Depression is the inability to see life clearly. It is like living in a fog. Though unaware of it, we turn away from happiness with self-defeating thinking patterns. We get stuck in the habit of believing these thoughts that stop us from enjoying the happiness that is well within our reach. Like habits, most negative thinking is automatic and goes unnoticed. We accept these thinking patterns as the way things are instead of realizing we have a choice. We can challenge those automatic thoughts that stop us from experiencing a sense of empowerment and well-being. Once we are aware of how we turn away from happiness, it is easier to see the absurdity of believing thinking patterns that keep us from happiness. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions. We may tell ourselves things that sound rational and accurate but actually reinforce bad feelings about ourselves.
The Way You See the World
For a moment, imagine there is a filter through which all information entering your brain must pass. Only certain types of information fit through the filter. For the purpose of illustration, let’s say the filter only allows information that comes in a tidy square shape. The shape represents negative and self-defeating thinking patterns. Only squares get in. These inaccurate thoughts often reinforce negative thinking that supports depression. You tell yourself things that sound rational and accurate, but in reality, these thoughts reinforce bad feelings about yourself. This is one way people convince themselves to believe something that is either untrue or distorted. You are not consciously choosing how to respond; the response is automatic because of the filter.
When information comes that doesn’t fit through the square filter, you subconsciously distort it until it fits. For example, let’s say a colleague compliments you at work by saying, “You really nailed that presentation.” In essence, your colleague just gave you a circle. It doesn’t fit through the square filter so you smile and say, “Thank you,” but subconsciously you are changing the compliment until it fits through the filter. You might say to yourself, “If she really knew me, she wouldn’t say that. She is just trying to butter me up. I wonder what she really wants.” Metaphorically, the compliment is beaten by a hammer until it is changed into a square so the
negative, self-defeating thought can enter the brain. In the process, you turn away from the positive, loving, and good in your life. You remain focused on a narrow, self-defeating view of the world.
Common Self-defeating Thinking Patterns
Ten common self-defeating thinking patterns are listed below (see Anxiety: “Cognitive Distortions” and Depression: “Depressive Thinking Patterns”). When you can identify negative thinking patterns and how you are filtering information to support a negative world view, you are able to choose how to respond rather than automatically accepting the negative thoughts.
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking
“Things never work out for me, he always gets mad over every little thing, she never listens to me, and no one understands me,” are all examples of all-or-nothing thinking. Words like always, never, no one, everyone, every time, and everything usually distort reality to appear more negative.
Only seeing the bad and completely missing the silver lining is focusing on the negative. If you get five As and one B but focus on the B by telling yourself, “I am a complete loser,” you are overgeneralizing. One B is not proof that you are flawed at your very core and unloveable.
Personalization happens when you assume everything, even something that is neutral, is about you. For example, if you don’t do well on a test, you think, “The teacher chose questions he knew I didn’t study because he doesn’t like me.” If someone passes you without saying “Hi,” you make it fit through your square filter by assuming they didn’t say “Hi,” because they are mad at you. In reality, the person was probably just in deep thought and didn’t notice you.
4. Mind Reading
Assuming you know what other people are thinking and why they are acting a certain way is called mind reading. Thinking someone’s silence means they’re mad at you is a perfect example of mind reading. The person might just be thinking.
5. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional Reasoning happens when you believe your negative feelings without ever questioning them. Feelings tend to respond to your mind chatter which is usually fear-based and not always true. Feelings are often based on stories from our past which can significantly distort our impressions about a present situation. For example, a 24-year-old client taking her first college course felt like everyone in the class thought she was stupid because she was too old to be starting college. The emotion was based on fearful, distorted mind chatter. Everyone in the class was not focused on her and her age. Others in the class would not know it was her first college course. Starting college at age 24 was not really an indicator of her IQ. Her emotional reasoning told her all these thoughts were true even though they were not based in reality.
