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Lecture: Neuroplasticity and Positive Behavioral Change Lake Shore Unitarian Society, Winnetka, Illinois Sunday, Feb. 25, 2023
Italicized portions were omitted from the lecture due to time constraints.
What is the role of neuroplasticity in positive behavioral change?It is to access and utilize both hemispheres of the brain to accelerate and consolidate learning. I am a radical behaviorist. What does that mean? Radical behaviorism not only considers observable behaviors but also the diversity of human thought and experience. That calls for a collaboration of science, philosophy, and psychology. And philosophy, existentially defined, welcomes religious and spiritual insight. All this information requires full implementation of our neural network.
The definition of recovery is regainingpossession or control of something stolen or lost. Self-empowerment is making a conscious decision to become stronger and more confident in controlling our lives. In neuroses such as anxiety, depression, and comorbidities, what has been stolen or lost is our emotional well-being and quality of life. In self-empowerment, it is the loss of self-esteem and motivation. So, both recovery and self-empowerment deal with regaining what has been lost. And both are supported by neuroplasticity.
If there is an underlying theme in recovery, it is that we are not defined by our disorder, but by our character strengths, virtues, and attributes – and our achievements.
Plasticity is the quality of being easily shaped or molded. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s constant adaptation and restructuring to information.
Before 1960, researchers thought that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped after birth. Today, science recognizes that our neural network is dynamic and malleable – realigning its pathways and rebuilding its circuits in response to information.
What is information? Thought, experience, phenomena, sensation, sights, sounds, smells, tactile impressions – anything and everything that impacts our neural network. Our wonderful brain never stops learning and unlearning. Absent that, we would be incapable of replacing unhealthy behaviors with productive ones.
What is significant is our ability to dramatically accelerate and consolidate learning by compelling our brain to repattern its neural circuitry. Our neural network is structured around negative information. The primary objective in recovery and self-empowerment is replacing or overwhelming that negative information with positive neural input.
Three Forms of Neuroplasticity
Human neuroplasticity comes in three forms. The two that concern us are active and proactive. Reactive neuroplasticity is our brain’s natural response to things over which we have limited to no control – stimuli we absorb but do not initiate or focus on. Our neural network automatically restructures itself to what happens around us.
Active neuroplasticity is cognitive pursuits like teaching, aerobics, journaling, and creating. We control this aspect of neuroplasticity because we consciously choose the activity. An important component of active neuroplasticity is ethical and compassionate social behavior. We’ll expand on that shortly.
The third form is proactive neuroplasticity – the deliberate, repetitive, neural input of information called DRNI. It is the most effective means of accelerating and consolidating learning and unlearning.
Both active and proactive neuroplasticity empower us to transform our thoughts and behaviors, creating healthy NEW mindsets, skills, and abilities. Through informed and deliberate engagement, we compel change rather than reacting to it.
What does all this mean? It confirms that our psychological health is self-determined. We control our emotional well–being. Now bad things happen, much of which we have limited to no control over. We are impacted by outside forces: life experiences, physical deterioration, hostilities, the quirks of nature. Psychological well–being means how we react to things is self–determined. How we respond to adversity as well as fortune and prosperity
Trajectory of Negative Self-Beliefs
So, where does all this negative information come from? What are its origins and trajectory? Why are our neural networks so clogged with harmful, growth-impeding information?
It starts with our core beliefs. Core beliefs are the deeply held convictions that determine how we see ourselves in the world. We form them during childhood in response to information and experiences, and by accepting what we are told as true. Core beliefs can remain our belief system throughout life unless challenged.
Cumulative evidence that a toxic childhood is a primary causal factor in emotional instability or insecurity has been well established. During the development of our core beliefs, we are subject to a childhood disturbance – a broad and generic term for anything that interferes with our optimal physical, cognitive, emotional, or social development. Disturbances are ubiquitous – they happen to all of us. What differentiates us is how we react or respond to the disturbance – our susceptibility and vulnerability. Any number of things can precipitate childhood disturbance. Our parents are controlling or don’t provide emotional validation. Perhaps we are subject to sibling rivalry or a broken home. It is important to recognize, the disturbance may be real or imagined, intentional or accidental. I give the example of the toddler, whose parental quality time is interrupted by a phone call. That seemingly insignificant event can foster in the child a sense of abandonment, which can then generate feelings of unworthiness and insignificance. We are not accountable for childhood disturbance or subsequent behaviors. As we mature, we are responsible for moderating our destructive behaviors, but we are not accountable for their origins. It’s important to remain mindful of that.
Negative Core Beliefs
Feelings of detachment, neglect, exploitation are common consequences of childhood disturbance, and they generate negative core beliefs so rigid, we refuse to question them, and ignore evidence that contradicts them. This establishes what is called a cognitive bias – a subconscious error in our thinking that leads us to misinterpret information, questioning the accuracy of our perspectives and decisions. This is why we have such societal divisiveness. We don’t challenge our hard-core beliefs.
The confluence of childhood disturbance and negative core beliefs impacts our intermediate beliefs,the next phase of our psychological development. Intermediate beliefsestablish our attitudes, rules, and assumptions. Attitudes refer to our emotions, convictions, and behaviors. Rules are the principles or regulations or moral interpretations that influence our behaviors. Our assumptions are what we believe to be true or real. These intermediate beliefs, of course, are influenced by our social, cultural, and environmental experiences.
Let me emphasize, that none of this negative trajectory is extraordinary. It is a natural progression common to all of us. Our unique personalities and experiences determine our susceptibility to it and the severity of its impact.
This accumulation of negative core and intermediate self-beliefs impacts the development of our self-esteem. Self-esteem, loosely defined, is a complex interrelationship between how we think about ourselves, how we think others think about us, and how we process and present that information.
