Pessimistic thinking is almost always a
mistake. Not only is it a mistake because it makes you less capable,
but the thoughts themselves are usually in error. When a thought-mistake
makes you feel disheartened, discouraged, or helpless, it can
stop you from taking action. If your mind's naturally-occurring
thought-mistakes fool you into believing you can do nothing about
a difficulty you have, you will do nothing.
So one of the most important things you
can do to make your life better starts right in your own mind:
Cure yourself of demoralizing thought-mistakes (like overgeneralizing, for example).
We're not talking about positive thinking.
This is anti-defeatist or anti-discouragement thinking. We're
aiming at making fewer mistakes in our thinking. It is more fundamental
than positive thinking, and also more effective.
Cognitive researchers (scientists who study
the effect of thoughts on feelings and behavior) have discovered
that thoughts of hopelessness or helplessness can lead to anxiety
and depression. These kinds of negative thoughts were once considered
symptoms of anxiety and depression. But Abraham Low, Aaron
Beck and Albert Ellis discovered that certain kinds of thought-mistakes
actually cause anxiety and depression and when a person's
thinking is changed, the depression or anxiety lifts.
You change your thinking by arguing with
the demoralizing thoughts as they arise in your mind.
There are two problems with trying to argue
with your negative thoughts. First of all, negative feelings
often seem to arise on their own without anything causing them,
when in fact those feelings were preceded by a thought such as,
"I will never feel happy again." A mental image of
oneself in the future, looking terribly unhappy flashes in one's
mind. The thought zips through the mind so quickly and so automatically,
the person didn't notice she thought anything. All she noticed
was the effect: The resulting feelings. She would have a difficult
time arguing with a thought that she doesn't even know she's
The second problem occurs even when the
person knows he is thinking a demoralizing thought. He
knows what he's thinking, but he believes his thoughts are
true. For example, if he thought, "Nobody loves me because
I'm unlovable," he would take no action. He is defeated
before he starts. He may even be aware of thinking the pessimistic,
defeatist thought, but if he assumes he's correct, he'll make
no attempt to argue with his thinking.
Rooting out defeatist thoughts can eliminate
the defeated feeling. Arguing against those demoralizing thoughts
will undemoralize you. When negative thoughts are making you
feel anxious, arguing with the negative thoughts can bring back
feelings of calm and determination.
I cannot emphasize enough that we're not
talking about "looking on the bright side" or trying
to cover ugly reality with pretty thoughts. The fundamental premise
of cognitive science is that if you think the situation is hopeless
and you believe you can do nothing about it, you should look
carefully at that assumption because it is usually wrong. If
your brain happens to be in the habit of thinking that way about
certain kinds of circumstances, it is time to notice it and change
it. This idea is powerful and effective. Read a true-life example. Read another.
In his book, Alone:
The Classic Polar Adventure, Admiral Byrd described his brush
with death from carbon monoxide poisoning. Byrd was stationed
at a remote base deep in the interior of Antarctica in 1934,
about as removed from any civilization as a man can get on this
planet. He was utterly alone and without hope of rescue. At one
point in his ordeal, he gave up. He was going to die, he admitted
to himself. This is how it would end. He wrote a note to the
people who would find his body the following spring and then
snuffed out the candles.
He lay in the dark for some time, sad at
this horrible turn of fate. But then he remembered a scene from
his past. He had been in a wrestling match, trying to win the
championship at the Naval Academy. Near the end of the match,
exhausted and in great pain, he decided he had no chance of winning.
But his mother was watching and he wanted her to be proud of
him, so he used this anti-demoralizing technique, and it worked.
He stumbled onto the secret of determination. His strength revived
and he fought to the finish. He didn't give up.
It worked then, he thought, so it might
work here in the Antarctic even though his situation was now
incomparably worse. The single thought that revived him in the
wrestling match was the realization that "although I seemed
absolutely washed up, there was a chance I was mistaken."
That's an important key to becoming immune
to demoralization: Admit to yourself that you might be mistaken
about a pessimistic conclusion. Introduce some doubt.