6. Should/Could Have (with accompanying guilt)
Sometimes this is called “should-ing on yourself.” Recently, I drove into my neighborhood as several neighbors finished helping another neighbor whose basement had flooded during a hard rainstorm. I recognized my own distorted thinking when I thought to myself, “I should have helped.” This thinking did not take into account the fact that I was not even home and had no idea my neighbor needed help. The words, should, could, have to, must, and ought are usually followed by guilt because we haven’t followed some set of rules we have established for ourselves. We then believe our lack of action is evidence that we’re not being good people. It would have been healthier to say to myself, “It would have been nice to know my neighbor needed help.” A common example of should-ing on yourself is thinking, “I should exercise,” and then feeling guilty or believing you are either a loser or worth less as a human being because you don’t.
Have you ever heard the expression “making a mountain out of a molehill?” Catastrophizing means making things worse in our minds than they really are. I once had a client experience depression while attending a strict, conservative boarding school. In therapy, she confessed to breaking a small rule. In despair, she catastrophized, “Now I will never get married!” In her worldview, marriage was very important. She felt the event in the form of a catastrophe even though the rule she broke was very minor.
8. Jumping to Conclusions/Assuming
Assuming you know either why people are acting a certain way or what they are feeling is called jumping to conclusions. The conclusions reached fit your negative filter of life rather than reflecting how things really are. When people don’t talk to you, you might conclude that they are stuck up and think they are better than you. You then assume these are established facts when, in reality, these people might actually be very insecure, shy, or afraid of speaking up.
Feeling like your life is externally controlled usually brings a sense of helplessness. A victim of fate might express helplessness by saying, “I can’t help it if I’m late. I couldn’t go to bed last night because my husband stayed out drinking.” On the other hand, if you believe you are all-powerful, you assume responsibility for the well-being of everyone around you. Thinking someone isn’t happy because of something you did or your favorite team lost because you didn’t wear your lucky shirt are both examples of feeling all-powerful. Whether you’re feeling helpless or all-powerful, information is being distorted as it runs through your filter.
Blaming others for your circumstances or feelings holds you hostage in the role of a passive victim without any choice or ability to act. Freedom comes from accountability (see Healthy Living: “Victim to Accountability”). Blaming happens when we hold other people responsible for our pain or blame ourselves for every problem.
Steven was a client who, after learning about self-defeating thinking patterns, was able to turn toward happiness. We had been talking about the filters he was using to turn away from happiness in therapy. One week, he came to the office grinning from ear to ear. With a glint in his eye, he couldn’t wait to start talking because he was so excited to share an experience. While sitting on his front porch waiting for a business partner to pick him up to go to a meeting, he heard the sound of metal scraping against metal as a car crashed into another one just down the street. His partner was in the crash. Steven felt a gloomy cloud come over him. Because of what he learned from our sessions, he recognized his thinking patterns. He thought, “Now we will never get the money. Things never work out for me [All-or-Nothing Thinking]. My parents were right. I am a loser, and I will never amount to anything [Catastrophizing]. I can’t believe there was an accident just when I was about to get my big break [Personalization].”
When he recognized the self-defeating thoughts, he laughed out loud because they weren’t even rational. “The accident wasn’t about me,” he exclaimed with a happy grin. “Missing a meeting didn’t mean my life was over. My thoughts were just absurd.” From there, he started to identify the self-defeating negative thinking patterns in many areas of his life. Over the next several weeks, the depression started to lift, giving him an opportunity to turn toward happiness.
With practice, you can also learn to recognize when you are turning away from happiness with these self-defeating thinking patterns. You can learn you have a choice. The floating leaf guided imagery (found in the Premium Content) will teach you how to manage your thinking patterns. You can answer the negative thinking and refute it. When you do this over and over, you will create a new pathway in your brain (see Anxiety: “Pathways in your Brain”) that changes your filter to allow positive and loving information. Over time, you will diminish the automatic thinking patterns that support depression and replace them with more rational and gentle thoughts (see Happiness: “Finding Happiness”).