“I think therefore I am!” (Cogito ergo sum) This philosophical statement was made by a great philosopher named Descartes (1596-1650). This is a profound statement, and most of Western civilization has applied this idea to their way of life since Descartes’s time. But there are two fundamental problems with this philosophy:
1. We are capable of choosing which thoughts we hold on to or harbor.
2. Descarte didn’t say anything like “I feel therefore I am” so, in many ways, feelings have not been honored in our culture.
In our culture, we honor thinking. But our body takes on our thoughts as if they are gospel truth. Our thinking patterns are one of the major causes of depression.
For example, consider the following thoughts and how you might feel if you accepted them as true:
- Thought: Things never work out for me. = Feeling: Depression
- Thought: I am a loser. No one likes me. = Feeling: Depression
- Thought: I am not good enough. = Feeling: Depression
Not all thoughts are necessarily valuable, and, in fact no definite relation to reality. Was Descarte in essence saying “I know I exist because I think?” He failed to acknowledge that one’s existence goes far beyond the ability to merely think.
Depressive thought patterns, or faulty self-talk, have been understood by psychologists for some time. Most of us have, at times, used these strategies whether we see them in ourselves or not. If you can recognize when you are using them, you can develop a more healthy approach to thinking, and eventually be able to discontinue using cognitive distortions all together.
Epictetus, a Greek Philosopher said “It is not the facts and events that upset man, but the view he takes of them.” Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
When we begin to see the link between our thinking and how we feel about ourselves and the world, we can also see how depressive thinking plays a role in our depression and feelings of hopelessness, as well as how cognitive clarity adds to our sense of well-being. When you use one or more depressive thought patterns, there is very little room for good, healthy self-worth.
Two of the Most Common Depressive Thought Patterns
1. Filtering: Cognitive Distortions allow us to see the world through filters that have been put in place by either trauma or situations that were not congruent with our beliefs. Our nature is to want to be right, so we fill in the blanks to make situations fit our preconceived notions. A child that has been told they are bad numerous times learns to filter out information that might say otherwise. This is called mental filtering.
I had a client in her twenties who struggled with distorted mental filters. She was yelled at by a teacher in elementary school for talking too much. The teacher told her that her loud mouth was disruptive to the entire class. After several experiences with this teacher, she internalized this. She believed that she was a loud mouth, and in future classes would not talk or share anything for fear of being targeted again. Finally in High School, a teacher asked her why she never spoke up in class. My client admitted her fears. The teacher told her that she had something to offer the whole class as her work was excellent and her opinion valuable. Even with this information, she still would not offer her opinion in class and remained soft-spoken. She filtered out the new information in favor of protecting herself from being labeled a loud-mouth.
In an effort to prevent more hurt, my client became stuck in an old belief system. This is a problem with all cognitive distortions. What can result is depression and anxiety or beliefs that keep us from being or doing the best we can. Another way we protect ourselves is rationalization. This is one of the most common distortions because it takes responsibility away from us for things we do or don’t do. We justify why something bad happened to us, or we say that someone else is responsible.
Bob was in his thirties and struggled to stay employed. He was unable to maintain jobs because he could not maintain attendance due to his anxiety. He felt that no one understood him and rationalized his reasons for not going in on time. At times, he would not show up at all. He wouldn’t even call because he felt no one would believe him. He was afraid he would lose his job, and he had tremendous anxiety about being fired. Eventually, Bob’s dire predictions came true, and he was fired. Despite the efforts of his employers to be considerate of his situation, he saw them as the enemy, and rationalized that the reason he lost his job was because they did not understand. As we worked through these issues, Bob came to realize he was responsible for being fired due to his inability to consistently show up for work. Rationalization had become a tool to protect him from taking responsibility for himself and his choices.
2. Catastrophizing: Catastrophizing is another common thinking pattern that can lead to feeling depressed. There are those who constantly commit themselves to the worst possible outcome and dare not dream of anything better. Most people have at one time thought, “If I always expect the worst then I can never be disappointed because anything more than this is better than I anticipated.” What we fail to realize is that catastrophizing robs us of the hope that anything might be better than we anticipated. Without hope, we are left to battle the demons of despair.
Not long ago, my seven-year-old daughter learned the effects of catastrophizing, as well as the excitement and joy that came from changing her thoughts. I arrived home from work one day to find my daughter distraught. Her eyes were red and puffy from an afternoon spent crying. Clutched close to her chest was the first doll she ever received, the one from when she was just a toddler. Through her sobbing I was able to make out that the family’s new Labrador puppy had gone into her room, pulled the doll from the bed, and chewed off the doll’s left forearm below the elbow. The damage was obvious when she offered the doll for my inspection and confirmation of its demise. I was waiting for her to announce the funeral plans. It was clear that she had catastrophized this incident and had no hope for any alternative outcome. Her first “baby” was dead to her.
