Let’s look at the insights gathered by the founder of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Albert Ellis. In his work, he couldn’t help but notice that different people seemed to respond very differently to similar events. Why? The events themselves didn’t explain the difference—it must be the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of the people who were interpreting these events. Over the years, Ellis came to the same conclusion that Shakespeare arguably did in Hamlet when he said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Thoughts, feelings, and actions are all connected and work together to create your response to external events. The ABC method, inspired by this understanding, helps us tease apart the different elements:
A is for activating event. This is neutral in the sense that it only takes on meaning and value according to our response to it.
B is for beliefs. How we respond internally to the event.
C is for consequence.
Importantly, the outcome (consequence) is not a direct result of the event, but of our interpretation of the event. The event is always neutral. You can see where this is going: If we want to change our lives, we shouldn’t start with A, the external events, but B, how we think about the events these events come from.
In CBT, the goal is to make adaptive changes, so two new letters are added:
D is for disputation. This is where we challenge the ideas in B.
E is for new effect. Something different to replace the old C.
Let’s look at an example. Dan has always loved motorcycles and owns several. One fateful day, he is out riding at night and has an accident: He collides with a car, severely injuring the mother and daughter inside, totaling his favorite bike and leaving him with spinal damage that means that he will not ride a bike again for years—if ever. That’s one big, gnarly activating event!
Believe it or not, Ellis would say that this event, tragic as it appears, is neutral and has no meaning by itself. But Dan is right there and responding instantly: He is completely destroyed with guilt and remorse. He calls it a tragedy. His world is so shaken by the event that he considers it a pivotal moment—before the accident, he was happy, carefree, and innocent. After it, he was a condemned man, miserable, doomed to carry the remorse of the damage he’d caused—not to mention the physical pain from his own significant injuries.
Dan refuses to forgive himself. Despite being forgiven by the mother and the daughter in the car, and despite everyone around him telling him that it was an accident and not his fault, Dan is eaten up with shame and the deep wish to turn back time. He falls into a depression and, perhaps unconsciously, starts to punish himself. He withdraws socially and stops taking care of himself. A pattern of self-defeating, negative thinking seeps into his world.
Here's how the ABC method applies to Dan:
A – The activating event is the accident.
B – There are many beliefs here, but the big one is, “I am guilty. I’m a bad, bad person.”
C – The consequences are obvious. Dan spirals into depression and self-loathing, unable to forgive himself or move on.
Now, the ABC part of the model is a roadmap to help explain the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behavior. But it’s only when Dan seeks therapy with a CBT psychologist that he is asked to add on the other two letters and work through this dynamic so it can be transformed.
Filled with grief and distress, Dan enters therapy and wants to talk about the details of the gruesome accident. The therapist listens, but he is not interested so much in the details of the story as he is in the meaning underneath them—he listens for the beliefs that inform the way Dan talks about his experience. Dan uses plenty of cognitive distortions (catastrophizing, “should” statements, and a heaping dose of personalization), but the therapist doesn’t engage with these—instead, he becomes curious about the core beliefs that these distortions are serving.
They work together, and Dan becomes aware of the story he is telling himself about the event. Simply realizing he is telling a story in the first place allows him to gain some distance and perspective (more on this in the next section). The therapist starts to gently challenge Dan—is there possibly a different way of looking at the whole thing? Seeing clearly how the current story is damaging his life, Dan agrees he has nothing to lose and that he will try out a different perspective:
“It was a sad and regrettable accident, but I did not do it on purpose. It’s true that I am responsible for the pain caused, but I never intended to hurt anyone, and that means that I am not a bad person, but just a person who made a mistake. Carrying shame and guilt doesn’t serve anyone, including me. It’s okay that I have found this difficult, but I can also give myself permission to move on now and live my life again.”
So, is that the “right” story? Maybe. Dan could also tell another one:
“The day of the accident was the worst day of my life. But despite all the pain, I am grateful it happened because it taught me something precious: to never take anything for granted, to live while I can, and to appreciate every moment I have. That means going out there and living life in the best way I possibly can so that when it’s my time to die, I know I’ve lived well and will not be filled with regret.”
Completely different story. In fact, there are probably an infinite number of stories to tell about this event. None of them are right or wrong. However, all of them will lead to particular consequences. Are those consequences in line with a happy, healthy life that we want to create for ourselves? That’s how we tell if a story is one we want to adopt.
Often, CBT is simply presented as a way to make simple and superficial tweaks to single sentences—for example, instead of saying, “This is hard; I can’t do it,” you say, “This is challenging, but I’ll try my best.” Make no mistake, this sort of alteration is incredibly helpful. It’s just that, in real life, you’ve probably noticed that your problems tend to take the form of stories rather than simple, discrete statements.
