Dumping Depression: Part 2 - Dumping Our Negative Inner Voice
If you realized how powerful your thoughts are you would never think a negative thought again.
Thoughts Create Feelings
CBT: A Why to & How To
"How Sway?" Well, I'm happy you asked. One of the biggest "buzzwords" in clinical mental health is CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a very technical term for a fairly simple concept. The simple premise is like the above title; thoughts create feelings. Change your thoughts, and your feelings will follow suit. This might sound overly simplistic, but the important thing to understand is the process our brains go through when we are dealing with mood disorders like depression and anxiety. It goes to the core function of these illnesses, which is our moods and how they are created.
Depression makes us feel bad, but the question is, why? We feel bad because we are consciously or unconsciously thinking thoughts that make us feel bad. When this happens often enough, it creates an atmosphere rife with grief, anger, frustration, emotional paralysis, and numbness. The part that's not so clear at times is how we came to those sad thoughts. CBT helps us identify our patterns of thought and how our thoughts then interact with the world we live in.
"But Sway," you say, "I have like a million thoughts a day, how could I possibly identify a specific one that caused me to get sad? Plus, it's the things that happen to me that cause me pain." That's true - thoughts are often fleeting and instant. So often you will feel your mood shift so quickly that you won't even realize you were even affected by an unhelpful belief. But, what we can identify are general thought patterns that we have learned over time, largely due to our environment and circumstances, that activate our moods and send us into a downward spiral. We all have our ways of seeing the world when things happen to us that we don't like. A useful thought here is, "depression is anger turned inward." Some of us learn to blame ourselves for unfavorable events in life. Our beliefs about ourselves and the world lead us to react to the events of life with these pre-established beliefs, which then re-trigger mental pathways where our depressive episodes live, leading us deeper and deeper into depression.
Optimist outside, Pessimist inside
"You're stupid. You never do anything right. You're a failure."
This reel has played over and over again in my head, like a never ending alarm without a snooze button. I have beaten myself up, berated myself, and completely eroded my own confidence in ways that no one else has ever been able to. Growing up, I had developed a caustic and highly abrasive inner voice which was anything but encouraging or positive.
I have always looked like an optimist. I flashed a smile at strangers as a reflex, and always gave encouraging refrains like "It will work out," or "It's all going to be ok." However, once I turned my focus inward, the rosy glasses darkened considerably. Internally I was deeply pessimistic, and was unaware of this for over 20 years. The climax developed in a supermarket parking lot in South Carolina.
I was there on spring break, selling magazines to passers-by along with my other schoolmates. Every time I saw someone, I froze. After a week of rejection, a norm in door-to-door sales, I couldn't take it anymore. I didn't want to solicit anyone anymore. That's when my head kicked in - "You're the worst. You're horrible. You're stupid, you can't do anything right." It continued, increasing its fervor and intensity, until I almost needed to shout audibly in order to yell over it!
Our minds are immensely powerful, which is why it hurts so much when our thoughts attack us. In order to fight depression, it helps to slow down and reexamine the way we think about some key things. If we wait until we are already in our depressive episodes, it's already too late. The depression is already negatively clouding our view. Battling depression means altering some of our world views and, sometimes, the people around us who might persist in placing these such views on us. Below are some common thought distortions. The goal is to recognize these thought patterns and to begin to catch them, at the beginning of a situation, allowing yourself to think through and rationally challenge them before they significantly alter your mood. Being aware of and challenging these negative inner voices can positively affect your feelings, hopefully enriching your life.
All or Nothing Thinking
This we commonly refer to as "black and white" thinking. Here, we view everything rigidly - either it is or it isn't. We're good or bad, smart or dumb, pretty or ugly, with no room in between. It takes little evidence to flip towards either side of these see-saws.
The problem with this is that the world is not at all black or white. Relationships are complicated, school and grade performance is measured by a whole set of assignments and tests, and beauty has many different views on what is best. All or nothing thinking creates a fast track to criticizing ourselves and others, based on very little evidence. It simply doesn't match up with the real world, and it works against the life we want.
Overgeneralization is taking one instance and using it to apply a general rule for every situation. For example, I said that awkward thing one time so I must be an awkward person, or one person rejected me so I must be universally unlovable.
The problem with overgeneralization is that it is highly unlikely for one instance to successfully create a rule for all situations. It requires a number of situations to create a rule, and using one instance can quickly create a poor self image that opens the door to worsening depression and unhealthy relationships.
Mental filtering most often involves us filtering out the positive aspects of an event and focusing on the negative. For example, when receiving a positive and a negative comment, we might fixate on the negative comment and hardly give the positive one any thought.
This is our brains on low self esteem. Mental filtering perpetuates a cycle of self-doubt and maybe even self-hatred, which may further negative actions, which then increases feelings of low-self worth. It becomes a vicious cycle. These cognitive distortions are not a conscious choice, but awareness can lead to challenging them.
Disqualifying the Positive
Disqualifying the positive means setting aside positive feedback or events we may experience or observe. For example, I know I'm doing well in these classes, but that doesn't matter because I am doing poorly in this one class.
