What’s your motto?

April 20, 2016

If you look on social media sites, you will see a lot of sayings and affirmations. Things like, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Or “All you need is love,” or “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Much of this is good advice. Perhaps not surprisingly, I don’t often see the mottoes that might describe things that clients struggle with.

If you have anxiety, the motto might be something like “Bad things happen all the time,” or maybe, “Other people can’t be trusted,” or “Be careful!” or… well, you get the idea. For depression, “You suck,” “You’re a failure,” “Things always go wrong and it’s your fault,” “It will never get better,” and other nasty snippets of despair.

Cognitive-behavioural therapists call these thoughts “cognitive errors.” People are often surprised by this: the thoughts are mistakes. They are wrong. They are lies. You may have seen the hashtag #depressionlies. Well, so does anxiety. A lot of the common cultural beliefs around relationships, or parenting, or grief, are also lies. (That old song, about if you love someone you never have to say you’re sorry? Totally wrong.)

We all also have thoughts that are deep and central to how we perceive the world, usually established early in life. These are core beliefs. The power in these core beliefs is that they feel like they are true, an accurate perception of yourself, other people, and the world in general. Often such beliefs are perfectly healthy and reasonable. Sometimes, however, the core beliefs are nasty. “I am fundamentally unloveable,” for example. Or, “Everybody lies,” (to quote Dr. House!), or “The worst always happens,” or “If I am not perfect, I am worthless.” For anyone who lives their lives by such damaging principles, the world is a nasty place. It’s very, very difficult to be happy.

Fortunately, therapy can help. The worst doesn’t always happen. Really, it doesn’t. If you believe something, however, you will be looking for evidence to support your belief, and ignoring evidence that does not. We all do that as human beings, it’s called the fundamental attribution error. Get two people together with opposing political views, and watch it in action!

But the job of the therapist is to point out times when a belief like, “The worst always happens,” hasn’t been true. A black and white thought like that is never true 100% of the time. It just isn’t possible. So finding the exceptions starts to challenge the belief. Also, simply knowing that believing such a thing leads to unhappiness, and anxiety, begins to start a process of questioning. Does it help me to believe this? What am I losing out on if I continue to believe this is completely true? Does it fit with how I want my life to be?

Of course, your therapist should not be a Pollyanna. No reasonable person can believe that the worst never happens. That’s just another black and white, unreasonable belief, albeit a nicer one. A more balanced thought is the goal. How about, “Sometimes good things happen, especially if I work towards positive goals.” Or, “If something bad happens, I can get support, ask for help, and look after myself so I can cope with it as best as possible.” These aren’t succinct life mottos, but they are reasonable, realistic, and part of the treatment for anxiety, depression, and general unhappiness.