We are social beings, driven by a fundamental human need for intimacy and interpersonal exchange. Human interconnectedness is necessary for our mental and physical health. Low levels of self-esteem jeopardize our social competency and impact our motivation to recover and pursue certain goals and objectives, to self-empower.
We also have an inherent negative bias, similar to our cognitive bias, which compels us to focus more on negative experiences than positive ones. When we lie in bed reminiscing about experiences, it’s usually about bad ones. Add to our accumulation of negativity are the experiences of life – outside forces over which we have little to no control. Hostility, divisiveness, illness, social media. The long and short of it, our brains are structured around an overabundance of negative information. Proactive and active neuroplasticity counter that negativity with positive neural input. That is their role.
Let’s briefly talk about what goes on [in our brain] with active and proactive neuroplasticity. Neurons are the core components of our brain and central nervous system. They convey information through electrical impulses or energy. Whether that energy is positive or negative depends upon the integrity of our information. Our brain receives around two million bits of data per second but is capable of processing roughly 126 bits, so it is important to provide substantial and incorrupt information.
Neural Trajectory of Information
Information alerts or sparks a receptor neuron that algorithmically converts it into electrical impulse energy which forwards that energy to a sensory neuron that stimulates presynaptic or transmitter neurons that pass that energy to postsynaptic or receiving neurons that then forward that energy to millions of participating neurons, causing a cellular chain reaction in multiple interconnected areas of our brain. Confusing? Absolutely.
Here’s an easy way to visualize it.
Neurons don’t act by themselves but through circuits that strengthen or weaken their connections based on our information. Like muscles, the more repetitions, the more robust the energy of the information, and the stronger the circuits.
In addition to positively restructuring our neural network, proactive and active neuroplasticity trigger what is called long-term potentiation. Neurons repeatedly stimulate succeeding neurons sometimes for weeks on end. This strengthens the nerve impulses along the connecting pathways, generating more energy and more neural chain reactions.
They produce higher levels of BDNF(brain-derived neurotrophic factors) – proteins associated with improved cognitive functioning, mental health, memory, and concentration.
The positive energy of our information is picked up by millions of neurons that amplify the impulse (or energy or activity) on a massive scale. Positive information in, positive energy reciprocated in abundance. Conversely, negative information in, negative energy reciprocated in abundance. Thus the significance of positive reinforcement.
When the activity of the connecting pathways is heightened, the natural neurotransmission of chemical hormones accelerates, releasing cognitive and physiological support. GABA for relaxation, dopamine for pleasure and motivation, endorphins to boost our self–esteem, and serotonin for a sense of well-being.
Those are the highlights. Scientists have identified over fifty chemical hormones in the human body. Every input or bit of information or data accelerates and consolidates the neurotransmission of these hormones.
Unfortunately, as physics would have it, we receive these same neural benefits whether our information is positive or negative. All information is rewarded by restructuring, long–term potentiation, BDNF, reciprocation, and supportive hormones. The same neural responses are activated. That’s one of the reasons breaking a habit, keeping to a resolution, or moderating our behaviors is challenging. Our brain acclimates to whatever we input and every time we repeat a destructive behavior or a bad habit, our neural circuits adapt and reward us. Thus, the importance of the integrity of our information.
Physiological Aversity to Change
We are alreadyphysiologically averse to change. Our bodies and brains are structured to attack anything that disrupts their equilibrium. A new diet or exercise regimen produces uncomfortable, physiological changes in our heart rate, metabolism, and respiration. Inertia senses and resists these changes, and our basal ganglia – the group of nuclei responsible for our emotional behaviors and habit formation – resist any modification in our patterns of behavior. Thus, habits like smoking, gambling, or gossiping are hard to break, and new undertakings like recovery, improvement, and self-empowerment, are challenging to maintain.
We inherently desire to be better persons and to contribute to others and society, but we are entrenched with negative self-beliefs. We have tried everything to overcome our condition and achieved less than desired results, which makes us feel incompetent and worthless, generating an overriding sense of futility.
We beat ourselves up daily for our perceptual inadequacies. Our inherent negative bias causes us to store information consistent with our negative beliefs and image. Psychology still focuses on what’s wrong with us. We consume ourselves with our problems instead of celebrating our achievements, and we constantly look for ways to justify or support our thoughts and behaviors. We blame ourselves for our defects as if they are the pervading forces of our true being, rather than celebrate our character strengths, virtues, attributes, and achievements.
Additional Negative Influx
We are consumed and conditioned by negative words. By the age of sixteen, we have heard the word no from our parents, roughly, 135,000 times. That’s a statistic and we take statistics with a large grain of salt but, you get the drift. Some of us use the same unfortunate words over and over again. The more we hear, read, or speak a word or phrase, the more power it has over us. Our brain learns through repetition.
It is not just the words we say aloud in criticism and conversations. The self-annihilating words we silently call ourselves convince us we are helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless – the four horsemen of emotional dysfunction. They cause our neural network to transmit chemical hormones that impair our logic, reasoning, and communication, impacting the parts of our brain that regulate our memory, concentration, and emotions.
Our neural network is replete with toxic information.
Proactive neuroplasticity is initiated by DRNI – the deliberate, repetitive, neural input of information. What is this information? It is self-motivating and empowering statements that help us focus on our goals, challenge negative, self-defeating beliefs, and reprogram our subconscious minds. Individually focused statements that we repeat to ourselves to describe what and who we want to be. Think of them as aspirations or self-fulfilling prophecies. We incorporate them into positive personal affirmations and rational responses to our negative self-beliefs.
I belong here.
I am valuable and significant.
I am confident and self–assured.
I am strong and resilient.
I am worthy of success and abundance.
We drastically underestimate the significance and effectiveness of these self-affirming statements when we do not understand the science behind them. Practicing positive personal affirmations and rational responses dramatically accelerate and consolidate the positive restructuring of our neural network and weexperience a perceptible change in our thoughts, behaviors, and outlook on life.
