Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 2 ed.

Chapter 2. The Four Belief Pairs

In this chapter, you will learn about healthy and unhealthy beliefs in more detail. Understanding the following concepts will help you to identify what specifically makes beliefs and thoughts healthy or unhealthy.

Want to vs Have to

Most of us talk about what we ‘want to’ do and what we ‘must do’ without paying too much attention to the meaning behind these expressions and the feelings they provoke. I want you to consider all the things that you feel are an absolute ‘have to’ in your life.

·        Is it that you feel you ‘have to’ work?

·        Could it be that you feel you ‘have to’ have love in your life?

·        Maybe it's that you consider you ‘have to’ look after someone?

·        Perhaps it's that you think you ‘have to’ achieve your dreams?

According to CBT, people have a tendency to take the things they want and desire and turn them into demands. For example, a child learns to play the piano because she really enjoys playing and loves the sound. She begins to practise harder and rapidly improves. She gets praised and this in turn motivates her to do more. She then has the opportunity to perform in front of her friends at school and she knows that everyone will be there watching her. She really wants to do well and not make a mistake when she is playing in front of all those people. She begins to think, ‘I'm going to practise harder to ensure that I don't make a mistake’. Her friends ask her ‘How are you feeling about playing? Aren't you scared about making a mistake?’ A teacher may say, ‘I hope you're practising because you don't want to make a mistake’ and so on. She then begins to put pressure on herself by thinking, ‘I must make sure that I don't make a mistake’. By the time of the performance she is in a state of fear because she is now telling herself that she ‘has to’ get it right.

This simple example illustrates how you can turn your ‘want to’ into a stressful ‘have to’. This is simply a human trait − we all have the ability to turn our desires and wants into dogmatic and absolute ‘have to’s. Other words for ‘have to’ are: must, need to, got to, absolutely should, ought to.

CBT posits that these demands are at the core of psychological disturbance and emotional problems. They provoke unhealthy negative emotions such as anxiety, which in turn block creativity and limit our potential when it comes to goal achievement.

‘Have to’ and ‘must’ are rigid and inflexible

These inflexible demands that you impose on yourself, on other people or on the world, do not allow for the existence of other options such as not fulfilling your demand. They are viewed as ‘non acceptance’ beliefs.

For example, if you make a demand such as ‘I have to succeed’ or ‘I must not fail’, you are not allowing for the possibility that you might not succeed.

You can clearly see that by thinking in this rigid way you are essentially saying you do not have a choice. You are telling yourself, ‘this is how it must be for me’.

Of course, some things do have to function in a certain way. The law of gravity means that if you drop a stone it will ‘have to’ fall down. We all ‘have to’ eat, drink, breathe and have shelter in order to survive. Otherwise we would die. And that is another ‘have to’ – we all ‘have to’ die at some point, whether we believe in an afterlife or not.

Most of the things that we believe are ‘have to’s are in fact wants or desires.

Exercise

List up to five important things in your life that you think you have to do.

Example: I have to go to work.

List up to five important things in your life that have to happen.

Example: I have to be happy.

List up to five important things in your life that must not happen.

Example: I must not be alone.

‘Have to’ and ‘must’ are not consistent with reality

‘Have to’ beliefs are not consistent with reality because in real life we sometimes do not get the things we insist on.

For example, if you hold the belief ‘I must not make a mistake’, you are essentially saying that it must never happen. Reality shows that everyone makes mistakes. That is the truth and you cannot escape from it by avoiding it, denying it or burying it. That's how it is even if you really dislike it.

The same applies to other demands you may make, such as other peoples' judgements of you: ‘I have to be liked by people I meet.’ Here reality will show you that while many people do like you, there will be some who might not. Insisting on being liked does not alter reality even if you hate it.

When you do not acknowledge or accept what the reality shows you, you are functioning solely in your own internal world or your version of reality. You are living in your head and refusing to acknowledge the truth of how things are.

‘Have to’ and ‘must’ are not logical

‘Have to’ and ‘must’ are not logical or based on common sense. They do not rationally follow from what you want and prefer.

