Your Thinking Grows Up
Many of the features of your mental set originated in your childhood, before you developed the ability to think as you do now – abstractly. Abstract thinking begins to develop in adolescence and really comes into its own in adulthood. The way you thought as a child is very different from how you think now. If you want to learn more about this, read a book on cognitive development. I prefer to make the point by illustration. Suppose that I made the following rude remark to you: “You are nothing but a stupid jerk!” At your current age, you might get angry or annoyed with me, but you would be able to figure out that if I call you a jerk, it doesn’t make you one. You are able understand that you are not a jerk because I say so, that I am a rude person, and that is my problem, not yours. Being able to think through that kind of situation requires an ability to reason abstractly. You did not have that ability when you were a small child. Imagine that you are only five years old. Imagine that I said the same rude comment to you: “You are nothing but a stupid jerk!” Being a small child and lacking the ability to reason through this kind of message, you would be apt to believe it and take it completely to heart.
Childhood is a time of mental vulnerability because children lack the abstract reasoning ability of adolescents and adults. Adolescence is the transition period. Some nuisance faulty beliefs about ourselves, others and the world will become established during our childhood years, before the onset of the ability to reason as an adult. Once established, these thinking patterns will not necessarily fall away as our ability to think grows up. Such is the staying power of habits.
As we pass through our teen years, developing abstract reasoning skills, no one takes us aside for a time-out to check out the degree of mental pollution acquired during our mentally vulnerable childhood years. Some of the troublesome thinking patterns and faulty beliefs of childhood will persist in even extremely intelligent people. The good news is that it is never too late to begin the task of mental house-keeping, and helping your thinking to grow up.
Your Mental Set and Your Behaviour
The beliefs of your mental set shape and color your emotional energies, and they do a whole lot more than that. They also have a lot to do with your behaviour. All of the ways that you act, all of the time, tend to be congruent with your mental set. In other words, you tend to stay in character.
If you believe you are a worthless piece of garbage, then your behaviour will demonstrate that belief. If you believe that you are capable, then you will express that in your behaviour. The diagram below shows the relationship between your mental set and all of the ways that you will typically behave. This system is standard equipment for human beings. We defend the beliefs of our mental sets, even if they are illogical. We behave in ways which confirm these beliefs – that provide the evidence for them. It can be a prison, because it is so darn convincing when we actually go out and set up the situations to prove that our beliefs are based in reality. We try to create the evidence to fit the belief.
For example, to prove how unlovable we are, we will act obnoxiously to attract the feedback that proves it. We hang onto our thinking-feeling-behaving prison as if it were prized real estate. “I knew you didn’t really care about me!”
When you try to change your behaviour, do you find that you slip back into your old habits all too often? Do you find it hard to change, even though you start out with great resolve? Here’s what is going on. Your actions (behaviour) and your mental set seek balance and congruence. They are two aspects of the same thing, with your mental set being the inside view and your repertoire of behaviours being the outside view. Simply changing behaviour causes a great deal of stress by throwing this system out of balance. Stress is generated when changing a habituated behaviour. There is an automatic urge to restore the system into balance and congruence, by returning to the behaviour which fits the self-image in your mental set. The key to change is including the mental set as well as behaviour in the change process, so that the whole system evolves, not just the behavioural part. Doing that is what this section is about.
Your mental set, your emotions and your behaviour are interrelated. It is a very complex system. Being advocates of creative laziness, we aren’t going to try to tackle the whole complicated set! What we will look for are the key threads which hold the unhappiness together. Consider it to be a guerrilla venture into mental pollution. We are going to isolate a few key thinking errors and faulty beliefs – the ones that cause most of the problems. By keeping your efforts simple and bite-sized, and by choosing the right bits of mental pollution to go after, you will progress most rapidly.
The Truth About Your Healing Potential
In some circles, there is an idea that if you are sexually victimized, then you must suffer for the rest of your life. This is not true. You will suffer only as long as habituated, self-injuring thoughts remain free to do their mischief. When you decide to no longer just sit there and take it, then you will have begun to heal.
