Or “Learning How to Think More Clearly In Order to Learn How to Love Better,” or “The Relationship Between How Clearly We Think & How Grateful and Appreciative We Are and How Well We Love”
How we think—how clearly and maturely we think versus how distortedly and or less than maturely we tend to think—is inexorably tied to how well we love—ourselves and others.
If we do not think clearly, if we have distorted and biased ways of thinking, if we tend to be rash and not think things through, if we tend to let our moods and emotions hijack our thinking, then our capacity to love others and ourselves will be compromised accordingly and proportionally, perhaps even disproportionately and exponentially.
Conversely, every little gain we can eke out and make for ourselves in terms of cleaning up and clarifying our thinking—every distortion, self-serving bias, lie we tell ourselves that we can root out and correct with a more truthful and realistic way of thinking—will automatically improve our capacity to love ourselves and to love others.
Love is not a feeling. It’s a capacity—it’s a learned capacity. It is something we can learn how to do better and improve in if we are willing to put in the time (10,000 hours and you too can be veritable saint and expert at loving yourself and others!), and if we are willing to clean up our thinking and root out patterned ways of distorting reality and distorting our way of looking at ourselves and others.
“Love” – Czeslaw Milosz
Love means learning to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever learns to see in this way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
Birds and trees say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.
Love means learning how to look at ourselves objectively, without self-serving biases and distortions and softeners, as if we were watching ourselves unedited on television. What would you see? Would you be proud? Would you be happy? Or would it be like watching a train wreck or a hot mess? Would it be like watching something out of the “Jersey Shore” or “The Rich Housewives of Beverly Hills“?
The more we learn how to look at ourselves objectively and without distortions and without flattering ourselves or spinning what we’d see, the better our odds at learning how to love more genuinely.
To the extent that we cannot or will not look at ourselves in this objective and much less biased way, the more compromised our capacity to love ourselves and others will be and the more exploitative (think strip-mining—most people are appalled when they see a video of deforestation or strip-mining, but a good percentage of those same people are ignorant of the myriad ways in which they, subtly or not so subtly, act exploitatively or selfishly in their own relationships) the way we try to “love” will be.
“Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”
– M. Scott Peck, “The Road Less Traveled,” pg. 51.
“Dedication to reality” is just another way of saying that mental health is an ongoing process of learning how to think and perceive life, other people, and ourselves, more clearly and honestly, and free of bias and cognitive distortions.
If we are truly dedicated to reality, then necessarily we must be dedicated to learning better how to think—how to think more clearly, precisely, realistically. That’s one of the proofs of our dedication—that we are trying to think with greater clarity and precision and with less bias and distortion.
It takes clear thinking to know when we’re not thinking clearly. We first come across an example of clear thinking in a book, or a magazine, or blog or online article. Or perhaps we have the good fortune of actually meeting a real life clear thinker—perhaps we have a good therapist, a teacher, a parent.
But some (many?) of us aren’t so fortunate when we’re kids to have a good role model or two who helps us learn better how to think and how to process reality in an age appropriate and legitimate and honest way, and so our natural ways of distorting reality and defending our fragile sense of self and tender emotions go uncorrected. And if left uncorrected for long enough, they become patterned, they become deeply entrenched and ingrained, habitual. We enter into adulthood with patterned ways of distorting reality, of not seeing ourselves and others and life clearly and honestly.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will forllow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unbreakable.
How can a troubled mind
Understand the way?
Your worst enemy cannot harm you
As much as your own thoughts, unguarded.
But once mastered,
No one can help you as much,
Not even your father or your mother.
– The Buddha, from the “Dhammapada“
When we are first learning how to think more clearly—when we’re learning how to spot our own distortions and biases and lies—we usually don’t spot these things in real time but after the fact—sometimes long after the fact—when we’re reviewing our actions and looking back at the things we’ve done and said.
And that’s just natural. That’s just the way it is at first. But as we learn how to spot more and more of our distortions and self-deceptions and errors in our thinking, we get closer and closer to doing so in real time.
At which point the distortions and self-deceptions tend to either disappear altogether and we are able to process reality more truthfully and legitimately by thinking and perceiving more clearly and honestly in real time—which is best case scenario (what the Buddha was articulating); or our distortions and self-deception become a bit more intricate and disguised, and we have to repeat the process of becoming more self-aware, mindful, attentive, observant, and honest again.
The bottom line in all of this is that in order to think better and more clearly, we have to make it a point of doing two things: (1) spending some time each day thinking—and thinking about and observing our thinking; and (2) spending some time each day exposing ourselves to people (or books, etc) who role model for us clear and undistorted thinking.
It’s that daunting journey of a thousand miles.
But it begins with just one step. And then another. And another. Et cetera.
First comes the willingness to look at our thoughts—that’s the starting point—just a thimbleful of willingness to look at ourselves and our thinking honestly, clearly.
Then comes the making of the space in our daily life where we have actually spend some quality time with ourselves thinking about our own thinking, thinking about thinking in general, reading books written by clear thinking human beings, spending an hour in therapy with a clear thinking and conscientious therapist.
There’s just no escaping it: In order to think more clearly, we have to spend some time every day in thought.
One of the primary reasons we don’t think is because thinking takes time. It takes time to think out and write a post like this. It takes time to read honestly a post like this. It takes time to translate any of the insight and knowledge in this post into action and apply it to one’s own life.
The other reason most people do not like to think is that thinking requires effort. Substitute the in the word “effort” for the word “time” in the above paragraph, and what was written about time will hold true for effort as well.