If you reason that because you want something therefore it must happen, you show poor logic. It means everything that you want or desire HAS to happen. The interesting thing is that you probably have a lot of common sense, but sometimes you may let go of it when it concerns something you really want. In such cases you make yourself more vulnerable to the impact of unhealthy reasoning.

If you apply logic to the above example, then your desire would be to do well and not make a mistake. This is fair enough. It is healthy for you to have your own dreams, wants and likes. However, it would not make sense for you to demand that you have to get things right or that you must not make a mistake just because it is what you want. That would be poor reasoning.

Example

Consider the statement below. You can see that it is made up of two parts. Part one is the statement about your desire for something. Let's call that something ‘xyz’. The second statement is a conclusion that follows from your first statement.

I want xyz … AND THEREFORE I MUST HAVE xyz

Now replace xyz with ‘the day to be nice and sunny’. Does your second statement sound reasonable?

I want the day to be nice and sunny … AND THEREFORE the day MUST be nice and sunny.

Replace xyz with ‘to get things right’, or any other desire, and the same logic will apply. It is irrational to make the second demanding statement as this does not allow for the numerous other possibilities.

‘Have to’ and ‘must’ are not helpful

When you make an unreasonable and unrealistic demand on yourself, you will experience unhealthy negative emotions like anxiety, depression, guilt and so on.

In such a state your thinking becomes more negative and your assumptions tend to be untrue, unreasonable and limiting. Your behaviour is influenced by all of this. This means that you are more likely to react in an unhelpful way. This in turn impacts negatively on your performance and success, as shown in the diagram below.

Cycle diagram of Belief (top) to Your thoughts, opinions and attitudes (right) to Your performance and behaviour (left).

Example

Anne's goal is to feel confident and speak eloquently in staff meetings. She is anxious about whether she will remember what she wants to say when it's her turn to speak. She tells herself, ‘you've got to remember when your turn comes; you have to calm down’. Her thoughts are about trying to remember at the same time as she is looking and counting how many people are ahead of her.

She becomes more insistent with her self-demand and the pressure to remember starts growing. She is no longer focused, in the moment, attentive to what is being discussed. She is completely in her own head. She notices her feelings of anxiety and worry are growing and begins to tell herself that she has to calm down. This creates more tension and pressure. Her heart is now beating rapidly, her palms are sweating and what she wants to do is get out of the meeting.

Her unrealistic demands do not help her. They are at the heart of her feelings of anxiety. She becomes focused on her internal state rather than on the meeting. She monitors herself, constantly checking when her turn is going to come. She feels her body experiencing the physical symptoms of anxiety and all she wants is for the meeting to stop.

Her demands do not help. They will not help her achieve her goal of speaking confidently and eloquently.

Bad vs Awful

How you judge the things you consider as ‘bad’ makes a big difference to how you feel. When you don't get what you want, you may judge that as bad. This judgement of ‘badness’ can be:

1.     healthy, rational, realistic and logical or;

2.     unhealthy, irrational, unrealistic and illogical.

CBT says that if you are not making a demand about the things you want, you will evaluate the badness of the situation in a realistic way that helps you move forward. However, if you are making a demand about what you want then you may evaluate or judge the badness in an unhealthy way that blocks you.

You will perceive the badness as if it is the worst thing that can happen to you or to any human being. This means you believe that nothing worse can happen. You may feel as if the world has ended. This is what we call ‘awfulizing’ or ‘catastrophizing’ the bad experience.

Think back to the example of the child who plays the piano: you will recall that her demand is that she must not make a mistake when she performs in front of her friends. Because she is demanding something that excludes the reality of making a mistake, it stands to reason that she may then view making a mistake as bad. Let's assume that she goes a step further and believes that making a mistake during her performance is the worst thing that can happen to her. She is now awfulizing. In her view there is nothing worse than making a mistake and she now believes this when she performs in front of an audience.

Of course, not everyone will see making a mistake as ‘the end of the world’. However, there are certain events or some possibilities that you might feel are the worst things that might happen. This will affect how you feel, how you think and how you behave. All of these will influence your performance and potential to achieve your goals in a healthy way.

