Motivation, perception and memory

We rely on our perception – our senses – to keep us aware of what’s going on around us. What we perceive through our senses is the raw data for our cognition, which is the sense we make of that raw data. Cognition is an individual thing. Two or more people may witness the same event and come away with different versions of what happened.

Memory isn’t like a tape recorder that accurately records all the events we witness or experience. It’s affected by many factors, one of which is your motivations (if any) regarding the event.  When I studied perceptual psychology in grad school, I learned the principle “motivation affects perception.” What you want – if only at that moment – affects what you see and hear. What we’re motivated to think or believe, for whatever reasons, unconsciously affects our perceptions. This determines what we subsequently think or believe about the event or situation, shaping our memory of it. For example, if a foul is called on your team at a sporting event, you’re more likely to perceive that it was a bad call than if you were rooting for the other team. If you witnessed a car crash in which friends were injured or killed, you’re more likely to perceive – and recall – that the driver of the other car was at fault. It’s human nature.

In grad school I audited a perceptual psychology course taught by a husband and wife team (Dr.s Fred and Anne Richards) who had co-authored with another psychologist an authoritative textbook on the subject. They were excellent teachers, but free expression by students was encouraged in the psychology department, and some of the students took exception to our professors’ habit of responding to questions about perceptual phenomena with “according to the book _____.” Fred and Anne didn’t seem to “get” the objection, and continued to refer to their book in response to questions.

So, one day before class a student I’ll call Steve asked if he could have the last fifteen minutes of the session, and Fred and Anne graciously agreed. At the appointed time, Steve led us outside, where a friend had been tending a hibachi grill filled with burning charcoal. Steve asked for silence until we returned to the classroom, and proceeded to burn a copy of the textbook before our startled  eyes. I recall a wide variety of reactions, from shocked looks and gasps, to laughter. We returned to the classroom and had the best discussion I remember in the whole course. What we learned was that no two of us who’d witnessed the book-burning had had the same experience! Some had responded viscerally (“I can’t believe I’m WATCHING A BOOK-BURNING!”), some had appreciated Steve’s statement in different ways, and others felt concerned about Fred and Anne’s feelings, as they conjectured about what those might be. I think it’s fair to say that our teachers were stunned, but they handled the event with grace, and we all learned something from it.

Motivation affects both our cognitions and our subsequent recall. Juries in criminal courts tend to be impressed by eye-witness testimony, but trial  lawyers know well how unreliable it can be. Whether one’s motivations come from underlying attitudes, beliefs, and personal values relevant to the issues at hand, or conscious bias, or personal relationships involved, they affect perception and all that follows. The emotions that may be attached to events and situations also affect our memories at an unconscious level. Jerzy Kosinski put it this way: “What we remember lacks the hard edge of fact. To help us along, we create little fictions, highly subtle and elaborate scenarios which clarify and shape our experience. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings.”

In prior posts I’ve written about cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapy, and will be writing more as I continue to review theories and therapies. Our cognitions aggregate into beliefs, whether or not those  cognitions were logical or rational. These therapies help people to become more aware of their thoughts and beliefs, and to distinguish between those that are rational and those that aren’t. To understand human behavior, it’s important to grasp that what we see and hear is affected by what we want. I submit that a baker, a painter, and a starving man, seeing the same loaf of bread, see different things. What we bring to a situation partly determines what we take from it.

James Taylor wrote: “Painters use their eyes to show us what they see/ But when that canvas dries, we all see it differently.”

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness has become a buzzword, not only in psychotherapy, but in the mass media. Mindfulness is when you “stop and smell the roses.” Some people are making a lot of money marketing mindfulness training, but learning to practice it costs nothing beyond an investment of your time. An age-old Asian aphorism is that the mind is like a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion. One of the benefits of this time investment is learning to tame your monkey mind.

