So far you've noticed the difference between the event itself and the meaning you give it, looked at how many of your beliefs are formed, and then examined how your beliefs can become self-fulfilling prophecies. This week is about how to tell if your beliefs are healthy or helpful. And for that, we need to introduce two important concepts: Explanatory Style and Cognitive Biases and Distortions.
When you look at the meanings you give to events or even more directly at the beliefs you carry based on your life up to this point, you can do some dissecting of them based on three points.
Pervasiveness: Global vs. Specific
Q. Does your belief or the meaning you've given to the event apply to just to this one thing or does it now apply to all related things going forward?
For example, Bob has a bad date with Mary. If he decides that Mary is just not compatible with him, that is specific. It applies to just one woman and just this particular date. If Bob decides the bad date means that no woman out there is ever going to be right for him, then that meaning is global. His belief then applies to all women and all future dates.
Personalization: External vs. Internal
Q. Does the responsibility for the event lay inside or outside your control?
For example, Marcia doesn't get the promotion she wanted. If she decides that this is because she should have worked harder, that belief is internal. It is something inside her control. If she decides that it's because her boss just doesn't like her despite all of her hard work, then that is external. The problem is outside her control and comes from her boss's beliefs and attitudes.
Permanence: Stable vs. Unstable
Q. Are the results of this event temporary or will they change given time?
For example, Bob is completely overwhelmed by all the work that came with his new promotion. If he decides this sucks right now but he will get the hang of it given time, his belief is unstable. It's a temporary problem where there is light at the end of the tunnel. If he decides this sucks right now and he will never get the hang of these skills, that belief is stable. It's not seen as temporary or able to be improved. It's seen as permanent.
Putting this into the Feedback Loop
People whose explanations of negative events that are mostly global, external, and stable are more prone to depression. It makes sense that seeing negative events as mostly outside your control and unchanging would have a negative impact.
As you think back to the self-fulfilling feedback loop that can occur based on the beliefs and meanings you assign to past events, you can begin to see how each of these types of explanatory labels fits into that feedback loop. A belief or meaning that is global or stable is going to hold a much greater sway over future events than beliefs that are seen as temporary or specific to the situation at hand.
If you blame yourself for everything that goes wrong without seeing the balance of how others also share in that responsibility, that impact will be felt in the form of strong self-criticism. Taking responsibility where needed is important but doing it in an unbalanced way can damage your self-esteem and self-worth.
Placing the blame entirely on others shares an equal amount of problems. The key here is the balance and willingness to see both halves of the equation.
Cognitive Biases and Distortions
There are some ways of thinking that get in the way of holding healthy and helpful beliefs. When making sense of the events that happen, there are some common pitfalls that can be known and looked for when doing an examination. These common pitfalls are called cognitive biases and distortions.
For example, you may have a tendency to only focus on the negative words or events said to you during the day while ignoring or simply not noticing the good words and events that happened. This distortion is called having a mental filter that screens out the postive. It is a view that is out of balance.
I have been highlighting different biases and distortions each Friday. That list is here. Take the time to review what is there. The most helpful article I've found that also contains a longer list of distortions is at Psychology Today: 50 Common Cognitive Distortions.
Applying this to what you've already done
Pull out your list of beliefs and meanings you created back in Part 1 of this exercise. Label each of your beliefs to see whether it is global/specific, internal/external, or stable/unstable. Take the time to see the connection between these explanatory style labels and the impact each type and combination has on the feedback loop outcome.
Also, after you have read through the longer cognitive biases and distortions list, see if you can identify the beliefs and meanings you've assigned to events that could be labeled as being an example of a distorted way of thinking.
In labeling the explanatory style and cognitive biases/distortions, you are learning to dispute unhealthy or unhelpful beliefs. Next week, we will look at how to change those disputed beliefs into something that is healthier and more helpful so that they can create better events and situations going forward.
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