In CBT, awfulizing beliefs provoke unhealthy negative emo tions and self-sabotaging behaviours.

Awfulizing beliefs are rigid and inflexible

When you see something as the worst possible thing that might happen, you are not allowing for the possibility that, actually, worse things can happen.

For example, if you believe you have to succeed because if you don't it would be awful, or even the end of the world, you are not allowing for the possibility that worse things than failure can happen.

You can see that making this sort of judgement about the badness of not succeeding is inflexible and rigid.

Nothing is the-end-of-the-world bad – apart from the end of the world itself, of course. For everything you believe is the worst possible scenario, I could suggest something worse. For everything I may view as the worst thing that could happen, you could suggest something worse. This concept could be controversial as you may be thinking of something very emotive, but when you allow yourself time to reflect, you will probably realize that there is always the possibility of something even worse – for example, the end of the world itself.

Exercise

List up to five important things in your life that you would view as the end of the world or the worst thing that could happen; for example, failing at something.

Now think of something worse for each one of your examples.

Awfulizing beliefs are not consistent with reality

It is not consistent with reality to view something as the worst thing that could happen. Clearly, something even worse could happen. You cannot prove that a worse thing could not happen. If you hold the belief ‘I must not make a mistake because making a mistake would be awful’ you are essentially saying that nothing worse than that is possible. If this was true, the world would have ended a long time ago because making a mistake would have been worse than a volcanic eruption.

Reality shows you that the world hasn't ended despite the fact that you made a mistake. So while making a mistake may be bad for you and possibly even for other people, it is still not the worst thing that might happen.

You may argue that to you it is the worst thing that could happen. But think about how that alters your view of yourself, others or the world. What consequences does it have for your life and performance?

This doesn't mean you should deny that bad things do happen, but remember not to turn that badness into the end of the world.

Awfulizing beliefs are not logical

It does not make sense to awfulize the things you view as bad. You may think, ‘well, I'm not logical and that's just me’ or, ‘if I want to make something the worst thing then I will’. You have every right to think exactly as you wish. You may think in a reasoned and logical way about the bad things or you may think in the opposite way – that is your choice. Your conclusions and reasoning can be right or wrong. That reasoning will impact on how you feel and perform though.

You may understand logic and reasoned thinking, but when you let go of it you may find you are vulnerable to reasoning in unhealthy and wrong ways about your situation, yourself and your abilities.

Example

The statement below is made up of two parts. Part one acknowledges that something is bad. Let's call that something ‘xyz’. The second statement makes a conclusion that follows from the first statement.

Xyz is bad … AND THEREFORE xyz is the end of the world (or awful, or terrible, or a catastrophe; the worst thing possible).

Now if you replaced xyz with ‘a rainy cold day’, does your second statement sound reasonable?

A rainy cold day is bad … AND THEREFORE a rainy cold day is the end of the world.

Replace xyz with ‘making a mistake’, and the same logic will apply. Logically it is wrong to make a catastrophic conclusion from the first part of the statement.

Awfulizing beliefs are not helpful

If you turn the badness of an event or a possible event into the worst thing that has happened or could happen, this awfulizing belief will provoke you to feel unhealthy tension and stress. If you view something as terrible or awful, you will experience unhealthy negative emotions like anxiety, rage or guilt. Your body responds to what you believe whether it is true or not, so if you believe making a mistake is terrible you will feel anxious about making mistakes. In this state of anxiety your thoughts will be negative and your behaviour will be unhelpful. You cannot expect to be at your best when you think in this way.

This can create a circular loop in your thinking; for example, ‘it would be awful if I made a mistake and so I must not make a mistake’ or, ‘I must get things right because it would be terrible if I didn't’. As a result, you will be watching and waiting to make a mistake, which in turn impacts your focus and concentration.

Awfulizing in this way provokes thoughts and feelings that are unhealthy. It limits what you can achieve and creates harmful physiological symptoms.