Fritz Perls said that past and future are fictions: our lives are spent exclusively in the here-and-now. Buddhism teaches that all suffering arises from attachments, and in that regard it correlates to cognitive behavioral therapy. Self-talk is like a constant mental radio broadcast that most people don’t know how to turn off, as much as they might wish to sometimes. In my career I’ve had many clients who lived their lives in thrall to their frequent or constant irrational thoughts. Learning meditation gives you a way to turn off the mental radio at will.

Mindfulness is a kind of meditation that’s always available to us. It doesn’t require silence, or sitting in the lotus position, or chanting, or concentrating on a mandala, or doing yoga breathing – although all of these practices are valid methods  for learning to meditate.  Mindfulness simply means getting out of your head and being fully present in the here-and-now, the only time there is, without letting your mind wander and without making judgments.

Before I specifically get into mindfulness further, I’ll first share my understanding of meditation in general. I learned to meditate in grad school, and found that there are many methods for learning to stay in a meditative state of consciousness, some of which I listed above. I’ve experienced two distinct levels of meditation. I started out with what I call single-pointed meditation, which means learning to focus on a single thing – a candle flame in a darkened room, a mantra (chant), focusing on your breathing to the exclusion of all other thought. Unrelated thoughts will inevitably intrude, but with practice you can learn to ignore them, let them go, and return your focus to the single point. At first it’s a balancing act, like walking a mental tightrope. When you first realize that you’ve achieved a meditative state, you think “I’m meditating!”, but the instant you think that, you’re not – you’re thinking again. With sufficient practice you can lengthen the time you stay in the meditative state, and develop confidence in your ability to meditate whenever you choose to.

Once I’d learned to stay focused on one thing exclusively, without letting my mind wander to other things, I was able to move on to a new level of meditation – pure awareness. I learned that it’s possible to be awake and aware, without being aware of any thing. Learning to suspend object-consciousness and judgement is a liberation. You can tame your monkey mind, turn off the mental radio. The silence is golden. It’s a distinct state of consciousness that teaches you what thinking cannot teach. It calms the body and the mind.

Mindfulness is a kind of single-pointed meditative state. You can be mindful while performing a task, taking a walk, taking a bath, having a conversation, doing Tai Chi, or standing in a crowd. You can be mindful of your self-talk. Mindfulness means staying focused on your here-and-now experience, to the exclusion of extraneous thoughts and without making judgments like good/bad, beautiful/ugly, or right/wrong.

Many times in public I’ve played a mindful game with myself, a game that teaches me things about my ordinary (non-mindful) consciousness and my monkey  mind. Normally when I’m in public, people-watching, I’m constantly categorizing and judging and speculating about all the people I see: whether or not I find them attractive, whether they’re fat or thin, graceful or clumsy, whether  they seem smart or dumb, likeable or unlikeable, etc.  Sometimes when I catch myself making these instant evaluations, I decide to play “the Buddha game.” I mindfully suspend my monkey mind and imagine that everybody I see is a Buddha – perfect, God in disguise. Just as I believe that meditation has changed my ordinary consciousness over time, I believe that playing the Buddha game has helped me to be less judgmental and more compassionate.

Mindfulness training is at the core of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a highly effective therapy developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan to treat people who meet the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder. While she was devising the core strategies of DBT, Dr. Linehan studied meditation with a Catholic priest in a contemplative order and with a zen master. The people for whom DBT was designed tend to be extremely judgmental (of themselves and others) and emotionally volatile. Dr. Linehan became convinced that practicing mindfulness would help them to find balance in their deeply conflicted lives. Having co-led DBT skills training groups and seeing first-hand the effectiveness of mindfulness training, I believe that it’s beneficial for mentally ill people with other diagnoses, too. But as I’ve said many times, you don’t have to be sick to get better. Mindfulness is a learnable practice that can improve your life, if you invest some time in it.

 

The Gloria sessions

I’ve written posts about my education as a psychotherapist in the humanistic psychology program at the University of West Georgia, and my exposure to a variety of therapeutic modalities. These included Rogerian (client-centered), gestalt, and cognitive behavioral therapy. I remember watching a videotaped film titled “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy” that I’ve always thought of as “the Gloria sessions.” For many years this film was only available for viewing by professional therapists, faculty, and students of psychotherapy; but now all three sessions can be viewed on YouTube.

