Browsing the archives for the cognitive distortions tag.
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All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair

Resources

Idea repair, called “cognitive restructuring” in the psychological literature, is a powerful tool for feeling better and for making it much easier to make good choices. We may hardly notice it, but it’s human habit to constantly comment about what’s going on around us with thoughts that help us make judgments and put things into a framework we can understand. But some of these comments are harmful to us because they’re misleading or even false. They encourage us to make bad choices, keep negative emotions going, and generally get in the way: these are broken ideas (or “cognitive distortions”). Here are some of the key articles on this site that for understanding broken ideas and learning idea repair.

Broken ideas and idea repair” explains what broken ideas and idea repair are, why they’re valuable, and the basics of how to use idea repair.

How to Detect Broken Ideas” demonstrates how to notice when broken ideas are causing trouble and how to find out what kind of broken idea you’re dealing with. 

Examples of Broken Ideas (Cognitive Distortions)” shows the categories of broken ideas and some typical broken ideas for each category.

How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step” provides a guide to repairing broken ideas.

To get some perspective on broken ideas, you might be interested in reading “What Really Messed-Up Thinking Looks Like.”

For a better understanding of “should statements,” see ‘Good “should” and bad “should”.’

Broken ideas that we latch onto a lot early in life can become ingrained as mental schemas. To learn about these, see the resource page on mental schemas.

Idea repair is useful in a lot of different situations, and it comes up in quite a number of articles on this site. Here’s a link to all Willpower Engine articles on broken ideas.

Photo by Quod

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What in the World Is Cognitive Behavior Therapy?

Guest posts

Today’s guest post is from Kari Wolfe, whose blog Imperfect Clarity passes on everything she’s learning as she works toward building a writing career, interviews fascinating people, parents her daughter in ways she never expected, and forges her own habits of success.


Recently, Luc has been talking about broken ideas, his term for cognitive distortions. This topic falls under the general category of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) which is based on the idea that if you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel.

psychiatrist Dr. Aaron T. Beck, who pioneered cognitive therapy

CBT began in the 1960s and is one alternative to your standard lay-on-the-couch-and-spill-your-thoughts psychoanalysis. For many specific problems, CBT can help you solve those problems in about four to six months of therapy while standard psychoanalysis can take years to reveal roots of problems.

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages and, for some situations (and some patients), one can be better than the other. As always, it is up to YOU to decide what method works for you.

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What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

The main idea behind CBT is your feelings and thoughts need to be in accord with the events as they take place.

As PsychCentral’s introduction to CBT states, “it’s not events themselves that upset us, but the meanings we give them.”

If these meanings do not line up with what really happened, it can cause a cognitive distortion, i.e. Luc’s broken ideas. Cleaning up these broken ideas is one form of CBT.

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What is professional treatment like?

Professional treatment usually consists of three main areas:

Structure. CBT sessions are highly structured, focusing on the best use of the time. Since the goal is for the process to eventually become second-nature to the patient, the therapist acts as a guide, helping direct the patient toward his/her goal in the beginning, giving up that role later as the patient learns to guide themselves.

Homework or exercises. As with most therapies, this is an important aspect of CBT. As the therapist and the patient discuss the problem, they talk about what’s going on and the patient receives exercises to do at home. This is where the patient begins to put what he/she is learning into action in his/her own life.

Therapists and patients are on equal levels. The therapist acts like more of a guide than an all-powerful solution-holder.

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What kinds of problems can benefit?

According to PsychCentral, CBT can be an effective therapy for the following problems:

anger management
anxiety and panic attacks
child and adolescent problems
chronic fatigue syndrome
chronic pain
depression
drug or alcohol problems
eating problems
general health problems
habits, such as facial tics
mood swings
obsessive-compulsive disorder
phobias
post-traumatic stress disorder
sexual and relationship problems
sleep problems

Can it replace medications for these problems? Well, maybe. But that’s between you and your doctor.

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Do I have to see a therapist to learn about CBT?

Well, no. Not necessarily. There are a lot of online resources that can help you get started in learning what CBT is.