Example

Let's go back to the earlier example of the woman whose goal is to feel confident and speak eloquently in staff meetings. She feels anxious about remembering what she wants to say. She imposes a demand on herself to remember because she views going blank as the worst thing that could happen to her. She continues to insist that she has to remember because if she doesn't it would be awful, even catastrophic. She feels the anxiety provoked by both the demand she is making and by the fact that she sees going blank not just as bad but as TERRIBLE. As she notices her anxiety she starts to demand that she MUST calm down: ‘Oh, I'm anxious, this is horrible. I MUST calm down.’ This in turn produces even more anxiety.

She is looking around at her colleagues and all her thoughts are about how terrible it would be if she didn't remember and how awful it will be if she can't calm herself down in time. She is now in a state of desperation and all she wants to do is to get out of that meeting room. She is totally engaged in her catastrophic thoughts and in her own head. Her pulse is racing and she can feel the blood pressure rising.

Her rigid and catastrophizing belief will not help her achieve her goal of confident and eloquent speech.

There are, of course, times when anxiety is healthy. For example if our lives are in real danger, anxiety causes adrenaline to pump through our bodies to prepare for the fight or flight. So if making a mistake is believed to be life-threatening, the body will react in the same way: with anxiety and fear.

Difficult vs Unbearable

What you believe about the things you find difficult affects how you feel and influences to a great degree the choices you make. It impacts how you think and behave and ultimately affects your performance. Let's look more closely at the things you find difficult.

When you don't get what you want or desire or when you think about not getting what you want and desire, you may judge that as difficult or frustrating; for example, when you don't get your own way or when you cannot resolve a problem immediately. How you judge such difficulties or frustrations can be either healthy or unhealthy. A healthy judgement will tend to be rational, logical and realistic. An unhealthy judgement will tend to be irrational, unrealistic and illogical.

When you are not making a demand about what you want and don't get what you want, your judgement of such a difficulty will be realistic, healthy and problem-solving, and will help you to move forward. However, if you make a demand about what you want and don't get what you demand, your judgement of such a frustration and difficulty will be unhealthy and unhelpful: you will feel stuck. Remember that demands lead to you feeling as if you do not have any choice at all, creating a sense of being forced into doing something.

In effect, you make the difficulty ‘unbearable’. You will probably use expressions like ‘I can't cope’, ‘I can't stand it’, ‘it's unbearable’. In CBT we call this a ‘Low Frustration Tolerance’ (LFT) belief. You believe you are not capable of bearing the frustration or the difficulty of not getting what you are demanding.

Think back to the example of the child who plays the piano. She was already creating considerable anxiety by demanding that she absolutely must not make a mistake during her performance. Her body and mind were acting as if someone was forcing her to play the piano in front of her friends. In such a state, it is easy to understand she may also believe making a mistake would be UNBEARABLE to her. In her view, making a mistake would be something she would not be able to tolerate or stand. This third belief about not tolerating mistakes provokes further anxiety and adds to her worries.

It is possible that you have all three unhealthy beliefs about certain things in your life. For example, you may make a demand about how certain people drive on the road; you may tell yourself it's awful that they drive that badly and how unbearable you find it. This type of thinking can leads to irrational anger or even road rage. You may also view bad driving as terrible but tolerate it. Or you may not find it terrible but definitely feel like you cannot stand it. In other words you may have both the catastrophizing belief and the LFT about certain things, or you may just have one of them, as a result of your demands. LFT beliefs provoke unhealthy negative emotions, thoughts and self-sabotaging behaviours.

LFT beliefs are rigid and inflexible

When you make the difficulty or frustration you are experiencing ‘unbearable’ or ‘intolerable’, you are not allowing for the possibility − or even the fact − that you can tolerate it, or indeed that you are tolerating it.

For example, if you hold the belief ‘I have to succeed because if I don't it will be unbearable’ then you are not allowing for the fact that you have accepted it and still are tolerating it.

You can easily see that believing you cannot stand or tolerate something is inflexible and rigid. When you think about it, believing something is unbearable does not leave you any room for improvement. Your body's responses, emotions, thoughts and behaviour will be a consequence of what you tell yourself about the difficulty.

Exercise

List up to five important things in your life that you believe were unbearable for you, for example: it was unbearable when my relationship ended.

