Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Cognitive Rollercoaster

Albert Ellis’ work with Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) struck a chord with me as I was reading his work this week.  In his view, people disturb themselves by their own rigid and extreme beliefs about events in their lives.  I could relate to this in a way, because I often set unrealistic standards for myself or refuse to back down when facing a task that is clearly beyond my capability.  Since I’ve been recently diagnosed with a heart valve problem, it is crucial that I be careful with stress and anxiety to control my blood pressure.  Heat and other external factors can also cause complications if I am not careful.  My diabetes and kidney issues must be carefully monitored and kept under control so that I avoid any other problems.  I am often tempted to overdue my activities which leads to stress on my heart and low blood sugar.  It is hard to accept that I cannot do what I used to as a younger man.

In a search for balance in my life, I have investigated the work of the Stoics and regularly reread Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus several times a year.  They are the writers I live by, and my journals and notebooks are filled with quotes from them.  I especially relate to the line from Epictetus, “People are disturbed, not by events but by the views which they take of them.”  It is often how we view things, how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world, that determines our success or failure.  This flows nicely into the basic hypothesis of the psychology I was reading:  our emotions stem mainly from our beliefs which influence how we interpret things; based on our interpretive view, we react positively or negatively to our life situations.  Ellis thought we were born with a potential for both rational, or “straight” thinking, and irrational, or “crooked” thinking, and the difference between the two is profound.

In particular, his idea that we learn irrational beliefs from significant others during our childhood and then recreate them throughout our lives resonated with me.  My mother was someone who always saw the negative in every opportunity.  She saw failure around every corner, lurking there waiting for us.  Was this because of her own dysfunctional upbringing, the child of an alcoholic?  “You won’t be able to handle the pressure and your grades will fall,” she would warn.  You will fail.”

For years, I heard her voice in my head when confronted with a challenge.  It took a long time to shut off that voice, and some days, it returns with a vengeance and has much to do with my sense of self-worth and self-esteem as well as how I react to confrontations with others.  This has also placed me on a path toward irrational beliefs leading to self-defeat as postulated by Ellis and Dryden (2007):  “I must do well and win the approval of others for my performance or else I am no good.”  Wow!  Dead on for me.  I am a perfectionist and I take great pains to insure that I know what I am talking about before I open my mouth.  I do not like being wrong and I do not accept failure easily.  But life has, in often unequal measures, failure and success.

In the ABC framework so essential for REBT practice, I found resonance with the way we cause our own emotional disturbances by having phrases like, “I am a miserable failure,” rattling around in our heads.  When faced with the activating event, and before we fall back on the same beliefs and feelings of inadequacies, we must change our emotional and behavioral responses to create a different effect and outcome.  We must practice cognitive restructuring by replacing irrational beliefs and self-defeating attitudes with more rational and accepting ones.  In the end, it is all about philosophy:  how do we see the world and our place in it?  We are responsible for creating our own emotional situations, both the problematic ones and the more easy-going behaviors.  We must let go and not cling too tightly, something advocated in Buddhist philosophy.  Our pain and suffering come from hanging on to things when all we know and see and feel is impermanence.  We must let go.

As for the cognitive distortions, in my darker moods I definitely settle into several errors.  The way we remember events often is worse than they actually were.  We think we said way too much, or we said the wrong thing entirely, but in the actuality of the situation, our actions were not as bad as we think.  I have also had the situation where, based on something one person said, I have felt I failed completely.  I tend to magnify my mistakes until they become overwhelming in the context of memory.  I take things personally, and this comes from lacking sure footing in my self-esteem.  I was brought up to defer to others, to always be polite, and to seek out approval, and even though that might make me a gentleman and man who speaks from the heart, it can also weaken my position when I defer to people who do not deserve such deference.  Usually, when I realize this, I tend to snap back hard which is too much the other way.  I am constantly looking for the middle ground, the stable response, the constant in the chaos, the modicum of balance.  I hate always thinking and rethinking my actions.  Does anyone ever act the perfect way in a given situation?

Finally, I like Aaron Beck’s theory of cognitive therapy a bit more than REBT.  I teach with the idea of a Socratic dialogue, and I find questioning is a good way to make a point.  Open-ended questions allow for reflection, and when done the right way, can lead to students to identify their own misconceptions for themselves.  In that way, they come to conclusions that are their own.  I always tell my students that I am not there to tell them what to think; I am there to push them to think.  If I do my job, students can be their own teachers in the future.

There is no way around the unpleasant truth:  I have faced moments of the darkest depression.  And it is true that my depression results from anger turned inward.  Beck challenges this idea, but I am living proof that there is some truth to that.  I can also see Beck’s triad has validity (negative view of self—interprets personal world in a negative light—gloomy vision and negative projections about the future).  I often have a negative self-view which makes me interpret the world in a negative light leading to my dark outlook and depression.  This goes with my rigid perfectionist tendencies and setting goals that are simply unrealistic.  Many times, these goals are not only unachievable, but they make my life far more difficult and complicated than it needs to be.  I often have to remind myself that I do some things right, that I have some successes, because in my darkest moods, I can only see failure.  Is this my mother’s voice again telling me I will always fail, that I am, even in the present moment, failing?  Yes, maybe, but in middle age, I think it is time to free myself from that voice.  She’s been dead for almost a decade now.  How long can I go on blaming someone for my own darkness and depression?  I need to focus on the successful experiences and let go of the negative ones.  Of course, this is all easier said than done.


  1. Paul,
    Came across your blog while looking for the Bread and Chocolate movie. I saw it decades ago and was attempting to see it again. Read your comments about cognitive distortions, life experiences appears all these influences lead you to be an excellent teacher. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting, Geri.

  3. Thank you Paul. This really resonates. You are an excellent writer.

  4. Grateful for the reading and commenting, Doc. Silvie and I were just thinking of you the other day, especially about the great class we had a few years back. Hope all is well.


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