Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cognitive Distortion #4: Disqualifying the Positive

From Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns

An even more spectacular mental illusion is the persistent tendency of some depressed individuals to transform neutral or even positive experiences into negative ones. You don't just ignore positive experiences, you cleverly and swiftly turn them into their nightmarish opposite. I call this "reverse alchemy." The medieval alchemists dreamed of finding some method for transmuting the baser metals into gold. If you have been depressed, you may have developed the talent for doing the exact opposite--you can instantly transform golden joy into emotional lead. Not intentionally, however--you're probably not even aware of what you're doing to yourself.

An everyday example of this would be the way most of us have been conditioned to respond to compliments. When someone praises your appearance or your work, you might automatically tell yourself, "They're just being nice." With one swift blow you mentally disqualify their compliment. You do the same thing to them when you tell them, "Oh, it was nothing, really." If you constantly throw cold water on the the good things that happen, no wonder life seems damp and chilly to you!

Disqualifying the positive is one of the most destructive forms of cognitive distortion. You're like a scientist intent on finding evidence to support some pet hypothesis. the hypothesis that dominates your depressive thinking is usually some version of "I'm second rate." Whenever you have a negative experience, you dwell on it and conclude, "That proves what I've known all along." In contrast, when you have a positive experience, you tell yourself, "That was a fluke. It doesn't count." The price you pay for this tendency is intense misery and an inability to appreciate the good things that happen.

While this type of cognitive distortion is commonplace, it can also form the basis for some of the most extreme and intractable forms of depression. For example, a young woman hospitalized during a severe depressive episode told me, "No one could possibly care about me because I'm such an awful person. I'm a complete loner. Not one person on earth gives a damn about me." When she was discharged from the hospital, many patients and staff members expressed great fondness for her. Can you guess how she negated all this? "They don't count because they don't see me in the real world. A real person outside a hospital could never care about me." I then asked her how she reconciled this with the fact that she had numerous friends and family outside the hospital who did care about her. She replied, "They don't count because they don't knjow the real me. You see Dr. Burns, inside I'm absolutely rotten. I'm the worst person in the world. It would be impossible for anyone to really like me for even one moment!" By disqualifying positive experiences in this manner, she can maintain a negative belief which is clearly unrealistic and inconsistent with her everyday experiences.

While your negative thinking is probably not as extreme as hers, there may be many times every day when you do inadvertently ignore genuinely positive things that have happened to you. This removes much of life's richness and makes things appear needlessly black.

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Y'all who've read for awhile know that this is one of my pet peeves - this inability to accept and believe sincere compliments from the people who love us. By rejecting compliments, I am basically telling people that they are either liars, or have poor judgment and no taste. This was a very destructive element in my early marriage; my poor husband thought I was attractive and told me so often, but I didn't believe him, and over time I trained him not to tell me that I looked good. So when I feel bad that he no longer tells me that he thinks I'm pretty, the only person I can blame is myself.

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