List up to five important things that you believe you would not be able to cope with, for example: I couldn't cope with confrontation.

Despite the fact that you have felt some things were unbear able, you are still here, reading this. What does this fact tell you about your resiliency?

LFT beliefs are not consistent with reality

It is not consistent with reality to believe that something is unbearable when you are still here to talk about it. When you tell yourself something is intolerable or unbearable you almost believe that you would cease to exist if that situation or event actually happened.

For example, if you hold the belief, ‘I must not make a mistake because making a mistake would be unbearable’, this means that mistakes are something you could not survive. If this were true, none of us would be alive because we have all made mistakes.

Reality shows that you do tolerate making mistakes even if you find it very hard to do so. Reality shows that you still manage to get up, make a cup of tea, shower, do your work and carry on functioning. It shows that as long as you are alive and breathing you can cope with the thing that you have been telling yourself is unbearable. I have had many clients who initially believed that going through a divorce was unbearable but they survived it. We convince ourselves of these things, even if they are not true, instead of reminding ourselves of the reality and the truth about our strength and resilience in tolerating difficulties.

If you are going through a difficult time right now, acknowledge that you are experiencing difficulties and frustrations. But do not give up on the reality that you are tolerating whatever is happening, proved by the fact that you are still alive and reading this book.

LFT beliefs are not logical

It is not logical to conclude that something is unbearable, just because it is very or even extremely difficult, when you are still alive and breathing. Your feelings will be provoked by such thoughts. This is important to think about, because sometimes faulty thinking becomes so effortless and habitual that you just accept it without question. You do not have to like logic but it is in your best interest to use common sense. You have lots of common sense and it is going to be up to you to identify your faulty thinking because there is something in it for you.

Example

Consider the statement below. You can see that it is made up of two parts. Part one acknowledges that something is difficult or frustrating. Let's call that difficulty ‘xyz’. The second statement is about the conclusion that follows from the first statement.

Xyz is difficult … AND THEREFORE xyz is unbearable (or intolerable, or I can't stand it or I can't cope with it).

When you replace the xyz with ‘a rainy, cold day’, does the second statement sound reasonable?

A rainy cold day is frustrating … AND THEREFORE a rainy, cold day is unbearable.

Replace xyz with ‘making a mistake’, and the same logic will apply. It remains logically wrong to make the second LFT statement a conclusion that flows from the first.

LFT beliefs are not helpful

When you believe that the difficulties in your life are unbearable, your body functions differently as a result. LFT beliefs have consequences. They are not harmless or healthy. Believing that you can't stand something will provoke emotions such as anxiety, depression, rage and shame. Your thoughts about your abilities will be negative and your problem-solving skills will be weakened. In a state of anxiety, provoked by your LFT belief, you will not be functioning at your best. Your performance will be greatly affected.

LFT beliefs make you work in a restricted way and create unhealthy tension in your body. It's as if you are walking under a very low ceiling. The more you lower your tolerance, the more you lower this ceiling. The solution is, of course, to learn to deal with, and increase your tolerance to, difficulties.

Example

Let us return to the woman whose goal is to feel confident and speak eloquently in staff meetings. Imagine that she now has an LFT belief about the state of her anxiety. She tells herself that she can't stand her feelings and that they are unbearable, as well as being horrible. This LFT belief is likely to further reinforce her demand to get rid of her anxiety, but it does the opposite. She is so intolerant of the sensations of anxiety that she feels them more, not less. This happens because she is now so sensitive to the emotion itself. Her mind is even more focused on her feelings and not on the meeting. She is now completely absorbed in her own world. Her low tolerance to anxiety is lowering the ceiling she is under. All she feels like doing is – you've guessed it – getting out of that meeting.

Her rigid intolerant belief is not helping her achieve her goal of confidence and eloquent speech. In fact, it will cause her throat to dry and her mind to focus on running away. As the body is now geared for the flight response, the energy used for recall is diverted to this function. Her body is reacting as if her colleagues are a pride of lions looking at her and seeing lunch. If there was a pride of lions, that is if she was actually under threat, then her body would gear into anxiety. It would divert the energy of many physical and mental functions to those that would be useful for running away. So in a state of anxiety she would not be geared up to presenting sales figures. Her rigid, catastrophizing, LFT beliefs would make her body and mind respond as if she was facing a pride of lions.