You can use the principles of CBT in your own life. By using a “thought journal,” you can carefully work through the three elements (event, belief, and consequence) and start to replace destructive or unhelpful beliefs with better ones. Before we look at that, though, here’s a note on what “better” looks like when it comes to thoughts.
No, they don’t have to be relentlessly “positive.” But a good replacement will be:
• Accurate – it is a close reflection of external reality
• Helpful – it actually assists you in achieving what you want in your life
• Congruent – it aligns with who you are and the values and principles you hold dear. It goes without saying, but the thoughts you use to replace unhelpful ones shouldn’t be simply copied and pasted from someone else’s life—they have to genuinely mean something to you.
Being your own CBT therapist is a little like applying the Find and Replace function on Microsoft Word. There are two parts. First, observe and identify your thoughts. Second, rewrite these beliefs and allow the change in perception to filter through to your actions and behaviors in the external world. Then, take note of the results, adjust, and repeat!
Step 1: How to Keep a Thought Journal
This is not a conventional journal in the sense that you simply sit down and write whatever comes to you. While doing so has some therapeutic value, you’ll want to be a little more focused and deliberate when keeping a thought journal. You’re trying to understand:
What are the main events that have occurred in my life?
What are the beliefs I hold about these events?
What are the emotions that result from thinking this way?
How do I act and behave because I hold this belief?
A thought journal can be used in a non-directed way if you merely want to gain some self-knowledge, but it’s best used when there is a particular problem you’re working through. Sit down when you won’t be disturbed, and give yourself five or ten minutes to just explore how you think and feel. Put it all down on paper—it doesn’t have to be perfect or make sense. Hold it all loosely and don’t try to interpret anything just yet. After the time is up, you may choose to take a little break before looking at it again.
When you look again, you may notice some patterns and themes emerging. Maybe you go back through the text and pull these out with a highlighter. Or maybe you allow the main ideas and thoughts to coalesce into a few sentences. You’ll probably notice a few cognitive distortions in the mix! As you’re writing or re-reading, don’t try to avoid painful or uncomfortable themes—in fact, lean into those, as they will most reliably lead you to your core beliefs about the event that’s underway. Try also to avoid making any pronouncements just yet—don’t let that inner critic weigh in with judgments and diagnoses. Give yourself permission just to honestly express everything—yes, even that thing you’re trying hard not to think about!
Step 2: Rethink . . . and Redo
Once you’ve identified the key thought patterns and core beliefs hiding inside your current situation, it’s time to get curious about alternative ways of looking at things. Once you’ve done that, then the next step becomes obvious, too: You think of ways to implement those new beliefs via action.
It might be helpful to summarize things neatly by creating a table of two columns. One column is the negative thought pattern you currently hold, and the other column is where you brainstorm new beliefs and interpretations. The key point about this exercise, though, is that intellectually understanding what a better alternative would look like does not mean that you instantly replace it. Chances are, your negative thought patterns have been there for a while—it will take time to experience a genuine and lasting shift to something different, so be patient and realistic.
So, writing something new in the second column is the very least you can do. You have to imagine really drilling this new way of thinking into your mind—it has to become real for you. There are many ways of doing this, but passively waiting for your mind to catch up is not likely to work. This is where action can help. Imagine that everything you write in the second column is purely hypothetical—that is, until you take action to make it real.
Here are a few ideas:
• Take action that supplies you with evidence that supports your new belief. Your brain is intelligent—it doesn’t want to believe something without proof. So, for example, if your unhelpful thought is, “Everyone will hate what I create,” then put it to the test. In a small way, ask someone for their opinion on what you’ve created. When they don’t hate it, make a mental note. Then take another small step. Gradually, you are accumulating evidence for your new thought: “There are people who like my art.”
• Create and strengthen a new filter. Your old mental filter worked hard to only notice those things that confirmed your core belief. Every day, pause to deliberately ask yourself to look at things in a way that aligns with your new belief. The old thought, “I get depressed in winter,” will give way to the new one, “There are many things about winter that I still enjoy,” if you try to find five things you love about each winter day when you wake up.
• Practice self-compassion. Remember that cognitive distortions are not only about content, but about feeling. You might find that your thought processes are fairly rational and realistic, but the problem is that they’re just too harsh! The thought, “Most of my life is behind me,” may be literally true . . . but it’s kind of unflattering. Here, taking action may simply mean being brave enough to face what’s uncomfortable with humor and kindness. “Well, you can’t go on an epic journey without putting a few miles on the clock!” Be polite and courteous to yourself. A little tact goes a long way. Try a handy trick for quickly cultivating self-acceptance: Put the words “. . . and I love that” at the end of something you’re framing as a problem. “I failed my driver’s test . . . and I love that.” It’s not a magic wand, but isn’t it interesting how it shifts your perspective? Maybe it’s not the end of the world that you’re flawed or struggling in the way you are. At least consider the possibility.