Can you recall a time that you were physically injured – say a scraped knee while biking as a child? Okay. Can you recall the excruciating pain of that moment? Is it difficult for you to hold those memories in your mind? Probably not. You can recall the incident and even the terrible physical pain of the moment, but you are not re-traumatized by the memory. Let’s pretend that your community severely disapproves of scraped knees, that it is considered to be an extremely shameful thing -indicating that the injured person is some kind of lowlife. You would have hidden your injury, avoided medical care and kept the knowledge of the injury a secret for years. You would have covered your injury when going out into the community and you would have experienced shame. In short, there would be traumatic thinking associated with the memory of the injury. This traumatic thinking would be activated just by the memory of the injury. Many young children are traumatized by injuries as slight as a scraped knee. Their childlike thinking tells them that something horrible has happened. Their emotional energies then take on this shape – fear and panic.
Since scraped knees are not shameful in our world, your thinking about this kind of injury has grown up with you. It has not been suppressed under a blanket of shame, fear and secrecy. If you scraped your knee today, it would hurt physically as usual, but your grown-up thinking would process the event in an age appropriate manner. You would not be panicked. Because you’ve had the opportunity to allow your thinking to grow up, the fear and panic thinking has not become habituated, as far as knee scraping goes at least. Scraped knees are a temporarily painful nuisance, not a tragedy. Being able to recall incidents of sexual victimization with only modest discomfort is a realistic goal. It is possible to downgrade sexual victimization from being a life-altering, never-ending trauma, to difficult experiences that once happened, that are not traumatic to recall. I kid you not. This is possible.
The Truth Shall Set You Free
Faulty beliefs and thinking errors remain effective, doing their damage, up until the exact moment that you truly see right through them, and with your own grown-up intelligence understand how untrue and illogical they really are. Habituated patterns may continue to recur again and again, but once you have achieved a breakthrough, you can do it again and again, with conviction, so that seeing the truth becomes the dominant habit.
The methods of doing this are straightforward, but require practice. I am sure that you understand this. You did not ride a bicycle perfectly the first time that you tried it, did you? Naturally, it took several tries and a lot of practice to get past the shaky, uneven stage. You practiced even more before you were able to safely navigate in traffic. Ditto for the following method. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make accomplishments happen.
Remember the golden rule of truth-seeking: Don’t assume what it looks like before you find it. Be open to discovering something new. You are able to make up your own mind anyway, that is something that cannot be taken away from you.
Uncle Albert’s Method
Albert Ellis is at this moment an elderly, professional Helping-Dude living somewhere in the USA. In the 1950’s he developed the following way of helping people deal with their mental pollution – though he didn’t call it mental pollution. He called it having irrational beliefs. His approach is called Rational Emotive Therapy. Albert Ellis’s method goes as directly as possible to the roots of emotional distress, the actual thinking errors and the faulty beliefs that are active in the present moment. It is a method that relies upon you to develop the ability to observe your own thinking, tracking down the erroneous bits in order to challenge and to dispute them. It is based upon the notion that your greatest asset is your ability to expand your understanding.
In the rational emotive way of looking at emotional distress, anything that triggers habituated thinking and feeling is called an activating event. Makes sense, doesn’t it? An activating event can be anything that happens:
–an insulting remark, a conversation, a smell, a memory, a shouting match, bad news, good news, the time of day, the weather – anything at all. The activating event triggers some of your habituated thinking patterns – thinking which conforms to your beliefs – your irrational or faulty beliefs, and your realistic, reasonable, rational beliefs. When your thinking patterns kick into gear – presto! – your emotional energies are given their shape in that moment. What wonderfully responsive beings we earthlings are!
- You notice that you are upset, disturbed, depressed, angry, frustrated, scared or whatever.
- You watch your thinking, so that you know what emotion-shaping thoughts are going around in your noggin. (This skill takes some time to develop, since so much of our thinking is automatic and habituated – it just happens without our awareness of it.)
- You identify the irrational, faulty beliefs and the crooked logic. 4. You debate, dispute and argue with the faulty beliefs and thinking errors. You insist on reliable evidence. You dispute your habituated, wonky notions vigorously – you do not just sit back and let them pummel you.