It is the integrity of the information that compels the algorithmic conversion into positive electrical impulse or energy. Information of integrity is honest, unconditional, sound, and of strong moral principles. We have established certain criteria so that our neural network will recognize the integrity of our information and restructure accordingly. Our information is rational, reasonable, possible, positive, goal–focused, unconditional, and first–person present or future time. Again, we recognize that actual wording is not as important as its integrity, but it is better emotionally if we are secure in our intent.
Rational. The only logical recourse to irrational thought.
Reasonable. Unreasonable aspirations get us nowhere. It’s unreasonable to expect a grammy for song of the year if we’re tone-deaf.
Possible. If we are incapable of achieving our goal, it is ridiculous to pursue it.
Positive. Negative information is counterproductive to positive neural restructuring.
Goal-focused. If we do not know our destination, we will not recognize it when we arrive.
Unconditional. Our commitment must be certain. The affirmation, I will give up drinking – when my wife is in the room, defeats the purpose.
First-person present or future. The past is irrevocable so let’s concentrate on what we have control over.
Brief. Succinct and easily memorized. Our personal affirmations are mantras; they evolve. We change them according to need and circumstance.
Let’s talk about how proactive and active neuroplasticity support each other and how their collaboration advances our goal. While proactive neuroplasticity accelerates neural restructuring because of our deliberate, repetitive, neural input, incorporating both active and proactive neuroplasticity consolidates the process. It reinforces and strengthens our efforts. DRNI is a mental process designed to initiatetherapid, concentrated, neurological stimulation that transmits the electrical energy. It is proactive because we construct the information prior to utilizing it.
However, we are more than mere mental organisms. We are also emotional, social, and spiritual beings. Neglecting these human components is limiting and irrational. Mind, body, spirit, social, and emotions are the gestalt of our humanness. Proactive neuroplasticity is a mental exercise.
Active neuroplasticity taps into the emotional, the social, and the spiritual. Beyond healthy activities like yoga, journaling, creating, and listening to music, is our ethical and compassionate social behavior. Altruistic contributions to society are extraordinary assets to neural restructuring. The value of volunteering – providing support, empathy, and concern for those in need, random acts of kindness – is extraordinary, not only in promoting positive behavioral change but in enhancing the integrity of our information. The social interconnectedness established by caring and compassion supports the regeneration of our self-esteem and self-appreciation.
One more rather mundane reason we turn to active neuroplasticity. DRNI requires a calculated regimen of deliberate, repetitive, neural information that is not only tedious but also fails to deliver immediate tangible results, causing us to readily concede defeat and abandon hope in this era of instant gratification. I can tell you from experience, it is challenging to maintain the rigorous process demanded of DRNI – the tedious repetition. Tedium generates avoidance, and we know how difficult it is to establish and maintain new habits. Active neuroplasticity fills any gaps and brings our entire being into play.
In closing. Proactive and active neuroplasticity are formidable tools in neural restructuring and the corresponding positive transformation of our thoughts, behaviors, and perspectives. Recovery and self-empowerment are achieved through a collaboration of targeted approaches that compel the rediscovery and self-appreciation of our character strengths, virtues, and attributes. While the realignment of our neural network is the framework for recovery and self–empowerment, a coalescence of science and east-west psychologies is essential to capture the diversity of human thought and experience.
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WHY IS YOUR SUPPORT SO IMPORTANT? ReChanneling develops and implements programs to (1) moderate symptoms of emotional malfunction and (2) pursue personal goals and objectives – harnessing our intrinsic aptitude for extraordinary living. Our paradigmatic approach targets the personality through empathy, collaboration, and program integration utilizing scientific and clinically practical methods including proactive neuroplasticity, cognitive-behavioral modification, positive psychology, and techniques designed to regenerate self-esteem. All donations support scholarships for groups, workshops, and practicums.
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“Dr. Mullen is doing impressive work helping the world. He is the pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity utilizing DRNI – deliberate, repetitive, neural information.” – WeVoice (Madrid, Malaga)
Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that perpetuate our anxiety and depression. We twist reality to reinforce or justify our toxic behaviors and validate our irrational attitudes, rules, and assumptions. Our attitudes refer to our emotions, convictions, and behaviors. Rules are the principles or regulations that influence our behaviors, and our assumptions are what we believe to be accurate or authentic. Social anxiety and other emotional dysfunctions paint an inaccurate picture of the self in the world with others.
Understanding how we use cognitive distortions as subconscious strategies to avoid facing certain truths is crucial to recovery. SAD drives our illogical thought patterns. Countering them requires mindfulness of our motives and rational responses. Our compulsion to twist the truth to validate our negative self-beliefs and image is powerful; it is vital to understand how these distortions sustain our social anxiety.
We are highly susceptible to cognitive distortions when under stress. They are emotional IEDs, capable of destroying our confidence and composure. Cognitive distortions are rarely cut and dried but tend to overlap and share traits and characteristics. That’s what makes them difficult to distinguish clearly. Because of their similarities, distinguishing one from the others is challenging, but as long as we remain mindful of their self-destructive nature, we can learn to recognize and even anticipate them to devise rational responses. After time and with practice, our reactions become automatic and spontaneous.
Our need to be right protects the fragile self-image sustained by our fears of criticism, ridicule, and rejection. Being right is more important than the truth or the feelings of others. Thoughts or opinions that contradict are harmful to our emotional structure.
The core and intermediate beliefs of a person experiencing social anxiety are rigid; we dismiss new ideas and concepts. Even when our belief system is inaccurate, it defines how we see ourselves. If the facts don’t comport our beliefs, we dispute or disregard them. When we decline to question our assumptions, we act upon them as though they are valid and reasonable, ignoring evidence that contradicts – even if we doubt the veracity of our claims. Our insecurity is so severe our maladjusted attitudes, rules, and assumptions run roughshod over the truth and the feelings of others.