• Change statements to questions. Your core beliefs are just that—beliefs, not facts. If you find in the first column the thought, “Nobody wants to hire someone with my skills.” Change it to, “Is anyone hiring someone with my skills?” Literally go and check! Sounds too simple, but we often allow assumptions to act like facts in our lives. Be curious. Don’t say how the door is closed—ask about any other doors around you that are open. In fact, while you’re at it, ask about secret escape routes hidden under the floor you’re standing on!
• Go into learning mode. A great trick is to ask yourself “how?” Instead of saying, “I can’t do this,” say, “How can I do this?” If something isn’t working, don’t focus on that fact—ask what does work. If you have the belief, “I’ll always be with money,” then combat it with a very concrete, realistic question: “How can I start to improve my financial literacy?” This way, you’re not getting hung up on the fact of a challenge or obstacle, you’re just skipping right over it and refusing to dwell—instead, asking what happens next. One very powerful question to ask, no matter what you’re struggling with, is, “What kind of person do I have to be right now to cope with this well?”
Decenter, Shift Perspective, and Create Distance
Meet Chris. It’s Monday morning, and just as Chris gets into his car to make the daily commute to work, he notices a red light flashing on the dashboard. He swears under his breath and drives to work anyway, trying to ignore the warning bell, but with a sinking feeling in his gut that this means a big nasty bill that he won’t be able to avoid. He gets to work after sitting in traffic for a while and is immediately met with a message that a client has submitted a complaint about him. His boss wants to chat. At the same moment, he realizes that he’s forgotten his wallet at home and hasn’t brought any lunch with him.
When a colleague peeks her head around the door and asks if he’s okay, he says, not really joking, “Just kill me now please.” She asks what the problem is, and he says, “I don’t know, life?” The colleague mentions that she wanted to ask him a few questions about a funding request he submitted last week, and he quips, “Oh yeah? What’s wrong with it? Let me guess, I’ve made a mistake and have to spend ninety years in prison for fraud? Or wait, I’ve got it. They’ve done the calculations and I actually owe them money, right?”
The colleague mutters something and scuttles off. Chris sits fuming in his office and all at once feels like crying. He hates himself for it, but whenever an unexpected expense comes up, he finds himself panicking. He remembers how his mom and dad struggled financially and battled to keep their beat-up old car running, once or twice having to forfeit the heating bill or that week’s groceries to pay for an unexpected repair.
Here's something that many people seldom think about: Pessimism, negativity, and gloomy nihilism are all coping mechanisms. It might not look like it, but these responses signal that at some point, you came to the conclusion that your best bet was not to expect too much from life and instead be ready to assume the worst. This kind of negative attitude is a coping mechanism . . . but it’s certainly not a good one. That’s because it disempowers you and tends to more firmly entrench the things that are oppressing you, rather than enable you to rise above them.
When you begin to shift your thinking to a more positive direction, you may be taking away the only coping mechanism that is protecting you from experiencing a whole world of pain, hurt, disappointment, anger, and fear. Luckily, though, we don’t have to live in the world without coping mechanisms—we can choose better, healthier ones.
Sh*t Happens . . . Even if You Think Positively
There is a perhaps unconscious assumption that if only you learn to master the fine art of positive thinking, your life will somehow be much, much easier. This may be true, but only in the sense that with positive thinking, you become more resilient and better able to cope—positive thinking, it should be said, doesn’t magically make your life completely free of adversity. It doesn’t remove challenging events but gives you a different way of responding to them.
Most of us are able to maintain a sunny disposition for a while (i.e., as long as nothing goes too wrong!), but we falter when we encounter our old wounds and traumas, the unfairness of life, a painful loss, or a moment of genuine confusion and chaos. The irony is that these moments are when we need positive thinking the most.
In the previous chapters, we looked at fixing our relationship with our own minds and making sure that we weren’t deliberately undermining ourselves with destructive and distorted thought patterns. But, as any good pessimist would point out, they are negative for a reason! Those reasons are seemingly infinite: unexpected car repairs, complaints and conflicts, silly misunderstandings, and accidents . . .
We cannot avoid a degree of friction in life. And we certainly can do nothing about things that have already happened in the past. But how can we cope with it in a calmer and more measured way? What does a healthy coping mechanism look like? Let’s bear in mind that sh*t happens even if you think positively. The trick is to accept this fact and find a good way to manage it.
How to Take a Step Back
Think about Chris’s colleague in the example above. She comes in, chats with him for a moment, and then quickly decides to retreat. Why? Probably because she can tell what a foul mood he’s in! She knows there’s no use engaging when he’s so grumpy, so she doesn’t. She physically removes herself from the room. We’re considering the colleague only because she is able to do something that Chris, in that moment, cannot: gain distance. She can observe the behavior as it unfolds and realize that it’s temporary. But Chris is stuck right in it, completely at its mercy.