Wikipedia: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

While you don’t want to necessarily take Wikipedia at its every word, it can be one of the best jumping off points to begin your research. But, take everything with a grain of salt and if you’re just not sure, check the page’s references.

Cognitive Behavioural Self-Help Resources

Lots of information from a UK cognitive therapist, Carol Vivyan.

Luc’s tag on broken ideas (AKA cognitive distortions)

Not to continuously repeat myself, but I have found that Luc’s articles on broken ideas, idea repair, and schema therapy (another alternative therapy that incorporate some CBT ideas) are FANTASTIC places to start. Not only has he explained these topics extremely well, Luc has used a great number of sources on each article as well–dig in however far you want.

CBT has also been adapted for numerous books in the self-help section of the bookstore.

Kari Wolfe is a stay-at-home mother of a very curious three-year-old daughter who happens to be autistic. She is a writer and maintains her own blog, Imperfect Clarity where her focus is becoming the best writer (and person) she can be by living her life to the fullest 🙂

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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.”

Overgeneralization:
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!”

Labeling:
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.”

Personalization:
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.”

Photo by 1Sock

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Why People Are (or Aren’t) Such Jerks Sometimes

States of mind

The other day I was driving through the small city of Montpelier, Vermont when a guy in a parked car didn’t notice me coming up and tried to pull out just as I getting to where he was. I stomped on the brake and hit the horn, which got him to stomp on his break: accident averted. He immediately then waved me by, as though he had been waiting for me to drive around him and I was holding him up.

I thought “What? Don’t wave me by! I’m still making sure you don’t get us in a car wreck: I don’t need traffic direction from you!”

To my credit, I didn’t proceed the next logical step to “What a jerk!” Instead I immediately thought, “Come to think of it, he must be waving me by to cover his embarrassment at his driving goof.” In his place, I probably would have tried to communicate “Sorry!” in some way, but it’s not as though I’ve never make a dumb mistake while driving. He and I really weren’t that different; I just didn’t take to the way he dealt with embarrassment.

Why Not Just Call Them Jerks?
We know that people make mistakes sometimes, and at other times people (not you or me personally, obviously) act badly out of negligence or because they’re in bad moods. In such situations, why not call a jerk a jerk? There seem to be two good reasons not to.

First, if we really want to understand people–and therefore get a better idea of how to deal with them, what they might do next, and what’s really going on around us–it doesn’t help to dismiss their actions as just being due to some inborn quality. After all, what baby is born a jerk? Colicky, sure, but a jerk? And we ourselves always do things for a reason–habit, intention, encouragement, desire … so it seems reasonable to assume other people are coming from the same place. When understanding people in general, we’re likely to get much better results by labeling their behavior than by labeling the person. This is the difference between “He’s acting like a jerk” or “He made a bad decision” and “He is a jerk.”

Second, calling someone a jerk (or worse) is a broken idea (a.k.a., cognitive distortion), and broken ideas generally lead to negative emotions we don’t need and to bad choices.

Reasons Someone Might Be Acting Like a Jerk
Here are some of the main reasons someone might be acting like a jerk:

  • Stuck in a schema: Most of us developed at least some patterns of behavior as children that don’t help us as adults: these are called schemas, and they amount to a habit of having a particular kind of broken idea. For example, someone might feel they can’t trust others, or that they’re entitled to special treatment.
  • Fear: It’s easy to make bad choices when we’re afraid. Fear can be expressed as cowardice, avoidance, anger, and other kinds of negative emotions. There’s a certain school of thought that proposes that all negative emotions can be traced back to fear.
  • Shoulds: If a person gets it in their head that someone else should act a particular way, this is a recipe for trouble, since we don’t really control each other or even necessarily understand all of one another’s needs and conditions.
  • Bad habits: Developing a habit works the same way whether the habit is useful or a problem: a person does something consistently a particular way for a period of time until it becomes ingrained. So for instance, becoming friends with a master procrastinator in college and getting in the habit of blowing off studying with this person can create a procrastination habit even in someone not inclined to procrastination.
  • Tunnel vision: There’s a fine line between prioritizing what matters most and using one priority to block out all other priorities. Even the most important priorities, like protecting a child, can create problems if everything else is disregarded.
  • Bad good intentions: Sometimes people act like jerks out of kindness, honestly believing that what’s needed is a little more discipline, or the unvarnished truth, or good kick in the pants. Sometimes–though definitely not always–they’re even right.
  • Mislabeled jerkistry: Sometimes the jerk-like actions are all in our heads. For instance, if when that near-accident occurred the other day I had waited in the middle of the road an extra long time to maximize the other driver’s embarrassment, and if he had waved me on because of that, it would be me being the jerk, even though I might semi-reasonably have been casting him in that role because of his causing the near-accident. Sometimes we make people into something they’re not at all.

