Browsing the archives for the belief tag.
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Examples of Broken Ideas (Cognitive Distortions)

Handling negative emotions

A broken idea (called a “cognitive distortion” in the psychological literature) is a thought that creates problems because it’s flawed.

Some examples of broken ideas: “You always interrupt me!” (Always? Every single time?) “People think I look stupid when I dance.” (Everyone does? You can read their minds?) “I look like a mess for this interview! This is a disaster!” (As bad as the Hindenberg or Hurricane Katrina? It’s a disaster and not just an inconvenience?).

Broken ideas tend to play in loops in our minds, and this ongoing commentary often has the effect of causing trouble: disrupting work, encouraging us to act badly, or just making us miserable. I talk elsewhere on the site about how to detect broken ideas and how to repair them and provide an introduction to broken ideas, but a correspondent recently made the very good suggestion of posting examples of each type.

All-or-nothing thinking:
Looking at things as though they’re completely black or white, with no room for neutral or contrary characteristics.
“This job is the worst job I could possibly have. I hate it.”

Taking a few examples and assuming that they describe an absolute pattern.
“My last two relationships ended badly: I must be completely incompetent at love.”

Mental filter:
Ignoring important facts to come up with a faulty conclusion.
“Mom and Dad always paid attention to you and never to me.”

Disqualifying the positive:
Ignoring anything that might get in the way of a negative judgment.
“It doesn’t matter that my boss complimented my work: since I didn’t get the promotion, I’m obviously a failure.”

Fortune telling:
Making assumptions about what will happen in the future.
“All this studying won’t help, and I’ll fail the test.”

Mind reading:
Making assumptions about what other people are thinking.
“Everybody in the audience must think I’m a complete idiot up here.”

Magnification or minimization:
Exaggerating or understating anything about a situation.
“I have to move? This is awful! This will ruin everything I have set up in my life!”

Emotional reasoning:
Assuming that something’s true because it feels like it’s true.
“I know I planned the event carefully, but I know something’s going to go wrong.”

Should statements:
Getting upset because one doesn’t have control or governance over other people’s actions, random events, or basic facts of existence.
“That jerk shouldn’t be driving so slowly in the left lane!”
“I should be able to eat cookies whenever I want to! It’s not fair that my coworkers can do that and not get fat!”

Describing something in a way that prevents it from being clearly seen and often makes it seem much worse than it is.
“I’m a coward and loser, and nothing’s going to change that.”

Assuming that a situation or event says something about oneself personally when it doesn’t.
“I didn’t win this contest–they must think I’m a terrible writer.”

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Impostor Syndrome

Handling negative emotions

I was corresponding with someone recently about the Impostor Syndrome, the feeling some people have that their successes are due to luck or oversight and that they’re likely to be identified as a fraud and cast out at any moment.

It’s not unusual even for those of us who don’t have a regular problem with Impostor Syndrome to have those feelings from time to time. When I was in high school, I auditioned on bass clarinet for the All New England Music Festival, an event that accepts only the most skilled and able high school musicians. My rehearsals with my accompanyist leading up to the audition were terrible: I wasn’t practicing consistently, and the audition piece was naturally very difficult. I practiced very hard for the last couple of days, but the chance of avoiding extreme embarrassment seemed low. I obsessed about the audition, showed up at the appointed time, went in … and nailed it. I played the piece magnificently. My accompanyist looked at me as though I had grown antennae. I got the highest score of any bass clarinetist who auditioned (admittedly, not as difficult as being the best flutist or trumpet player, but not easy either) and had my pick of positions at the event.

Of course, I felt like a complete impostor. When I arrived at New Englands, I more or less held my own, but I wasn’t as good as the other bass clarinetists there and clearly hadn’t practiced as much, either. For years I regarded that audition as a fluke. It wasn’t until very recently I understood what had really happened.

The key realization was that usually when you’re credited with doing something, it’s because you actually did it. At the audition where I got the great score for my playing, I actually played that well. That was not a fluke in the sense that it is impossible to accidentally play a complicated piece on the bass clarinet well. What probably happened was that I immersed myself so much in desperate practice those last few days that I got into a flow state regarding my playing and was able to play at the very peak of my ability–whereas those who had been practicing all along wouldn’t have needed to obsess over the last couple of days. About 16 years later, I attended the New England Folk Festival (NEFFA) in Natick, Massachusetts and did barely anything but play music for two days. By the second day, I was playing far better than I thought I possibly could, because again I had reached that flow state.

