her, so even her closest relationships are kept at a safe distance. In addition, because she is “bad” she is not worthy of good things. And sometimes it goes further, where she feels worthy of bad things and punishment and may allow herself to be mistreated because it fits with the view of self.
This is but one example of emotional reasoning, where the feeling inside you makes it so. The feeling becomes reality, becomes your fate. But feelings are often just that—feelings. Your emotional experience doesn’t necessarily speak to reality. In fact, the opposite may be true. As I am writing this, for example, I am thinking about the clients in my practice who feel that their very essence is “bad.” Every person coming to mind, without exception, is loving and kind. They are good people. Others who know them would be shocked to learn that they carry feelings of being a bad person because it’s so far from the truth.
Frequently, at the core of depression, is the overwhelming sense of being a failure. Part of what feeds this belief is assuming too much responsibility for the things that go wrong. We refer to this as personalization, where negative events are connected back to self. Either you are directly responsible or the universe has your number and is out to get you. If your spouse is in a bad mood, it must be because of something you did. On a weekend getaway, if your friends are not having a thrilling experience it’s your fault. If the family dog develops a medical condition, you’re responsible because you could have exercised the dog more and been more vigilant about his health. Or sometimes it’s less about responsibility and more about being singled out. You’re under the impression that life treats you differently than other people. If your car breaks down, you throw your hands up in the air with the statement, Why does this kind of thing always happen to me?
This cognitive distortion, when taken to the extreme, can veer into the realm of magical thinking or a kind of negative omnipotence where one’s private, internal experience is the cause of or connected to misfortune. One therapy client felt responsible for the death of a loved one because in an angry moment, at the age of ten, he had the fleeting thought, “I wish she were dead.” Months later when the aunt died he felt responsible, that somehow his angry wish had caused her death. It was a secret and a burden he carried for close to forty years.
If you’re someone who struggles with negative mood states, here are four simple steps to start breaking the cycle:
- Reflect on each of the cognitive distortions discussed in this article, asking yourself, Do I tend to think this way? Does this describe me?
- For each one you identify with, write down the specific thoughts that come into your mind, as well as the specific circumstances that tend to generate this type of thinking. When you’re on social media, for example, you might have the thought, Why does everyone else get to live a full happy life except for me?, which could be the Confirmation Bias (seeing what you want to see) and Emotional Reasoning (the current feeling state informing your view of self and the world).
- Once you’ve identified the thought patterns getting you into trouble, start monitoring your thinking with a new level of awareness, catching yourself from investing in those thought channels that darken the mood. One way to get started is doing a spot check several times per day. Throughout the day pause and ask yourself, Where is my mind right now? When you find yourself mentally drifting with negative content, rotate your attention and life energy to the external world. In other words, do everything you can to get out of your head.
- Lastly, don’t just play defense. Boost your mood by making a point to look for and capture at least 2 meaningful moments each day. Maybe that’s laughing with a friend, looking into the face of a loved one or feeling inspired by something you see or read. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it registers as personally meaningful.