Preparing for the Holidays

Family gatherings can be great, but they can just renew and deepen old wounds.

We all know that the holidays are coming soon. For most, they consist of family gatherings, traditions and church events. Commercials suggest that everyone happily spends the holidays with smiling friends and family, while roasting chestnuts over an open fire. Don’t know about you, but I’ve never roasted chestnuts.

When relationships are positive and healthy, family gatherings are wonderful. We see people we’ve not seen in a while. We reconnect, update on our lives and reminisce. It feels warm and comfortable.

But what about when relationships are not so healthy? Sometimes, holiday gatherings are marked by new conflicts, a continuation of tensions, or reminders of old wounds. In those times, old hurts are deepened.

One of my all-time favorite Christmas cards was given to me by a client. On the front, it had a beautiful picture of a house, decorated for Christmas and covered with snow. The words above the picture said, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” When you opened it up, it said, “And in therapy for the next year.” I love the card because it is so often true.

Sometimes, people visit family with the hope that, this time things will be different. They imagine that the distant parent will be more loving, that the critical parent will be more accepting, or that the sibling will just be nicer. When this doesn’t happen, they leave with greater frustration and pain.

It reminds me a little of Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football. Each fall, she promises him she won’t jerk the ball away. He wants to believe her so he tries again to kick it. She pulls the ball away and, once again, he falls flat on his back. He keeps going back and keeps getting the same result.

So, what can you do when your family gatherings are marked by conflict? First, prepare yourself mentally. Recognize that those people will probably be the same, so you don’t have the false hope that they will be good this year. Second, try to remember that their behavior reflects who they are, not who you are. They are simply acting like themselves. Finally, search for and pay attention to the positive moments. Even in a troubled family, there are usually positive moments. Focus your attention on the people who are healthy. You’ll have a better holiday.

It May Not Be About You

Realizing that we are not the center of the universe can be a big relief.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Like it or not, our tendency is to see ourselves as the center of our universe. We perceive events as good or bad based on how they impact us. We interpret other’s actions as a statement of how they feel about us or what they are thinking about us. We act like it’s all about us. The perception that we are the center of our universe is also called egocentrism.

We tend to be most egocentric as young children. I’ve never seen this, but it’s said that if you catch a toddler at exact the right stage of cognitive development, and ask her why the sun rises, she will say, “So I can see.” Then, if you ask her why the sun sets, she will say, “So I can sleep.

As we grow and mature, the tendency lessons, but doesn’t completely go away. Some adults are more egocentric than others, but everyone has moments where they feel that it’s all about them.

The danger of egocentrism is that it can lead us to false and hurtful assumptions. Because we always believe our own assumptions, our thoughts, feelings, and reactions are based on them. The two most common problems associated with egocentrism are (a) perceiving disapproval, and (b) self-blame.

When we are egocentric, we perceive that others are thinking about us more than they actually are. We believe that others are watching us, and often, that they are disapproving of us. We imagine their thoughts about our appearance or our actions. Many people experience social anxiety because they imagine constant scrutiny from others.

The reality is that other people are too busy thinking about themselves and their lives to be focusing much attention on us. As an illustration, I will sometimes ask a student to tell me what their best friend was wearing that morning at school. Even though they spent much of the day with them, they couldn’t recall. Or I might ask an adult to describe the other people who were in the drug store with them, as they shopped that morning. They can’t recall anyone. I then remind them that others don’t notice them either.

A second problem with egocentrism is that a tendency to blame yourself for any negative life event. You feel like you must have done something to create the negative outcome. Of course, this may be true, but often, it is not. One common example is the tendency for a parent to blame himself for his teenager’s negative choices, without recognizing that there are many factors influencing the child. Another example is when someone treats us badly, and we assume we must have done something to deserve it. We may have done something, and should take responsibility when we have, but we may be innocent. When someone treats you badly, it usually says more about who they are, at least in that moment, than it says about who you are.

In Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy, we call our tendencies to blame ourselves personalization. We all do it at times, but it’s rarely healthy. Watch your thinking. Notice how often you assume others are watching you and judging you, even though you have no real evidence. Also notice how often you blame yourself for a negative situation, even though you can’t identify what you might have done wrong. Remembering that it’s not all about you can be a good thing.


Calling Yourself Names

You hurt your self-esteem when you call yourself names in your mind.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

How do you react when you hear someone call another person a negative name? Does it bother you if a parent calls a child “stupid?” Would you cringe if you heard someone say that a person at a restaurant was “fat” or “ugly?” What if the person overheard the comment?