We store information consistent with these beliefs, which generates a cognitive bias – a subconscious error in thinking that leads us to misinterpret information, impacting the accuracy of our perspectives and decisions. Our low implicit and explicit self-esteem keeps us on the defensive and compels the need to compensate for our perceptual lack of positive self-qualities. We ignore or contest anything that poses a threat, especially information inconsistent with what we assert to be true. The need to always be right can also reflect the narcissism evident in the irrational belief that we are the center of attention in any situation.
Because of our need to always be right, we tend to ignore what others are saying. We avoid recognizing anything that might lead us to conclude we are mistaken. Even when we know we are wrong, we find it hard to admit it because it exacerbates our fears of ridicule and criticism.
When we are ill-advised to dispute our superiors or other authority figures, we subvert our need to be always right. We bow to pressure and imply that we accept their truth, covertly convinced we are correct and they are not. This subservience forces us to give away our power, generating anger and resentment. We smile and agree with those who hold sway over us but secretly envy their power, becoming irritated and bitter.
In our formative years, many of us felt undervalued – subject to the circumstances of our childhood disturbance. Our parents may have been controlling or dismissive, or our siblings overbearing. Some of us rarely experienced positive feedback or appreciation. Thus, as adults, we tend to disregard thoughts and viewpoints that conflict with our own.
Always being right does not bode well for healthy relationships because we do not reciprocate shared issues or experiences. Counterfeit, ignoring, selective, and hostile listening devalues the relevance of others and inhibits the prospect of healthy connectivity. Being right is more important than establishing and maintaining friendships and intimacy.
Recovery promotes considered and attentive listening skills – active communication where we value what is being said by the other. In empathic listening, we seek first to understand and then to be understood.
Blaming is a negative thinking pattern where we wrongly assign responsibility for a negative outcome. Trapped within social anxiety’s cycle of negative self-appraisal, we see ourselves as victims. A victim needs someone or something to blame including others and self. The logical approach to our automatic negative thoughts is to examine and analyze our motivations and devise rational responses. SAD, however, subsists on irrationality. Until we master recovery, it is reasonable to search for avenues to unburden ourselves of responsibility – even for situations for which we are not accountable.
External blaming is when we hold others accountable for things that are our responsibility. Years of self-reproach for our negative thoughts and behaviors can be overwhelming. Our defense mechanisms impel us to hold others responsible for what we are unable or unwilling to manage emotionally. We convince ourselves that others are responsible for the traits and symptoms of our condition. We seek external accountability rather than accepting responsibility for our actions. Example: We fail an exam and blame it on the imaginary bias of the instructor rather than taking responsibility for not studying.
Our perception of situational criticism and ridicule suggests we are privy to the thoughts and perceptions of others – that we are fortune tellers and mind-readers. Fortune-telling is predicting an outcome without considering evidence or reasonable alternatives, while mind-reading assumes we know what another person is feeling or why they act the way they do
Individuals experiencing SAD have significantly lower implicit and explicit self-esteem than healthy controls. Our sense of inadequacy and inferiority compels us to overcompensate by taking on responsibility for situations or circumstances that do not necessarily implicate us. A dinner guest seems less than enthusiastic. Rather than considering reasonable alternatives, we blame it on our cooking or hosting skills. If our roommate has a personal issue, we attribute it to something we said or did.
It‘s Not Our Fault
There is an additional form of internalblaming prevalent in social anxiety disorder. Even when mindful that we bear no responsibility for its origins, we tend to blame our behaviors on perceived character deficiencies and shortfalls rather than the symptoms of our disorder.
SAD thrives on our self-disparagement. Our symptoms cause us to self-characterize as stupid, incompetent, and unattractive. We blame ourselves when we avoid interacting out of fear of rejection. We convince ourselves our opinions are irrelevant and our social skills deplorable.
Until we respond rationally to our fears and social avoidance, we resort to defense mechanisms rather than confront our problems. We displace or project our anger and frustration onto others or cognitively distort our perspective to justify our toxic thoughts and behaviors. Rather than accept the reality of our symptoms, we hold ourselves, relationships, parents, and higher power responsible.
It is essential to assign responsibility correctly to determine whether blaming is irrational or justifiable and respond accordingly.
Blame for Our Social Anxiety
Childhood disturbance generates the susceptibility to adolescent onset of social anxiety. Accountability for the disturbance is ostensibly indeterminable, and no one is likely responsible. Blaming ourselves or others for the origins of our condition is irrational.
We are accountable, however, for sustaining our condition. We have the means to moderate our symptoms dramatically. Our unwillingness to do so is a legitimate cause for self-blame.
Blame for Mistreatment by Other
Justifiable blaming is a healthy response to harm, but we often hold onto anger and resentment because we convince ourselves it impacts those who harmed us. However, the responsible party is likely (a) unaware or has forgotten their transgression or takes no responsibility for it. The only person negatively impacted is the injured party.
Forgiving resolves our animus and restores us to equal footing by eliminating the past and the other’s influence. Our innate drive for vengeance can be formidable; our baser instinct wants retribution. Forgiving removes our need for retaliation; it rids us of our vindictiveness.
Blame for Mistreatment of Other
The shame felt for harming another is natural and necessary and accepting blame is crucial. We feel guilt for harming and shame for being the type of person who would cause harm. Our negative self-appraisal is resolved by making direct or substitutional amends and forgiving ourselves.
Self-transgression is particularly cataclysmic. It defines us as deserving of abuse. Self-pity, contempt, and other hyphenated forms of self-sabotaging behavior devalue our self-esteem. Forgiving ourselves is challenging for those with social anxiety because our negative core and intermediate beliefs underscore our actions.