When you gain psychological distance, what you are doing is taking a deep breath, stepping back from the situation, and becoming a temporary observer rather than a wholly enmeshed and identified participant.
With psychological distance, you are able to step out of the narrow tunnel of your immediate experience and look at the bigger picture. Had Chris been able to do this, he might have said to himself or his colleague, “Look, I’m having a difficult morning and I’m stressing a little about money. It’s okay and it will pass, but before I do anything further, I just want to wait until I’ve calmed down a bit.”
Here are a few other techniques that Chris could have tried.
Create Spatial Distance
Literally separate yourself from the problem—go outside and take a walk if the place you’re in is overwhelming, or write worrying thoughts in a journal and make a ritual of setting this journal in a locked drawer in another room—i.e., where it’s far away from you. Perhaps Chris imagines physical space—he meditates for a few moments where he visualizes himself in a peaceful faraway garden where he can gather his thoughts for a moment.
Create Temporal Distance
We can take a step away from difficult experiences not just in space, but in time. Think about how this situation will look to you in one, two, or ten years’ time. Can you think of a similar challenging situation that happened in the past? How do you feel about it now that some time has passed? Did any of your fears come true? How did you cope? Have you actually evolved and learned new ways of coping since then?
Chris zooms out—way out—and visualizes himself on his death bed. He feels calmer as he realizes that life was indeed filled with annoying crises that came and went, but that they mean absolutely nothing in the grand scheme!
The next time you’re struggling with something, gain distance by imagining your future self in ten years’ time. Then, as your future self, answer the following questions:
• What do you think about the current issue?
• What is your stress rating of the issue compared to the stress rating your current self is experiencing (on a scale of 1 to 10)?
• What do you know that your current self doesn’t know?
Another way to do this exercise is to think to the past and a stressful event that happened then. Ask yourself these questions:
• How distressed were you (on a scale from 1 to 10)? At what rating did the feeling peak?
• How long did the feeling last?
• When and how did it stop?
Play with Role-Switching
What would other people do in your shoes? Think of someone you respect and admire, and imagine the problem through their eyes. This helps separate you from your own blind spots and tender points. Chris has a lot of traumatic memories from his childhood, but he always loved and revered his father. He thinks about how his dad was tough and no-nonsense about practical problems and would say, “To hell with it! I’ll learn to fix it myself.” This inspires Chris because it reminds him of his own resourcefulness.
Another possibility is to imagine your Higher Self, whatever that looks like to you. Some people may like to imagine a deity, a guardian angel, or a supernatural being who provides sagely guidance. If an all-knowing, wise, and loving entity looked with interest at your current problem, what would they advise you to do? If that doesn’t feel authentic to you, imagine a personal hero or role model and how they’d respond—even if they’re fictional!
Focus on Concrete Action
When Chris is having his Monday morning meltdown, he isn’t thinking clearly, to put it bluntly. His distress and anxiety is like an amorphous cloud that engulfs him, and his mind jumps from one catastrophic and negative thought to another, with certain themes quickly taking on epic proportions. He is not thinking about how to book his car in at the service station, but dwelling bitterly on deep psychological fears of poverty and the feelings of failure and humiliation that brings, of his relationship with his father, of how he feels like he’s on a rat wheel and the rat wheel is always just about to break . . .
This “head storm” is simply his brain in overdrive. It’s normal to look for patterns, elaborate on themes, make predictions, come to conclusions, or ask why. But a distressed brain can do this in an out-of-control fashion, becoming completely untethered from reality. How do you tether it back again? By finding and anchoring to the concrete world.
Ask yourself: what can you do? Don’t imagine the next three weeks or the next ten steps. Just think of the very next concrete action you could take. Chris takes a deep breath and answers this question: He needs to get his car examined at a garage so he knows what the problem is and can get some quotes for repairs. Next step, then, is to make some calls. That’s all. It’s not his job to think about the outcome—just about the next step in the process.
Make a detailed and dispassionate list. Acknowledge your emotions as they come up, but politely ask them to sit aside for the moment while you tackle the issue at hand with calm, neutral objectivity. When you catch your mind wandering, grab a hold of the thought and ask plainly: “Can I do anything about this?” If the answer is yes, stop ruminating and do that thing. If the answer is no, stop ruminating—since ruminating won’t help. Either way, you don’t need to ruminate!
When Chris catches the thought, “This morning is just a disaster,” he stops and asks if that thought is actionable. Nope. It has no shape. It’s just a vaguely threatening cloud that doesn’t go anywhere. When the thought, You just never get a chance to get ahead in this life crosses his mind, he definitely ignores it. Following it will lead him nowhere.
