Here’s the good news: You’ve got this wonderful brain that you can use to make sense out of things, plan your future, analyze complicated situations, make decisions, create, imagine and build.
Here’s the bad news: You’ve got this wonderful brain that you can use to create thoughts that make you feel bad, keep you from doing what you should do and help you do what you shouldn’t do.
By now most of you have lived long enough to know how this amazingly facile and flexible organ can make you feel miserable and get you into trouble. You’ve had thoughts like these:
The incredible distortion machine and its myriad uses
What is the function of this kind of thinking? Remember, one of the basic messages from this book is that all of our experiences are there for a reason and are potentially useful.
Of course, one possibility is that these thoughts are accurate. Perhaps we really aren’t very good, are at fault, are angry with someone, are seeing the ugliness of the world as it really is. If so, it’s helpful to know the truth and not be in denial. As the saying goes: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean somebody isn’t really after you.”
But more often than not, these kinds of thoughts are distortions, exaggerations, misinterpretations. So what is their function? How do we use them?
Perhaps these painful, uncomfortable thoughts are designed to make us right. If we’ve been told that we’re no good, undeserving, essentially bad and that we shouldn’t be wrong, these negative thoughts can make us right which is, of course, what we want to be, even if it makes us feel bad.
Or these thoughts can keep us from being winners and having to suffer the attacks of people who don’t like winners. One of my therapists used to regularly remind me that people like losers. They like people who aren’t threatening and who aren’t better than they are. And, for sure, as soon as you start to be a winner and to be very successful, many people are going to start taking shots at you to bring you down. So these kinds of thoughts can keep you from being a winner and subject to such attack.
Or you can use these kinds of thoughts as an excuse for not trying hard and running the risk that, even if you put tremendous effort into something, you may not succeed. Thus, they can protect us from disappointment. One of the most successful men I know told me: “Al, I didn’t succeed until I was willing to fail.” What he meant is that he took away all the excuses. He put so much effort and took so much risk that, if he failed, his only explanation was that he wasn’t good enough. That takes courage.
Thoughts like “It’s no use. It will never work. If I confront him or her, it will make things worse” can be used to avoid risk, to avoid taking the chance that somebody won’t like you or will be mad at you. Some people would rather be miserable than be disliked or considered selfish and difficult.
Thoughts like “He or she is useless, not worth it” can make one feel superior, even at the expense of being lonely and separated.
Or maybe we use these thoughts to keep from trying and failing once again. That would certainly be understandable.
Or some of these thoughts can be used to keep you angry and upset so that you don’t have to deal with the real issues of your life. I’ve sometimes thought that the worst thing that could happen to me would be for my pet peeves and major dislikes to all of a sudden dissolve. What would I do with my righteous indignation if that happened? I’d have to find something else to target. One of my patients was a very striking African-American woman. She dressed well and always wore her hair in a unique, attractive way. She was married to a white man. Often, she would tell me about how they had gone to a restaurant and “all those jerks were staring at us, Dr. Al; they just couldn’t stand seeing a black woman with a white man.” “Well, Rachel, that might have been the reason they were staring at you,” I would say. “Oh yeah, well what would be some other reason?” she would ask. “They might have been staring at you because you are a very striking woman and you know how to make an entrance and command attention.” “Oh, Dr. Al, that’s bullshit – pardon the expression.” Maybe Rachel was right. But she was, indeed, a very striking woman. And thinking she could read the minds of the other patrons did keep her angry at white people and led her to react towards them in a distancing way that brought on the very attitude she was imagining.
Or sometimes we use distorted thinking to avoid feeling guilty or bad. Here are two examples:
This excerpt is taken from pages 56-59 of Lighten Up. Dance With Your Dark Side. Click here to buy the book.