It is essential to resolve the need to blame. The negative emotions generated by blaming (e.g., anger, shame, resentment) are destructive to our emotional well-being. By withholding forgiveness, we allow the negativity to occupy valuable space in our brains. While there are legitimate reasons to blame, evaluation and subsequent rational response will enable the flow of positive thought and behavior, which is essential for healing.
Chicken Little was plucking worms in the henyard when an acorn dropped from a tree onto her head. She had no idea what hit her and assumed the worst. The sky is falling, the sky is falling, she clucked hysterically. Catastrophizing compels us to conclude the worst-case scenario when things happen to us rather than consider plausible explanations. It is the irrational assumption that something is or will be far worse than reasonably probable. We prophesize the worst and twist reality to support our projection. If our significant other complains of a headache, we assume the relationship is doomed. When this happens again, our belief is confirmed. Moreover, not only did we project the outcome, but it is likely we were a party to it.
A symptom of SAD is our tendency to expect negative consequences to things that happen during a situation. We assume the worst because of our life-consistent adverse self-appraisal and inherent negativity bias. We often justify our catastrophizing based on prior events, misrepresenting the outcome of both situations.
Similar Cognitive Distortions.
Catastrophizing is strikingly similar to other cognitive distortions. Overgeneralization prompts us to assume one bad apple renders the entire bushel rotten. When we filter, we ignore the suggestion of a positive outcome in favor of a disastrous one. Our four horsemen of social anxiety disorder – helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and unworthiness aggravate our negative assumptions.
Catastrophizing often results from our fears of criticism, ridicule, and rejection. We create self-fulfilling prophecies to justify our irrational assumptions. We will be rejected and, therefore, never find love. We will be criticized and, therefore, never be taken seriously.
Catastrophizing is paralyzing. It limits our interactivity and social engagement because we avoid situations that posit the possibility of disaster. Our fatalistic obsessions prevent us from experiencing and enjoying life. It limits our ability to establish, develop, and maintain healthy relationships. We self-project our failures through our SAD-induced automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). “What if no one talks to me?” “What if they criticize my presentation?” “What if they find me unattractive?” Worrying about something that hasn’t happened is an exercise in futility and supports our sense of hopelessness. It negatively impacts our entire outlook in life, causing issues of motivation and self-esteem that lead to self-disappointment and underachievement.
Considering the consequences of what can happen is a regular and rational part of determining our actions and activities, but our compulsion to project the worst possible scenarios is self-destructive.
When we dread negative feedback, a minor incident, like our failed attempt at humor, can convince us the entire evening is a personal disaster. This projection is likely a self-fulfilling prophecy because we strongly anticipated the outcome.
Again, the obvious remedy is to become mindful of our susceptibility to this distortion, rationally assess the situation, and consider plausible explanations for the incident that triggered our catastrophizing.
A fallacy is a questionable assumption. It is a belief based on unreliable evidence and unsound arguments. A control fallacy is the conviction that (1) something or someone has power and control over things that happen to us, or (2) we hold that type of power over others. We believe life events are beyond our control, or we assume responsibility for everything.
External Control Fallacy
When we feel externally controlled, we perceive ourselves as weak and powerless. We blame outside forces (fate, weather, authority figures) rather than assume responsibility for our actions. A health scare becomes an act of god, the philanderer blames his wife for leaving him, and our failing grade is because our instructor carries a personal grudge. We believe external forces control us because our emotional malfunction makes us feel helpless.
Internal Control Fallacy
The fallacy of internal control is when we assume responsibility for the conduct of others. We compensate for our failure to manage our lives by taking control of others. Our compulsion to accept responsibility for another’s actions is often because we have subconsciously projected our behaviors onto them.
Our social anxiety provokes internal control fallacies. Our expectations of criticism and rejection become self-fulfilling prophecies, implying we control other people’s thoughts and behaviors. We become prognosticators and mind readers.
Control fallacies rationalize or enable unacceptable conduct, which demands accountability. Assigning responsibility to another for something we did suggests an inability or unwillingness to accept the repercussions of our behaviors. We subsequently feel guilt for our inadequacy and shame for our weakness. When these feelings become unmanageable, we externally blame others because we believe they control our actions.
On the other hand, assuming responsibility for the negative actions of another can lead to self-blaming. “It’s my fault she’s unhappy.” “He drinks because I ignored him.” When the conduct of the other is destructive, the notion that we have let failed them wreaks havoc on our self-esteem.
One final control fallacy prevalent in emotional dysfunction is our tendency to blame ourselves for our condition under the false assumption that we are responsible for the childhood disturbance that precipitated it. Self-blaming for our unwillingness or inability to moderate our symptoms later in life is reasonable.
Control fallacies inform us we are assigning blame in inappropriate ways. Logic dictates we assume responsibility for our actions and stop taking responsibility for problems we do not create. Social anxiety disorder, however, subsists on provoking irrational thoughts and behaviors. We find ourselves trapped in a vicious circle of self-delusion, and a way to manage our emotional well-being is to rationalize our misconceptions. Thus, we twist our thinking to support our distorted reality. A fundamental component of recovery is learning how to identify our cognitive distortions, analyze them, and devise rational responses.
Emotional reasoning is making judgments and decisions based only on feelings – relying on our emotions over objective evidence. The colloquialism “my gut tells me” best defines this irrational thinking. Emotional reasoning dictates how we comprehend reality and relate to the world. At the root of this cognitive distortion is the belief that what we feel must be true. If we feel like a loser, then we must be a loser. If we feel incompetent, then we must be incapable. If we make a mistake, we must be stupid. All the negative things we think about ourselves, others, and the world must be valid because they feel genuine.
