Saturday, July 21, 2012

Feeling Good?

Once in a while I read self-help books. This is a by-product of the low self-esteem caused by the trauma of divorce. I grasp at anything that would help me feel better. Most of the time the books have some suggestion that I can use in limited amounts. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, for example, talks about living in the moment and not dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. This is a difficult concept to practice. My attempts at meditation make me twitchy and restless. It’s not always easy to follow when random thoughts bombard my mind late at night. Is the pool filter that starts to run at four a.m. going to blow up? Did I forget to pay a bill? Am I going to be homeless someday because my daughter insists on going to an incredibly expensive college?

Feeling Good by David Burns is one of the best books that I have read. It discusses that crap that you tell yourself that you are convinced must be absolutely true. It makes you depressed. Therapists call it cognitive distortions. I always thought that what I tell myself was true. That it is not is quite a different perspective. I think the author really nails the stupidity of what people tell themselves.

A number of types of cognitive distortion exist, but one in particular that I am guilty of is overgeneralization. If something happens, then it will always happen. If someone dumps me, then I will always be alone. If I am unhappy now, then I will always be unhappy. This kind of assumption feeds a feeling of hopelessness.

If I couldn’t do something in the past, then I won’t be able to do it in the future. The past doesn’t dictate the present or the future-- or at least I try to convince myself of that.

Another overgeneralization is thinking everyone else is better than me. They are more together, more loved, more talented, work harder, have more friends. This is not true and only a delusion in my mind because people are never what they appear to be. The thought pops up automatically, like an evil mind visitor. I wonder if I am the only one that thinks this way. This kind of thinking is rampant in competition like racing. If someone is faster than me, then they are better than me as a person. Since I am slow in racing, then I must be a bad person.

Results don’t dictate who I am, or least I try to tell myself that.

The prime example of this is swimming. I am always last. I can train all I want and take lessons, but I will never be fast or even average. The only people slower than me are beginners who surpass me in a couple of months or really old people who flail around the lanes with bizarre arm strokes. Even some of them are swim faster than I do. I want to be average or at least not on the bottom of the curve. I beat myself up for being so bad, but it doesn’t get me anywhere.

Maybe if I stop being negative, I would swim better or at least feel better about it.

Positivity is an alien thought that doesn’t come naturally for me. I am never an optimist. People are supposed to have an optimist bias and expect that things will turn out better than they actually do. People underestimate the chances of death, divorce and general disaster. Some theorize that we are born this way. Not me. I always tend to expect the worst, and to keep my sanity, I try to block this expectation. This is the cognitive distortion of Mental Filter that a person filters out positive aspects of a situation and only sees negative ones.

If a person didn’t underestimate the chances of bad thing happening, they would lose their minds. Life would become darker and much more anxiety provoking than it already is. It’s bad enough dealing with daily events. Positive thoughts are a self-defense mechanism. The future can’t be predicted anyway. If I think the best will happen and the worst does, at least I am not worrying about it until the catastrophe occurs.

Too bad I don’t actually do this.

If I am doing an Ironman, I am already setting up what bad things will happen before they even do. I will miss the swim cut off, or if I don’t, I will get a flat tire on the bike course and miss the bike cut. If the water is cold I will end up in the medical tent for hypothermia. It has happened before, so it will happen again.

It is hard to understand why these habitual negative thoughts occur. Fear is a good base to launch them. They worm their way into my brain and stay there. Maybe it is something that started in childhood when a parent berated me for some forgotten misbehavior? The mind persistently plays the same thing over and over. Most people don’t even question what they tell themselves. The voice that berates me isn’t challenged. It tells I suck and I agree.

Feeling Good suggests that the answer to the depression and low self-esteem that this self-talk causes is to have a person write down what they are saying to themselves and make rational arguments against the negative perceptions. Writing them down makes you more aware of what is swirling around in your head. If I get lost, which I frequently do and tell myself that I am incompetent because I can’t read a map and don’t have a GPS, then I write this thought down. I always manage to find my way eventually, so I must have some competence as a human being. Maybe.

I am intrigued by the suggestion that what I tell myself might not be true, This could possibly be an entirely new way of thinking-- new neural pathways instead of the old rutted ones. I am tired of my old thoughts, but they will try to persist, like my slow swimming. Even slow swimmers get somewhere eventually.