The joys of de-jerkifying
The benefit of thinking about the above list is that it immediately benefits mood to re-interpret a jerk-related incident as an understandable human shortcoming. Anger is a trap, and not always one that’s easy to get out of. If someone almost causes an accident, it doesn’t benefit me to be in a lousy mood about it all the way home, and it benefits me even less to get out of the car and start shouting at the poor guy. The ideal thing is to be able to immediate transmute that negative experience into a tiny bit of deeper understanding about other people. Applied vigorously enough, this approach can translate to some extremely gracious behavior, which benefits everyone involved. The would-be jerk might even go away thinking “Wow, what a nice person.”

Which means that the would-be jerk is labeling you, arbitrarily lumping you in with “nice people,” as though you didn’t have other qualities. Man, what a jerk.

Photo by (nz)dave

Note: This post is mainly about situations where someone else’s behavior is contributing to our own bad moods or poor choices. It’s not meant to address situations where someone is being abused and taken advantage of: in those cases, safety and well-being are much more important than finding a more generous perspective.

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Hunger Won’t Be Denied: True or False?

States of mind

guineapigs

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

mess

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.)

Examples:

  • “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

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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

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Good “should” and bad “should”

Handling negative emotions

party

The word “should” is has surprising powers to sabotage mood and good intentions, but it can also be one of the pillars of a well-lived life. The issue is that there are two ways of using the word that seem very similar but that lead us in entirely different directions. One tends to create obstacles to getting things done and generates stress; the other use can help organize priorities.

By the way, in this article I’m talking about “should” in terms of obligation. There are different uses of the word, as Robin Dickinson has pointed out, and this article is about the two key meanings the word has for self-motivation.

“Should” as shorthand
The constructive version of should is shorthand for “if I want this benefit, then I’ll need to take this course of action.” With this version, there’s always a condition involved, and always an alternative. For instance, saying “I should plant my tomatoes next week” with the idea that doing so will give me the best possible crop of tomatoes is pretty constructive. I’m setting a goal for myself, and on some level I’m aware of what I want to accomplish. I could also choose not to plant my tomatoes next week, and probably not get as good a crop.

Invasive “should”
The harmful version either doesn’t have a condition, or it has a condition that’s isn’t based on our own priorities. For instance, saying “I should lose weight” can be actively harmful if the idea is that you’re a bad person if you don’t do it. So can “I should go this party” if the only reason for going to the party is that someone else thinks you should get out more (and you don’t agree), or if you feel a social obligation but have no real reason to want to participate.

This is not to say that there’s no such thing as a meaningful social obligation, only that doing things entirely for other people’s reasons is usually a recipe for trouble. We can (carefully!) take on other people’s goals as our own, for instance helping a spouse to train for a new job, spending time commiserating with a friend who’s lost a parent, or contributing to some wider social good through political action, volunteering, or just participating in our communities, and this can be positive as long as we’re doing it with full understanding of why we’re doing it. In fact, in some ways the ability to empathize with others and take on responsibility in a larger group is the a large part of being a mature adult. It’s just best to be sure we’re accepting responsibilities instead of feeling forced into them.