In 1965 a courageous young woman named Gloria – a divorced single mother – agreed to be videotaped in brief therapy sessions with three of the most influential American psychotherapists of the twentieth century: Dr. Carl Rogers (client-centered therapy), Dr. Fritz Perls (gestalt therapy), and Dr. Albert Ellis (cognitive behavioral therapy). Watching the sessions again, I was reminded of Gloria’s courage and candor. The production quality isn’t always good and following the Perls  session takes concentration, due both to poor sound quality and Perls’ thick German accent. But if you want to see three masters of psychotherapy at work, this film is a treasure trove. Their approaches to working with Gloria are very different.

In each segment, the therapist briefly describes his approach to therapy, then works with Gloria, then comments on the session. In the first segment Carl Rogers says that if the therapist can establish certain conditions in relating to the client, “therapeutic movement” will predictably occur. The first condition is genuineness, and the second is congruence – meaning that your non-verbal communication is congruent with your verbalizations. The third condition is transparency , meaning that the therapist hides nothing and can be easily “seen through.” Rogers states that if these three conditions exist, and the therapist can be in tune with the client’s “inner world” (how she experiences herself in the world) insights and growth will follow.

During the session Gloria keeps trying to get Dr. Rogers to give her advice about making a decision, and dealing with guilt feelings related to the decision. He never accedes to her request, but keeps accurately reflecting on what she’s saying, allowing her to eventually take ownership of the issue, and to trust her own judgment. (Contrary to popular belief, good therapists seldom or never give advice.) Rogers is comfortable with silences, and at one point asks, “What do you wish I’d say to you?” She gets it. In his commentary, he remarks on how her “then-and-there” orientation at the start of the session quickly becomes a “here-and-now” focus. He highlights the “I-Thou” quality of their experience, rejecting Freud’s intellectual concept of transference/counter-transference in favor of Martin Buber’s term for authentic relating. He concludes, “Gloria and I really encountered each other” and says he thinks that both of them benefitted from their brief encounter. Watching again, I can’t help but agree.

Perls puffs on a cigarette while he describes gestalt therapy, and Gloria lights up at the beginning of the session, admitting that it’s a response to anxiety. In his introduction Perls, like Rogers, endorses the I-Thou relating essential to the therapeutic relationship, and the idea that therapy should not dwell on the then-and-there, but should always focus on the here-and-now of direct experience. He states that a gestalt therapist never offers interpretations, but provides clients with experiential opportunities to discover things about themselves, often by interrupting the client’s verbalizations and calling attention to automatic behaviors that the client is usually unaware of. Early in the session Perls labels some of Gloria’s behaviors as “phony” – which has a specific meaning in gestalt therapy. She’s initially bewildered and angry, feeling judged. She’s very defensive, but Perls doesn’t back off, and Gloria appears to catch on to what he’s saying by the end of the session. He was never judging her; he was giving her an experiential lesson in her automatic, typical defenses. It’s known in gestalt therapy as “being on the hot seat.” It was Perls who wrote what became known as the Gestalt Prayer, which starts with: “I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine.”

In his introduction, Albert Ellis expounds upon the notion that – contrary to Freudian psychodynamic theory – the past isn’t the primary determinant of present-day distress or dysfunction. The past may have a role in its formation, but it’s present behaviors that maintain the problem – specifically, the irrational things we tell ourselves about our experiences and their consequences. As I’d remembered, Ellis came across like the  stereotypical pushy, fast-talking New Yorker, but his words were precise and logical. In his short session with Gloria he manages to convey the principles of rational thinking, by applying them to Gloria’s anxieties about dating and seeking a life partner. She appears to grasp the notion that she makes undesirable situations worse by catastrophizing. “Don’t beat yourself over the head or convince yourself you’re a no-goodnik, just because you didn’t get the outcome you wanted.” He explained how he gives his clients behavioral homework assignments to complete between sessions, and suggests that Gloria should set up opportunities to take some small risks, instead of holding back in social situations. Its a behavioral technique called exposure, and Ellis was one of its early proponents.