So the fact that I happened to be in that flow state at the time of the audition was a bit of a fluke: I hadn’t been trying for it or even known it existed. But the fact that I was capable of that flow state was no fluke at all. I had, after all, been practicing for years, and had enough love of music to put my heart into it sometimes. Was there luck involved? Yes. In an entirely just world (which of course we don’t live in), would I have been the top-ranked bass clarinetists at New Englands that year? Heck no. But could I under the right circumstances actually play that well? Yes. The things we accomplish rarely fall into our laps.

That’s the irony of Impostor Syndrome, actually: fear of being found out sometimes drives people to work much harder to “cover” for their “shortcomings,” which means they get better and better at the things they think they’re being overappreciated at. As Geoff Colvin and others explain very well, the people who do really well at things are the ones who practice the most.

The question becomes not one of how much we deserve for what we’ve done so far, but instead how we can repeat and build on our best successes in the past.

Photo by MissTessmacher

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Mental Schemas #4: Defectiveness

Handling negative emotions

This is the fourth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. There’s more information about schemas and schema therapy on a new page on The Willpower Engine here.

I don’t know about people in other part of the world, but we in America have a weird relationship with criticism. Some parents criticize their children constantly, while others are afraid to criticize them at all. While I think it goes a little too far to be supportive when a kid is merrily scribbling away on the brand new coffee table with permanent marker, the parents who are worried about criticism are worried for good reason: criticize a kid too much, and they may deal with it by developing a defectiveness schema. If you already know you’re defective, maybe it doesn’t hurt as much when people keep telling you that.

The defectiveness schema
Of course, feelings of defectiveness and inadequacy don’t translate very easily to a healthy life. Someone with a defectiveness schema might be overly defensive and never willing to hear themselves criticized–or they might go to the other extreme and always assume everything’s their own fault. Either way, there’s a basic broken idea here, namely “I’m inferior and defective.” This kind of broken idea is called “labeling” (is it weird that there’s a label for it?).

Another problem with the defectiveness schema is that people in its grip may feel that they are in danger of being “found out”–that people who get too close to them will discover that they are fundamentally flawed and leave, and that therefore no one must ever be allowed to get close.  (You might notice a trend of the schemas I’ve covered so far being ones where people are scared to let others get or stay close; that’s because we’re beginning with the set of schemas that deal with disconnection and rejection.)

Overcoming a defectiveness schema
As with any mental schema, the key to overcoming it is overturning, time and time again, the broken ideas it encourages. This means consciously replacing the thought “I don’t deserve this” with “I’m not perfect, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t have this thing that I want” or the thought “If I get close to this person, they’ll find out about all of my shortcomings and leave me” with “I can’t know for sure how someone will act in different situations; this person may or may not end up liking ‘the real me.'”

Repairing broken ideas often takes the form of acceptance, especially acceptance of the possibility of either good or bad things happening. People with defectiveness schemas will benefit from learning to accept even those things they dislike about themselves, and also from accepting that bad things may happen–or that good things can happen too, if those good things are given enough of a chance.

Photo by McBeth


Mental Schemas #3: Emotional Deprivation (with help from Holden Caulfield)

Handling negative emotions

The Emotional Deprivation Schema
A few quotes from J.D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye can help explain what this schema is about.

“Sometimes I act a lot older than I am–I really do– but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

“She bought me the wrong kind of skates–I wanted racing skates and she bought hockey–but it made me sad anyway. Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.”

Occasionally feeling like other people don’t understand, don’t care, and/or couldn’t do anything about it even if they did seems to be a normal part of the human experience. Feeling like this every day and all, though, can be emotionally debilitating as hell.

I’m not suggesting that everything that goes on with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is part of an emotional deprivation schema. As real human beings, our motivations are too complex to be meaningfully explained by any one concept, and to Salinger’s credit, Holden feels like a real human being to many readers. But Holden does us a favor in helping to show the emotional deprivation schema and some of its effects.