It seems easier to us not to think, but that easiness usually only holds up in the very short run (immediate gratification; path of least resistance); in the long run not putting the time and effort into learning how to think well will in all likelihood create many more problems for us than it will have appeared to have “solved.” If we develop the discipline to learn now how to think more clearly, we will likely experience more pain and difficulty and labor now, up front, but in the long run we will likely cut down on the amount of consequences we would have to deal with from having not tried to think as much or as clearly now.
One of the best ways to help ourselves think more clearly—in addition to reading books where the thinking is clear, and spending time with people whose thinking tends to be clear and undistorted, and simply spending time alone thinking—is to put put our thinking on paper or on the monitor—i.e., either journaling and or blogging.
Writing in a very deliberate and honest and reflective way gives us opportunity to see and process our own thoughts a bit more objectively—it gets us a few (perhaps many) crucial steps closer to look at our own thoughts the way one looks at distant things. Writing helps make our thinking more obejctive.
And learning to look at ourselves the way we look at distant things—without favoritism and so much preference and self-serving bias (egoism/narcissism)—frees us to love better and more often, and to live with greater appreciation and gratitude and kindness.
So it was—and is—in the spirit of helping anyone who is interested in becoming a more loving person, that yesterday I reblogged Dr. Nicholas Jenner’s very articulate and insightful post “The Negative Effect of Maladaptive Thinking.” But yesterday I was very busy meeting previous commitments, so I didn’t have time to articulate many of my own thoughts about the article and why I thought it to be so important and relevant that I reposted it on my “Real True Love” blog instead of one of my other blogs (“The Places That Scare You” or “Full Catastrophe Living & Loving” blogs).
Thus why I’m reblogging it again today and focusing on the part of Dr. Jenner’s acrticle where he writes specifically about “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.”
Without wishing to provoke debate on nature versus nurture and whether we are born with a genetic toolbox to start off in life, it is clear that we are, in our early years like the proverbial sponge, soaking up influence from the environment and people around us, notably our primary care-givers. This influence, good or bad, dictates our thought patterns as we grow up, affecting our window on the world and forming the basis for relationships with peers and others. What parents do and don’t do, say and don’t say, provide their children with the experiences that children interpret into beliefs. Those beliefs, in turn, then determine their behavior and emotions and, ultimately, their lives-for better or for worse. . . .
So what do we do if our parents weren’t the coaching and guiding sort, had problems of their own or are carrying their own negative influences from the past and this has left us as adults with attitude problems?
Most self-help literature will advice us to “change the way we think to change our life”. This is indeed good advice but often easier said than done and is often thrown to the wayside when attempts do not bring immediate results.
Then the typical dysfunctional thought patterns such as all or nothing thinking, generalisation, mind-reading and “victim” mentality amongst others return.
To change this style of thinking takes considerable time and effort and that is exactly what is needed to “cure” this.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
The premise of CBT is based on an assumption that an interpretation of an event is crucial because it determines how we fell and act. Where beliefs and thought patterns are unrealistic (see below), this can quickly lead to depression, anxiety and phobia. CBT aims to alleviate emotional distress through confronting and challenging errors in thinking. It does so by identifying and exploring the way a client views and interprets the world and situations around them. These errors can be tested with the client against objective reality, that is, how likely it is. The client can then slowly start to assess himself and the world more realistically as most dysfunctional thinking is based on hypotheses and not facts. The background to CBT is therefore founded on three main assumptions :
- Feelings and behavior are directly affected by the way a person thinks.
- Negative and unrealistic patterns of thinking give rise to emotional disorders.
- Altering these thought patterns can reduce emotional disturbance or distress.
The 10 most common cognitive distortions
CBT postulates that most people display common errors in thinking and this is magnified when emotions are stirred or a triggering event occurs. The following is a very brief summary of the 10 most common cognitive distortions.
- All or nothing thinking.I also call this “black or white” thinking. Everything is all good, or all bad. There is nothing in between.
- Overgeneralization.You tend to view any single negative thing as an eternal pattern of negativity. If one bad thing happens, the world is obviously coming to an end.
- Disqualifying the positive.You can’t accept anything positive ever happening. So if something good happens, you always find a way to turn it into a negative thing, or explain why it was a fluke or it doesn’t count.
- Mental filter.You filter out all good qualities of something so you can focus on the negative. In this way everything becomes negative.
- Jumping to conclusions.You become a mind reader and a fortune teller. You interpret everything in a negative way without any supporting evidence.
- Catastrophizing or minimization.You blow minor things out of proportion, and minimize positive things.
- Emotional reasoning. You assume that your negative emotions and feelings reflect actual reality. If you feel bad, everything is bad.
- Should statements. You try and mold the world to your vision of reality, instead of accepting the world’s reality. A very common version of this in relationships is, “If he (or she) loved me he (or she) wouldn’t ….”
- Labeling and mislabeling. Overgeneralization in the extreme. You actually believe the overgeneralizations and make them reality in your own mind.
- Personalization. You take things personally. You become very defensive at even the slightest perceived criticism.
Sadly, people who display these cognitive distortions assume that their internal world reflects external reality and they rarely question that assumption. They believe them to be true, logical and accurate. In therapy, a key factor is for the therapist to teach the client in these cases that :
- Reality is different from our “perception of reality”
- Our individual experience of reality is shaped by sensory input but more importantly by interpretation.
- This can result in “distortions of reality”
- Distortions are often based on internal cognitive processes rather than on gathering factual information.
Over a period of time, the client can distance themselves from these distortions. CBT is especially suitable for online therapy.
Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a Counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups and companies. Apart from seeing clients face-to-face, Dr Jenner also runs a thriving online therapy business bringing help to those who are housebound or located in rural locations where therapy is difficult to find.