When I first saw “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy,” I remember that there was a brief interview with Gloria after the sessions; but I wasn’t able to find it online. As I recall, Gloria said that she liked Carl Rogers the best, and learned some valuable things from Albert Ellis; but her session with Fritz Perls was the one she most benefitted from. If you don’t understand the basics of gestalt therapy, what Perls says and does in the session won’t make much sense. It shook Gloria up; but that’s what good gestalt therapists do, and Perls was one of the best. I highly recommend the Gloria sessions to social science students, psychotherapists in training or practice, and people who want to know more about psychotherapy.

Little did I know when I first watched the film that I’d actually meet Rogers and Ellis. I’ve already written about my brief meeting with Carl Rogers. In a later post I’ll describe my encounter with Albert Ellis.

Improving your memory

I’m convinced that memory is something like a muscle – if you don’t use it, it shrinks. Over the years I’ve heard many people, in treatment and in my personal life, complain about their memory. Some folks make excuses in advance, don’t trust their memory, and consequently don’t rely on it. This can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. There are many factors- some biological – that affect memory. I’ve come to believe that one of these factors is a “reinforcement loop” involving (1) trusting your memory and (2) relying on its accuracy from experience and therefore exercising it more often. If you don’t have a biological or psychological impairment, you mostly remember the things you actively commit to short-term memory. This increases your trust in your memory and increases your reliance, which further increases your trust, etc. Part of having a good memory is cultivating good memory habits.

Another factor is mindfulness, as opposed to “being in your head,” lost in thought. I used the term “actively commit to memory” above. Actively committing something to memory is something like active listening: it requires mindfulness. Mindfulness is being present in the only time there is – this moment. I’ve admitted in a previous post to having obsessive-compulsive traits. There are times when I leave the house preoccupied with thoughts, and then worry because I can’t remember locking the door. But when I lock the door mindfully, it’s as if I have a video recording of the event in my head, and there’s no subsequent anxiety.

This is an example of committing something to short-term memory simply by paying attention, being mindful. But there are also memory aids known as mnemonic devices that can help you commit things to your short- or long-term memory. Acronyms can serve as mnemonic devices. Ever since I heard of Roy G. Biv ( a made-up name) I’ve been able to name the colors of the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The first letter of each word in the following sentence is a mnemonic device for recalling the planets in the solar system, in order of their distance from the sun: “Molly very easily makes jam, sometimes using no pectin.” A sentence is often easier to memorize than a list of names, and this sentence is the key to remembering: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupitor, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. You can make up your own mnemonic sentences to memorize things. Rhymes can also be mnemonic devices, as with “Thirty days hath September/ April, June and November./ All the rest have thirty-one/ Except the second month alone./ To it we twenty-eight assign/ ‘Til leap year gives it twenty-nine.”

Another mnemonic device – an ancient technique now known as image mnemonics – involves visualizations that serve as “pegs” to hang list items on. I’ll share two variations on that technique that will allow you to reliably store a ten-item shopping list in your short-term memory. The first variation is to memorize ten places in or around your home, in a specific order, such as the order in which you’d encounter them when you come home. Number one might be your driveway, number two the walkway to your front porch, number three the front porch, number four the hall table just past the door, etc. Once you have the places memorized in order, have somebody name random grocery list items – slowly, as you indicate you’re ready. When each item is specified, imagine it -perhaps in some altered or exaggerated form – in the sequential locations. The weirder the image, the better. If the first item is bread, you might imagine a giant loaf blocking the driveway. If the second item is eggs, imagine a row of colored Easter eggs on the walkway. If the third item is chicken, imagine a live chicken clucking on the front porch. Once you have an image for each grocery item pegged on one of the memorized locations, all you have to do to recall the items is to mentally go to the ten locations in order and name what you put there.

