Are you “shoulding” all over yourself? The word “Should” happens to be one of the most insidious in the English language. In today’s episode, we talk about how:
Psychoanalyst Karen Horney called “The Tyranny of the Should” this tendency to create an idealized self and a rejection of the real self.
Albert Ellis spoke about the three kinds of “musts.”
Using the word “should” is conveying criticism, like “scolding” oneself (or others).
The value statements implied by that word are arbitrary and relative.
The laws of Nature do not follow any “should,” but instead are what they are, and we don’t get a vote.
Rephrasing — replacing “should” with “is” or “does” or “I would prefer it if…”
Reattribution — considering the alternative causes of events and behaviors.
Positive Reframing — acknowledging that Should Statements come out of a very good place in you, that they reflect positive attributes and values, and that there is a helpful side to holding those beliefs.
Byron Katie likes to say that there are only three kinds of business in the world: mine, yours, and God’s. God’s business refers to the forces of Nature or to events that are beyond human control. Your business, is someone else’s life, including what they feel, think, and choose to do. My business is what’s left, that is, what is within my control.
In his popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes the notion of Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence. We add here the Circle of Control, where
Circle of Control = What I choose to do and can directly manipulate. Circle of Influence = What is not directly within my control, but can be affected by what I do. Circle of Concern = What I mentally worry about, whether or not I can do anything about it.
We’re taking a left turn, today, from cognitive theory, and we are going to talk about spirituality and the place it occupies on the path to peace.
I refer to Sam Harris’s book, Waking Up, and I quote from an episode of his podcast, Making Sense. The book Ashrams, by Arnaud Desjardins, is probably out of print. So is Spiritual Awakening, by Ram Dass.
If you are in the same situation as me, you are mostly staying home with the members of your household, except for necessary outings like getting food, gas, or just getting a breath of fresh air. Many of you may also be working from home, as I am. As a result, you may be feeling rather isolated. And that’s where I wanted to make my point. Had this virus hit 25 years ago, we wouldn’t have had all the technology to connect with each other like we do now. We only had telephone and maybe email for some. Now, we can see each other on a big screen TV and talk to friends and relatives who live on the other side of the globe. That’s pretty much what I have been doing during the past couple of weeks. My cousins and sisters live in Europe and elsewhere. We created this chat group on WhatsApp, last year, and we had been using it to keep each other up to date. But now that we’re all stuck at home, we have been ramping it up, sharing silly videos of ourselves, singing out of tune and doing crazy dance moves… No. I will not be posting those in the show notes!…
Social isolation is known to affect physical health, mental health, and longevity. Some studies even suggest that isolation has similar impact on your health and mortality as smoking, high blood pressure, or obesity. Research also indicates that loneliness may contribute to poor cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, more negativity, more depression, and an increasing mistrust of our fellow human beings, leading to a vicious cycle of isolating even more. This is why it is even more critical at this time to overcome any tendency to cut yourself off from others, even if just out of laziness. It may not be as easy for you to reach out, now. Or maybe it is. Some of us have grown accustomed to checking in with each other via electronics, while others are more face-to-face kinds of people. For the latter, it may be a good idea to let go of that preference, for the time being, and embrace electronic means of communication.
But there is a notion of “hanging out” that may need to be developed more in this new context. When I’m home with my family, that’s what we do. We just “hang out.” That means we do our thing, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes together. We read, text, cook, eat, wash, send emails, pet the dog, call a friend, watch TV, water the plants, sweep the floor… Sometimes we talk to each other, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we just talk to ourselves with the awareness that others are within earshot. That’s what hanging out looks like in the physical presence of others.
When we make a phone call, a FaceTime call, a Skype call, a Zoom call, we often make the assumption that we need to have something to say in order to check in, and when we’re done with our back-and-forth exchange, we have to hang up. What if you called your parents, your child, your sibling, your best friend, and tell them to just keep their video session open while you go about your business around the house, and they do the same. It’s like having company without them being physically there. Every now and then, you can go, “Hey, mom, I just remembered, I talked to Bob, last night. He said he’s doing fine…” Why not use this multitude of video platforms that connect us via the internet as an extension of our living room into someone else’s? And then, we could learn that we can be with each other in silence, that communication does not always mean words. Once things return to normality, as they always do, even if it’s the new normal, the practice of being with each other without the expectation that we need to keep a conversation going could also be part of the new normal.
