Thursday, December 15, 2011

The "Magic" of Worry

"I worry about her."
"I love him so much that I just have to worry about him."
"I just worry about people."
"I'm so worried about what's going to happen."
"All I know is this: I worried, and that terrible thing didn't happen."

What in the world is "worry"? "Worry is the act of obsessively thinking about a feared outcome" (Pucci, 2006). If worry is simply thinking, then is worrying about something acutally going to help the outcome go your way? No, not really. Worry is only mental exercise. It doesn't affect anything outside of the worrier. Action affects the situation.

One of the reasons we humans tend to get ourselves trapped in worry is that we often worry about a whole lot of things that never actually happen. Sometimes we begin believing that it is because we worry that these things don't happen. We humans like to think we have control over situations, and believing that our worry affects the outcome of a situation gives us a false sense of control. Worry has never actually protected you or anyone else from anything. It is only action that has had any influence in decreasing the threat of harm in any situation.

If you happen to find yourself caught in a web of worry, ask yourself two questions:
1. What is my goal for this situation?
2. Is there any information that has come to my attention that my goal in this situation is actually being threatened?
If the answer to the 2nd question is no, refuse to worry. If the answer is yes, then it's time to take appropriate action. The best approach to handling worry is to recognize if there is a true threat, and if a true threat exists, to act on it. Simply being concerned or worrying about a threat does nothing to decrease it.

If it happens that you or someone you love is in a threatening situation or a situation that is highly likely to become threatening, refuse to worry, pull out your problem-solving skills, and take appropriate action. When you determine to remove worry, and the magical thinking that accompanies it, from your life, you will notice your life becoming more calm and peaceful every day.

For more information about magical worry, read Aldo Pucci's The Client's Guide to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, available here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Is TERRIBLE! (Or Horrible, Or Awful, Or a Catastrophe, Or The-End-Of-The World, Or Devastating, Etc...)

Catastrophizing (kuh-TASS-truh-feye-zing), or believing ourselves to be so inept that we cannot effectively deal with a situation, often leads us to view situations as worse than they actually are. We describe these situations or events as terrible, horrible, awful, devastating, catastophic, end-of-the-world types of scenarios rather than situations we actually have some control over. When we think about situations this way, we tend to create so much anxiety around the situations that we cause ourselves to freeze and to completely forget that we may in fact have some influence over this situation after all.

Research has shown (Yerkes, 1908) that there is an optimal level of arousal for every task. For example, to rescue your child from a burning building takes quite a bit of arousal, but too much arousal might leave you frozen in the front yard. Too little arousal might lead you not care and the child would not be rescued. Now imagine if that high amount of arousal were present when you were to give an oral presentation in front of a crowd. You would likely be too aroused to effectively remember what you had so diligently prepared. In that situation, less arousal is required to optimally perform the task.

Sometimes we believe that there are situations that are objectively awful, terrible, hideous, devastating, or catastrophic. But again, these situations are not objectively awful. If they were, everyone would think exactly the same way about them. Let's take the recent recession as an example. Many people view the recession as horrible, awful, or even devastating. And yet some people, like those who buy and sell gold for a living, are finding this recession to actually be profitable. If a recession were objectively awful, everyone would see it as awful.

Because there is no such thing as an objectively terrible situation, we are free to label anything as terrible. When we do, we upset ourselves and make ourselves miserable. We have another freedom here, though, that we never really think about. If we can label something as terrible, we can also label the same thing as unfortunate, undesirable, or unpleasant but survivable. It is a good idea to keep in mind that there is also no event or situation that is objectively unpleasant. So adding in the words, "for me" to your description of your situation helps you to calmly, rationally deal with that situation to help you to meet your goals. For example, changing a statement from, "This recession is completely devastating!" to, "This recession is unfortunate for me and my family, and I dislike it!" helps us to maintain an optimal level of arousal about the situation, and it places us in a much better position to correct the situation than labelling the situation as devastating, terrible, horrible, or awful.

So remember, if you hear yourself using the words, "terrible", "horrible", "awful", "devastating", etc., to describe your situation or a feared event, replace those words with, "unfortunate for me." You will find that you are much more effective at dealing with situations than you thought!

For more on this topic, read Aldo Pucci's The Client's Guide to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

Yerkes, R. & Dodson, J. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Caparative Neurology and Psychology , 18 459-482.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I Just Can't Stand It!