Influence on Other Cognitive Distortions
Emotional Reasoning is a catalyst for many of the other distortions. The irrational thought patterns that underscore our cognitive distortions stem from the SAD-provoked convictions we are helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless. For example, when we filter, we selectively ignore the positive aspects of a situation because of our life-consistent negative self-beliefs. This unbalanced perspective leads to polarized thinking, where we perceive things only in black or white. Because of our negative self-appraisal, we assume everything that happens is our fault, and anything said derogatorily reflects on us. This personalizing often leads to internal blaming.
Emotions are the immediate reactions that we express in response to situations. By themselves, emotions often have little relevance to the truth of a situation. They are products of what we think or assume is happening and our subsequent reaction or response.
We Are Emotionally Hard-Wired
As humans, we are hard-wired to be swayed by our emotions. They are our go-to reactions because they are unconscious and automatic; evidence and facts are secondary considerations. If we have distorted thoughts and beliefs, our emotions reflect them. We likely misinterpret reality when we make judgments and decisions based on our feelings without supporting evidence.
Maintaining a Balanced Perspective
We are all highly susceptible to emotional reasoning, and not all resultant decisions are wrong or destructive. Staying in touch with our feelings or trusting our instincts is healthy, provided they correspond with reality. Because SAD sustains itself on our irrational thoughts and feelings, we are prone to making poor decisions. A balanced perspective embraces emotions and intuitions as well as evidence.
Resolving Emotional Reasoning
Recovery requires a rational response-based strategy for psychological balance that considers the simultaneous mutual interaction of mind, body, spirit, and emotions. We examine and analyze our automatic negative thoughts before reacting and responding to counter our predilection for emotional reasoning. We learn to rechannel the emotional angst of our situational fears and anxieties into intellectual self-awareness, considering facts, evidence, alternative possibilities, and multiple perspectives.
FALLACY OF FAIRNESS
The fallacy of fairness is the unrealistic assumption that life should be fair. It is human nature to equate fairness with how well our personal preferences are met. We know how we want to be treated, and anything that infringes upon it seems unreasonable and emotionally unacceptable. Fairness is subjective, however. Two people seldom agree on what is fair. The fact that those of us living with SAD are predisposed to personalize does not make things any easier.
We have been at our job longer, but the newer arrival receives the promotion. It may be the better management decision, but it is unfair to us. The school bully is selected for the varsity team while we are sidelined to the practice squad. The fact he is a better player does little to mitigate our belief in the unfairness of the coach’s decision.
These unsupportive decisions lead to anger, frustration, and self-pity. Envy is a negative emotional reaction, especially when we compare ourselves to others who are more successful and feel life or circumstance has mistreated us.
Fairness varies based on our experiences, culture, and environment. It is a personally biased assessment of how well others, institutions, and nature meet our expectations, needs, and wants. When real life goes against our perceptions of fairness, it often generates negative emotions.
The belief that everything should be based on fairness and equality is a noble but unrealistic philosophy. We can strive for such things, but life’s vicissitudes have their own will. The reality is that much of life is inequitable. People are self-oriented, institutions are alternatively focused, and nature is indeterminate. Wanting things to work in our favor is normal; expecting them to do so is irrational.
We all have ideas of how we like to be treated In personal interactions, but reciprocation is governed by the other and rarely comports with our expectations. As a result, we blame others for any adverse response rather than considering their expectations and our self-centered assumptions of fairness.
Fairness is subjective, based on personal beliefs and experiences. Mindfulness of the needs and experiences of others is a product of recovery. Moderating our fears of social interaction allows us to entertain other points of view and reveals the narrow-mindedness of fairness, which is just a state of mind.
Our negative core and intermediate beliefs form in response to childhood disturbance and the onset of our emotional dysfunction. Core beliefs are more rigid in those of us living with social anxiety because we tend to store information consistent with negative beliefs. Our intermediate beliefs establish our attitudes, rules, and assumptions. These beliefs govern our perceptions and, ostensibly, remain as our belief system throughout life. Even if irrational or inaccurate, our beliefs define how we see ourselves. When we decline to question these beliefs, we act upon them as though they are accurate and reasonable, ignoring evidence that contradicts them. This response produces a cognitive bias – a subconscious error in thinking that causes us to misinterpret information and make irrational decisions.
To compound this, humans have an inherent negativity bias. We are genetically predisposed to respond more strongly to adversity, which aggravates our SAD symptoms. We anticipate the worst-case scenario. We expect criticism, ridicule, and rejection. We worry about embarrassing or humiliating ourselves. We project unpleasant outcomes that become self-fulfilling prophecies.
When we engage in filtering, we selectively choose our perspective. Because of our social anxiety and inherent negative bias, we gravitate toward the negative aspects of a situation, ignoring the positive. We dwell on the unfortunate aspects of a situation rather than the whole picture.
A person who consistently filters out negative information might have an excessively cheerful or optimistic personality. Conversely, a person who emphasizes gloom and doom can be considered unhappy or defeatist. Those of us living with SAD tend to mirror the latter. We filter out the positive aspects of our lives, dwelling on situations and memories supporting our negative self-image. This tendency creates an emotional imbalance due to excluding healthy thoughts and behaviors.
Negative filtering is one of anxiety’s most common cognitive distortions because it sustains our toxic core and intermediate beliefs. Our pessimistic outlook exacerbates our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. We accentuate the negative. A dozen people in our office celebrate our promotion; one ignores us. We obsess over the lone individual and disregard the goodwill of the rest. We reinforce our feelings of undesirability and alienation by dwelling on the perceived critical response.
HEAVEN’S REWARD FALLACY
Heaven’s reward fallacyis when we put other people’s needs ahead of our own with an expectation of reciprocation. Contrary to others who share this cognitive distortion, SAD persons are not seeking heavenly reward in the afterlife but acknowledgment in this one.