After validating her perceived loss, I had an idea. We had recently watched the movie Soul Surfer, the real life account of a thirteen-year-old girl who lost her left arm at the shoulder from a shark bite. The movie is a wonderfully inspiring story of triumph as this young girl learns to surf again and goes on to compete professionally. My daughter was enthralled with the story and the power of healing that it conveyed. I immediately suggested that we use a sharp knife to make a clean cut on her doll’s arm just below the left shoulder so she could have a Soul Surfer doll. My daughter’s attitude changed instantly. She was captivated by the idea and insisted that we do it right away.
Soul Surfer now has prime positioning on her bedroom shelf and is displayed with pride. What brought about the change in attitude for my daughter? Nothing more, nor less, than a change in her thinking! She changed her thoughts from catastrophe to hope, excitement, and anticipation of years ahead with a new favorite doll whom she looks upon lovingly. After all, how many other girls have a Soul Surfer doll? She even took it to Grandma’s house two weeks ago to have Grandma sew a covering for the “amputation”.
Depressive thinking patterns typically evolve from painful experiences and usually develop as a defense that backfires in the long run. Abraham Lincoln, who suffered from severe depression and anxiety, said “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” How we view something clearly affects how we respond emotionally. Depressive thinking patterns cloud our judgment and are typically so deeply ingrained that we have a hard time seeing when they are affecting us, especially in the heat of the moment.
Below is a list of thinking patterns that lead to feelings of depression. Review them and think about how they might be contributing to your depression.
Depressive Thinking Patterns
Minimizing or Maximizing: The tendency to downplay or over-state your achievements, or reducing or making problems bigger than they actually are–usually attaching a negative outcome.
“Even though I finally got my promotion, it’s no big thing.”
“I did well, but so did a lot of other people.”
“My counselor just gives me good feedback because she’s paid to say it.”
“This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
“I will never get through the bills this month.”
Mind Reading: Without their saying anything, you know what people are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, you are able to divine how people are feeling or what they are thinking in regards to you.
“I know my boss hates me; he gave me a dirty look.”
“My wife didn’t call me today. She must be pretty mad.”
Blaming: You hold other people responsible for your pain, or take the other tack and blame yourself for every problem.
“It’s all her fault for not letting me know sooner.”
“I’m the one that caused the whole team project to fail.”
Mental Filtering: Taking the negative details and magnifying them while filtering out all positive details.
“He told me he really cared, but that is impossible because he was late to my party.”
“Even though she said she was impressed with my resume, she must hate me because she never smiled during the whole interview.”
Rationalizing: This is a defense mechanism that removes our responsibility from events that we cause or that happen to us.
“No wonder they couldn’t get a hold of me. They called me at the wrong times.”
“It would not have been so bad if they at least understood that I have more important things to do than they do.”
Catastrophizing: You expect disaster. You notice or hear about problems, and start asking “what ifs.”
“What if there is a tragedy that disables me?”
“What if the weather is bad that day and we have to call the whole thing off?”
Down-putting: The tendency to put yourself down for having a problem or making a mistake.
“I’m overweight, so I must be lazy and stupid.”
“I failed the test, so I must be dumb.”
“I’m in counseling; I must have something really wrong with me.”
“She doesn’t like me; I must be really ugly.”
Emotional Reasoning: This occurs when a person describes or interprets situations according to their emotional responses.
“Since I feel scared about taking the test, I must be a coward.”
“I feel guilty, so I must have done something wrong.”
Compartmentalizing: Placing various activities, roles, individuals, and parts of your life into separate “compartments” in your mind in order to keep them apart from each other, which makes it easier to forget about them and not deal with them.
“I won’t think about that now.”
“I don’t think about my family when I am at work.”
Black and White Thinking: This is typically all-or-nothing thinking where you view things in extremes. Beware of words like “never,” “always,” “nothing,” and “everyone”.
“Big boys don’t cry.”
“You’re either on my side, or you’re not.”
“You can never trust people.”
Depressive thought patterns are significant contributors to depression. (See Anxiety – “Cognitive Distortions”) We begin using these thoughts to keep ourselves safe or to avoid taking responsibility. Though they are not always easy to recognize, when you do, you can avoid thinking that leads to more depression. It is important to remember not to get in the habit of beating yourself up when you catch yourself in a depressive thinking pattern. Self-criticism is a form of blaming, and it will not help you to be less depressed.
It is more helpful to recognize your thought patterns, gently remind yourself that this type of thinking is not helping you to be happier, healthier and more at peace with yourself, and then move on. Thoughts are just thoughts, after all. You can be influenced by them, but you also have the power to decide what you want to think. You can let go of thoughts that do not bring you to a healthier state of mind.