When he thinks, “I bet fixing that damn car will cost me a fortune,” he pauses, then decides to turn it into a question. Will it cost him a fortune? He doesn’t actually know. He makes a list of three service garages to call and commits to getting a quote from each of them. If it really will cost him a fortune, well, at least he knows this for sure now and can make his next move. In the event the quotes are actually very low, though, he has spared himself a huge amount of useless anxiety.
In fact, as Chris goes about dealing with his morning from hell, he realizes that this is precisely the quality he most admired in his dad—the ability to just get on and do what needs to be done without too much whining, angst, or handwringing. He takes a moment to experience what this new perspective actually feels like. How the problem is still there, but somehow he is different in relation to that problem. Chris calls three places, and they agree to send him quotes within the hour. But he discovers that even though nothing much has changed for his situation, he feels much better simply for having taken a positive, proactive step.
If your negative thinking is running out of control, immediately ask it to focus on one small, concrete detail right here in the present. Forget about grand narratives that will only lead to the distortion of overgeneralization. One amazing way to get distance and shift perspectives, then, is to get out of your own head and into the concrete, physical world of action. Sometimes, nothing can dissolve useless rumination, negative thoughts, and pessimism as quickly!
A Word on the Most Useless Habit in the World
When a captive parrot is extremely stressed or unhappy, it can sometimes start to pull its own feathers out. To the dismay of its owner, it will sit and yank out its own feathers one by one so that it has raw, bald patches all over its neck and chest, and a dirty cage filling up with feathers and down. Granted, parrots do this for a range of complicated reasons, but human beings have a tendency to do something similar—a kind of mental feather plucking.
The habit in question is complaining. Every time you complain, it is as useless and destructive as a parrot plucking one of their own beautiful, healthy feathers and throwing it to the ground. It serves no purpose, it solves no problem, and all it achieves is to make the parrot look awful. Most of us think of complaining as relatively harmless, but the ease with which we can make little complaints here and there is precisely what makes the problem so insidious.
Consider Christina, another one of Chris’s hypothetical colleagues at work. Nothing in particular happens to her that Monday morning, but that doesn’t stop her from releasing a steady stream of background complaints throughout the day.
“Ugh! They’re out of decaf again. This place is a joke.”
“I think I have a headache coming on.”
“Have you seen the price of gas lately!?”
“I wish it were Friday.”
“So we got the decorators in, but of course they messed it up, and now we have to get someone in to fix their work . . .”
“I’m so tired.”
“Gah! This thing’s broken again. I just can’t handle it.”
“That woman at the café was so rude, seriously. Would it have killed her to smile?”
And on and on and on . . .
Any single one of the above statements might not seem like much on their own, but when every sentiment seems to be a mild complaint, the effect is a little like a bald spot on a parrot. Christina isn’t having the crisis Chris is, but she is just as surely creating a negative world for herself with her thought patterns.
Complaining is powerful. It is the opposite of gratitude. It is also incompatible with conscious, inspired action.
Complaining is identifying a problem without seeking a solution, or passively whining so that others will solve it for you. It’s a subtle way to deny our own responsibility for an issue, or to quietly place blame. It is one hundred percent “out of power” language and can lead to a creeping attitude of victimization.
When we complain, we amplify negativity while doing nothing to actually address it. At its worst, complainers make a nuisance of themselves, and their dissatisfaction can almost be weaponized against others, as though they were constantly saying, “Wah! I’m unhappy, and I’m going to make things unpleasant until someone does something about it!” Basically, complaining is like a low-level, background temper tantrum!
If you recognize a little of yourself in Christina, don’t worry—we all complain sometimes. There is nothing wrong with being irritated, tired, sad, or confused. What matters is what we consciously choose to do about it. Ask yourself the same question Chris does. Can I do anything about this? Complaining, like pessimism, is a kind of coping mechanism (but a rotten one!). You may discover that it’s actually far easier to cope when you remind yourself of a simple fact: If you don’t like something, you have the power to change it.
Try a Cognitive Defusion Exercise
In reading the stories above about people like Chris or Dan, you can be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to your own life, things are seldom so simple or clear cut. It can often seem like all these ideas make sense . . . but only long after you’ve already gotten trapped in negative thinking or even had a full-blown episode or panic attack. Whatever term we use to describe this phenomenon when it happens, we have to acknowledge that sometimes, our negative thoughts get the upper hand on us, and we feel ourselves sinking.
The advantage Dan has is that he can use the ABC framework at his own pace, over many weeks and months with a therapist he trusts. When Chris wakes up to a hellishly bad day, he can gain a little distance and, if he gains control over the negativity spiral, feel better the next day. But what about when you’re right in the middle of some very negative thoughts and you can’t get out? One obvious characteristic of really negative thinking is that it warps our ability to see everything, including the problem as it’s unfolding. We stop being able to imagine a way out, and start to think that things have always been this bad and will continue to be forever.
Action Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a psychological approach that has a word for this exact feeling of being flooded with negativity: fusion.