We continually say yes to others while denying ourselves, We tell ourselves our motives are selfless, but we do it out of neediness and loneliness. We are consummate enablers trying to compensate for our feelings of undesirability and worthlessness. Rather than setting boundaries, we allow ourselves to be bullied and taken advantage of, seeking respect and appreciation. When we are denied, our disappointment leads to bitterness and resentment.
You are an exemplary office worker – always on time, and willing to go the extra mile. When your co-workers fall behind, you always offer to pick up the slack even if it means staying late or working on the weekend. You dress for success and complete your assignments with diligence and efficiency. You eagerly anticipate a promotion at the end of the quarter.
The management hires someone from without the organization. Your disappointment turns to anger and resentment. When the company distributes the annual bonuses, yours does not reflect the recognition you think you deserve. You mire yourself in the fallacy of fairness and your resentment turns to sullenness and hostility.
People who engage in heaven’s reward fallacy undervalue their worth and significance and have poor self-awareness. It is easier to take on the needs and responsibilities of others rather than face our fears and anxieties. Our actions are self-serving rather than noble. True altruism does not expect reciprocation.
Recovering our self-esteem is essential to recovery and cannot be second-tiered. Due to our disruption in natural human development, we are subject to significantly lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to healthy controls. Our negative core and intermediate beliefs stemming from childhood disturbance and onset are directly implicated. Our symptomatic fears and anxieties aggravate this deficit.
We rediscover and regenerate our self-esteem by integrating historically and clinically practical approaches to help us become mindful of our inherent strengths, virtues, and achievements and their propensity to replace our SAD-induced negative self-beliefs and image.
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
When we jump to conclusions, we make assumptions about something or someone without factual substantiation. There are two forms of this cognitive distortion: Mind-reading is when we assume to know what another person is feeling or why they act the way they do. Fortune-telling is predicting an outcome without considering the evidence or reasonable alternatives.
Automatic Negative Thoughts
Those of us experiencing social anxiety jump to conclusions with our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) because the evidence we rely on is our fears and apprehensions. ANTs are the unpleasant, self-defeating things we tell ourselves that perceptually define who we are, who we think we are, and who we think others think we are. Due to our SAD-induced negative self-appraisal, we can be reasonably sure our assumptions are self-defeating and predict adverse outcomes.
We often base our presumptions on prior experience. However, those experiences may be perceptual rather than factual, and assuming they will reoccur in a similar situation, while possible, is an unreasonable expectation.
Many of our other cognitive distortions are formed by jumping to conclusions. When we overgeneralize, we draw a broad conclusion or make a statement about some event or someone not backed up by the bulk of evidence. We jump to conclusions when we label someone based on a single characteristic or prejudice. Likewise, when we personalize or take responsibility for something that has nothing to do with us.
We fear situations where we anticipate negative appraisal. We worry we will embarrass or humiliate ourselves. We expect criticism, ridicule, and rejection. This fatalist thinking causes us to react defensively or to avoid the situation entirely. It supports our SAD-induced feelings of hopelessness and undesirability. We often self-prophesize a terrible outcome to protect ourselves if it happens. It helps us avoid disappointment. Expecting a negative experience is jumping to conclusions.
If our significant other is in a bad mood, we assume we did something wrong. If our manager slams the door to the office, we imagine it’s because we were talking on the phone. If a stranger passes us on the sidewalk, we must be unappealing.
When we jump to conclusions, we create self-fulfilling prophecies. We avoid interacting with others because we have already predicted a negative outcome. We avoid intimacy and relationships because we expect rejection and failure. We suspect recovery because we know it will come to naught. We anticipate the worst possible consequences of a situation because we conclude that things will not end well. These preconceived conclusions are emotionally stunting and exclude us from new possibilities.
There are simple and obvious steps we can take to challenge this distortion. Initially, we become mindful when we engage in this form of thinking. We check the facts to be sure there is evidence to support our conclusions. We analyze why we jump to conclusions rather than consider other possibilities. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that reinforce or justify our toxic thoughts and behaviors. What are rational explanations for our jumping to conclusions? We take steps to reframe our negative perspective.
When we label an individual or group, we reduce them to a single, usually negative, characteristic or descriptor based on a single event or behavior. As a result, we view them (or ourselves) through the label and filter out information that contradicts the stereotype. Labeling others leads to false assumptions, prejudice, and ostracizing. “Because he talks about his neighbor, he is a gossip.”
Our SAD symptoms compel us to label others to support our preconceived notions about how others perceive us. Our conversational inadequacy might make us label the group as rude and dismissive. If we expect rejection, they are cold and untrustworthy. Because we feel like the center of attention, our social failure could lead us to label the entire room as mean or arrogant.
Those of us experiencing SAD tend to label because we resent our symptomatic fears and anxieties, causing us to project our frustrations onto those close to us. Labeling a friend or significant other can destroy relationships, especially when the label is for unintentional behavior. If we feel unsupported at a social event, we might label our companion cold or indifferent. Similarly, if a parent criticizes us at the dinner table, identifying them as cruel or hateful would not be inconceivable. Polarized thinking, filtering, emotional reasoning, jumping to conclusions, and overgeneralization lend themselves to labeling.
We know how distressing it can be when someone labels us. When we self-label, we sustain our negative self-beliefs. “I didn’t meet anyone at the party; I am unlikeable.” Negatively labeling ourselves results in thoughts that support our poor self-appraisal. “I gave the wrong answer in class; I am stupid.” Negative self-labeling supports our sense of incompetence and undesirability, and our subsequent behaviors often support those labels.
Labels are irrational and myopic because they emerge from a single characteristic, behavior, or event and ignore the whole person or situation. Arbitrarily evaluating someone based on one isolated incident or behavior is almost always inaccurate. One negative behavior or incident does not define someone’s entire character. Rather than focusing on a specific element or characteristic that generated the label, we should consider the positive contributions of the person or group. We can observe ourselves and others with compassionate insight, recognizing the diversity of human thought and experience.