The doubt is legitimate. Most of us are
far more confident in our negative assumptions than is justified
by the facts. As Norman Cousins said, "Nobody knows enough
to be a pessimist."
IT IS HIGHLY EFFECTIVE
Disputing defeatist assumptions has been
shown in many scientific studies to be extremely effective at
permanently immunizing people against anxiety, worry, disheartenment
and depression. For example, a team of researchers took thirty-three
people with panic disorder who averaged five panic attacks per
week per person.
Sixteen of them had weekly sessions with
a therapist who provided emotional support. Seventeen of them
had weekly sessions with a cognitive therapist who taught them
to rethink their usual overreactions. For instance, when a man
felt chest pain, he was coached to come up with more likely causes
than the first thought that came to mind (it's a heart attack).
It was more likely to be heartburn, for example. And he was coached
to remind himself that when these feelings occurred in the past,
they had never amounted to anything.
In other words, he learned to doubt his
automatic, habitual negative assumptions. He learned to recognize
the mistakes in his thinking.
At the end of two months, twelve of the
cognitive-therapy people were totally free of attacks. Only four
of the emotional-support people were totally free of attacks.
Among those who still had panic attacks,
the cognitive-therapy people averaged one attack a week. The
emotional-support people averaged three per week.
The researchers did a one-year follow-up.
The success rate had not diminished in that time. Arguing with
their own negative, pessimistic thoughts dramatically changed
The thoughts you think are very powerful
and worthy of your attention.
Similar effects to cognitive therapy can
be achieved on your own using paper and pen. As a matter of fact,
that's often one of the most effective techniques cognitive therapists
assign as "homework." Read how.
In his book, Learned
Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Martin Seligman
has a very good list of what to look for in your arguments when
you're arguing against a negative thought. Read
his list here.
FIND MISTAKES IN YOUR THINKING
In David Burns' book, Feeling
Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated, he has a
list of what he calls "cognitive
distortions." These are common thought-mistakes we tend
to make that demoralize us unnecessarily. He has ten
cognitive distortions on his list, and the list is complete.
For example, one of his cognitive distortions is called all or nothing thinking.
Any mistake you are likely to find in your
thinking is on his list because the brain makes imperfect judgments
in a limited number of ways.
Our brains also process visual information
imperfectly, which is why we have such things as optical illusions.
When you look at the two lines below, one looks longer than the
other. But they are the same length. No matter how carefully
you look at it, the two lines definitely look different lengths.
Even when you measure it and are completely convinced they are
the same length, they still look like different lengths.
You are witnessing a flaw in the way the
human brain processes visual input. Optical illusions demonstrate
that our visual processing isn't perfect in certain specific
In precisely the same way, our thinking
(our logical processing) isn't perfect either, and there are
particular mistakes we are prone to make simply because we are
David Burns' list of ten cognitive distortions
is a list of the thought-mistakes the human brain is prone to
make. The brain's tendency to make mistakes combines with the
negative bias and it makes demoralizing thinking much more
So one way to argue with your negative
thoughts is to memorize Burns' ten distortions. Then write out
a demoralizing thought you have about a setback of yours, and
see how many cognitive distortions you can find in your statement.
When you memorize the list first (before they are attached to
a particular thought of yours) you can clearly see why they are
mistakes because you don't have the problem of overcoming your
own naturally-occurring defensiveness when you're analyzing your
statements. Having the list memorized ahead of time makes it
easier to find mistakes and straighten out your thinking.
QUESTIONING AND DISPUTING your demoralizing
thoughts is the best and most effective way to crush the pessimism
lurking in your own mind. And one of the best ways to do that
is to write down your negative thoughts and then argue with them.
Now you have a powerful weapon against
feeling demoralized, disheartened, or depressed. Master the know-how
on this page. Practice several times a week. Make yourself sit
down and do it for a half-hour at a time. It will make you stronger
and more successful.
Get the practical instructions, the nuts-and-bolts
low-down about how to undemoralize yourself here.
Begin at the beginning: Crush Pessimism or Antivirus For Your Mind.