The other variation is to memorize these ten words that rhyme with the numbers one through ten: bun, shoe, tree, door, hive, sticks, heaven, gate, line (as in clothesline) and pen (as in pigpen). As you’re given the ten items, match each one of them with one of your ten images, in order. You might end up with a whole, raw potato in a bun, a shoe filled with milk, a tree hung with toilet paper, a giant fish standing at the door, a beehive buzzing with flying shrimp, a fried egg on a pile of sticks, a turkey at the gates of heaven, a gate made of cheese, bagels hanging from a clothesline, and a pen filled with bacon.

This mnemonic device works by allowing you to create an association between random items you want to commit to your short-term memory, and a fixed sequence of mental pegs on which to temporarily hang the items. I’ll be writing more about memory in future posts, but in the meantime you can amaze your friends with your ability to memorize lists. Once you understand the principles, you can create your own mnemonic devices, and work at developing good memory habits.

On not giving away your power

Quite a number of times during my years in community mental health I had public school students (mostly boys) referred to me for counseling by their schools, due to fighting. These students definitely did not want to attend mandatory counseling sessions, so I used that as a lever, saying “Let’s see if you can learn to control your temper in two or three sessions. It’s up to you how long you have to come in for counseling.” I fully understood that when a teenager is being taunted in front of his peers, it feels more powerful in the moment to start swinging than to stand there feeling humiliated. So I framed their problem as one of giving away their personal power when they let themselves be goaded into losing their temper and fighting. Before I got into teaching anger management skills, I had to convince these students that I could help them. I often used set-up “punchlines” and strategic metaphors in therapy.

My first therapeutic hook was to show them a hand-lettered cardboard sign on a loop of string, which I’d hang around my neck. The sign read “If you want to make me mad, call me a _______.” I had a number of smaller signs that  I’d hold over the blank: “retard” “punk” “homo” “Mama’s boy”. With a straight face I’d offer to give the signs to the student, to wear at school. Of course he’d decline my offer, confused as to why I’d think he’d want to wear it in the first place. Then I’d give him my punchline: “You may as well wear it. Your behavior already tells people the same thing the sign says. The guys who give you a hard time just have to find out which of these things to call you, to make you lose control. It only makes you feel strong when you fight, but you’re actually giving away your power. When a bully goads you into throwing the first punch, he’s gotten what he wants. He knows that you’re the one who’s going to be suspended.”

My second hook was a metaphor that actually involves fishing. I’d ask the student if he’d ever gone fishing, and most had. I’d ask if they’d ever tried fishing without bait. Of course they’d say they always used bait. Then I’d say, “Because you know that a fish wouldn’t bite a bare hook, and the bait hides the hook. And that’s what happens when your enemies at school make you lose your cool. Their words are the bait that hides the hook. Once you bite, they’ve got you.” I’d pantomime reeling-in a fish, then suggest that keeping control of your behavior when you’re angry is a strength. (I realize that there are times when a cool-headed decision to fight is an appropriate response to bullying, but I won’t get into that circumstance here.)

There are other ways that people frequently give away their power to other people or to circumstances beyond their control. An event such as a traffic jam doesn’t have the power to make you mad, unless you invest it with that power. It’s one thing to say that you became angry when you got stuck in traffic, and quite another to say – as many people do – that being stuck in the traffic jam “made you” angry. The traffic might have triggered your anger, but it didn’t cause it.

Sometimes people blame their feelings or actions on others: “I wouldn’t have hit him if he hadn’t dissed me!” People who attribute their anger to other peoples’ behavior (i.e. “You make me angry when you contradict me!”) are making an indirect demand: “Don’t contradict me, or you’ll have to deal with my anger.” As with blaming circumstances for one’s anger, there’s a big difference between “I get angry when you _________” and “You make me angry when you _________.” The difference is in locus of control. Does control exist within me, or outside of me? Owning your anger is a strength.