Self-acceptance vs Self-damning

How you judge yourself when you do not get what you want is very important. This is about how you rate yourself when your desires are not met or when you fail to achieve your goals. How you rate yourself, or what you tell yourself and believe about yourself, makes a big difference to how you feel, think and behave. It greatly influences how well you perform and how happily and healthily you achieve your goals.

When you do not get what you want, you may judge that as failure; you have failed to get what you want. In reality, you may not always get things right – which is not the same as ‘failing to’ get things right. What you conclude about yourself as a result of this can be either healthy or unhealthy:

·        A healthy conclusion would be rational, realistic and logical.

·        An unhealthy conclusion would be irrational, unrealistic and illogical.

When your belief about yourself is healthy and realistic it will help you to move forward, be problem-solving and constructive. It sets you up for achieving your goals. It also encourages you to get up and have another go or do things differently after disappointment or failure. It may provoke you to feel upset or unhappy for a short period of time, because you have not been successful at getting what you want, but you learn from the experience and move on.

If your belief about yourself is unhealthy and unhelpful, you will put yourself down because you have not achieved what you wanted. In effect you turn the disappointment you experienced into an indication and proof of how bad, stupid or worthless you are. You believe things like ‘I'm a failure because I failed’, ‘I'm worthless because I was rejected’, ‘I'm useless because I couldn't think of a solution’ and so on. In CBT we call this a ‘self-damning’ belief. It means you rate yourself as a human being based on whether or not your demand was met.

Think back to the example of the child who plays the piano. She was already demanding that she must not make a mistake when she performs because doing so in front of everyone would be awful and unbearable. You already understand that such beliefs are unhealthy because they are rigid, unrealistic, illogical and unhelpful. They provoke anxiety and negative thinking. Now imagine that, as she sits down to do more practice, this belief is triggered because she is thinking about her performance. In her state of anxiety she will begin to focus on how she is playing all the time, instead of practising. This means she will disconnect from the music because she is in her own head assessing how she is playing and being hyper-vigilant. In this state the likelihood of making mistakes increases and she starts to notice that she is making mistakes. She then starts to believe that she is ‘useless’ because she keeps making mistakes. As this negative thought is entertained and repeated she starts to believe it, and before long she is making herself more anxious because she now thinks a useless person like herself will be playing in front of the whole school. She then makes more demands to get things right, and the unhealthy chain of her demand is now linked to the catastrophizing belief, LFT and self-damning belief.

Her overall belief now is:

·        I must not make a mistake when I play in front of the whole school and my friends. If I make a mistake:

·        It would be the end of the world.

·        I would not cope.

·        It would prove that I'm useless.

It's easy to see how self-damning beliefs are at heart of unhealthy negative emotions, thoughts and self-sabotaging behaviours.

Self-damning beliefs are rigid and inflexible

Self-damning beliefs are rigid and inflexible because they let you to see yourself in one way and as a direct reflection of your negative goal or negative behaviour. No allowance is made for you to be anything else apart from ‘useless’, ‘bad’, ‘worthless’ or a ‘failure’. You become your failure. You become your negative behaviour.

For example, if you hold the belief, ‘I have to succeed because if I don't it proves that I'm a failure’, you are not allowing or acknowledging the things that you are still succeeding at, for example breathing, washing, holding down a job, having friends and probably lots of other things as well. You are making a judgement about your entire self based on the one thing that you are focused on.

You can see how rigid and inflexible you can be about yourself when you criticize yourself in this way.

You may think, ‘well, I am a failure because what I wanted was very important to me; it defined me’. I will respond by saying you are more than that important thing you defined yourself by. You are a million and one things. You are all of your biological and psychological traits and tendencies. You may be a brother, a sister, a father, an uncle, an aunt, a friend, a cook, or a football-loving, cricket-hating, barn-dancing person as well. You are more than just one thing that you define yourself by.

