Errors in our thinking
More than 2000 years ago, one of the most beautiful and simple philosophies arose in Athens, Greece; Stoicism. Its founder was Zeno of Citium, but their most notables were slaves, merchants or emperors of the Roman Empire, who became great philosophers and sages. Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are among the greatest masters of that philosophy.
Stoicism is dedicated to understand how the human being can face the vicissitudes, achieve a high level of wisdom and conquer eudaimonia or authentic happiness, as was called by Marcus Aurelius. The central element of this school of thought is explained with the maxim of Epictetus; "It is not things that torment men, but the opinion they have of them." The Stoics knew that situations are out of our control, at best we can influence them, but the real control can be achieved in the way we interpret the events we have to face.
I remember the time that I attended a lady whose son had been kidnapped and murdered, and despite this terrible situation, she continued with her life showing a smile in her face every day. When I asked her about her feelings and thoughts, she replied: "The kidnapping and subsequent murder of my son has been the most painful experience of my life, it is likely that I will never recover fully from such a terrible experience. I allow myself to cry for 30 minutes every day, I also write my thoughts in my diary and I ask God to have him with Him. However, I still have 2 more children and a husband, my children have already lost a brother and my husband lost a son, do you believe it would be fair for them to also lose their mom and wife submerged in depression? That's why every day I accept what happened, I take care of the pain and I try to face it day by day, thanking that I still have 2 children, a husband and myself ".
The astonishing response that I received from her is a clear example of what Epitectus and the other thinkers believed in ancient Greece and the ancient Roman Empire.
In recent times stoicism has taken resurgence, both in philosophy and in psychology. In the latter, it has been done through the pioneering work of Dr. Abraham Lowe, Dr. Albert Ellis and Dr. Aaron Beck and the school of psychotherapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Since its emergence, it has been characterized by its effectiveness, its orientation towards therapeutic goals, its practice and its parsimony. Today CBT is the most practical therapy in the world and has a huge number of psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists practicing its techniques in problems ranging from depressive and anxiety disorders to medical problems, learning disabilities, nutritional disorders, personality disorders, etc.
CBT takes up the teachings of the Stoics and elaborates them on therapeutic strategies that are useful for patients. Its main postulate is that emotions are a result of our cognitions (a sophisticated name for “thoughts”) and therefore, if our emotions are mismatched, problematic or very intense, we have to pay attention to what we say to ourselves. Cognitions are thoughts, fantasies, mental images and even dreams. Their content can be rational (objective, verifiable, evident) or irrational (subjective, lack of evidence and distorted), the latter being the one that provokes emotional discomfort and constitutes the central component of psychological disorders.
The second postulate of CBT is that our thoughts are irrational for the errors in our thinking, or as it is also known as cognitive biases or distorted thoughts. Therefore, if the person wishes to
achieve emotional stability or overcome their psychological disorders he has to emphasize his thoughts and cognitive biases to be able to transform them into more rational, objective and proactive thoughts that allow him to better face the adversities and achieve an optimum emotional state.
There are many cognitive biases or errors in our thinking, however I will present the most common of them with a brief explanation of each one.
1. Catastrophizing: it is the tendency to imagine disasters, accidents or catastrophes in the future that lead the person to a state of constant concern. The media and social media are experts exploding this bias to attract readers and viewers and thus increase their popularity. Having a sense of protection is important for everyone, but living with fear has a paralyzing effect. This bias is common in anxious people, with thoughts such as: "The plane can fail and fall, we would all die.” "It's terrible if I make a mistake while speaking in public.”
2. Dichotomous thinking (all or nothing): it is a polarized way of thinking based on white or black, good or bad, success or failure. People with this bias tend to think: "the second place is the first loser." "If it is not a success, then it is a failure." Because these people are so demanding of themselves and others, they are in a constant search for positive reaffirmation, because they fear being described as failures, incapables or losers.
3. Fortune telling: it is the tendency to want to predict what will happen in the future, for example: "There is no way I will go, I will have a terrible time there." "I am not capable enough to get the job, I better not go to the interview." This distorted way of thinking makes the person not achieve their goals, which makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy, "I knew I would not succeed."
4. Mind reading: it is a way of jumping to conclusions about what others think or feel about the person who has the bias, for example: "I'm sure they will think I'm a failure." "You must be thinking that I'm a fool.” “Everyone will think I'm incapable."
5. Overgeneralization: it is a type of thinking that starts from the particular to the general, that is, from a specific situation a generalization is concluded, "This always happens to me.” "He never listens to me.” "Men are all the same.” "I will never be happy."
6. Disqualifying the positive: it is a tendency to downplay the virtues and qualities of oneself while evaluating the results of others as better. A patient who won a prize told me; "It was just luck, I really did not deserve it. They gave it to me to make me feel good.” Another patient told me; "I will never be a good partner for my husband.”
7. Labeling: it is a way to jump to conclusions in a negative way about oneself or others using labels such as "he is a jerk," "I am a failure," "he is a looser," "she is snob.” This error of thought is a form of emotional economy where the labels serve so that the person is not exposed to certain situations or people, however this does not corroborate if the thoughts are correct or not, while we lose the opportunity to have positive experiences.
8. Should statements: this bias is a way to pressure oneself and others to do or achieve things and can serve as a motivator, but when you do not achieve what is traced you experience strong frustration, for example "I must always succeed." "You should not make mistakes." "You should have seen that coming and prevented it.” They are inflexible and unrealistic imperatives that will cause the person to experience a strong emotional response if he does not achieve them. Low self-esteem and feelings of overcoming are common results of this bias.
9. Emotional reasoning: is the tendency to believe that our negative emotions reflect reality as it is, for example a patient used to tell me the following "I feel incompetent, therefore I am good for nothing."
10. Obstacle bias: refers to negative interpretations about challenges, difficulties in life and our own abilities. It is a way to give up before trying; "I will never be able to achieve it, it is very difficult for me." "It is better if I do not even try, because it is certain that I will fail.” This bias is the one that lies behind the tendency to procrastinate because in front of the challenge, the person postpones their performance to avoid feeling incompetent.
11. Personalization: is the tendency to take responsibility for oneself or blame for situations that happen and that were not directly caused by the person; "She is not answering my calls, that means that I offended her in some way." "It's my fault that she feels depressed." "It's because of me that my team did not win."
12. Mental filtering: it is the tendency to look for information that fits our pre-established beliefs. For example, a radical feminist will see in most of the acts of men a confirmation of male privilege and patriarchy. Or if a person is depressed, they will have a tendency to focus on the negative side of life (unfortunate news, personal errors, disregard of others, etc.) and leave aside positive, pleasant and desirable information.
These biases do not operate exclusively in people who are depressed, anxious or have some other psychological disorder. Actually they operate in all of us, because our brain is not accurate and often works as a bad judge who jumps to conclusions or dictates sentence without taking into account the evidence. Therefore, it is desirable that people learn to question their thinking and seek whether they are valid or not, rational or irrational and what is the bias or error of the thought behind them. Thinking about what is thought is a skill that in psychology is called metacognition, and changing thoughts in more rational, objective and appropriate ways is part of the cognitive restructuring that is sought in CBT.
If you attend CBT meetings, your therapist will teach you techniques and strategies to clearly identify these biases in your daily life and to be able to modify them for more objective and balanced beliefs. This will allow you to face the adversities in your life and experience more satisfaction in your work, with your friends, with your partner and in any area of life.