A person with an emotional deprivation schema might choose relationships with people who aren’t very capable of giving care, understanding, or support, and might act in ways that make it harder for even people who are capable to give these things. Such a person might provoke others or try to keep people at a distance (on the assumption that they wouldn’t really be able to get close anyway).

Overcoming an Emotional Deprivation Schema
Making progress with this schema first requires understanding how it’s working in one’s life: taking note of behaviors and choices that come from these beliefs and that can affect relationships. Techniques like journaling, talk therapy, and mindfulness practices can help bring these ideas out.

One way to tackle an emotional deprivation schema–or any schema–is to identify broken ideas and then repair them. Schemas express themselves as broken ideas, and repairing these ideas helps make progress in taking down the schema.

Since an emotional deprivation schema is a lack of faith in receiving attention, care, and understanding from other people, any experience that demonstrates people actually providing these things is worth paying attention to and building on. Even small gestures, when recognized as real caring or support, show the inherent flaw in the line of thinking that this schema promotes, and focusing on these gestures widens the cracks in this kind of mistaken belief in a way that can eventually break it apart.

Holden himself seems to have come up with a way to feel better about other people caring about him, which is to care about other people:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Unfortunately, this particular way of demonstrating that people can care for each other is a little impractical. Yet right at the end of the book, Holden finds a simpler, more practical way, which is just watching his little sister on a merry-go-round.

“I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”

Photo by Fozzman


Hunger Won’t Be Denied: True or False?

States of mind


Recently I came across an assertion that seriously disturbed me: that when we’re “hungry” we “have to eat.” This claim bothered me because it (like a lot of misguided dieting advice) was in a popular diet book, because I think many people believe it, and because it’s wrong.

Pictures of Food
The source of the statement was Dr. Shapiro’s Picture Perfect Weight Loss, a book that offers weight loss advice, examples, and especially a large number of full-color photo spreads of different foods that contain the same amount of calories. For instance, Shapiro graphically displays how a person could eat four ears of corn on the cob and get the same calories as in one medium serving of french fries. I found the pictures interesting and somewhat instructive, although the calorie counts need to be understood as examples (for instance, he counts 70 calories for a slice of whole wheat bread, whereas the loaf in my fridge is 110 calories per slice) and although Shapiro pays only limited attention to nutrition. Mainly, he wants to show that the physical amount of food you eat can vary a lot for the same number of calories, and does that well.

But Shapiro makes a number of imperfect assertions about weight loss, and the one I felt was particularly damaging was this: “The urge to eat is a need that must be filled.” (The emphasis is Shapiro’s.) He continues, “If we don’t respond to that urge, the need-to-eat feelings … will get the upper hand.”

He goes on to reassure the reader that this doesn’t mean all is lost, because the reader can learn to choose much lower-calorie foods and eat whenever they like. The fact that a person can eat much more for fewer calories is certainly true, though the idea that no restraint in eating is necessary in order to lose weight and keep it off is, for many of us, simply wrong.

Misconceptions about hunger
I’m surprised a little that Shapiro says this, because he acknowledges some of the complexity of hunger (which is really a variety of physical and psychological feelings), although he seems to complete miss or ignore some important psychological elements. Ideas about “needing” to eat, including Shapiro’s claim that hunger means we “have to” eat and there’s nothing we can do about it are all broken ideas, also known as cognitive distortions. In other words, most of our behavior is driven not by what we experience directly, but by what we tell ourselves about what we experience.

In essence, Shapiro is saying “I don’t know how anyone can possibly not act on hunger, so it can’t be done.” Put in that way, I think the flaw is obvious: just because Shapiro doesn’t know how to handle hunger other than by administering food doesn’t mean that nobody does.

For Shapiro’s information, and that of anyone else who shares his belief, I’d like to point out that hunger is always temporary, and that if you ever want to find a way to put hunger off, there are 24 of them here.

Different People Succeed in Different Ways
I don’t mean to pick on Shapiro especially. I think his food comparisons are very useful despite some minor limitations, and frankly he seems to be like a lot of professionals who have seen successful weight loss (especially those who have only seen it from the outside) who seem to feel that because it’s been accomplished one way, there’s no other possible way to do it successfully. I find the same idea in many books on writing, even by very talented and successful writers: “This is the way to do it. If you don’t do it this way, you’ll fail.” If psychology teaches us anything, it’s that different people succeed in different ways, so what I am doing my best to offer with this site is the other approach, which is to say: “Here are all of the tools for tackling this task that I can find. Take the ones that work for you and run with them.” And if one of those tools is being able to outsmart hunger when you don’t want to eat, all the better.