There are a few phrases that make my skin crawl when I hear them. The first one is an inappropriate use of the word "should", and another is the use of the phrase "I can't stand it!". Both of these phrases are indicators that something irrational is about to happen, and I had better look out!

Why is "I can't stand it", or "Can't Stand-itis", irrational? Can't Stand-itis infers that a person cannot withstand or tolerate a situation, or that a person NEEDS a situation to be different than it is (see "But, Mom, I REALLY NEED it!"). This type of thinking often leads people to avoid situations out of fear rather than believing they can effectively handle the situation and therefore approaching the situation without fear.

When we say we can't stand something we are in effect saying that we will die or this situation will kill us if it doesn't change. So when someone tells me that they can't stand something, I often say, "Sure you can. You've been in this situation for a while now, and you're not sitting here dead. You can stand it. You just don't like it." Once I make my point, the person often has more confidence to approach their situation, seek a sound solution, and implement it effectively.

The next time you hear yourself saying, "I just can't stand ______!", replace that thought with "I really can stand it, I just don't like it. Because I don't like it, I'm going to do something about it."

For more information, check out Aldo Pucci's book Feel the Way You Want to Feel...No Matter What!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Do I HAVE to?

How many times have you heard this from a whining child (or maybe you just said it yesterday!). The truth is, we don't HAVE to do anything, unless we are physically overpowered and made to do it. Everything else is a choice. What gets us in trouble is when we confuse CHOOSING to do something with HAVING to do something.

When people are faced with a command or something that they believe they HAVE to do, they tend to resent it. The more unpleasant the thing they have to do, the more they resent that thing. They have the perception that they are being forced against their will to do something.

Sometimes we choose things because even though that thing is unpleasant, the consequence of doing that thing is desirable. For instance, I hear lots of people say, "I have to go to work." That is actually an inaccurate statement. It is more accurate to say, "I choose to go to work, because I choose the rewards I get from work, namely, money to pay my bills and to buy food and other desirable things." We choose to do something unpleasant in order to help us meet other pleasant goals or to avoid possible negative outcomes (paying taxes vs. going to prison, for example). These often unpleasant things are merely a means to an end.

What's the big deal about correctly stating whether we choose to do something or whether we have to do something? The big deal is that when we realize that we choose things rather than being forced to do them, we significantly reduce our resentment (our "upset", if you will). Even though the event itself is no more appealing, at least our experience with it is more pleasant. The other big deal is that realizing we are choosing something rather than being forced to do it allows us to take credit for making a wise decision.

You see, many people believe that they HAVE to stop smoking, and therefore they resent the process of ceasing to smoke. They may believe that they need to stop smoking to be able to walk farther or to breathe better, but THEY DO NOT HAVE TO walk farther or breathe better. Those things are optional. When people realize that it is their DECISION that leads them to stop smoking, and they realize that they can decide to smoke again at any moment, they feel much better about ceasing to smoke and they tend to me much more willing to quit.

The only two things in life that we have to do are to be born (because you were) and to die. Dying is unavoidable. Everything else is optional.

Remember the difference between "choosing to" and "having to", and you will lessen your frustration and resentment level and possibly be more successful in all your endeavors!

For more information, read Dr. Aldo Pucci's book Feel the Way You Want to Feel...No Matter What!

Monday, August 8, 2011

But Mom, I REALLY NEED it!

Confusing needs with wants is a very American thing to do. We are pretty spoiled here in America, thinking that we need all kinds of things. In fact, there are very few things that are considered absolute needs, or things we need in order to survive. A fairly exhaustive list includes adequate food, water, some degree of warmth, air, and medication in some instances. Everything else is a want.

When we mislabel our wants as needs, we tend to feel just as bad as if someone were sucking all the air out of the room. Our culture has conditioned us to believe that some wants are needs. For example, love, respect, attention, confidence, job satisfaction, money, approval, a car, a washing machine, peace, health, etc. When we say that we need something that we actually only want, we tend to upset ourselves by causing ourselves undue anxiety and anger. So, one way to differentiate between a need and a want is to ask, "How long can I live without this before I die?"