If I blame external triggers for my anger, I’m giving them power over me. If I own my anger, I’m more likely to control its duration and its influence on my behavior. I’m not stating this as an absolute. If someone were to sucker-punch me, I’d certainly attribute my anger to his behavior. I’m just making the point that if I own my anger, I’m less likely to reflexively hit him back. (Which may or may not be the best response.) Thinking that I generate my own anger in response to external triggers is more rational than thinking that others can pull my strings, and that external triggers cause my anger.  Staying in control of your behavior and making good decisions while experiencing a strong emotion is a strength.

Another common habit of people who can’t differentiate between their rational and irrational thoughts is catastrophizing or awfulizing. When something inconvenient, unpleasant, disappointing or hurtful happens, there’s nothing to be gained by mentally labeling it as “terrible” or “awful,” or saying that you “can’t stand it.” Of course real tragedies and major losses can truly be terrible and overwhelming , but exaggerating the negative impact of an unwanted, unpleasant experience just makes it all the more unpleasant. Each of us has the ability to assign meaning and give weight to events, and catastrophizing is another way that people diminish their own power. Sometimes we spend ten dollars of adrenaline on a ten-cent problem, because of the way we think about it.

 

Trains of thought

In my last post I said I’d explore how an initial irrational thought can lead to a train of connected irrational thoughts, expanding from incident-specific to generalized irrational thoughts. Thinking this way doesn’t help you to feel the way you’d like to feel, or to act wisely.

I used to lead a psychoeducational group (as opposed to a process group) called Skills for Recovery at South Carolina’s largest psychiatric hospital. When I taught my module on rational thinking and irrational trains of thought, I’d draw a crude train on the whiteboard as I taught the concepts. I started by drawing a rectangle on “wheels” on the right-hand side of the board, adding a smokestack and a triangular cowcatcher to distinguish it as the locomotive. Then (right-to-left) I’d draw several more rectangles on wheels – boxcars – behind the locomotive. Inside the locomotive rectangle I’d write Activating Event, then I’d write Thought 1, Thought 2, Thought 3, etc. in the boxcars (right-to-left). My standard rap on trains of thought went something like this:

Trains can take you places, hopefully places you want to go. Trains of thought can also take you places. If your thoughts remain rational, your trains of thought  will take you in positive directions. If they’re irrational, they’re likely to take you places you don’t want to go. Take Luke for example. He’s between girlfriends and looking for a new one. He fancies himself a pretty good dancer, and likes to hang out at dance bars and clubs. He’s attracted to Lucy and has seen her out on the dance floor with different men. He works up the courage to approach her at the bar, introduces himself, and asks her if she’d like to dance. She says “No thanks,” gives no qualifiers or explanations, and walks away. Luke isn’t sure how to read her Mona Lisa smile.

Luke’s first thought is rational. “I’m disappointed that she doesn’t want to dance with me.” If he remains rational, he might think “I don’t know why she turned me down. I probably never will, and that’s okay. It may not have anything to do with me, personally. I’ll find someone who wants to dance with me before the evening’s over. And even if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.” If, instead, Luke has a gut reaction and starts thinking irrationally, his thinking might go in either of two directions: what’s wrong with her, or what’s wrong with me? If he boards the former irrational train, he might conclude that (T1) she’s either a lesbian, or that (T2) she’s stuck-up and thinks she’s too good for him. After another drink, he might start to generalize that (T3) all women are like that, thinking they’re better than us, and that (T4) they’re all stuck-up bitches who don’t know a real man when they see one. Luke’s behavioral response to these angry thoughts is to get hammered.

Luke may instead think of his rejection by Lucy as proof that there’s something wrong with him. He might jump to the conclusion that (T1) she turned him down because she doesn’t find him attractive – which may or may not be the case. He’ll probably never find out, but irrational thinkers with low self-esteem tend not to give themselves the benefit of the doubt on such self-judgments. Luke may think that (T2) he was foolish to ask Lucy to dance in the first place; he should have known she’d turn him down. He may convince himself that (T3) there’s no point in asking any other woman to dance, because she’d just turn him down like Lucy did. Riding that irrational train of thought, he might generalize that (T4) he’s just not attractive to women. From there he might label himself (T5) a pitiful Loser who will never find love, and leaving the club thinking suicidal thoughts.