Photo by Petra Brown

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What Really Messed-Up Thinking Looks Like

Handling negative emotions


The following are not my actual thoughts, I’m happy to say. However, they do demonstrate the different kinds of broken ideas. Each of them could be repaired.

So I know this post is going to suck1, but … wait, you must already be thinking I’m a complete idiot if I say my post is going to suck2. No, no, I shouldn’t be telling myself I know what you’re thinking3! And I shouldn’t say “shouldn’t!” Oh man, I did it again, I’m such a dork4! No, hold on, I can’t call myself a dork in my own post, that’s awful, that ruins the entire post. 5 It ruins the entire site6! And if this site sucks, my entire life sucks7! And this post is making me sick, which means it must suck8. Writing like this ruins all of my posts9. People may tell me they like my posts sometimes, but that’s just because they pity me10. If I didn’t suck, people would always leave comments11. I think I’ll go eat dirt12.


1 Fortune telling
2 Mind reading
3 Should statement
4 Labeling
5 All-or-nothing thinking
6 Magnification/minimization
7 Overgeneralization
8 Emotional reasoning
9 Mental filtering
10 Disqualifying the positive
11 Personalization
12 Actually, this isn’t a broken idea, because there’s nothing unrealistic about deciding to eat dirt if you really want to. However, I think personally I’ll pass.

Photo by Freekz0r

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How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step

Handling negative emotions

Restoration of a statueIn previous articles, I gave a general introduction to broken ideas and talked about how to detect them. In this article, we’ll take a look at a process that lets us repair broken ideas, removing obstacles to self-motivation and willpower.

Idea repair is serious medicine
In an array of psychological studies, idea repair (known in the literature as “cognitive restructuring,” “cognitive behavioral therapy” (CBT), and by other names) has proven effective against a wide variety of problems, including anxiety (including social anxiety), depression, repeat offenses by convicted felons, and many other issues.

Idea repair is not the same as “positive thinking”
Just to clarify what idea repair is and isn’t, I’d like to point out how it’s different from simply “thinking positively.” Positive thinking would direct a student who’s worried about failing a test to tell herself, “I will pass this test!” This may in some cases help with immediate mood, but it’s not necessarily any more realistic than the broken idea “I won’t pass this test.” Idea repair requires looking at situations realistically and in terms of what we really can do in our lives to make things better. If the student were to use idea repair, she might change the thought “I’m going to fail this test, and it will be awful!” to “It’s possible I’ll fail this test, and if I do, I’ll deal with it.”Assuming that she already knows whether she’ll pass or fail doesn’t do much to motivate her to improve her chances: instead, it tends to make the outcome look like it has nothing to do with her actions. Taking a realistic view, on the other hand, gives her the tools to face her situation and do something positive about it.

Identify the broken piece
In order to fix a broken idea, we have to first know how it’s broken. I go into this in some detail in the detection article, where I describe the 11 kinds of broken ideas. (You may sometimes hear a different count based on grouping them slightly differently; the list is based on Dr. David Burns’ cognitive distortion list, which is generally given as 10-15 items.)


  • “Everybody thinks my dancing looks stupid.” (mind reading)
  • “He’s just saying I’m a dedicated worker because he has to say something positive in the review.” (disqualifying the positive)
  • “I’m scared something will happen to him. He’ll probably be in a car accident.” (emotional reasoning)

Notice that these ideas aren’t necessarily impossible: they’re just assuming too much, in a way that tends to make it harder to take positive action.

Rephrase the idea in a strictly truthful way
When repairing a broken idea, it’s necessary to take out all guesswork, undo exaggeration, and include all the facts that matter. Restating a broken idea into a repaired idea is often a source of immediate relief, because it allows us to stop battling ourselves.

Repaired examples:

  • “I’m worried that other people may judge me negatively because of my dancing.”
  • “My performance review had some discouraging parts in it, but he did compliment my dedication.”
  • “Just because I feel scared doesn’t mean that there’s anything to be scared about.”