- In the instant that your disputing and debating begins to take effect, your emotional state will change. Of course it will. Your emotional energies have just been given a different thought-shape to flow through! Good work.
- 6. Reach over your shoulder and pat yourself on back.
On the left is Albert Ellis’s famous ABC diagram. Does it look familiar? Where do you think I got the idea? From Uncle Albert of course. The next diagram shows this process including the disputing of faulty beliefs which when successfully done, leads to a new improved emotional state.
Here is the main point – memorize it:
Honor Your Feelings
You are getting the idea that troublesome, disturbing feelings are caused by thinking. On this basis, you may begin to censor some of your difficult emotions because you have an idea that they are based upon sloppy or crooked thinking. You also may be censoring feelings because they are no fun – shame for instance is a common candidate for censorship, and shame certainly is no fun.
Alert: Try not to censor your feelings.
Your feelings are your direct experience of your self – your life energies. Even if they are all dressed up into the shapes of panic, depression, disgust or shame, try not to censor them. Suppressing your own life force is not a good idea. It will make you sick and eventually turn you into Mount
St. (your name).
When you push your feelings away, it will be difficult for you to get to the roots of your tough-to-live-with emotions – your thinking. And pushing your feelings away is actually throwing the baby out with the bath water. You really want to help your emotional energies to get out of the confinement of habituated thinking. So don’t censor your feelings. For you who have been sexually victimized, the experience of emotions may be difficult. Be gentle with yourself. In the victimization experience, your rights were severely trampled by the person who assaulted you.
You have a right to all of your feelings. “I shouldn’t be feeling like this!”, is a thinking error that is begging for demolition. Of course you should be feeling whatever you feel. You arrived into this moment with your life energies intact and flowing. You bring your thinking patterns with you into this moment – they create your emotional experience of right now. If you have a garden, then you know that you have to let the weeds grow big enough so that you can get a firm hold on them, in order to yank the little blighters out by the roots. Much the same thing here with the faulty beliefs and thinking errors. Honor your feelings. Find ways to get them out on the table – through talking, writing, screaming at a friendly tree, crying, laughing, giggling hysterically, listening to music, painting, playing music, singing, dancing or though relaxing, calming yourself and resting. Honoring your feelings means experiencing and expressing them as fully as you can without getting arrested or tromping on someone else’s rights. It is the first step, which once taken, allows you to do the rest of the work. Here’s a clue: Saying, “I’m a jerk, or You’re a jerk,” is not a feeling statement. It’s a position statement – an opinion – a value judgment. Feelings statements often start with: “I feel . . . ” Bummer feelings are an opportunity, not a sign of failure. Period. If they aren’t out in the light of day, how the heck are you going to track down the thinking that shapes them?
Affirmations Anyone? Maybe …
It may sound as if this manual is asking you to replace troublesome thinking with positive statements to yourself-positive rather than negative thinking. This is true, but . . .
Making positive statements to yourself and repeating them is called affirmation. Here are some sample affirmations: “I am worthwhile, no matter what I have done, I am OK. Everyday I am getting better and better in every way. I am content to be me.” And so on. Get the picture? Affirmations work for some people, some of the time, and sometimes they make things worse. Suppose that I believe that I am a scumbag. Suppose I practice the following affirmation: “I am worthwhile. I am worthwhile. I am worthwhile. I am worthwhile.” The idea here is to have thoughts in my head that will shape my emotional energies in a positive manner. But, do I sincerely believe them? Not necessarily. In fact, I just might generate stress and eventual discouragement as this affirmation collides with my entrenched faulty beliefs.
Affirmations will not necessarily convince me that my faulty belief is as loony as a penguin with a Gucci bag. Clearly understanding the untruth of a faulty belief is the thing we are after, not more mindless repetition. Past
Event Cause Misery Today – NOT!
At the risk of being repetitious, I am going to re-state the good news. Past events, such as incidents of sexual victimization, are the occasions in which traumatic thinking gets started. The continuation of those patterns of self-injury are the cause of emotional distress in the present. Sexual victimization is not the only source of self-defeating beliefs and thinking, but it does act as a kind of mental poultice, activating and strengthening much of the mental pollution that is already present. These patterns of thinking are then applied to the whole range of experiences of your life.