Suicide is a mood-specific behavior; people never try to kill themselves because they’re elated. Some impulsive suicide attempts are triggered by a train of irrational thoughts, culminating in the irrational belief that suicide is the “solution” to the present conflict or problem. This kind of irrational thinking can be fatal. Suicide hotlines have saved innumerable lives by engaging people who are in crisis in compassionate dialogue until the suicidal mood passes.

Trains of irrational thought are perpetuated when we don’t recognize them as such, and ruminate on them. Situational depressions can be drawn out by dwelling on negative thoughts. If you should catch yourself ruminating on negative thoughts, learn to identify and challenge them. Luke might challenge his persistent thoughts that he’s a pitiful Loser in this manner: “Is it a fact or do I just feel that way? If it’s a fact, what’s the proof? Some pretty women have been attracted to me, and I don’t even know if Lucy turned me down because she doesn’t find me attractive. I have friends who believe in me and don’t think I’m a Loser. Loser is just a word, anyway. I’m not a Loser! Like everyone else, sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. Anyway, sitting here staring at the floor and feeling sorry for myself isn’t helping anything. I need to go for a run.”

Negative, irrational thinking and ruminations can be a “rehearsal for failure,” while riding rational trains of thought can be a “rehearsal for success.” People  who become mindful students of their own thinking can eventually become experts on their own thinking and where it typically takes them. They can avoid the traps of irrational thinking and ride trains of thought that take them to chosen destinations. Cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapies resonate with the buddhist teaching that all suffering arises from our attachment to things – in this case to irrational thoughts and expectations. Irrational thoughts often lead to irrational decisions and behaviors, based on false assumptions. Becoming a rational thinker means learning to spot and challenge your irrational thoughts before you act on them. It gets easier with practice.

 

Rational thinking

My therapeutic orientation was existential and I was trained in a humanistic psychology program, but as I told both clients and colleagues, if I had a Gospel to preach in my clinical practice it was the Gospel of Rational Thinking. It’s a learnable skill and I wish it was a standard part of the public school curriculum; but the corporate state wants the public education system to turn out conditioned consumers, not independent thinkers. Independent thinkers are as hard to herd as cats. I’ve practiced and taught rational thinking for decades. Being able to spot my irrational thoughts before acting on  them has kept me from making innumerable mistakes and spared me a lot of unnecessary pain over the years. (I actually met Dr. Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, at a professional conference. I’ll tell you more about him in a later post.) Rational thinking is an important component of cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapies, whether irrational thoughts are labeled as thinking errors or as irrational self-talk. The wisdom of rational thinking correlates to the teachings of buddhism and to the Serenity Prayer. It’s a learning program that teaches people how to think rationally, without telling you what to think. It’s the opposite of  – and the antidote to – indoctrination.

We all engage in self-talk, our constant mental monologue, judging and labeling and making choices throughout our waking hours. Some self-talk is innocuous, but other self-talk carries a lot of weight and guides our subsequent behavior. Some of it is rational, but some is irrational – for all of us, even psychologists. In my experience most people can’t always tell the difference between their rational and irrational thoughts, and sometimes suffer painful or destructive consequences from their irrational thinking. Rational self-talk helps us to feel the way we want to feel and accomplish what we want to accomplish. Irrational self-talk leads to avoidable negative emotional states (anxiety, depression, anger) and undermines our ability to function at our best.

Many irrational thoughts are characterized by the words “always” and “never,” “should/shouldn’t” and “must.” Some examples: “I should always make a good impression on people.” “Things never go my way.” “I’ll never succeed in life.” “I shouldn’t ever let down my guard around people. They always take advantage of you.” “Life should be fair.” “I must get this promotion!” When people think irrationally, they set themselves up for disappointment, or worse, when things don’t go as they’d hoped.