When repaired ideas break again
Repaired ideas tend to bring some immediate relief, but we tend to have some of the same kinds of broken ideas in many situations over time. Unfortunately, repairing a broken idea doesn’t mean that it won’t come back broken later. So what’s the point of repairing them?

There are at least two major benefits to idea repair even when broken ideas keep coming back. First, there’s the immediate relief in the situation in which the idea has been repaired. And second, repairing an idea over and over will eventually make the broken idea come back less often and less severely, and consistent effort has a good chance of getting rid of a broken idea permanently.

Photo by A Sheer Moisturizing Experience


How to Detect Broken Ideas

Handling negative emotions

broken cup

Some of the most powerful obstacles to self-motivation are broken ideas (or “cognitive distortions,” to use the formal term). A broken idea is any false thought that makes it harder to solve problems constructively. An introduction to them can be read here.

Examples of broken ideas
1. A man has been applying for jobs, but isn’t getting any interviews. He thinks “No one wants to hire me. I’m going to run out of money and be homeless.” This kind of thinking will make it harder for him to be motivated to apply for more positions, and he will tend to come across as less confident and positive to potential employers when he does have contact with them.

2. A mother is late dropping her children off to school, then has can’t get the car started when she tries to leave the school. She concludes “This day is a disaster.” This puts her in a pessimistic frame of mind, so that she tends not to do things that would make her day better and to interpret events in the worst possible light. (For more on this specific situation, see my articles Having a Bad Day? Here’s Why and How to Stop Having a Bad Day.)

The Red Flag
Detecting that a broken idea is in place is easy in the sense that, if you’re feeling bad, there’s a very good chance you’re nurturing one or more broken ideas. Being willing to pay attention to your own thinking does take some effort, which you can help bring out of yourself by committing to being mindful of your thinking in bad situations. It’s often harder to do this because of mood congruity, which gets in the way of imagining better times when we’re experiencing negative emotions. Fortunately, since we generally don’t like feeling bad, we’re often also driven to seek relief, which idea repair can provide.

Finding the broken idea
Identifying the broken idea requires reflecting on what we’ve been telling ourselves, whether mentally or (and this often easier) by writing it down. If you’re not sure what you’ve been telling yourself, start by writing down your present thoughts about the situation: broken ideas tend to persist as long as the mood they cause. This makes it possible to examine thoughts and figure out where they’re broken.

But What if The Broken Idea Is True?
Broken ideas are generally false (or at best, nothing more than a pessimistic guess), and they fall into specific categories of falsehoods. It’s easy to mistake them as truth because they often seem plausible: the job applicant might not find a job soon if he keeps searching in the way he is now. The mother’s experiences so far in her day have been unpleasant.  Yet short of having supernatural powers, neither one of them can infallibly predict what will happen going forward, and both of them are taking a small number of incidents and imagining that they describe a large, absolute pattern.

Categories of broken ideas
To identify a broken idea, compare it to these categories. Devised by Dr. David Burns, they not only make it easier to spot a broken idea: they also supply the solution in a way described in more detail in Wednesday’s post.

  • All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing situations in black or white; thinking in absolutes.
  • Overgeneralization: Taking separate incidents, like rejected job applications or being late, and concluding that they’re controlled by a large, unvarying pattern.
  • Mental filtering: Putting all one’s attention on negative qualities.
  • Disqualifying the positive: Dismissing good factors in a situation.
  • Mind reading: Making sweeping assumptions about what other people are thinking.
  • Fortune telling: Making assumptions about how the future will turn out.
  • Magnification and minimization: Exaggerating information, often to support a negative viewpoint, for instance exaggerating someone else’s positive qualities to make yourself look worse or their negative qualities in order to make them look like a villain.
  • Emotional reasoning: Assuming that because something feels like it’s true, it is true.
  • Should statements: Imagining that the way we want things to be has direct influence over how things really are. Often involves anger at other people for not acting the way we would make them act if we were in control of them.
  • Labeling: Using words to generalize or explain a person or situation in a way that’s misleading or incomplete.
  • Personalization: Exaggerating our idea of how much a situation relates to ourselves; taking responsibility or blame for things that are not in our control.