Good and bad “should” in the past
The use of “should” for things that have already happened is, if anything, even more likely to be a problem in the past than the present, because when we say things like “I shouldn’t have eaten that hamburger” or “I should have gone to class yesterday,” we’re much more likely to be beating ourselves up than to be planning different behavior for the future. It’s certainly possible to say “I should have gone to class yesterday” and mean “I can see that not going to class yesterday makes keeping up with the material harder, and so for the future I’ll make a special priority of getting to class every time,” but since reflections on the past rarely translate into plans for the future unless we go out of our way to make that happen, it’s much more effective to say (or think) that long, clumsy second version than to try to make the first one stand in for it.

“Should” for other people
The word “should” is just as messy when used on other people as it is when we use it on ourselves. Saying things like “he should watch where he’s going when he changes lanes!” or “my company should have paid for that” tends to put the focus on other people changing their behavior rather than on what we can do ourselves to respond constructively. Since we can’t control other drivers, it’s much more constructive to say “I guess I’ll watch out for unpredictable drivers like that guy” than to say “he should watch where he’s going,” or “In future, I’ll keep in mind that my company may not cover all the expenses I would expect them to” (or “I’ll go talk to my boss about this expense statement”) instead of “my company should have paid for that.”

The limited but real value of guilt and shame
The bad “should” actually does have a useful purpose in a limited way, in the same way that guilt and shame do: they bring our attention to a potential problem. If someone has done something that they know to be morally wrong and reflects “I shouldn’t have done that,” or feels guilt or shame, that’s positive to the point where it brings them to change their behavior and perhaps try to make reparations. Anything a “bad should” accomplishes beyond that role of pointing and reminding, however, is damaging.

Telling good “should” from bad “should”
Distinguishing between these two versions of “should” is tricky, because it comes down not to what we’re considering doing but to why we’re considering it. A “should statement” (the harmful version, the one without a meaningful condition) is one of the basic “broken ideas” (or “cognitive distortions”), and repairing this kind of idea means recasting it with a condition. A statement like “I should get my papers organized because I’m a slob,” (a should statement plus labeling: two broken ideas in one!) can be transformed into “If I like things around me to be in order, I’ll want to get my papers organized” or “If I want to boost how professional I look, I’ll organize my papers.” The original version of the statement tends to direct a person’s thoughts into their shortcomings and failures, which is a lousy way to get organized and not much fun, either. The transformed versions focus on the specific benefit or benefits you want to accomplish, and silently carries the other side of the condition, “And if I don’t, I just won’t get that benefit–which is not the end of the world.”

The benefit of getting a handle on shoulds
One potentially helpful approach, then, is to try to strike the word “should” out of our thinking completely. It’s harder to use bad “should” without using the actual word (though it can be done: “Politeness demands I go to the party tonight”), while good “should” statements are pretty easy to rephrase (“If I go to the party tonight, it will probably make my friends happy.”) But it’s not necessary to make this vocabulary change, since greater awareness can do the job just about as well.

The way we can apply this understanding of good and bad “shoulds” in our lives is to use it to notice bad “shoulds” as they come up in our mind, and then to think about applying conditions to them or examining them more closely. By doing things for reasons we recognize and agree with, we take greater control of and responsibility of our own lives rather than giving up power to circumstances or to outside forces. In this way we become a little more like the people we strive to be.

Photo by Brandon Cirillo

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Where to Find Motivation After Losing a Job

Handling negative emotions

leave_office

After losing a job, motivation can be a little hard to come by. A lost job usually serves up a double whammy: a massive blow to self-respect in being fired, forced to resign, or laid off, and a goodly serving of uncertainty about where the next job is going to come from. The combination of sadness about the past and anxiety about the future can be pernicious, because just when you get one side of the problem under control, the other can sneak up and wallop you.

I was forwarded this useful article from the New York Times Web site today, and it has some good points to make: “Accentuating the Positive After a Layoff“. While reading it, however, I realized there are some basic elements of motivation that apply to job loss: here those are.

