Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Disqualifying The Positives

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We all engage in faulty thinking patterns and have incorrect perceptions of events sometimes. Whether these patterns cause depression and other mental health issues or whether a predilection for depression and other mental health issues causes these patterns is up for debate. It’s sort of like the classic question of what came first between the chicken and the egg. We do know that interventions designed to correct maladaptive thinking can effect real change, helping people become more immune to recurrent bouts of depression and helping them living happier lives where they are more in touch with reality. We can all benefit from testing our thoughts and beliefs to see if they are really valid or could use some tweaking.

The relationship between thoughts and emotions is a two-way street. A primary emotion like anger or fear can lead to a cascade of thoughts and judgments, while just thinking about something, like say an orphaned child struggling to stay warm on a cold night, can lead to a cascade of emotions like sadness and compassion. Thoughts and emotions are intertwined, a fact that neuroscience is catching up with by showing that emotional states don’t only reside in the limbic system, which has traditionally been thought to be the seat of emotions in mammals. Current research shows that emotions are the product of a complicated web of connections between the prefrontal cortex, which has to do with higher order thinking, and the limbic system. This interplay gives some scientific evidence for the efficacy of cognitive behavioral interventions, since these interventions target and correct errors in thinking that occur in the prefrontal cortex, helping to rewire neural pathways to the limbic system, ultimately changing emotional states.

We are going to discuss one faulty thinking pattern called disqualifying the positives. All of us in the West are guilty of it at times, though not in the way that cognitive behavioral therapists usually define it. A strange part about living in our materialistic Western world, a world with huge gaps between the rich and poor, is that by comparison we can feel quite unhappy with our lot in life when from an objective point of view most of us enjoy a standard of living that far exceeds most other parts of the world and all previous time periods. But it doesn’t seem good enough, and instead of taking time to appreciate our good fortune we disqualify all of these positives, positives like having plenty to eat, a house with running water and electricity, a car, and access to endless diversions. But we focus on what we don’t have and consider what we do have to be less worthwhile than it actually is, resulting in states like stress, anxiety, and depression.

We are certainly not suggesting that you simply content yourself with your lot in life, deciding to do nothing to improve your situation. But we are suggesting that you take some time to appreciate the objectively positive aspects of your life, materialistic and otherwise, regardless of how they stack up to others. Are you healthy in mind and body? Do you have enough to eat? Do you have people who care about you? Do you have a roof over your head? Have you found a job that provides a sense of meaning? Do you feel relatively safe?

These things are more than millions upon millions of human beings can say for themselves all over the world right now. But we tend to take all of these positives in our lives as givens, not even really worth remark. People likely to become depressed take it one step further. They are prone to disqualify positives that most everyone else in a cultural group would agree on as positive. They dig their own graves, always finding ways to diminish their accomplishments, their relationships, and their sense of Self. They attribute the good things that happen to them to sources outside themselves, and take more responsibility than they should for the bad things that happen. They might get an A on a test and then think to themselves “I got really lucky this time, but I still know deep down that I’m not very smart.” They receive a compliment and think “He was just trying to be nice.” They are surrounded by friends and family who care about them but think “These people don’t count. They have to like me.” The list goes on and on.

We get to decide how we perceive our situations, and this choice prompts our brains to release different types of chemicals, making us happy or sad, content or anxious, hopeful or depressed. One way to increase your gratitude in this moment and think about the real positives in your life is by imagining yourself 1,000 years from now. You won’t be able to feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair, the touch of the person you love, the taste of your favorite drink, or any of the other pleasant sensations and experiences that make life great but often pass us by without us taking the time to notice. Think about all of the positives in your life right now, not wasting your time disqualifying them because they don’t measure up to some other person’s situation.