Wednesday: Repairing Broken Ideas
Once we’ve identified a broken idea, we can work on repairing it. My follow-up article addresses this step by step.

Photo by johndan


How To Do Something You Don’t Know How To Do

Strategies and goals


You would think a garage sale wouldn’t be difficult to figure out. You prepare a little, you advertise, you put things on card tables, you wait. I’ve been wanting to help my son set up a garage sale of a lot of things he’s outgrown, where he could be in charge and receive the profits, but I’ve been stopped by the idea that I can’t. I live in a fairly rural area, on a dirt road that doesn’t get any traffic. I’ve been held up by this idea that we should have a garage sale, but I don’t know how to set it up so that people will actually come.

I was thinking about the garage sale this morning and once I really turned my attention to it, I realized the idea that I didn’t know how to make it work was ridiculous. We will either have a garage sale or we won’t. If we do, we’ll either have it here or have it somewhere else. If we have it somewhere else, we just have to figure what lucky friend is going to get us taking over their porch or garage soon, and ask permission. The only reason I’ve been thinking “I don’t know how” is because I haven’t been wanting to face it. Garage sales take preparation, which I don’t feel like I have time for, and they last a whole day, which I definitely don’t have time for, and what if no one shows up and all of the effort is wasted and we still have the things left over? It’s not that I don’t know how to do it, it’s that the idea has been making me anxious. Dealing with anxiety has a lot to do with facing things and answering questions. A few simple answers sorted my situation out. We should have the sale, because my son will enjoy earning the money and will learn about money from it, and because we need the room the old things are taking up, and because it’s a waste to have them here if we can get them to someone who will actually use them. We should have it here so that he can mind the sale and I can do the other things I need to do, checking in with him regularly. And we’ll attract traffic as well as we can by putting signs out on the main road right near us, which will probably give us more custom than we would get in a suburban neighborhood.

Your something may not be as easy to figure out, but there are several useful ways to do something you don’t know how to do. So, what are they?

1. If you really can’t do it, move on
If you really have no way of accomplishing the task in front of you, even after reading the rest of this article,  then the problem isn’t doing the task: if you honestly can’t do it, then it’s not your responsibility. Instead, the problem is facing the inevitable consequences of not doing it. This requires a difficult but powerful tool: surrendering to reality.

The same situation applies if the only way you can do the thing in question is to not do something more important. For example, if the only weekend we could do the garage sale was the only opportunity we’d get for some time to see family members visiting the area, then we’d need to give up on the garage sale. Fortunately, there are often more options than there seem to be at first, which is what the rest of the article is about.

2. You don’t have to do it if it doesn’t need to be done
Sometimes we resist doing things because they really don’t make sense for us to do. If it were for me instead of my son, I probably wouldn’t have the garage sale at all, because the amount of money it brought in wouldn’t justify the time. Instead I’d donate everything to a local recycle shop, which would sell the items to lower-income people for very affordable prices. If you feel concerned about how you’re going to tackle a problem, make sure first that it makes sense for you to do it at all before you start worrying about how.

3. Do it differently if there’s a better way
Sometimes difficult problems become much easier if they’re approached in an unexpected way. If you have something you’re worried about doing, consider whether there are other approaches you could take that would simplify things. If my son had a few major items and otherwise mostly things that would sell for next to nothing, he could sell the major items on eBay or Craigslist, still learning about money and reaping the rewards, and we could give the rest away to the recycle shop.

4. If it can wait, improve your position and then do it
Some tasks need improved skills before they can be done well, in which case a combination of practice and patience will put you in a much better position to get the thing done, provided it can wait. Keep in mind that research overwhelmingly supports the idea that practically anyone of at least average intelligence can excel at almost anything if they get in enough deliberate practice. If I were worried my son wouldn’t do a good job of running the sale, we could spend some time doing pretend sales and finding educational computer games about buying and selling to help him learn. We’d have to decide whether the sale was worth the effort and whether we could wait that long to get the unneeded things out of the house, but it’s possible the effort spent learning about money would be more than worthwhile.

Other tasks benefit from a change in situation. If I were going to move in the near future to a location that’s better for a garage sale, I might store the sale items away and have the sale there once we’d moved.