Most often, negative names are used behind the other person’s back. The words aren’t meant to wound, but rather a way of “building myself up by putting that person down.” It feels innocent and harmless. At best, it’s a sad way of building up one’s ego. At worst, particularly if overheard, it creates a significant self-esteem wound for the criticized person.

Negative names, like idiot, fat, failure, ugly, loser or stupid, create a significant self-esteem wound because they are all encompassing. Such names are labels. They inaccurately define the person.

For example, I might say that I’m sitting in a chair. I use the word “chair” to label the object. In this case, the label is correct. The object is a chair in every way. The label is entirely accurate. No problem.

But, what if I call you a failure? In that instant, I have used the label to define you. That label suggests that you are, in every way, a failure. It says that you fail in everything you do. It hurts.

Most of us would never think of calling another person such negative names. You wouldn’t even consider calling anyone an idiot or a loser. You wouldn’t ever tell someone that they were fat or ugly. Yet, you may do it every day.

What do you call yourself? In your mind, do you ever call yourself negative names? Do you ever use the label fat, ugly, stupid or failure to define yourself? Do you do it without thinking about the impact?

In cognitive therapy, calling yourself names in your mind is called “labeling.” It wounds the self-esteem and can worsen depression and anxiety. It hurts.

You may intellectually realize that the label isn’t always true (No one is a failure at everything.), but your self-esteem hears it as if it is true. The name creates an overall impression. The damage is done.

Monitor your thinking for name calling, or labeling. Try to replace the damaging name with a more moderate statement. For example, rather than calling yourself a failure, acknowledge that you failed at the one task. Don’t say anything to yourself that you would not say to a friend or loved one.

Are You Doing Emotional Reasoning?

Just because you "feel" like something is true, doesn't mean that it is.

Do you trust your emotions? Have you ever made a decision because you just had a “gut feeling?” Do you tend to see your emotions as an indicator of truth?

Sometimes, we listen to our feelings about a situation, and believe that they will provide an accurate indication of what is really happening. We believe our gut intuition will provide a more accurate perception of events, or tell us what we should do in the situation. We’re often wrong.

Our feelings respond to our assumptions, beliefs and perceptions, and these are created by our prior experiences. For example, as a boy Jeff was criticized harshly throughout childhood. Later, as an adult, he has to give a presentation in his new job, and receives a positive reaction from co-workers. Yet, he leaves work with the feeling that his audience was just being kind to him, and that they really didn’t like his work. He expresses his disappointment to his wife. She points out that the co-workers said it was good, but he argues that he just has a gut impression that they weren’t sincere. He trusts his emotions over the facts. He is making the mistake of “emotional reasoning.”

Emotional reasoning occurs any time we try to use our emotions as a guide for truth, or when we see our emotions as a compass to guide our decision making. When we assume that our emotions reveal truth, our prior beliefs and perceptions are strengthened. Jeff’s belief that others criticize him is strengthened by his emotional reasoning. He is then more prone to perceive criticism in future situations.

While we may have a helpful intuition at times, our emotional reactions more frequently deceive us. Next time you are tempted to listen to your emotions as guide for truth, consider two points. First, is your emotional reaction telling you a message that is consistent with your prior negative beliefs? Are you feeling rejected in a current situation because you experienced rejection as a child? Or are you feeling criticized because you experienced early life criticism? Second, do the facts support your emotional response? Do you have actual facts to indicated that you were rejected or criticized? Could it be that your “gut feelings” are leading you to painful misperception?

Try to be a bit more skeptical of your emotions as a guide for truth. Consider the actual facts. Check out your assumptions if possible.

The Impact of Should Thinking on Self-Esteem

Should statements add an element of self-criticism and guilt to your self-esteem.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Sometimes the difference between healthy and unhealthy thinking is simply a matter of tone. The difference may be subtle. For example, the statement, “I want to lose some weight” expresses a healthy desire, but the statement, “I’m so fat” damages the self-esteem.

You may think the difference between the two statement to be inconsequential, because you know what you mean, but it’s not. The human brain processes self-talk literally. Much like a computer, it processes exactly what you put into it.

