- Know your emotions. The total number of emotions which we are able to recognize probably has a lot to do with our culture; and artistic attempts to portray them can become almost as varied and complex as life itself.  But the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association emphasizes four major emotions which give us the most trouble: anger, fear, anxiety, and depression.
When our ancestors encountered an enemy or a wild animal on a jungle trail, there were only a limited number of things they could do. They could fight, run away, become paralyzed with indecision, or give up. Each of these responses matches the four emotions just mentioned. But in the much more complicated jungle of modern life, these emotions are often no longer useful, and may actually do us a great deal of harm.
In the following illustration, we will use depression as an example of how to the techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy can be employed to reduce or eliminate the unwanted emotion of depression. But these techniques will work equally well with any of the others.
Recognize that emotions don’t just appear mysteriously out of nowhere. Ask yourself throughout the day: “How am I feeling right now?” If you can, keep a journal. When you feel depressed, stop and notice the situation that produced it. Rate your mood on a scale from 1-100, with 1 being the least intense and 100 being the most intense that you are able to feel.
Notice what was going through your mind at the time. Suppose you suddenly find yourself feeling 50% depressed. Stop and analyze what you were thinking about, until you find the “automatic thought” that was the cause of your depression. Your boss may not have made eye contact with you at lunch, for example; and without even being aware of it, the thought may have been in the back of your mind, “He’s getting ready to fire me!”
Write down the evidence which supports the automatic thought that produced the depression. For example, you may have let slip something that you should not have said which angered him, but which it is too late to retract.
Write down the evidence that is against the automatic thought. When you begin to think about it, you might realize that since nobody gets along well with this particular boss, he can’t afford to actually fire anyone, because the department is too short-staffed.
Ask yourself, “What is another way to look at the situation that is more rational and more balanced than the way I was looking at it before?” Taking this new evidence into account, you may conclude that your job is safe, regardless of your boss’s petty annoyances. You still may not like your job or your boss, and you may want to look for another job. But at least you can take the time to find a good one — and you won’t have to worry about losing your house!
Rate you mood now, on a scale of 1-100, and see how much better you feel. You not only have a new set of beliefs which are less likely to lead to depression, you also have an action plan which will permanently change your mood by changing your work setting.
Continue working on your emotions in this manner until you are able to control them! It takes considerable practice to overcome habits of thought which have developed over a period of years. Greenberger and Padesky’s workbook, Mind Over Mood, listed in the “Sources and Citations” section at the bottom of this page, may be helpful for this purpose. It contains several more illustrations of how cognitive behavior therapy can be used to change your moods, along with a number of workbook exercises which will help you to reduce or eliminate your own unpleasant emotions.
You can also directly eliminate many of the underlying core beliefs which give rise to your disturbing thoughts and negative emotions. Albert Ellis compiled a list of ten irrational ideas which upset us. They are all false, but many of us have are inclined to at least some of them part of the time. You can get rid of these ideas by debating within yourself until you have cast them out. Here’s his list of potential culprits.
I must be perfect in all respects in order to be worthwhile. Nobody can be perfect in everything that we have to do in life. But if you believe that you’re a failure unless you are perfect in every way, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of unhappiness.
I must be loved and approved of by everyone who is important to me. Sometimes you just can’t help making enemies, and there are people in the world who bear ill will to almost everyone. But you can’t make your own life miserable by tring to please them.
When people treat me unfairly, it is because they are bad people. Most of the people who treat you unfairly have friends and family who love them. People are mixtures of good and bad.
It is terrible when I am seriously frustrated, treated badly, or rejected. Some people have a such a short fuse that they can are constantly losing jobs or endangering friendships because they are unable to endure the slightest frustration.
Misery comes from outside forces which I can’t do very much to change. Many prison inmates describe their life as if it were a cork, bobbing up and down on waves of circumstance.
If something is dangerous or fearful, I have to worry about it. Many people believe that “the work of worrying” will help to make problems go away. “Okay, that’s over. Now, what’s the next thing on the list that I have to worry about?”
It is easier to avoid life’s difficulties and responsibilities than to face them. Even painful experiences, once we can get through them, can serve as a basis for learning and future growth.
Because things in my past controlled my life, they have to keep doing so now and in the future. If this were really true, it would mean that we are prisoners of our past, and change is impossible. But people change all the time — and sometimes they change dramatically!
It is terrible when things do not work out exactly as I want them to. Could you have predicted the course of your own life? Probably not. By the same token, you can’t predict that things are going to work out exactly as you want them to, even in the short term.
I can be as happy as possible by just doing nothing and enjoying myself, taking life as it comes. If this were true, almost every wealthy or comfortably retired person would do as little as possible. But instead, they seek new challenges as a pathway to further growth.
- Learn to avoid the cognitive distortions which make things look worse than they really are. Most of us have heard the expression, “looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.” But when you use cognitive distortions, you tend to look at the world through mud-colored glasses! Here are some examples.
All-or-nothing thinking. Everything is good or bad, with nothing in between. If you aren’t perfect, then you’re a failure.
Overgeneralization. A single negative event turns into a never-ending pattern of defeat. “I didn’t get a phone call. I’ll never hear from anybody again.”
Mental filter. One single negative thing colors everything else. When you’re depressed, it sometimes feels like you’re “looking at the world through mud-colored glasses.”
Disqualifying the positive. If somebody says something good about you, it doesn’t count. But if somebody says something bad about you, you “knew it all along.”
Jumping to conclusions. You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
Mind reading. You think somebody is disrespecting you and don’t bother to check it out. You just assume that he is.
The Fortune Teller Error. You think that things are going to turn out badly, and convince yourself that this is already a fact.
Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization. Imagine that you’re looking at yourself or somebody else through a pair of binoculars. You might think that a mistake you made or somebody else’s achievement are more important than they really are. Now imagine that you’ve turned the binoculars around and you’re looking through them backwards. Something you’ve done might look less important than it really is, and somebody else’s faults might look less important than they really are.
Emotional reasoning. You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
Should statements. You beat up on yourself as a way of getting motivated to do something. You “should” do this, you “must” do this, you “ought” to do this, and so on. This doesn’t make you want to do it, it only makes you feel guilty. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
Labeling and mislabeling. This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. When you make a mistake, you give yourself a label, such as, “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
Personalization. You believe that you were the cause of something bad that happened, when you really didn’t have very much to do with it.