I think that this pandemic has a lot to teach us. We may decide to learn those lessons, or we may not. But if you are listening to me, I know that you are one of those souls who have chosen the path of transformation. I would be delighted to hear from you and to read about the insights that today’s situation has led you to.
We’re looking here at the most common Thinking Traps, especially the ones that cause mental distress.
Cognitive Distortions vs. Cognitive Biases
The difference between Thinking Traps (Cognitive Distortions) and Thinking Errors (Cognitive Biases) is that Thinking Traps result in difficult emotions, in mental distress, and in psychopathology. Cognitive Biases are more broadly related to an inaccurate perception of reality. Some examples of Cognitive Biases are the Availability Heuristic, the Empathy Gap, Anchoring.
Let’s talk about emotions, today. Notice that I normally tend to use the word “emotions,” rather than the word “feelings.” The word “feeling” often tends to be ambiguous. When I used to ask untrained clients a question like “What are you feeling?” they would invariably answer in a sentence that started with, “Well, I feel like …”. It could be things like “I feel like I’m going to die,” “I feel like he’s judging me,” “I feel like I’m letting them down,” “I feel like something bad is going to happen,” etc. Those are not what I call “feeling words,” but judgments.
The Classical View of Emotions
The classical view of emotion, is the concept that we have evolved specific emotion circuits deep within our brains, and that they produce and encode a set of very basic emotions that have the same fingerprint in any human, and perhaps even in other mammals. When specific stimuli occurring in the world, these circuits will get triggered and produce the appropriate change in our body physiology, our neurochemistry, our perceived sensations, and finally in our behavior.
Furthermore, that theory claims that the basic set of emotions is so universal that any culture in the world can recognize which emotion someone expresses, just by looking at their face. Below, you’ll see the picture of a man in distress. He’s looking like he’s about to cry. This man is soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, and the picture was taken in 2016, at the European Championship final, when Ronaldo was playing for Portugal’s national soccer team. France had just scored the decisive goal against his team.
Except that in that picture, the goal that Ronaldo had just witnessed was Portugal’s first goal against France, and the emotion displayed on his face is one of elation, and his watery eyes want to cry tears of joy. If you saw the picture before reading these words, you were primed to see a man who’s upset, and you probably agreed. It’s only in context that you could tell for sure what the expression on his face meant.
Affect and Interoception
Coming back to a definition of the word “emotion,” we consider an emotion starts with an internal sensation, using a sense called interoception. Interoception our sense of the internal state of our body. For instance, if I perceive what I label as “anxiety,” I feel a sort of constriction in the center of my chest. This is an example of interoception. But that doesn’t have to be uniquely related to emotions. If I have heartburn, I will also feel a strong feeling in the center of my chest, albeit somewhat different. That, too, is an example of interoception. The main difference between anxiety and heartburn is how I interpret the sensation, based on my context. How I give it an emotional meaning.
The concept of “affect” is your basic sense of feeling. It has two main components: Valence and Arousal. The Valence dimension goes from unpleasant to pleasant. The Arousal dimension goes from agitated to calm. Below is a circular diagram called the “Circumplex Model of Affect.” The feeling words are arranged around a circle, positioned roughly according to their level of Arousal and their level of Valence.
A positive emotion will be associated with pleasant affect. A negative emotion will be associated with unpleasant affect.
Interoception and affect are hardwired in us, but our emotions are not. They are constructed, based on a large number of experiences we have had along our lives.
The Predictive Brain
According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, the brain’s job is to manage our energy budget. In order to manage this budget, the brain makes predictions. We predict what’s going to happen next and our brain manages our physiology accordingly.
Fine-Grained Emotional Concepts
The granularity of detail in how finely you can distinguish one emotion from another is a predictor of greater happiness and success in life. This capacity is called Emotional Intelligence, a term coined by Dan Goleman.
You’ll find below a handout with a list of feeling words. On the front side are words that correspond to a positive Valence—pleasant affect—and on the other side, words that correspond do a negative Valence. The negative side has a list that’s quite a bit longer than the positive side. Our culture has a finer resolution for uncomfortable emotions than it does for pleasant ones. But also our brain has a negative bias. Print out that list and expand your emotional vocabulary. When somebody asks you how you are doing, instead of replying a mundane “Fine!” try on the following feeling words, for size: “I’m feeling giddy, today!” “I’m quite cheerful, lad!” “Feeling mellow…”
There is a hierarchy in our negative thoughts: Automatic Thoughts, Conditional Assumptions (or Rules), and Core Beliefs (or Core Limiting Beliefs). Those form the foundation of our identity. They are the central beliefs that we maintain about ourselves, others and the world. We have mentioned this hierarchy in the previous episode.