Research has clearly demonstrated the importance of the actual words used in our thinking. You may rationally know better when you say, “I can’t do anything right.” You may know that you can do some things right. After all, you got dressed this morning, and you did that right. But your self-esteem hears the actual words, and you feel as if you can’t do anything right. The damage is done.

So now, let’s consider a situation where you want to make some change or take some future action. It could be anything. You want to spend more time with your children or with your aging parents. You want to clean your house, or get more involved in a worthwhile organization. The motivation may be admirable.

You might think, “I want to …” do some action. You’re expressing a healthy desire, and hopefully, you will follow-up with actions to make it happen. It’s all good. Or you might think, “I should …” do the action. In this case, you’re still expressing the desire, but you add a little jab. The “should” statement suggests guilt, shame or inadequacy, and provides a bit of chastisement.

The “I want to…” statement leaves the self-esteem intact. It may even engender a little excitement as you visualize accomplishing the action. The “I should…” statement tends to lower your mood, leaving you feeling inadequate. The damage of each statement may be minor, but the repetition of such statements can be devastating.

“Should” statements remind me of a little known religious group of the 14th century called the Flagellants. They believed they should punish themselves because of their sins, so they marched through the streets whipping themselves on the back with leather whips. Frequently using “should” statements is little like whipping yourself throughout your day. Like the whip, each “should” creates a little more damage.

Pay attention to the words you use in your self-talk. They really are important. Try substituting “I want to…” or “I would like to….” for the more negative, “I should…” See how it works.

Are You Catastrophizing?

We hurt ourselves when we overreact to life's problems.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

How do you estimate the severity of a problem? Do you tend to overreact? Do you “make a mountain out of a molehill?” Most of us do at times.catastrophizing

We all have bad things happen. We make mistakes. We mess up. Sometimes we mess up royally. (Not exactly sure what that means.) Sometimes bad things just happen, even when we didn’t do anything wrong. We can’t avoid negative events. The question is how do we react.

When something bad happens, the degree of our upset reaction should be consistent with the magnitude of the problem. A small problem should trigger a small reaction, and a big problem a big reaction, but that often isn’t the case. We react to relatively small difficulties as if they are big problems. We turn a difficulty into a catastrophe in our mind.

I developed this little exercise to illustrate the process. Imagine one of those games at the fair, designed to test your strength. It’s a tower with a bell on top. You are given a large hammer to hit a pad on the base. If you hit it hard enough, you can ring the bell. Now, imagine that the tower is numbered from zero to one-hundred.

Imagine this zero to one-hundred scale as the measure of the magnitude of a problem. The score of zero means that there is no problem at all. A score of one-hundred is equal to global annihilation, where everyone you know dies. Every other problem gets a score between the two extremes.

Now, think of some problems you’ve experienced lately. Give each one a score according to how bad each problem would be in reality. This score should not reflect your reactions to the problems, but how bad they really are. Small problems should get low scores, while larger problems earn higher scores. As you assign scores, keep in mind that one-hundred means global annihilation. Not many events would come close to that severity.

Now imagine another scale numbered zero to one-hundred, with the same extreme points. This scale is for your reactions to problems. Consider what your reaction would be to global annihilation, and then the non-reaction to a zero problem. Now assign a score to indicate how strongly you reacted to each of the problems you scored on the first scale. How upset did you get relative to global annihilation?

Do the numbers match? Chances are that your reaction scores were significantly higher than the reality scores. A problem may have been scored 20 on the reality scale, but you may have reacted like it was a 60. Your reactions should be fairly consistent with the actual severity of each problem, but they often aren’t.

To avoid catastrophizing, we should try to react to our problems in a manner that is consistent with the actual severity of each problem. By the way, I call this exercise, “It’s not the end of the world.” Try it next time you’re overreacting to a problem. Realizing the problem is not the “end of the world” may help us keep it in perspective.

Are You a Fortune Teller?

We often add to our stress by imagining the worst in our future.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Do you believe in Fortune Tellers? Do you pay money to get your palm read or your future predicted by the cards? You may not believe that others can do it, but you may believe in your own clairvoyant abilities.

Actually, we all do it at times. We imagine some future outcome and then act as if it’s a done deal. We picture the fortune teller errorevent in our mind. We feel the emotions that we would feel if it occurred.

If the imagined future event is negative, which it often is, we experience the rapid heartbeat, quickened breathing, and muscle tension, as if it was already happening. We experience the tragedy that hasn’t happened.