These self-sabotaging mental processes are not written in stone and you can free yourself from them. There is a way out. The way out does not depend on the external events of your life, be they good or bad in your assessment. The way out is in re-thinking and upgrading the obsolete positions that you have taken about yourself and your life.
Common Faulty Beliefs
We understand that Chris Columbus & Co. tortured themselves with fear and panic because of a faulty belief that they would sail off the edge of the world, but what about you and I? What faulty beliefs do we carry with us? Here are some of the usual ones. How they work in relation to sexual victimization will be discussed further along.
Let’s suppose I say to you: “You should do better. You should handle your life better. You should take care of yourself better. You should get the dishes done. You should . . . ”
Is your automatic response to tell me to take a flying leap at a rolling donut, or something to that effect? That would be mine too! And no wonder. It is disrespectful for me to assume such a better-than-thou position. It’s also illogical of me to assume that it is my job to run your life for you. The word should implies a self-appointed, superior, ruler-of-the-universe status – a very wonky notion.
We often use should statements on ourselves as well as others. Should statements cause emotional distress when they are applied to one’s self, as in:
“I should have . . . .”,
“I should be more . . . .” ,
“I shouldn’t be . . . .” , or,
“I shouldn’t do . . . . ”
Should statements may also mean:
“I should . . . . and if I don’t, then I’m an enormous let down!”
In this instance, the emotional distress will be greater – obviously. The “I’m-an-enormous-let-down” part is a superb way to shape emotional energies into bummer feelings. Instant karma. Service with a frown. Should statements mean that life has absolutely got to be the way I say, OR ELSE IT’S HORRIBLE! They are powerful emotion-shaping thoughts.
Should statements are a form of what is called absolutistic thinking – thinking which is rigid and possibly even fossilized – thinking that characterizes the phenomenon of the closed mind. Yikes! There are many common variations of should statements. Here are three popular ones:
“I got to be . . . (or else I’m no damned good.)”
“I have to be . . . (or else I’m no damned good.)”
“I must be . . . (or else I’m no damned good.)”
Let’s take a quick look at a typical should statement, and then dispute it.
“I should have handled myself better than I did.” Or in other words, “I
got to be perfect, in most important things, or else I’m a lousy failure.”
Don’t take my word that this is a cockamamie position to take. Kick it around, dispute, debate and seek reality.
Here are the big questions: “Do I know anyone who is perfect in most important things? Is this possible? Might I meet someone who is perfect? Is it possible for even one of the billions of humans on this planet to handle things perfectly most of the time? ” No. Of course not! Here’s the next question: “Why do I think that I could be perfect when no one else is able to be so? Am I the Queen or King of Perfection?” In disputing, we challenge our wonky beliefs, and hold them up to the light of day rather than just passively letting them clobber us. We seek the aha!-moment in which we see right through them – knowing their falsehood. Should-ing, must-ing and gotta-be-ing are very hard core mental pollutants. Should statements are also applied to other people and to life in general, and their emotion-shaping effect can be much the same, as in:
“She has to agree with me on most important issues, or else …”
“Things must work out the way I want, or else I can’t stand it.”
Should-ing is also called the “Tyranny of the Should’s”, or “masturbation”.
Awfulizing statements say that something is so horrible that it is impossible to cope with it. In repeating them in our heads, they become a pernicious form of self-propaganda, which soon results in self-defeat. For example: “When she or he doesn’t show love and approval towards me, it’s so awful. I just can’t stand it.”
The first problem with this statement is that it immediately shapes good emotional energy into an avalanche of anger, depression or frustration. The second problem is that it is based upon the faulty belief that your emotional well-being depends upon someone else’s approval. These statements create emotional distress. Why just sit there and take it? Debate, dispute and argue towards more enlightened points of view, until you actually understand, all by yourself, what is so illogical about them. Awfulizing is extremely habit forming, and requires a patient, persistent approach to see through it. Be gentle with yourself. Be lazy. Do just a little bit of work, and do it daily. Fuller understanding will come. Example: We habitually think: “I can’t stand this!” The truth in many instances is this: “I can stand this, but it is a nuisance.” The problem with I-can’t-stand-it statements is that they are emotion-shapers. They say:
“This is a catastrophe!”, when there isn’t one.