If You’re Beating Yourself Up, Here’s How to Stop
It’s hard to be kind to yourself after losing a job. You may blame yourself, for good reasons or silly reasons, or be unable to let go of anger, or feel hopeless about the future. These kinds of feelings almost always are the result of broken ideas, things we tell ourselves that sound true but are actually bunk. Some common ones follow, along with some good ways to repair them. For a much more in-depth treatment of broken ideas (under their more proper psychological name of “cognitive distortions”), read Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper’s A Guide to Rational Living or David Burns’ Feeling Good.

I should have _____
“Should” is almost always a red flag word. Looking back at the past, it helps to know how we would handle a similar situation in the future, but since there is no way at all ever to change what we’ve done in time gone by, it can be a lot more constructive to say “I did ____. If the situation came up again, I would do ____. I’m going to accept that I made a bad choice. What can I do in the future to help turn things around?”

I’m such a ____
Labeling means taking one or more incidents in the past and concluding that they add up to an unchangeable tendency to fail. Yet our brains are amazingly adaptable; we can change virtually anything we want about our behavior or even our skills. A bad choice or a failure is nothing more than a specific bad choice or failure. It doesn’t decree how we will act in future.

My boss/coworkers/clients/etc. should have _____
“Should” again, and again it points to something we can’t change. We can influence others, but we generally can’t force them to act a particular way. It can help in these situations to remind ourselves that we have no control over other people, only control over how we respond to them. We can then turn our attention to the areas of our lives where we actually do have some control.

I’m not going to find a job/decent job/job around here/job in my field
This one is called “fortune telling.” We can’t predict the future, and there’s no point in pretending we can. It can help in these situations to map out all of the possibilities we’re hoping to avoid and say to ourselves “OK, that might happen, even if I don’t want it to. If so, what’s going to be the best thing for me to do?”

This is awful!
Watching a child die is awful. Being imprisoned in  a tiny cell in a Southeast Asian country for eight years is awful. But having to sell your beloved late-model car and move to a second-floor walkup in a town you don’t like is merely unpleasant. If you look at your future and see things you don’t like, remind yourself that they’re just things you don’t like, and that your job is just to make good decisions. Very few things we don’t like will last through our entire lives. Generally they’re just something to be gotten through as well as can be managed until they’re gone.

Make goals, not wishes
It’s tempting in these situations to make goals like “I will get a new job right here in the city within three months, for at least as much as I used to make.” The problem is that something like that is not a goal, because it’s not under your direct control. It’s more of a wish: it depends on other people doing things, and we’ve already established that other people are (inconveniently) not under our control. Goals are motivating and worth pursuing, as long as they’re entirely under your control. A real goal might be something like “I will apply for at least 15 jobs a week,” or “I will study a new job skill for at least two hours a day until I have a new job,” or “Every morning, I will come up with one new thing I haven’t tried yet to help me in my job search.” As mentioned in the S.M.A.R.T. post, good goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. The “attainable” part needs to include being under your direct control.

There is an up side
Any change, even a very messy one, has the potential for positive side effects, sometimes substantial ones. For instance, many people who have lost their ability to walk, see, or hear through an accident literally refer to their experience as the best thing that has ever happened to them. As strange as it may sound, it can make sense, because a major life problem is a wake-up call: it slaps us in the face and forces us to look around. What do we really have going for us, when it comes right down to it–what skills, what passions, what resources? What do we truly want to do with our lives? Is making a living enough, or do we want something more? If so, what is that thing? Are the choices we’ve been making really making us happy? It’s possible to be happy without a lot of things, including sight, hearing, and the ability to walk. A happy life with less is better than an unhappy life with more.

And almost any change also has little benefits, things that you’re probably more than happy to leave behind–a cramped office or an over-controlling manager or a long commute. Don’t hesitate to take pleasure in the improvements in your situation, even if they’re small compared to the problems that have arisen.

You don’t have to be happy about losing a job (though it’s possible, and it can help). And you don’t have to pretend that everything is going to come out the way you want it to just because you wish it (which doesn’t help). But taking a calm look at what has happened and where you are now can at worst help you put to rest anxieties you don’t really need, and at best help you see opportunities you hadn’t previously imagined.

Photo by Rhett Sutphin; it may or may not actually depict a lost job

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