When we are fused with thoughts, we are so close to them that we cannot think, feel, or act outside of them. The thought consumes us. It is us. It’s a little like watching a movie and being so engrossed in the unfolding story that you forget you are watching a movie at all (and incidentally, that you can always just walk out!). In the same way, when we are fused, we forget that we are having thoughts at all. And so we are at their mercy, assuming that our current and transient experience of reality is permanent, unalterable, and completely out of our control.
When we discussed Dan and how distance and perspective gave him enough breathing room to gently challenge and replace his negative thoughts, we were also talking about fusion. However, when we are really fused with negative thoughts and ideas, it can often take a lot more than a day or a few perspective shifts to help us change gear.
Your brain is not a machine that perfectly regards reality, but a machine that creates a picture of reality, or a story about reality. When we are fused with negative thoughts, however, we have told ourselves such a convincing story that we believe it fully and cannot escape.
Ellen’s Story and Finding the “Big You”
Ellen’s world is a dark, dark place. She has felt broadly miserable about life and herself for as long as she can remember. From the outside, Ellen looks like an ordinary person, and she has friends and family who love her. On the inside, though, Ellen’s mind is like a tailor-made torture chamber designed just for her. She doesn’t just feel and believe that she is worthless and that life is completely not worth living; she knows it’s the case.
It is, in fact, the only thing she is ever really sure about. She has gone to therapists of all kinds, tried medication, spoken to friends, read the self-help books, and even once or twice gone to retreats and workshops. But nothing really shifts Ellen’s deep, lasting conviction that life is misery, and that to be alive is basically to suffer. Constantly. Yes, she is what people call “depressed.” If Ellen’s life was a movie, it would be a gritty and miserable black-and-white drama that ends with everyone dying in the apocalypse.
Ellen’s thoughts and feelings have been stuck in this mode for so long that they have cemented themselves into core beliefs that form the very foundation on which the rest of her world is built. No matter what happens, Ellen’s mental filter makes sure that the only conclusion she can ever reach is, “Life is awful.” And Ellen is completely, one hundred percent fused to this thought. They are stuck together like glue.
So, when she sits in the therapist’s chair, she doesn’t ask for coping strategies or help understanding why she can’t stop being so negative. Instead, she asks, “Why is life so miserable?”
When she confides in a close friend who is trying to understand how to help her, Ellen can only say, “How can you help me? There’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing anyone can do—that’s why I’m so unhappy in the first place.”
When her husband tells her that’s she’s beautiful and that he loves her, all she can say is, “Well, it must be nice to be so delusional!”
You can see the problem. Not only is Ellen wearing some very black-tinted glasses, she is completely unaware that she is. So even when she attempts to solve the problem, she is solving the wrong one. Her position goes deeper than Chris’s or Dan’s because not only is she at the mercy of some very powerful negative thoughts, she isn’t even able to recognize that this (and not the state of the world around her) is the source of her misery.
How on earth does someone like Ellen escape her dark thoughts—in other words, how does she defuse?
Again, it’s a question of a mindset shift, i.e., learning to look at the problem on a completely different level. Earlier, we mentioned one way to gain distance from the inner critic: giving it a name and treating it as though it literally was someone separate from you and someone you could send away (remember Mildred?).
Here, we will try to imagine that the Mind (capital M!) in its entirety is a separate entity. This means that you can step back from it and look at it from afar. This poses the question, what is doing the looking? Aren’t you your mind? The answer is a resounding NO!
Not only is it a good idea to imagine that your Mind is something separate from you and that you can watch, it’s a good idea to connect to that You (capital Y!) that is doing the watching.
“There goes boring old Mildred again, my old friend the inner critic, coming up with a million reasons to tell me why I can’t do something. Get out of here, Mildred!”
The me in the above statement is You—the big You.
This may seem like a weird philosophical point to labor, but it’s important because by doing this (separating your Mind from You), you are giving yourself a powerful lever to get out of any trap that your Mind puts you in.
Let’s imagine how this might work for Ellen. Let’s say she’s having an especially dark time and is feeling completely overwhelmed by the negativity she sees around her in the world. All she can see is that the world is a dark, chaotic place filled with greedy, crazy people who seem hellbent on hurting one another (you’ve probably had a similar thought at some point or other, right?). Her brain is like a hurricane of negativity, so she sits down with a journal to try to release some of it onto the page.
I just don’t see the point of it all. I work so hard, and it’s basically for nothing. Why bother trying? I could go out there and start a new project and get all hopeful and blah blah blah, but someone will only come and smash it all down. That’s not to say I’d even get to finish anything in the first place, because I’m too tired. How many things have I started and never finished? I don’t have the time, and honestly, there isn’t really a thing I’m good at—not in this world. Maybe if I were a cut-throat psychopath or something, but I’m not. So I just don’t care anymore.
