Dr. Burns, author of The Feeling Good Handbook, suggests that people will start to feel better about themselves when they (1) identify the thoughts that lead to an emotion, (2) recognize the distortion in the thought and (3) utilize techniques to “untwist” negative thinking.
September’s article centered on the connection between thoughts and feelings. For example, hopelessness and discouragement follow thoughts that your problems will go on forever. October’s article focused on Dr. Burns’ ten forms of twisted thinking: all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, mental filter, discounting the positive, jumping to conclusions, magnification, emotional reasoning, should statements, labeling, and personalization and blame. This month’s article will discuss techniques to challenge negative thinking.
To illustrate the techniques, let’s use the following case scenario: Harry has enjoyed a successful career for the past ten years. He suddenly finds himself deaf due to a virus. He becomes depressed and withdraws from his family and friends. He feels guilt that he has let down his family and is sure that his wife and children are ashamed of him. He believes that life will no longer be enjoyable for him now that he has become deaf.
Straight forward approach: Harry can ask himself if he really believes it is true that his life will no longer have any happiness now that he has become deaf.
Double standard technique: Harry can talk to himself the way he would talk to a friend or a loved one who is faced with the same situation. He will likely discover that he is harder on himself than he is on other people. He could decide to give to himself the same compassion that he would give to his friend.
Cost-benefit analysis: Harry could list the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the negative thought that life is downhill now that he is deafened. He can decide if this attitude will hurt him or help him to deal with deafness.
Survey method: Harry could do research on how other people have responded to a major life change such as becoming deaf. He might ask people if they also had feelings of depression, guilt, and shame. Instead of condemning himself for being weak, he can nurture himself with positive thoughts that others felt the same way. Additionally, he could ask if after the life change they had future enjoyment in life.
Examine the evidence: Harry could examine the evidence that his wife and children are ashamed of him. He could determine if it is true or if it is based on the belief that because he feels shame his family also feels shame. If there is some truth in the evidence then Harry can learn from it in a self-respecting way.
Thinking in shades of gray: Instead of viewing future happiness in life as “black” or “white”, Harry could think of it in shades of gray. Will some endeavors in life lose their enjoyment, while others remain enjoyable?
The pleasure-predicting method: Harry could predict how much pleasure or happiness he would have for a variety of activities (going to the beach, walking in the park etc.) on a scale from 0 to 10. He could then perform each activity and record the degree of pleasure he experienced.
The acceptance paradox: Harry could find truth in his statement that there will be less enjoyment in life. By accepting this, he will find tranquility. Tranquility will then bring happiness, which will lead to enjoyment of life.
When people feel bad about themselves or life, they are usually thinking about things in a negative way. These techniques are designed to help people talk back to their negative thoughts and to change the way they think and feel.
Burns, D. (1999). The feeling good handbook. New York, NY: Plume.
(A reprint of an article I wrote 20 years ago, when I was the founding President of ALDA-Suncoast of Florida, a support group for people who have become deaf. The article appeared in the newsletter, ALDA-Sun. At the time, I was going back to school to change professions from being a foreign language teacher to becoming a mental health counselor.)