At times we all wish the world was fair. But it isn’t, and thinking that it “should be” doesn’t help anyone. You might not always succeed at things you really want to succeed at, but that doesn’t make you a “failure” or a “loser.” If we tell ourselves that we’ll “never” get over a loss, we’re programming ourselves to suffer endlessly. If we expect to “always” perform optimally in interpersonal situations, we’re not allowing for the fact that we’re all flawed human beings. To err is human, and to expect perfection, or to always succeed at everything we do, is to court disappointment. Great expectations can lead to great disappointment, and moderate expectations to moderate disappointment. But if you engage in an enterprise because you feel it’s the right thing to do, with no specific expectations pinned to the outcome, you can’t be disappointed.

Here are some categories of typical irrational thoughts: Catastrophizing is imagining that worst-case scenarios are likely outcomes. Minimization is wearing blinders that don’t let you see your own strengths, or the positive potentials in a situation. Grandiosity is feeling superior, having an exaggerated sense of self-importance or ability. Personalization is when someone thinks “It’s all about me.” Thinking you’re the center of the universe. Magical thinking is characterized by acting ritualistically, as if a ritual behavior will bring about a desired outcome. Leaps in logic have to do with jumping to conclusions not based on evidence. Mindreading means attributing motives for a person’s behavior without evidence. “I know why he did that!” All-or-nothing thinking is the inability to see any shades of gray between poles of black and white. Paranoia is characterized by unjustified suspiciousness and feelings of persecution.

I’ll be writing more about mindfulness over time but, suffice it to say for now, one kind of mindfulness is paying close attention to your self-talk and where it takes you, emotionally and behaviorally. With practice, you can learn to immediately distinguish your irrational thoughts from your rational thoughts. In cognitive therapy, when you identify an irrational thought, you learn to frame a challenge to that thought. An example: “I may have lost out on that promotion, but that doesn’t mean I’m a loser.”

I used to teach clients a method called a “4-Step Check” to help them learn to spot and counter their irrational thoughts. After an upsetting event, you analyze it in writing. (1) Event. Describe what happened. (2) How I felt. This might include multiple emotions. (3) What I did.  What would a videocam have recorded? (4) What was/were my irrational thought(s). With enough practice writing 4-Step Checks, spotting irrational thoughts eventually becomes automatic, and you don’t have to do them on paper anymore.

Here’s an example of a 4-Step Check by Charles, an alcoholic in early recovery: (1) Jim, my new AA sponsor, promised to pick me up at 7:30 sharp for an 8:00 meeting across town that he knew was important for me. When he hadn’t shown up by 7:45, I hailed a cab. (2) I felt desperate and alone in the world. I got angrier every minute Jim was late. (3) I kept looking at my watch, sometimes several times a minute.  I paced back and forth on the sidewalk, cursing. I kicked a dog. (4) I should never have asked Jim to be my sponsor. He’s doesn’t really care what happens to me. He’s a selfish, unreliable bastard! You just can’t rely on anyone. I should just go to a bar instead of paying for a taxi to get to the meeting.

As it turned out, Jim showed up late to the meeting and afterwards apologized sincerely, explaining why his tardiness had been unavoidable. So Jim did his 4-Step and was able to spot his irrational thoughts and how they were related to his emotions of the moment. You may have noticed that Charles’ initial irrational thoughts were specifically related to Jim’s failure to show up when he said he would. But then he starts to generalize, telling himself that people aren’t reliable and that working on recovery is useless – a rationalization for relapse. This is an example of how an irrational thought can lead to a progressively irrational train of thoughts, going from specific to generalized irrational thinking. None of these thoughts can help Charles to feel the way he’d like to feel or to help him achieve his goals.

Any irrational self-talk statement can be challenged by asking, “How do I know that to be true? What is my proof?” In my decades as a therapist I urged many clients to “become a student of your own thinking.” Every day holds new opportunities to learn about yourself, if you pay attention. In time you start to see the patterns of your own irrational self-talk, and you internalize the 4-Step Check. Spotting irrational thoughts becomes a learned reflex and voila!, you’re a rational thinker. In my next post I’ll get into “trains of thought” that take people to places they don’t need to go.