In this episode, we explore more closely how to uncover the Core Beliefs, especially Core Limiting Beliefs about ourselves. These belong in two domains: competency and desirability.
Examples of Core Beliefs that reflect incompetency are:
I am incompetent
I am a failure
I am weak
I am not good enough
I am inferior
I am dumb
Examples of Core Beliefs that reflect undesirability are:
I am undesirable
I am unattractive
I am unlovable
I am unlikable
I am bad
I am worthless
You can think of Core Beliefs as a pair of sunglasses. We may forget that we’re wearing them on our nose, but they still color the way we see the world:
In the handout, you’ll find a sample list of common Core Beliefs—see if some of them apply to you. You’ll also learn how to uncover some of your Core Beliefs, especially when they are hard to find. It uses a technique called the Downward Arrow.
Questions used in the Downward Arrow:
“What does that mean? Why is that upsetting to you?” “What does that mean about you (or others, or the world)?” “If that’s true, what’s so bad about it?” “What’s the worst part about this?” “So what if this is true? What are you afraid would happen?” “How is that a problem for you?”
Find the Core Belief(s) underlying your Automatic Thoughts, and challenge it (them) by finding contradicting evidence.
In this first episode of the podcast, I talk about how our thoughts influence our emotions. This principle was discovered—or rediscovered—by American psychologists and pioneers of the cognitive model, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. They were drawing on ancient wisdom, such as that of Greek philosopher Epictetus, who wrote in his philosophical manual, the Enchiridion:
“What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgements on events”
(Epictetus, The Enchiridion, c. 135 A.D.)
Going back even further, Buddhism’s sacred scripture, the Dhammapada, start with these words:
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts; it is made up of our thoughts.”
Opening lines of the Dhammapada (c. 500 B.C.E., trans. F. Max Müller)
Today, cognitive-behavior therapy posits that:
We feel the way we think
When we feel depressed/angry/anxious, the thoughts that create those difficult emotions are distorted
You can change the way the way you feel by changing the way you think
Albert Ellis noticed the following set of beliefs in North American culture (if you are not from North America, don’t worry—those beliefs are very human and tend to be generously spread around the world):
It is a dire necessity for adults to be loved by significant others for almost everything they do
Certain acts are awful or wicked, and that people who perform such acts should be severely damned
It is horrible when things are not the way we like them to be
Human misery is invariably externally caused and is forced on us by outside people and events
If something is or may be dangerous or fearsome we should be terribly upset and endlessly obsess about it
It is easier to avoid than to face life difficulties and self-responsibilities
We absolutely need something other or stronger or greater than ourselves on which to rely
We should be thoroughly competent, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects
Because something once strongly affected our life, it should indefinitely affect it
We must have certain and perfect control over things
Human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction
We have virtually no control over our emotions and that we cannot help feeling disturbed about things
Aaron Beck researched the thought content of depressed people, and found that his patients reported:
Low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority
Sense of deprivation or aloneness
Self-criticism or self-blame
Magnifying their problems
Speaking to themselves in terms of “shoulds” and “musts”
Wanting to escape their unsolvable problems, sometimes through suicide
(Aaron T. Beck. “Thinking and Depression: I. Idiosyncratic Content and Cognitive Distortions.” Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1963;9(4):324–333)
Types of Irrational Beliefs:
Core Beliefs (or Schemas) — serve as a basis for screening, categorizing, and interpreting experiences.
Conditional Assumptions — beliefs that shape your response to experiences and situations. Conditional assumptions that focus specifically on ways of influencing others become interpersonal strategies.
Automatic Thoughts — spontaneously flow through our mind in the moment.
In the following handout you will see that it is divided into 4 columns. In the first column, note what is the situation where you are feeling discomfort; for example, “Hanging up the phone after talking to mom.” In the second column, write down the thoughts that come up; e.g. “I need her to love me.” In the third column, check the box that corresponds to the type of thought, as I described earlier, e.g. Automatic Thought, if the thought is a spontaneous reaction to the situation, Conditional Assumption, if represents your interpersonal strategy, or Core Belief, if that’s one of your basic assumptions about yourself, others or the world. Finally, in the fourth column write down how that thought might be distorted.