Phew! A negativity hurricane, indeed. But let’s look closer. On the advice of her therapist, Ellen tries something different. She puts everything down on paper, then looks at the notebook. She takes her pen and draws a big box around all the words. In a different-color pen, she writes above it in bigger letters: THIS IS WHAT MY MIND IS TELLING ME. Because Ellen’s quite creative, she cleverly turns the box into a speech bubble, which is coming from the mouth of a little grumpy face in the corner of the page.
And just like that, there are two voices. Ellen’s and this little grumpy face on the page. Now, Ellen might do this exercise and still side with the negative thoughts. The difference is that this time, she’s done so knowing that this point of view is not the only game in town. She is aware now that she has chosen it; in other words, she starts to see her negative perspective not as reality, but as a negative perspective.
Ellen does this for a few days, and after a while, a lightbulb goes off: She looks at all the negativity on the page (that’s outside her head and somewhere out there where she can see it) and thinks, “Wow. That’s what I carry in my head all the time. That’s messed up.”
Does Ellen cure herself overnight of her negative thinking? No. It took her a lifetime to learn. But the next time she has one of her darker days and she sits with her journal again, she notices all those same thoughts again, just as before. Except now, she’s not quite so tied to them. She watches herself have them. The change is subtle, but after some time, something happens. She thinks to herself one day, I’m feeling depressed instead of life sucks.
The great thing about a lever is that it can work to shift an enormous load even if you can only fit the narrow end of the wedge in at first. Once Ellen gets the smallest inkling she is not her thoughts, she is just having thoughts, that realization grows and grows. One day, Ellen picks up her journal again and flips through pages and pages of negative thoughts she has put down over the weeks and months. She asks herself a question: Is this really what I want? She is no longer wondering why life is so bad for her; she is wondering whether the thought that life is bad is actually helping her in any way.
The end of this story is not that Ellen permanently vanquishes depression from her life forever—it hardly ever works out that way. But she does something far more impressive, if you think about it. Ellen learns to think outside of her own mind. She starts to look at the thoughts in her head not as absolute truth but as arbitrary tools—some of them are useful, some aren’t. Some build her up and give her courage and fill her life with meaning, and some make her feel despairing and trapped. Some are rational and some aren’t. Some inspire action, and others convince you that action is even possible.
For those who battle with depression, the biggest trap is to think, “I’m unhappy because life is so unbearable,” but it really might be the other way around: because you are fused with the thought that life is unbearable, you feel unhappy as a consequence.
Make Your Beliefs Earn Their Keep
A thought is just a thought.
It’s not automatically the “truth.”
You don’t have to act on it.
You don’t have to agree with it.
You don’t have to respond to it at all.
It doesn’t have to mean anything about the situation at hand, or you as a person.
It’s not good or bad.
It’s just a thought.
Once you realize a thought is just a thought, then you are able to let it do what thoughts do best: pass. Here is a question: If a bus suddenly pulled up in front of you right now, would you automatically board it and allow it to take you away? Well, you’d probably want to know where it was going first. That’s how you should think about thoughts.
Where does this thought take me? Do I want to go there?
If not, don’t board the bus. Let it go on its way and don’t attach to it or fuse with it. It’s not your bus. If it does take you where you want to go, then get on board. In fact, get behind the wheel and steer that bus yourself to the destination of your choice. Stay on the bus as long as it helps you get where you need to go, and when it doesn’t, find another vehicle or another route there.
This turns the relationship between You and your Mind on its head. Instead of your Mind calling the shots. You are the one in charge. You make your thoughts earn their keep. Unless they are accurate, productive, supportive, congruent with your values, practically useful, or, at the very least, pleasant, then you have no use for them. So you can let them go.
Ellen did this when she looked at the steaming pile of negativity she was holding on to and realized it did precisely nothing for her. It wasn’t on her side. It wasn’t helping. You don’t have to be in as bad a state of Ellen, though, to do the same. Try the following:
1. Ask yourself what you value most in life, or what you are trying to achieve. Maybe it’s something big like the love of your family, personal growth, or your faith. Maybe at the moment, all you can think of is something immediate like “some peace and quiet” or “a less crummy job.” Even in the most negative mindsets, we all want something. Hold that thought in your mind.
2. Now, like Ellen did, become aware of the negative thoughts that are coming up for you.
3. Take a close look at this thought. Tell yourself, “I am having this thought.” Pause and let it sink in that this is your Mind talking, and it’s just a thought. If you like, give it another label, too. Call it by its name: criticism, doubt, curiosity, fear, observation, resistance, etc. Get acquainted with what kind of thought it is. Create some distance by using third person, if you like, “Ellen is having a self-hating thought.”
4. Now, don’t worry about whether the thought is “true” or not; instead, ask if it matches up with what you identified in Step 1 as something you want or value. Is this thought going to take you closer to or further away from that thing?