When you can downgrade an “I-can’t-stand-it” to a “this-is-just-a-pain-in-the-butt”, you will have made progress. You will have taken some habituated thinking to the cleaners. Awfulizing is known by other names and terms, such as: making mountains-out-of-molehills, catastrophizing and exaggerating.
A common awfulizing exaggeration uses the words always or never, incorrectly and inaccurately. Emotions will follow these wacky thoughts: “You never say a nice word to me!”; “You always forget to take out the garbage!” Most of the time, the truth is not never or always, but sometimes: “You sometimes don’t say a nice word to me.” “You sometimes forget to take out the garbage.” When we convince ourselves that these exaggerations are true, we will naturally feel as if they are true. Normal everyday language is littered with these distortions – so are feelings.
Have-have statements express the belief that I got to have something or someone, or else I cannot be happy. They tell me that “I got to have or I really need your affections or approval, or else!” Let’s suppose that you have a close friend who deserts you or ignores you. Let’s pretend that you fill your head with need statements, else-have-or-else statements. You are now in a major bind, having convinced yourself that because of what has happened, life is hopeless. Consider this: If your happiness and well-being really depends upon your friend’s affection and approval, that this is a law of the universe, then how come you actually had some happy moment before you knew your friend? Do you see how this works? By learning how to debate and dispute these cockamamie beliefs, it is possible to downgrade a catastrophe to a disappointment that is not emotionally disabling. Look around you. People are doing this all the time. Relationships begin and end. Friendships are won and lost. People recover from this. They recover faster and more thoroughly when they clear up their self-injuring thinking as soon as they can. Of course, some people will torment themselves mercilessly for ages – becoming full-time citizens of Double Whammy City.
Human Worth Statements
Human worth statements are based upon the faulty belief that we have the god-like status to rate humans beings, ourselves and others. They are also based upon an error of logic, which goes like this: “Since I (you) have done a lousy thing, I am (you are) a completely lousy person.”
Or, try this one:
“Since I have made some mistakes, I am one huge mistake.” The illogic of this kind of thinking means that if I have a pimple on my nose, then I am, as a person, one complete pimple. It means that if my behaviour has some blemishes, then all of my behaviour is blemished, and that I am a blemish. Because I haven’t handled everything in my life perfectly, does that make me a complete washout as a person? Human worth statements sometimes act as filters. Non-blemishing evidence is filtered out and ignored. For example: “I am a loser.” In truth, there is no such thing as a loser.
All of us lose at some things, some of the time – but never all the time.
Destructive self-worth statements are often tied in with “I-perfect-be-perfect” thinking which is equally loony. By now, you have begun to realize how much mental pollution there is in our world. Mental pollution is rampant – in some circles it is out of control. The fashion industry, for example, really counts upon the rest of us making absurd human worth statements to ourselves. For instance, if your body or wardrobe doesn’t conform to their standards, then you are definitely a sub-standard human. How about the messages from TV commercials: If I drink a certain brand of virile beer, or drive a virile car, then I will never be impotent. Good grief!
Here is a list of common faulty beliefs:
- I got to have the approval of the main people in my life – all the time.
- I got to do most things well, or I’m no good.
- I can’t stand it unless things go the way I want most of the time.
- Life must be fair to me most of the time.
- Anyone who treats another person unfairly is a completely worthless person.
- If I can’t depend on others, then I can’t be happy and life is horrible.
- Human value can be rated.
- I am at the mercy of past experiences. There is no way out of this trap. I cannot change the way I feel. It all depends on what happens to me.
- When other people are unhappy, I can’t be happy. If I don’t spend a lot of time fussing over problems, I will never be able to solve them. I got to be perfect in my efforts to solve my problems.
- I can’t stand it when other people don’t see things the way I do.
- Walking away from problems is easier and is less work than facing them.
- It is possible to have a perfect relationship.