Another aspect of needs and wants is the concept of conditional needs. Conditional needs are things that we need in order to get a desired effect or to meet a goal. Conditional need statements can be accurate or inaccurate. For example, "In order for me to buy a house, I need to earn some money," would be an accurate statement. An inaccurate statement might be, "In order for me to be happy, I need to own my own house."  Has that person ever been happy not owning their own house? Then it is untrue that the person would need to own their own house in order to be happy, although the person believes, feels, and acts as if the only way for them to experience happiness is by owing his or her own house.

Another danger with conditional need statements is that we often hide inaccurate absolute need statements within conditional need statements. For example, while the conditional need statement "In order for me to buy a house, I need to earn some money," is true, if I panic because I don't have any way to earn money, I am equating my failure at earning money and buying a house with a life-or-death situation, which would be an absolute need.

For more on this topic of needs vs. wants, read Dr. Aldo Pucci's book Feel the Way You Want to Feel, No Matter What! A link to this book appears at the top of this post.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Do You Believe in Magic?

As I promised in the last post, I am addressing the second type of irrational "should".  Sometimes shoulds imply a belief in magic. Yeah, I know, when I first saw this I thought, "Really? I would never do that! I don't believe in magic! That is just ridiculous! This shouldn't even be taught!"  But then I listened and realized I had just made the mistake of using "should" to imply a belief in magic.

I have in my office a little white coffee maker. Now, suppose I take the coffee pot, fill it with water, pour the water in the coffee maker's reservoir, pull out the basket, insert a filter, put in some coffee grounds, push the basket back in, put the pot underneath the basket, push the on button and make sure everything is plugged in. I SHOULD get coffee, right?

Okay, suppose I do all of the above and yet forget to put the the coffee grounds in the filter. If I say I SHOULD get coffee, I would be wrong. If I get angry or verbally beat myself because I didn't get coffee, that would be silly! In fact, I SHOULD just get hot water, because I left out the key ingredient to the coffee!

So many times we upset ourselves with our magical shoulds. "Men should never hit women" is a common should that makes sense until we unpack it. Men should never hit women, but if the ingredients are all there (the presence of a man, the presence of a woman, close proximity, some object or body part to be used as a striker, the appropriate amount of emotional stimulation, the appropriate of force applied to the striker, for example), chances are the man will hit the woman. Now, if the woman who has just been hit states that she did everything to avoid getting hit, and yet magically it happened, she is not facing reality. She is not likely to look at the situation as it is, figure out why this happened, and do everything to avoid this in future. She is likely to get struck again. If she said, "I really wish that hadn't happened. I wonder what I could have done differently to avoid that situation," she is more likely to figure out what ingredients stacked up in order to make that happen and to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Everything is as it should be, because all ingredients have been added in order for life to be as it is. To Instead of stopping at the should, make an "I wish" statement and then look for the ingredients you can change in order to prevent the undesired situation from happening again.

For more on this topic, read Aldo Pucci's The Client's Guide to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Stop "Shoulding" on Yourself!

Irrational should statements are one of my favorite mental mistakes to teach. I will go in to part one this time, and the next blog will hold part two.
Many of us use the word "should" irrationally everyday without even knowing it. Should is irrational when it is used as a moralistic demand, command or rule. When we direct these moral commands and demands against ourselves, we set ourselves up for feeling guilty or depressed ("I should be able to live up to my utmost expectations"). When we direct these shoulds outwardly, we set ourselves up for anger, anxiety, and blame ("You should not treat me that way!"). Shoulds are often expressed as absolute rules, and if those rules are broken there will be dire consequences.

Some shoulds are societal rules, which are good have in order to reduce societal chaos. The problem with societal rules is that they are not always based on fact. Sometimes they are just made up and blindly followed. We usually believe them because we do not know not to believe them.

Lets see how this plays out for a newlywed couple:

Wife: Don't put the roast in the oven yet, Honey! I haven't cut the ends off!

Husband: Why do you need to cut the ends off a perfectly good roast before you cook it?

W: You just should. My mom always taught me that.

H: What will happen if you don't?

W: I don't know. I have always cut the ends off roasts, and I have never seen it done any other way.

H: I want to get to the bottom of this...(picks up phone and dials Mother-In-Law)

M-i-L: Hello?

H: Hey mom! I have a quick question for you. Why do you cut the ends off your roast before you put it in the over?

M-i-L: That's just what you should do. My mother always did and her roasts turned out perfectly. If you don't cut off the ends, it just won't cook right.