5. If the thought takes you closer, then great. If it doesn’t, or if it’s neutral, you now have a choice. Will you actively choose something that goes against what you already know you want? Or will you let it pass by? You also get to choose whether you’d like to spend your time and your brainpower on a thought that will help you get what you want. (Yes! Thoughts can be your servants and work for you!)
6. Do this as often as you like. Thoughts are a bit like buses—there’s always another one on its way . . .
Ellen does it like this:
Though she’s not happy about much in her life, she does love her husband, and she does care about her pets and her nieces and nephews. Even in her negative state of mind, she can identify that she wants her husband to be happy, and that she wants to spend time with her nieces and nephews and be a responsible pet owner.
One Saturday morning, she’s lounging in bed and feeling despondent. The thought pops into her mind: “You’re a waste of space, slobbing around in bed all day while other people are living their lives!” She immediately stops this thought in its tracks and examines it. She even says aloud to herself, “Hello, Depression, I see that you’re speaking right now.” She realizes she’s having a negative thought. Now, in this precious empty space after this realization, she understands that she has a choice. She can decide what to do next.
She thinks about her husband, her nieces and nephews, her dogs. Does thinking that she’s a waste of space make her a better wife? Does it help her get closer to her nieces and nephews? Does it help her take care of her pets? No. At best, it does nothing; at worst, it gets in the way. If she gets on that bus, she will soon start thinking other thoughts, too. That she is worthless, that she may as well not be here, and so on. In that moment, even though she still feels despondent, she decides to let the thought go. She can’t cancel it out or pretend she didn’t have it. But she decides she won’t continue to have it. In a few minutes, she experiments with changing the thought. She could say, “How lucky am I to have a nice cozy moment in bed on such a peaceful Saturday morning?” She notices how it feels to hold on to this thought, instead.
It’s Never a War
You’ll notice that Ellen doesn’t kick the negative thought to the curb and yell at it. She doesn’t go head to head and wrestle it into submission. She just doesn’t hold on to it. That’s a big difference.
Before we conclude this chapter, it’s worth mentioning how defusion is not about fighting off a negative thought. That’s because resisting a negative thought is just another way to fuse with it. If we are fearfully or angrily resisting a thought, we are just as much at its mercy as if we were closely identifying with it.
When you become aware of a thought, just keep it at that level—awareness. Try avoid taking the extra step of adding on your own judgment or interpretation of that thought. Try not to criticize a thought, condemn yourself for having it, or even be pleased because it’s a “good” thought. Just be aware. You will appraise the thought, but only in terms of its usefulness, i.e., whether it really serves any purpose in your life.
If you do notice that judgment, resistance, or clinging coming up, that’s fine too. It’s just one more thing to notice! Maybe you think, “I could kill him,” but instantly think, “You shouldn’t be so angry.” There’s no point judging the second thought, either, and feeling bad because you felt bad about feeling bad! Just stop, ask what is working and what isn’t, and let the thoughts go. Remind yourself that thoughts can’t hurt you or anyone. They only mean something when you decide they do.
Psychiatrist and much-loved author of the inspirational book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, once said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space lies our growth and our freedom.” You don’t have to have everything figured out, or magically turn your thought process around until you’re thinking the “right” way. If all you can manage is to pause and realize that you are thinking in the first place, then you have already done so much. Hold on to that pause.
Remind yourself of your conscious choice. You don’t even have to make a decision yet; just be aware it’s there. You might find that you actually like not having to respond or choose . . . isn’t it nice to just let negative thoughts do what they want and burn themselves out and dissipate all on their own, without you having to get worked up about them in the least?
• To rewrite our negative thought patterns, we “can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
• We can use the ABCDE acronym (activating event, belief, consequence, disputation, and new event) and explore the stories we’re telling in a thought journal. We can decide whether a new alternative is a good one according to its accuracy, helpfulness, and congruence with our values.
• Once you’ve identified your current thoughts, ask if there’s a different way to think about things, and how you can bring that idea to life with concrete action. Seek out evidence for a new belief, practice self-compassion, and go into learning mode, asking questions instead of making statements.
• Negativity can be relieved by shifting perspectives and creating psychological distance. Remember that pessimism, negativity, and gloomy nihilism are all coping mechanisms and once served a purpose. But right now, we can choose to cope with adversity in different, healthier ways (and there always will be adversity!)
• Create spatial, temporal, and psychological distance from distressing thoughts, ask what others might do in our situation (role-switching), and turn your mind to concrete action instead of asking why. Focus on a small, concrete detail in the present and ask what you can do. Avoid identifying problems without seeking solutions—i.e., complaining!
• When we are stuck in intense emotions, we can try the ACT technique of defusion. Imagine that your Mind is something separate from you and that you can watch it.
• Remember that you are not your thoughts; you are just having thoughts. Make your thoughts earn their keep!