Rating yourself as totally bad or worthless is so rigid that it triggers your body and your mind to feel the consequences of such a label or belief.

Self-damning is inconsistent with reality

It is not consistent with reality to believe that you are a total failure if you do not get what you are demanding. While you can show that you may have done badly, or that you may have failed at achieving what you were insisting on, you would not be able to prove that, as a result, you have now become a total failure as a human being. You can prove that you failed but not that you are a failure. You can prove that someone rejected you but not that you are now worthless as a person. When you believe you are a failure, by taking this to a logical conclusion you should be able to prove that from the moment you failed you continued to fail at everything else, including breathing.

For example, if you hold the belief, ‘I must get my promotion because if I don't it would prove that I'm worthless’ then you are effectively believing that you have no value at all. Everything about you becomes worthless from that moment on. You become a failure at everything in life.

Reality shows that you succeed at most things, and fail at some things. Reality shows that you are liked by many people, disliked by some and neither liked nor disliked by others. Reality shows that sometimes you make mistakes, other times you get things right. Reality shows that some times you perform brilliantly, sometimes badly, and at all of the standards in between. Reality shows that it is your performance and behaviour that vary, not your worth. But if you rate your worthiness by your performance then you will feel the consequences of it.

If you believe that as a result of failing your examination you become a failure as a person, then why are you not failing at everything? If you become a failure because of something in particular, then surely you become a failure at everything. So it is not true that you are a failure if you fail.

Again, you may say, ‘but if I “feel” like a failure then surely I am one’. However, your feelings are not an indication of the truth. Your feelings are triggered by how you are thinking. If your thinking is unhealthy, unrealistic or illogical then your feelings will be the result of such thinking.

Acknowledge that you are imperfect, because that is all your failures show, and that you are human and fallible like everyone else. Imagine that everything about you is represented by all the different fruits in a basket. The apple represents your failure at getting that promotion. Would you say that all the other fruit is ruined and should be thrown in the rubbish bin?

You may ask, ‘if my worth is not dependent on my behaviour and performance or on anything at all, then what is it dependent on?’ Your worth is not dependent on anything. You are a worthwhile but imperfect human being just because you breathe. I often explain this by asking whether, when you look at a new baby, you question the worth of his or her life? Do you think that the loving parents look at their baby and think, ‘he's worthwhile BUT he becomes a total failure if he is rejected by his first girlfriend, and he becomes worthless if someone doesn't like him’? You wouldn't consider such thinking because you know it sounds so ridiculous and untrue. But you sometimes believe it about yourself.

What do you think about some of the truths you have believed until now?

Self-damning beliefs are not logical

It is not logical to conclude that you are a totally worthless person because you did not succeed or because you failed at something. This is an example of flawed common sense. It is a faulty leap of logic. If you fail, the logical conclusion to make about yourself is that it proves you are not perfect, not that you are a total failure as a person.

Example

Consider the statement below. You can see that it is made up of two parts. Part one acknowledges that you failed at something. Let's call that something ‘xyz’. The second statement is about the conclusion that follows from the first statement.

I failed at xyz … AND THEREFORE I AM a failure as a person.

Replace xyz with ‘getting things right’ and the same logic will apply. It remains logically wrong to make the second statement.

I failed at getting things right … AND THEREFORE I AM a failure as a person.

Self-damning beliefs are not helpful

It's easy to see that there are no benefits in rating yourself as ‘worthless’ or ‘useless’ or a ‘failure’ because of something − even a number of things − that have gone wrong in your life. When you make this huge leap from failing to achieve something (whether it is an exam, a promotion, a relationship – or even when you fail to remain calm and relaxed) to believing that you are a failure as a person, your body and mind will be affected by these beliefs.

Damning yourself in such a negative way is not only untrue and makes no sense at all, but it will also have unfortunate consequences. This sort of belief triggers anxiety and depression, may provoke you to feel irrationally angry with yourself and with other people and with life in general, and may also lead to other unhealthy emotions.

