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Shift your thoughts in therapeutic ways

Editor’s note: This column by Dr. Delise Dickard will be published in the Healthy Living section on March 11, 2012.


Recently, I headed down Interstate 95 to take one of my daughters to an important theatrical audition.  She asked to rehearse her one-minute monologue along the way.  She began in her happy teenage voice:   “A piece from ‘Passing Game’ by Steve Tesich.”

I settled in for the drive as she shifted her whole persona into a distraught middle-age female contemplating the broken fragments of her tortured life.

“And even this one shred of unhappiness that I thought I could call my own, even that  I am told is nothing more than a case of glands secreting or under-secreting.”

Within 15 seconds, the dialogue had shifted my attention from the racing traffic to one of the deepest existential questions:  Are we really in charge of our destiny, or are we simply the product of our physiology and circumstances?

She continued the monologue with tortured agony:  “I am wounded.  And I feel the life is trickling out of me … ”

And then, suddenly my cheerful teen came back, asking: “Do you think I should end with that line?”

Wow. I was unprepared for this deep contemplation while we hurtled forward at 70 mph, with 18-wheelers bearing down on three sides.  My daughter kept practicing as I slipped into the slow lane and let my thoughts return to this provocative question.

As a psychotherapist, I certainly believe in our capacity for change—that we are more than glands secreting,  that we are not hostage to  physiology or circumstances.

In fact, one of our most useful tools in therapy is to incorporate cognitive behavioral change.   This is the idea that you can determine to change your thoughts and in turn this will change your feelings and behavior.

This theoretical approach, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, calls the thought misbehavior or cognitive distortions.  There are at least 10 common ways our thoughts get distorted, and I’ll list a few of the most popular:

All or nothing thinking.  This is when your thoughts are forced into two categories.  Either I love my sister or I hate her.  Maybe, in truth, I like some aspects of her  personality and I find other aspects quite irritating.

Frankly, the truth is rarely all or nothing, so we can consciously change this by learning to see the world in shades of grey.  This will allow us to hold two possibly conflicting thoughts in mind at once.   For example:  “I love my sister’s sense of humor, but sometimes I feel she is overly critical of me.”

Discounting the positive.  When we judge ourselves, it is often way too easy to discount the positives.   Sometimes, our mind makes a lengthy laundry list of our every failure.

Discounting the positives is perpetually seeing the glass half empty.  I haven’t earned enough respect.  I am a bad mother.  I have failed in my marriage.  Negative thoughts like this get piled up together, and you can see why someone might feel miserable about her life.

On the other hand, people have the choice to focus on the good they have done.  Maybe they have been a leader in their church, or have succeeded in business.  Again, the mind has the ability, if you push it in this direction, to consider the positives alongside your regrets.  And of course we all have failures and regrets.

Jumping to conclusions.  Sometimes this is called mind reading or fortune telling.  In reality, it may look something like this:  “If I lose this job, my career is over” or  “If my wife leaves me, I’ll never find love again.” 

No doubt, we have all fallen into this trap, but these rash conclusions only point us in the wrong direction.   Anyone remember that song “I Will Survive” written about a scorned woman who refuses to jump to negative conclusions about herself?  I doubt I’m the only one to ever belt out: “Oh no not I, I will survive! As long as I know how to love I know I’ll stay alive.”

It is a perfect example of someone being dumped who refused to buy into a negative conclusion about her future.

Magnification.  This is when you exaggerate a partial truth;  perhaps, cognitively, or  behaviorally speaking, our tortured woman from my daughter’s monologue fell into this trap.

It may be true that a man can pass testosterone to a partner through the saliva in a kiss, and it may have a hormonal effect.  Still, it would be a magnification of this process to say that the kiss prompted the destiny of the relationship. It is also true that there are tons of glands secreting and under-secreting.   Perhaps, it is an exaggeration to say that we, as humans, are nothing more than this.


As we reached the end of our drive, my daughter was still pondering the best conclusion to her one-minute opportunity.  “Where should I end?”  she asked, wondering about one particular line:  “I am wounded.”

“I just don’t think that captures the conclusion this woman comes to in the end,” she said.

With only one minute for the piece, she had to choose one line or the other from the monologue.  My daughter explained her interpretation of the woman’s words.  “You know, Mom, I think she finally decides she’s better than that. ”

She wants me to look at the possible lines for the ending but I can’t because I’m still driving.  I advise my daughter to go with her own instincts. They have, after all, brought her this far.

When I pick her up afterwards and we are back on the road home I ask what she chose for that last line.  Her answer was simple “I just went with this one from the end— “There is so much that is beautiful in me.”

Dr. Delise Dickard welcomes reader comments and questions. For contact information, see riversidecounseling .org.