H: (Unconvinced) Okay...thanks! (hangs up and calls Wife's Grandmother)

G: Hello?

H: Hey Grandma! I have a quick question. Why do you cut the ends off your roast before you stick it in the oven?

G: Well, if you come over to my house, I'll show you my oven. It's pretty old, you see, and back in the day they made ovens much smaller than they do today. I cut the ends off my roast because the oven was too small for these big ol' hunks of meat to fit in.  That's why I do it!

This is an example of how a should, an ought-to, a must, or a have-to can be passed down from generation to generation. It made sense at one time, but now it no longer makes sense. There was a dire consequence that the roast would be ruined, but that was not at all based on fact. If the wife had checked out where this "should" came from in the first place, she could have been eating much more roast in her lifetime, and an argument could have been avoided!

For more in-depth study on irrational shoulds see the book to the left of this post.

Monday, March 21, 2011

My UT Checkerboard Socks

I have two pairs of University of Tennessee orange and white checkerboard socks.  When I was younger, I assumed that these socks brought luck to my favorite football team, the Tennessee Volunteers, whenever I would wear them. I didn't have to be at the game, I just had to be wearing them during the game.  The problem was, one of these pairs of socks always won the game, and one pair only won some of the time.  I couldn't remember which pair brought the luck.  So if UT lost the football game, it was my fault for wearing the wrong pair of socks and not bringing the right mojo.

How many times do we assume responsibility for something when it really has nothing to do with us at all?  This is called personalization.  When my dad's friend looked over at me and told me the problem with the Vols was that I was wearing the wrong socks, that was called irrational blame.  Personalization and Irrational Blame are defined as mistakenly assigning the cause of something to either yourself or to someone else.

Why is this a problem? This can lead to inappropriate feelings of guilt or resentment and trying to change the wrong thing.  When we personalize or blame others for events, we either take total responsibility for an event or put total responsibility for that event onto someone else.  That can take the focus away from the actual problem and leave us focused on our anger toward ourselves or others. This does not help to solve the actual problem.

It is important to accurately assess the causes of problems and to work to solve those problems rather than constantly look for who to blame.  Attributing the cause of something to yourself or someone else is okay if it is accurate and if it helps to solve the actual problem. 

I later learned that the Vols' poor execution of the plan had nothing to do with my socks, and I quit taking their losses so hard.  I no longer blamed myself for something I really could not control.  I learned that this problem had nothing to do with me, and that gave me freedom to enjoy the games much more fully.

What about you? When have you mistakenly assigned all of the blame for something to either yourself or to someone else?

Pucci, A. R. (2008). Feel the Way You Want To Feel, No Matter What! New York: iUniverse.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Stop Calling Me (Inaccurate) Names!

Irrational labelling, or assigning an inaccurate name to someone or something, tends to get us in trouble.  Many times we can get overly emotional about a subject or we limit our understanding of that subject just because of the name we choose to apply to it.

For example, lets look at the word catastrophe.  Many people call many events catastrophes, but are they really catastrophic or are they simply unfortunate? A catastrophe is a disaster that occurs suddenly and is widespread. So, if your date didn't go the way you had planned, is that necessarily a catastrophe, or is it merely an unfortunate circumstance?  If your significant other suddenly breaks up with you, is that a catastrophe, or is it something that is unpleasant or undesirable?

What about name-calling? We often call people names to put them in categories or to put them down. Lets use the word nerd as an example. We often label smart people as nerds. Just because someone is smart, does that mean that they possess all the qualities of a nerd?  Can a nerd, or a smart person, also be athletic or talented in another area?
Labelling becomes a problem when we allow the label to limit our view of ourselves or others.  If you say, "I am a failure," you are limiting your view of yourself to only those times that you have failed. You are not considering those times when you have had success. This, in turn, could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you start acting the part of a failure, then unintentionally set yourself up to fail more often, which makes your label more and more true to you.

When you assign a label to someone or accept a label that someone has put on you, consider whether this is an accurate label.  One of the most accurate labels that I have ever seen is that of "Fallible Human Being" (or FHB).  FHB describes every person I have ever known, including myself.  When you start to see yourself and other people as FHB's, notice how your demeanor becomes more calm and your world less stressful.

Pucci, A. R. (2006). The Client’s Guide to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: How to live a healthy, happy life… no matter what! Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.