We may imagine future tragedies because we mistakenly feel that it will prepare us for the worst possibilities. It seems that we will fare better if we brace ourselves for the impact. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

Imagine that you’re waiting for the results of a biopsy. The mass could be cancer or a benign tumor. You find yourself imagining that the mass is cancer. You visualize hearing the bad news, going through chemotherapy, and perhaps even dying. You imagine the worst. Your muscles tense, your heart races and your breathing quickens. You feel fear and grief.

If you later receive news that the tumor was benign, you have experienced fear, grief and pain for nothing. How many times has this happened to you? How many of the negative events of your life never actually happened?

If you get the unfortunate news that the mass is cancer, you will have to deal with it. You will experience fear, grief and pain. It won’t be lessened by the fact that you imagined the worst before you heard. You won’t be any more prepared.

The Fortune Teller Error can hurt you in other ways. Imagining failure in school may keep you from applying. Imagining rejection at a party may keep you from attending. Imagining a negative response to a question may keep you from ever asking it.

Reminds me of a story. Kevin ran out of sugar, and decided to walk next door and borrow a cup from his neighbor, Joe. He grabbed an empty cup and headed out the door. He realized it was a little late, and wondered if Joe might be in bed. He then imagined that Joe might be upset with him for bothering him. He pictured Joe chastising him for being rude. He then remembered the times he had loaned Joe things, and felt anger that Joe could possibly refuse such a simple request as a cup of sugar. As he arrived at Joe’s house, the door opened. Joe smiled and said “Hi Kevin, how are you?” Kevin shouted back, “Just keep your stupid sugar!” and marched back home.

Watch out for the Fortune Teller Error. It may rob you of more than a simple cup of sugar.

Mind Reading

Assuming that you can know others' thoughts and feelings can damage your self-esteem and your relationships.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

You do it all the time. So do I. We all do mind reading. We read other’s expressions or their tone of voice. We try to read between the lines. What did that person really mean? How do they really feel? What were they thinking?mind reading

We ask these questions, then we go on to answer them. We make assumptions about others thoughts, feelings, or intentions. Unfortunately, we believe our assumptions.

Mind reading is a cognitive distortion where we believe that we can read other’s minds. Of course, we can, and we intellectually know that. Yet, in the moment, we assume that we can. We react to our assumptions.

There is a cost to mind reading. First, mind reading thoughts maintain wounds to the self-esteem. They reinforce any negative belief we hold about ourselves.

For example, Justin was criticized harshly by his mother throughout his childhood. Because of this, he concluded that he was not good enough. He believed he was not smart enough, that he would fail at most things, and that others would be critical of him as well.

When Justin does mind reading, do you think he assumes others to be affirming or judgmental? Of course, he assumes that others see him as a failure, and his efforts as inadequate. He would never assume that others thought that he was brilliant. Even when someone compliments his work, he assumes that they are just “being nice.”

Because of his mind reading, Justin sees his life as a series of failures. A self-esteem wound, first created by his mother’s criticism, is deepened by his later perceptions.

Second, mind reading damages relationships. Emily’s father left the family when she was eight years old. He moved across country with his new girlfriend. She didn’t see him at all for several years. She watched other fathers with their daughters, and silently grieved. She concluded that she wasn’t as valuable or loveable as other girls. Her self-esteem wound was formed.

When Emily did mind reading, she concluded that others didn’t like her, or didn’t want to spend time with her. She believed herself to be boring. To avoid rejection, she withdrew from others. She never initiated social relationships, and even turned down invitations, because she assumed she would eventually be rejected. When others reached out to her, and asked her out, she said no, as she assumed they were just being nice, or felt sorry for her.

Because of her mind reading, Emily saw herself as unlovable and felt alone. The self-esteem wound first created by her father’s distance, was worsened by her later perceptions.

Truth is, you can’t read minds. You may assume how others feel, or what they think, but you will often be wrong. You won’t believe that you are wrong, but you often are.

You can reduce the mind reading tendency by introducing a bit of skepticism. Entertain the thought that your assumptions are wrong. If possible, check it out. Ask the other person what they are thinking or how they feel. Try to believe them. Watch your thinking.

Disqualifying the Positives of Life

The tendency to downplay or negate compliments or accomplishments can hurt your self-esteem.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

What do you say when someone pays you a compliment? If you’re like many, you say something to downplay it like, “It wasn’t much” or “I got it on clearance” or “I just got lucky.”