5. If it would work better with help, get help
Sometimes a little advice or active assistance from a friend, family member, mentor, or even a hired professional can go a long way. This might be as simple as getting a better idea of the task from someone who’s done it already, or as involved as finding and hiring a business manager for your new venture if you’re great at the core activity of the business but not so great at marketing, accounting, and the other general business tasks. For example, I probably have friends who have things they’d want to sell too, and a two- or three-family garage sale might attract more people.

6. If it works best to do it now, just do it the best you can
If it needs to be done, if there aren’t good alternatives, if others can’t really help, and if it’s best to do it now (due to ongoing problems, limited opportunity, a deadline, etc.), then you’re in the same place I was: face things and provide answers. If you don’t know the answers to the questions, get the best information you can and answer them as well as you can. If you’re having trouble facing things, it’s probably due to broken ideas, which means it’s fixable.

7. If you know what to do but don’t feel motivated, get in touch with your reasons
Of course, it might be that when you think about it, you realize you really do know how to tackle this goal, and it really is an important one, but you don’t feel inspired to get in motion. If that’s the case, it can help a lot to get in touch with your real reasons for accomplishing the goal. If they’re someone else’s reasons, or if you’re just trying to fulfill expectations or fit some role, then it may be that it’s not such a good goal for you after all. But if the reasons are your own, get in touch with them: write down what made you decide to do the thing in the first place, or visualize what it will be like to do it–or to have gotten it done.

Regardless of what approach you take, remember that “I have to but I can’t” is a logical impossibility. If there’s really no way to do it, you’re off the hook: no one can make you do something you truly can’t do. If there is a way to do it, all you have to do is figure out whether you’re going to decide to, and if so what the best way is. There’s not always a good way, but there is always at least one best way. I hope you find yours. As for me, I have to help my son go sort through some old toys.

Photo by m.gifford

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How emotions work

States of mind


From Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

How exactly do emotions work? From a scientific point of view the answers to this question are still in the works, but research over the last couple of decades has given us a much clearer sense of how they emerge. In her 2005 book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, Jenefer Robinson digs deep into various theories of emotions and into the neurological and psychological findings that can help us figure this question out and offers a model for understanding the important pieces. Her basic model, added to research and analysis from other sources, is what drives this post. There’s a lot of research still to be done, though, so consider the information here to be more of a glimpse at the best insights we currently have about emotion instead of something complete and set in stone. Even taking it tentatively, though, Robinson’s model gives us some seriously useful information.

The gut reaction
Emotions start (Robinson argues) with a gut reaction to something: a face, a sound, an idea, a conclusion, or even some change within our bodies. She calls these reactions “non-cognitive appraisals,” whereas I think for our purposes here, “gut reaction” works just as well, but it’s helpful to realize from that term that these reactions themselves aren’t anything we think through: they happen in hardly any time at all, automatically. That doesn’t mean the whole process of having an emotion is automatic, though, as we’ll see.

The high road and the low road
There are two paths our brain can take to get us to a gut reaction, the high road and the low road. The high road is about what you’d expect: we see or hear (or taste or feel or smell or think or remember) something, we figure out what it means to us, and then we react emotionally. For instance, while driving toward our house we might see blue lights up ahead, realize that they are probably coming  from a police car, and begin to feel worried that something bad has happened.


The low road is a bit more surprising (unless you’ve read my post How to overcome specific fears and anxieties or another source with some of the same information): it still starts with some kind of sensory information, like a sight or sound, but in this case the amygdalae (a primitive part of the brain that we have on both the left and right side) flag it as something that has been associated with a powerful emotion or traumatic event in the past and sets off our gut emotional reaction before we even recognize what the thing is. For instance, if a person has been in an explosion caused by natural gas, the person may experience terror when smelling gas even before realizing that it’s a smell, or what the smell might be. Our brains seem to have evolved this trick of firing up emergency systems first and asking question later in order to help get us away from life-threatening situations as quickly as possible.

Even though the gut reaction is immediate and automatic, it can come down the high road as the result of thinking. For instance, I might spend hours going over my small business’s accounts before having the sudden realization that my accountant is stealing from me. As soon as I’ve had that realization, I’m likely to have a gut reaction (for instance of anger at the accountant, or fear of what will happen to my business, or happiness that I have found the reason for the cash flow problems, or even a combination) that’s automatic in the sense of reacting immediately to a thought that has been a long time coming.

