Blame Game, Cognitive Distortions, and Positive Psychology

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In my previous blog I talked about my struggle with mental illness and addiction. I’ve dedicated more hours than I’d like to admit, to analyzing myself. I wanted – no, I needed – to know why I am the way I am. I needed to know why I can’t be happy or normal. Why do I struggle while everything is so easy for other people I know? Why can’t I cope with bipolar disorder on my own? Who, or what, molded me and made me into what I am today? Who is responsible for this catastrophe?

As humans we instinctively look for someone or something to blame for our troubles. How do we eliminate a threat or problem if we can’t identify it? Should I blame my father and his meth addiction for my shortcomings? My mother for staying with him for so long? Myself for being weak and ignorant? Perhaps it was the unexpected death of my 17 year old cousin that pushed me off the deep end? Addiction? Bipolar? Why am I the way I am? Why have I spent so much time being unhappy? Bipolar depression is no excuse.

When I was young I worried a lot. I didn’t feel secure or safe. I learned not to trust. I learned that you never know what might happen so it’s easier to expect the worst. There is some sort of comfort in expecting the worst and hoping for the best. I suppose, at some point I just stopped hoping for the best but continued to expect the worst. I have developed a great many habits and behaviors with the intention of protecting myself. Some of these habits and behaviors give the illusion of control – operative word being illusion. I’ve been told it is bad to assign fault or blame. Rather than blaming a person or event I’ve started to analyze the way that I think – the way that I see the world. As I get older I realize that my thinking patterns are the only current existing source of depression. It isn’t constructive to blame my parents – my upbringing – or even the psychological diagnosis of present mental illness provided by competent mental health professionals.

My therapist recently introduced me to the concept of cognitive distortions. So, what are cognitive distortions and why do they hold power over me? Cognitive distortions are ways that our mind convinces us to believe something that isn’t accurate. They usually reinforce negative emotions. They do a great job of convincing us something is rational when it really isn’t. There are many cognitive distortions but a few common ones include: filtering, polarized thinking, jumping to conclusions, overgeneralizing, personalizing, catastrophizing, blaming, “shoulds”, and emotional reasoning. I personally tend to catastrophize, filter and polarize (think in terms of black-or-white).

These distortions play a monumental role in the way I see myself and the world. Now that I understand this, maybe I have the power to change the way that I think? Do I have the ability to think positively? Can I be happy? There is a field of study called Positive Psychology, dedicated to this concept.

Positive thinking is one of the most powerful tools a person has access to and it’s free. It’s an intrinsic trait. If you can allow yourself to think positively you can achieve happiness. It sounds simple but it can be difficult to accomplish if you’ve spent years conditioning yourself to think negatively. Experts in positive psychology use the terms extrinsic and intrinsic reward system. If you are rewarding yourself extrinsically you are relying on material items, praise – or sometimes substances that alter your mental state – to achieve happiness. When your internal reward center is activated neurochemicals are released (dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, etc.) These neurochemicals, or neurotransmitters, cause happiness. When you achieve happiness, or release these neurochemicals through extrinsic means, they are short lived and unsustainable. One of my favorite theories is called the Hedonic Treadmill. The hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation, refers to the fact that we tend to return to our original level of happiness even after a positive emotion or release of endorphins. This also applies when thinking of negative events. Not always but generally, we return to our old selves and our original state of happiness. So, in short, if you win the lottery and gain material rewards in tandem, it wont result in permanent gain of happiness. Moreover, if you use drugs to release these chemicals it generally leaves you in a much lower state than you originated. Trust me, I’ve researched this empirically! After long term substance abuse your ability to release and re-uptake these neurotransmitters on your own can become severely depleted. If you have been relying on an extrinsic reward system it can be challenging to realize the benefit in intrinsic reward.

In part, I am in therapy because I need help training myself. I need help building these positive manor-isms in order to find happiness within – renewable, sustainable happiness. I’ve been working on being present, and thankful for my blessings through mindful awareness, prayer and cognitive behavioral therapy. It hasn’t been easy; in fact it’s a constant internal struggle. I have a strong predisposition toward negative thinking. It’s a battle that I will fight until I win because I know that it will be worth it and I know it will get easier.

Notes:

When writing this blog, after spending a couple of hours making sure it was up to par, I somehow deleted the draft. My husband and I both did everything we could to retrieve the draft to no avail. I was upset, and rightly so (which is the worst kind of upset!) I chose to refrain from letting this emotion take over and used this as an opportunity to use the skills I just spent so much time describing and to think clearly. I thought, instead of trying to rewrite everything exactly how I had written it before, maybe I could do better. After all, I wasn’t a better writer then than I am now. I wasn’t privy to any special information then that had been forever lost. I’m happy with, this draft, and even happier than I didn’t continue wasting my time wallowing, being upset, or giving up. # feeling accomplished

Much of the research I’ve done is based on material and ideas provided by my therapist. I also got a lot of information in a book called Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and how They Can Change the World. I highly recommend this book, I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Information on hedonic theory came from “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society” (1971), Brickman and Campbell.

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