I'm sure that there have been many times in your life when you have rated yourself in such a totally negative way. You may even hold such beliefs at the moment. You know how they leave you feeling and how they affect your thinking. You also know that they create this negative cycle of thinking, doing and believing as shown by the diagram on page 44.

Self-damning beliefs limit your abilities and your potential. If, for example, you believe that you are ‘useless’ because of something that you can't do or couldn't do last time you tried, like making a presentation, you know that by just thinking about standing up in public your negative self-doubting thoughts immediately creep into your mind and your heart starts to race.

The healthy way to handle this sort of situation is to:

·        accept yourself as a worthwhile but fallible person; or

·        just rate your behaviour and performance and stop at that.

At this moment you may think ‘it all sounds good but how do I do this?’ The ‘how’ will come soon.

Example

Think back to the woman whose goal is to feel confident and to speak eloquently in staff meetings. She feels anxious about remembering what she wants to say. She also has catastrophizing beliefs and LFT beliefs.

Imagine that she also has a self-damning belief linked to her demand about remembering, so she believes that her inability to remember is proof that she is a ‘useless’ person.

Now other thoughts about herself, not just about her abilities, start to invade her mind, creating further feelings of anxiety and tension in her body. Her body responds to the self-damning beliefs, making her heart rate go up and her muscles tense. As she notices this, her second belief about anxiety also kicks in.

Now imagine that she goes on to damn herself more because she cannot control her feelings of anxiety. So being anxious is now further proof of how useless she is. This vicious cycle is preoccupying her mind and distancing her even further from being at the meeting. In such a state, her body and mind are definitely not set up for remembering what to say when her turn comes to speak. She feels like escaping from it all.

The Concepts at the Heart of Healthy Beliefs

If your unhealthy beliefs are rigid and inflexible, untrue, illogical and unhelpful, then your healthy beliefs will be flexible, true, logical and helpful to you.

Healthy beliefs are based on the union between your internal world view and external reality. That means your healthy beliefs are balanced.

Essentially, healthy beliefs will help you focus and strive for goals and to plan for the worst, rather than avoid the possibility of having to face the worst.

Want to but I don't have to

Instead of the coercive ‘MUST’, a healthy belief is based on a WANT or desire coupled with an acceptance or acknowledgement of what external reality can sometimes show us. The ‘have to’ is taken out of the equation.

Example

I want the day to be nice and sunny when I wake up but that does not mean that it has to be.

Or:

I'd like the day to be nice and sunny but I ACCEPT that there is a chance that it might not be.

So you focus on your desire but not in a coercive and demand ing way.

Bad but not the end of the world

Instead of awfulizing the badness as if the world has ended, you accept that something bad has happened. However, as bad as it is, it is still not the end of the world. Once again this is a union between your internal view that something bad has happened and external reality, which shows that the world has not ended.

Example

It's bad that today is not nice and sunny but it's not the end of the world.

Or:

I don't like it that the day is not as I want but it's not awful.

Difficult but not unbearable

Instead of making difficulties unbearable, a healthy belief acknowledges your internal view that you are experiencing a difficulty. It also acknowledges that you are still alive and here to tell the tale.

Example

I find it difficult when the day is not nice and sunny but I can tolerate it.

Or:

I am worthwhile but I am fallible.

A healthy belief is based on accepting yourself uncondition ally. This means you do not rate yourself at all; you rate your behaviour and your performance. As a human being you are complex and made up of positive, negative and neutral qualities. A negative quality does not negate the rest of you, so a healthy belief acknowledges that you do sometimes make mistakes because you are fallible. It does not say that you are a mistake – in fact, it acknowledges the whole you as neither good nor bad, but as someone who sometimes does good and sometimes does bad. It acknowledges that you are a worthwhile but imperfect human being.

Example

If I make a mistake it doesn't mean I am a failure. I am fallible but remain worthwhile. My worth does not depend on whether I make a mistake or not.

Exercise

What would you be able to do better if you did not put yourself down or rate yourself as worthless?

How would an attitude of ‘I want to but I don't have to’ affect how you feel and how you go about doing things?

What do you think you would be able to achieve if you did not catastrophize failing?