You may feel that your response was simply an attempt to appear humble or modest. You may believe that anyDisqualifying the positive. response that acknowledges the accomplishment or agrees with the complement would appear conceited or proud. You may be right.

But, what do you think in your head when you hear the compliment? Do you downplay the compliment in your mind as well? Do you minimize the accomplishment or positive attribute in your thinking? Do you find a way to negate the positive so that it somehow doesn’t count?

Compare your reaction to a compliment with your reaction to a criticism. Do you downplay the criticism? I suspect not. Most people replay, analyze and long remember criticisms or failures. Not so much with compliments.

For most of us, this has been a lifelong habit. We’re totally unaware that we’re doing it. We don’t recognize the impact. The effect is subtle, but powerful.

Think of your self-esteem as a bank savings account. When you internally recognize a positive attribute, an accomplishment or a success, you make a deposit. When you experience a criticism, a weakness or a failure, you make a withdrawal. When your withdrawals exceed your deposits, your self-esteem account becomes overdrawn. Your “insufficient funds” notice may come in the form of depression, anxiety, helplessness or loss of motivation.

You may argue that you just don’t have any positives to deposit. You feel that your negatives simply outweigh your positives. This belief just illustrates a powerful aspect of perception.

You see, when you downplay a positive experience, you soon forget it. It escapes your awareness, as if it never happened. If reminded, you may recall the event, but it feels small and unimportant. It fades into the background. It never gets deposited into your account.

A healthy self-esteem is an accurate one. The individual recognizes his strengths and his weaknesses. He doesn’t see himself as better than others. He sees himself as being equal with all other human beings, who have strengths and weaknesses.

Recognition of his positive traits, helps him deal more effectively with his negative ones. He works on his weaknesses, but doesn’t allow them to define him. His failures hurt him, but don’t crush him.

Make a conscious attempt to acknowledge your strengths. Consider your positive traits. Enjoy your successes. It may feel odd, conceited or proud at first, but you’ll get used to it.

Think about it this way. What would you want for your children? Would you want them to negate their strengths or accomplishments, or would you want them to recognize both their positives and their negatives? Wouldn’t the same attitude work for you?


Do You Have Selective Attention?

Your focus of attention can have a big impact on your mood, your self-esteem, and your life.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Imagine that you have just received an annual job evaluation. Almost every item or comment was positive, even above average. But, there was one negative statement, with the label, “needs improvement.” You were pleased withselective attention the positives, but where did you focus your attention? Which item lingered in your thoughts?

If you’re like most, you paid most attention to the negative statement, and remembered it the longest. You may have allowed that one criticism to ruin your overall satisfaction with the evaluation.

There is some benefit to doing this. We need to pay enough attention to the negative to address it properly. We need to work on our weaknesses.

We actually seem to be hardwired to pay attention to the negative. Such a tendency would have helped our caveman ancestors survive. While walking through the jungle, he would fare better by noticing the sound of a predator behind him, than by focusing his attention on the pretty flowers by the path.

But, we often take this negative focus of attention too far. We focus attention on our problems, while ignoring our blessings. We ruminate over our failings, and forget about our successes. We worry about our weaknesses, and minimize our strengths. David Burns, MD labeled this tendency “mental filter,” suggesting that we filter the positives out of our awareness, while letting in the negatives.

As a boy, I liked Cracker Jacks. The caramel popcorn always came with a prize. I remember one prize that contained a white card covered with red and blue curved lines. It just looked like a mess. But, it came with a sheet of red cellophane and a sheet of blue cellophane. If you placed the red cellophane on the card, the red lines disappeared and the blue lines stood out, forming a picture. If you put the blue cellophane on the card, the blue lines disappeared and the red lines stood out, forming a different picture.

Imagine the red lines to be the bad things in your life, and the blue lines to be the good things. Everyone’s life contains both bad and good. What you see, what you notice, is determined by the filter you use. If you focus on the negatives in your life, or in yourself, that is what you will see, and everything else will disappear. If you notice on the positives, you will enjoy your blessings, and a more positive self-image. You will be happier.

Try to be more aware of your focus of attention. Notice your filter. If you recognize that you have a negative focus of attention, make a deliberate effort to change. Make it a habit to count your blessings. Remind yourself of your successes, or positive traits. It won’t be easy, because our focus of attention is so automatic. It’s an old habit. So, be persistent in your efforts. I think you’ll find it to be worthwhile.