Emotion is a process, not an unchanging state
But if we have that gut reaction, that doesn’t mean that we’re stuck in the corresponding emotion: instead, it seems to make the most sense to think about the emotion being a process that develops in several different ways at once, started by that gut reaction but subject to all kinds of changes. An emotion develops through:

  • Body chemistry:An emotion will spur a physiological reaction through chemicals like dopamine (associated with pleasure), adrenaline (associated with fear and anger), seratonin (associated with serenity), oxytocin (associated with feelings of love), cortisol (associated with stress), and so on. These chemicals have a lot to do with the physical feelings emotions create, like butterflies in the stomach or a thrill of delight, and they also tend to sustain whatever emotion we’re having.
  • Thinking (cognition): Once we start having an emotion, we tend to think about it and monitor our surroundings. For instance, we might see flashing blue lights and initially feel anxiety, thinking they’re from police cars, then round a corner and discover that they’re lights from a party a neighbor is having on their lawn.
  • Body language: It won’t be news to you that happiness can make you smile and depression can make you slump, but it’s more surprising to realize that smiling can make you happy and slumping can make you more depressed. Fascinatingly, our own expressions, posture, and maybe even tone of voice can stimulate the same body chemistry that the corresponding emotion would create. Smiling can make us feel happier, and sitting up straight can help us feel more alert and positive.
  • Being ready for action: Certain emotions tend to prime our bodies to be ready in certain ways: to focus our attention in a certain way or to be ready to move quickly. An example of this is flinching away at a sudden loud noise: our body is ready to act before we can even come up with a plan of how to act.

Different emotions at the same time?
These pieces of the emotional puzzle all go forward when we’re experiencing an emotion, and while they can work at the same time and in similar directions, they can also be out of synch or in conflict with each other. When that happens, they begin to influence each other, so that they tend to converge over time. For instance, if I am thinking something about something that makes me happy and my body is putting out oxytocin, but I decide to frown and turn my attention to things that upset me, the oxytocin will be cut off and replaced with other chemicals, my brain will conjure up memories of things that upset me, and my body will more and more begin to reflect the bad mood I’m creating.

It can be especially confusing to experience emotions that are out of synch. In the blue lights example, once I realize that it’s a party and not a crime scene, I may immediately feel intellectually better about the situation but still be feeling anxiety beneath that, because our thinking can change directions more quickly than our body chemistry. Fortunately, if we keep our thinking in the channel of the new emotion, our body chemistry will soon catch up.

Simple words for complex feelings
To make sense of emotions, we have a wide variety of labels for different ones, especially in English: terror, awe, euphoria, ennui, indignation, fury, and so on. When trying to reflect on how we’re feeling now or how we felt a while back, we tend to try to characterize our emotions to fit these available labels (although we also have emotion-charged memories that may give us more detail), and therefore tend to talk about emotions in a simpler way than we experience them. For instance, in the blue lights example, we might say “I was worried when I saw blue lights, but when I saw it was just a party, I was relieved.” This doesn’t capture that temporary conflict of thinking and body chemistry, nor the subtle details–perhaps the initial worry was mixed with indignation that a crime was happening in our neighborhood or guilt at something we ourselves had done; maybe the relief that the blue lights meant just a party was mixed at different times with irritation at the likely amount of noise, excitement that we might be invited to the party, and/or surprise that the neighbors thought blue lights were decorative. To put it another way, our emotions are not simple, exclusive states, but instead an evolving process that can include parallel and conflicting pieces that are hard to easily summarize in words. Fortunately, we have poets, artists, musicians, and others to help us communicate about emotions without resorting to simple summaries.

How idea repair can help drive emotion
A last note: in posts on idea repair, I’ve talked about thinking causing emotions. In light of this article, that idea may seem oversimplified, but to put things in perspective, idea repair is the process of thinking and directing attention that begins immediately after we have that initial gut reaction. Idea repair can’t directly affect the gut reaction (although over time it might train habits that will change initial reactions), but modifying our thinking is probably the most powerful single thing we can do to turn an emotion in a positive direction once an emotional process begins.

Police lights photo by Sven Cipido.

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