Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bad Mental Habits

Changing your mind is not like changing your shirt. You can’t just take off your dirty old mind and put on a nice clean new one.

You can’t do it because the mind has its own habitual way of working. If it accustoms itself to seeing and interpreting the world and experience in a certain way it will continue doing so, whether you like it or not.

Getting over a bad mental habit is just as daunting a prospect as getting over any other kind of habit.

The founder of cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck listed a number of what he called cognitive distortions. I would prefer to call them bad mental habits.

In either case Alexandra Levit brought them to our attention in a blog post yesterday.

Among the more salient bad habits:

Thinking in black or white terms. When we see the forces of light arrayed against the forces of darkness we are likely to ignore shades of gray. If we believe in an inevitable conflict between one side that is all right and the other side that is all wrong, we are likely to fail to negotiate a compromise that might be mutually acceptable.

Blame-shifting. You already know this one. It’s the refusal to take responsibility for our own behavior. Instead, we shift the blame… to our friends, our family, our irrational impulses, our primal instincts or global warming.

And then there’s the tendency to be constantly prepared for the worst. Beck called it “catastrophizing.” It means that whenever we see the worst happening to someone else, we assume that it will happen to us. One might say that this is prudent, but clearly it is excessively prudent, to the point of making it impossible to do very much of anything.

Also, Beck identified the tendency to believe that we can change other people and that our happiness depends on our ability to do so. This one infects everyone in the therapy profession, but especially psychoanalysts. It is also the bane of those who believe that their love can cure whoever they love.

Then, Beck offered the control fallacy. Those who suffer from it either feel responsible for everything that happens to anyone who is attached to them or refuse to accept responsibility for anything that they do wrong.

Again, this fallacy shows us making decisions based on a narrative, not on the facts at hand.

We also err when we reason with our gut. Beck identified a tendency in some people to believe that if they feel it, it must be true. You know people who insist that they feel strongly about this or that issue and that their strong feelings are a clear sign that they are right.

Some of us also believe that everything must be fair and just in the world. When things do not turn out as our idea dictates we feel cheated. This suggests that people who want the world to correspond to their ideals have developed a bad mental habit.

People who are depressed tend to see the world in shades of dark gray. When evaluating a day when many good things and one bad thing happen they fixate on the bad thing and conclude that the day was a calamity.

Others endure all manner of suffering because they believe that the more they suffer the greater will be their eventual and inevitable reward.

Among other bad mental habits are:

Jumping to conclusions. This refers to the tendency to assume that people are going to act in character or according to our expectations. Levit suggests that when we believe that other people and the world should be following a mental script, we are incapable of adapting to reality. We tend to judge ourselves harshly when things do not work out according to script and judge others harshly when they do not follow it.

How do you overcome these bad mental habits? Levit takes a page from Aaron Beck and recommends, first, identifying the bad mental habit, and second, attempting to refute it with a reality test:

The first step is simply to identify when you’re engaging in negative thinking and try to refute the thought in your mind.

For instance, if you wake up in a bad mood, you might arrive at work feeling inadequate and incompetent. But once you recognize that feeling inadequate and incompetent doesn’t mean you are (emotional reasoning), you can coach yourself with positive thoughts like, “I was the only one in the group to get promoted last year,” and “my boss trusted me to draft his report for the general manager.” Your emotions might not change immediately, but you’ll be much better equipped to get on with your day.

Of course, one needs to do this repeatedly. And one needs to accompany it with better mental habits, with judicious judgment and a refusal to see life as a script.

1 comment:

Ares Olympus said...

Byron Katie is someone who has done alot against "Jumping to conclusions", and she has a program she calls "The Work" to help clarify truth and perception.
The Work is a way of identifying and questioning any stressful thought. It consists of four questions and a turnaround. This is a way of experiencing the opposite of what you believe. The four questions are:
1) Is it true?
2) Can you absolutely know that it's true?
3) How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? and
4) Who would you be without the thought?
The turnaround involves considering the thought in a reversed form--changing subject and object, changing yes and no, or changing it to be self-referential.

And its not just about "negative thinking" but any sort of thinking that we're attached to. What feels positive now might feel negative later when its falseness becomes apparent, and vice versa, especially if we're working new better habits that take time to learn, but seem impossibly tedious and unnatural at the moment.

I remember once when I was feeling overly ambitious I realized that, theoretically, everytime I learn something new, I ought to review every memory on that subject and test its consistency with the new data, and of course its unrealistic, but in certain situations where there's one final judgement of an event or truth, like being a detective or scientist, where you've made 12 deductive steps in series based on false information, going back to square one and looking over all the evidence again is the only way you can be sure you're not deceiving yourself.