This negative thought pattern eliminates positives, just leaving the negative for us to ruminate on. This is a microcosm of our brains on depression, looking past any positive things in order to fixate on the negative. This minimizes the good that you are doing which maximizes the negative.
Jumping to Conclusions
Jumping to conclusions is where we make assumptions based on events or observations without confirming them. For example, if a coworker doesn't smile at me, my conclusion is that they hate me or are upset at me for something.
This is an extremely common negative thought pattern, and this does come up most often in relationships. Jumping to conclusions often helps to confirm negative conclusions we have about others’ feelings toward us. Sometimes relationships make us fearful, and we try to comfort ourselves by maintaining a semblance of control through trying to predict or anticipate when someone may be done with us. However, awareness of this can help us to see where we are not looking at the situation clearly because we are trying to avoid any possibility of rejection, which is impossible in intimate relationships.
Magnification (Catastrophizing) & Minimizing
This mental distortion enlarges negative issues and minimizes positive ones. When dealing with this, we may diminish or disregard an award or recognition received, but then focus on a single piece of negative feedback, enlarging it into a catastrophe.
This makes living life in an environment such as school or work extremely difficult, as every moment of feedback becomes a potential nightmare. This is where testing the validity of our self-judgement is crucial to help us to understand that our perceptions do not always line up with reality. When it comes to negative thought patterns, a little challenging against these patterns can sometimes go a long way.
Emotional reasoning is using our emotions as evidence that something is a certain fact. For example, feeling jealous in a relationship might serve as unequivocal evidence that the significant other is in fact cheating.
Naturally, this negative thought pattern can cause relationships to suffer, as others can be driven away by the actions that come along with emotional reasoning. The world does not line up with how we feel, and understanding this even a small amount can be ammunition against this thought pattern.
"Should-ing" is what we call focusing on the "should" - what I should be like, how my situation or job should be, what my friends should say. This is essentially comparing yourself or others to a perfect expectation, which unsurprisingly yields never ending disappointment.
The way things should be is perfect. Therefore, whatever we compare to this ideal, whether it be ourselves, other people, our situations, etc. will fall short. This can be a fast track to low self esteem. Sometimes we also need to watch for the danger of our idealism (e.g. belief in humanity, society, faith, etc.) becoming an unhealthy thought pattern.
Also known as mislabeling, in this pattern, we advance our overgeneralizing all the way to giving definitive labels to ourselves or others. If I fail a test, I must be "stupid", "worthless", or "a huge idiot". Usually these labels are pretty intense and carry a lot of emotional weight.
A good question to ask when experiencing this, as I did in South Carolina, is "is this true?" Sometimes in the midst of our depression, we honestly believe these labels to be true. Regardless, the next question is, "is it helpful?" I have never seen or experienced a label that successful helped me or someone else to improve. It helps to keep in mind that labeling and pressure don't create improvement, but actually impede it.
Personalizing is assigning blame to yourself for numerous things that are generally unrelated. For example, if a family dinner went poorly, you might blame yourself for something unrelated like bringing the wrong dressing.
I have also experienced this a lot, and sometimes we are strongly motivated to personalize, because then we remain in control. If I am to blame, then I possess control over the solution. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Letting go is important here, and admittedly, it is not a simple or quick process. However, there is much freedom that comes with it, often the freedom that we thought we would find by holding onto control over every situation.
What are your negative thinking patterns?
It has been said that our inner voices were once outer voices. Which of the above patterns affect you the most? What are the things you tell yourself? Did someone say them before?
My toxic self-statements were not an explicit voice from years prior, but the verbal manifestation of the high expectations placed from external and internal sources throughout my life. A little self-reflection can go a long way here. An "Aha moment" might just lie on the other side of the question, "where did this negative voice come from?" Is it a parent? A bully? An ex? An abuser? Identifying the voices where these beliefs originated and processing the trauma behind these experiences can really help lessen the effect of these voices.
Overcoming depression is a journey, full of moments of triumph and plenty of setbacks. Patience is key. Accept the mistakes as much as the victories. Love yourself as best as you can, get help, and stick with it. As they say in 12-step programs, "it works if you work it, so work it, you're worth it."
Get Help Today
As stated in the previous blog, it can be difficult to get help because you are not motivated and the route to getting help is hard to figure out even when you want to. Here are some ways to get help:
- Psychology Today - Psychology Today has the largest list of therapists in the United States and many other countries. Feel free to filter by your insurance, specific areas of treatment, and even what gender of clinician you would like to work with.
- Talkspace - Talkspace is the leading site which offers counseling services over the internet. This may be helpful if you are uninsured, or have a high copay for mental health. A counselor can work with you via messages, and also through video chat.
- Betterhelp - Betterhelp is another large online counseling site that offers you unlimited access to a counselor for a weekly fee. Sessions take place via messaging and also via video chat.
- GoodTherapy - Good Therapy is a large therapy directory with therapists available worldwide.
If you know any others that may be helpful, or services in other countries, please contact us and let us know!
Help for Suicidal Thoughts
Depression can be a debilitating illness, and we implore anyone dealing with it to take it seriously. If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call 1-800-273-8255 in the United States. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Here are some international hotlines as well:
Thanks to the International Bipolar Foundation for this list!
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