With this cognitive distortion, we draw broad conclusions or make statements about something or someone unsupported by the available evidence. We make blanket claims that cannot be proven or disproven. “Everyone knows Suzie is a liar.” To imply that everyone thinks Suzie is a liar is an exaggeration without consensus. A few colleagues may share our opinion, but not the whole world. We overgeneralize if our conclusion is based on one or two pieces of evidence, while we ignore anything we know about to the contrary.
Overgeneralization supports our negative self-beliefs and appraisal. Our self-doubt is so intense if someone rejects us, we assume everyone will reject us. Because we persuade ourselves that it is unlikely anyone would be interested in getting to know us, we avoid situations where that might occur. That aggravates our SAD-induced fears of interacting or talking with strangers and avoidance of social situations.
Our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are usually overgeneralizations. “No one will like me.” “I’m a failure.” “She called me stupid.” “Everyone thinks I’m an idiot.” These self-defeating thoughts are based on our fears and anxieties rather than available evidence. An example of overgeneralization would be failing a single exam and assuming you will not pass the course.
We justify our prejudices by overgeneralizing. One bad apple in a group means everyone in the group is rotten. We make broad and inaccurate assumptions about that group based on this one individual’s behavior. Overgeneralized thinking can cause us to wrongly judge entire groups of people, harming ourselves and society.
This distortion inevitably leads to avoidance, limiting our willingness to experience things because we have self-prophesied what will happen based on what was happening before. Like filtering, where we ignore the positive and dwell on the negative, and polarized thinking, where we see things in black or white, overgeneralization is based on assuming the worst. It is often a self-fulfilling prophecy associated with generalized anxiety, social anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and OCD.
The rational response to overgeneralization is to (1) consider the accuracy of the statement and consider the available evidence and (2) identify the situation, fears, and ANTs that compel the need to cognitively distort in the first place.
When someone says to us, “Don’t take it personally,“ we are likely engaging in personalization. When we engage in this pattern of self-appraisal, we assume that negative situations are directly linked to us, and random remarks are personally relevant. We take responsibility for adverse outcomes that do not involve us.
Like emotional reasoning, our emotions cloud our rational response. For those experiencing social anxiety, personalization often results from our fears of criticism and ridicule or our belief we are the focus of everyone’s attention. Personalization leads to negative self-perception and low self-esteem, aggravating our anxiety and depression. “If it hadn’t been for me, things would have worked out better.”
Did you ever walk into a room, and everyone suddenly stops talking? Assuming we were the topic of conversation is an example of personalization. Our self-centered interpretation of the situation neglects to consider alternative explanations.
Personalization is closely associated with internal blaming and internal control fallacies, where we falsely believe we are responsible for things we have little or nothing to do with. When we blame ourselves if our companion is not enjoying the evening, we are personalizing. When we feel undesirable when excluded from an activity, we are personalizing.
Our concerns about how others perceive us underscore our need to personalize. Basing our self-appraisal by comparing ourselves to others leads to personalization. If a coworker receives a commendation, we feel incompetent because we were not honored. If we feel deprived of the acclaim to which we think we are entitled, we believe we are being judged unfairly.
The mature and rational response to someone receiving a commendation recognizes and appreciates their achievements, but our low self-esteem makes us envious.
Examples of Personalization
If our significant other is in a bad mood, we assume we did something wrong. If our manager slams the office door, we imagine our performance is inadequate. If a stranger passes us on the sidewalk, it is because they find us uninteresting.
As children, we believe the world revolves around us. We are cognitively incapable of considering other probabilities. We assume our parents fight because we did something wrong. If we do not receive appropriate attention, we feel abandoned. Most reasonable people grow from this self-obsession, but SAD subsists on irrationality, rendering us perceptually underappreciated and misunderstood.
Solutions to Personalization
Like control fallacies, we assign responsibility inappropriately. It is essential to out of the bullseye and reassess the situation rationally. We are not responsible for problems we do not create, nor are we accountable for the thoughts and behaviors of others.
Much of recovery focuses on regenerating our self-esteem by recognizing and appreciating our character strengths, virtues, attributes, and achievements. Mindfulness of our personal attributes allows us to respond to triggers that provoke our self-centeredness rationally and responsibly.
In polarized thinking, we see things as absolute – black or white. There is no middle ground, no compromise. We are either brilliant or abject failures. Our friends are for us or against us. We do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes. We refuse to give people the benefit of the doubt. Worse than our anxiety about criticism and ridicule is our negative self-judgment. We must be broken and useless if we are not flawless and masterful. There is no room in our self-evaluation for mistakes or mediocrity.
One of the symptoms of SAD is our compulsion to overanalyze our performance in a situation, mortified by our mistakes, inept interaction, or poor social skills. We preoccupy ourselves – often for days on end – with our perceptual ineptness, obsessing over what we should have done better. We persuade ourselves that it is not worth doing at all unless it is done to perfection.
Polarized thinkers see things as absolute – black or white. There is no middle ground, no compromise. We are either brilliant or abject failures. Our friends are for us or against us. We do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes. We refuse to give people the benefit of the doubt. Worse than our anxiety about criticism and ridicule is our self-judgment. There is no room for mistakes or mediocrity. (“I failed my last exam. I fail at everything I try. I’m a loser.”)
To effectively challenge our tendency to filter or polarize information, we identify the situation(s) that provoke our anxiety and the corresponding ANTs (automatic negative thoughts). From there, we analyze the unsoundness of our reaction and devise a rational response. Initially, the conversion process is exacting, but it becomes reflexive and spontaneous with time and practice. Cognitive behaviorists call our rational responses ARTs – automatic rational thoughts.
It is essential to consider the holism and multiple perspectives of life’s events and replace the myopia of filtering and the rigidity of polarized thinking with the kaleidoscope of viewpoints, interpretations, and possibilities.
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