I have struggled with depression off and on for much of my adult life. If you’ve ever been severely depressed, you know just how hopeless and meaningless life can feel and how difficult it can be to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. Fortunately, I have never lost the will to live while depressed,* but I have certainly lost the will to do just about everything else. When depression hits, I binge watch TV, eat junk, and sleep for much of the day. I stop seeing people. I stop writing. And yes, I stop learning foreign languages. The depression usually passes after a few days to a few weeks, and then I am back to my normal happy, productive self, at least until it depression strikes again and the poopy pattern repeats.
So what causes these dark downward spirals? Until recently, I thought that my depression was a result of the following factors:
- Genetic factors: Others in my family suffer from depression so it “must be in my genes!” Even though I think such genetic determinism is a highly oversimplified account of how the human body works (our genetic expression is much more a factor of epigenetics, the the turning on and off of genes based on how we eat, move, sleep, etc.), when it came to my mood, I was quick to cast blame on genetic factors outside my control.
- My environment: As I moved around the globe and United States, I found myself blaming where I lived as the primary cause of my depression, with thoughts ranging from “this place is too hot,” to “this place is too cold,” to “this is place is too far from friends and family,” to “this place is too close to the cacophony of other people,” and on and on ad nauseam… When I would move to a new place, I’d feel better for a little while, but would inevitably start finding fault with something in the environment and begin yearning to escape.
- My dietary choices: I’ve studied nutrition for many years and ended up doing curriculum development for a nutrition school for a few years, and the more you know about a topic, the easier it becomes to see the entire world through that lens (i.e. when you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail). I assumed that my depressed states must have been caused—or at least exacerbated by—what I’ve eaten, what I’ve not eaten or properly absorbed (i.e. nutrient deficiencies), or how much alcohol I’ve drank.
While such physical and external factors certainly can contribute to how one feels and how well the nervous system functions, I now know that the primary cause of my depression has been something internal all along: my thoughts.
Sounds too simple, right? We all know that one’s attitude is important, but the thoughts bouncing around in our heads couldn’t possibly be the primary culprit in severe depression, right!? And isn’t it said that, “You can’t think your way out of severe depression?”
I was skeptical at first, too, but since I picked up the book Feeling Good by David D. Burns, MD. last week, my life has started to completely change for the better. I’ve learned that the following ten cognitive distortions are the real cause of my depressed states and that I can reverse—and even prevent—depression by learning how to identify and talk back to these self-defeating thought patterns. As Dr. Burns puts it:
“. . .
Below you will find the ten distortions, how they can directly sabotage your language learning efforts (or any other goals in your life), and then how to combat them with logic, love, and honesty. For those of you struggling with depression, anxiety, perfectionism, or procrastination, I hope this post can help you get your head straight and your life back on track.
The 10 Cognitive Distortions
① All-or-Nothing Thinking (Perfectionism)
“All-or-nothing thinking” is the psychological foundation upon which perfectionism is built. I used to think that my pursuit of perfection was a positive product of my high standards, attention to detail, and artistic training. I convinced myself that it leads to better performance, but I now realize that its actual result is destructive, black-and-white, dichotomous thinking. From such a view, you either “succeed” by attaining lofty, superhuman goals, or you “fail.” There’s nothing in between. No gray. No gold star for effort. No B+ for doing a damn good—but not quite flawless—job.
In language learning, perfectionism often rears its smug little face around goals, daily habits, and weekly progress. When swayed by all-or-nothing thinking, we beat ourselves up when we don’t hit our absurdly unrealistic study goals instead of rethinking the goals.
“Dammit! I committed myself to study Japanese every single day no matter what. But I got really busy and failed to get in my daily dose of Japanese study. Now I’m a total failure. Ahh, f*ck it! I will never get fluent, so why even bother continuing?”
“Shoot, I’ve been studying Spanish for three months and I’m not conversationally fluent yet. I’ve seen others accomplish even greater feats online, so I must be a hopeless loser.”
When the overgeneralization distortion takes control of your thinking, you see an isolated incident as proof of a widespread, never-ending problem.
“I accidentally said I was pregnant (embarazada) instead of embarrassed (desconcertada) when speaking with my Spanish tutor. I knew embarazada was a ‘false friend’ but it just came out in the moment. I always make stupid mistakes like this.”
The tell-tale word to look for here is always. Imagine yourself talking back to your own thoughts: “You always make stupid mistakes?” First off, mistakes are never “stupid”— especially examples like this, which are perfectly logical, intelligent mistakes caused by so-called “linguistic interference” from one’s native language.
But the more important point is that “always” is a gross exaggeration. Sure, mistakes are a frequent and necessary part of the learning process, but there is no way that every single utterance you make is a “mistake.” As discussed more in Disqualifying the Positive below, you are failing to see and appreciate all of the things you get right.
③ Mental Filter
When activated, the mental filter distortion takes a tiny negative detail and unfairly paints the entire situation with doom and gloom. It’s like wearing a pair of tinted glasses that change the color of everything you see and block out positives that are right in front of your face but don’t register in your mind.
“Ugh, Chinese is the hardest language in the world! Everything about it is so different from English.”
You can remind yourself: It’s certainly true that some parts of Chinese are quite different from English, but there are actually quite a few similarities (e.g. basic word order). Moreover, different is not synonymous with difficult.
④ Disqualifying the Positive
With disqualifying the positive, we go one step further from a negative mental filter and actively transform neutral—or even positive—information, events, and experiences into negatives. Dr. Burns calls this reverse alchemy: unlike medieval alchemists who tried to change lead to gold, the depressed or anxious individual goes the opposite direction, transforming golden experiences into lead.
For example, if someone compliments your Japanese, you might say to yourself:
“Oh, they are just being nice to make feel good. Besides, Japanese people praise learners even if they just say ‘hello.’ The compliment is therefore meaningless and doesn’t prove anything. They simply don’t know how bad my Japanese truly is!”
⑤ Jumping to Conclusions
The jumping to conclusions distortion usually manifests in one of two different cognitive errors: mind reading and fortune telling.
“My French is always so slow, broken, and labored. My tutor must absolutely hate hearing me speak!”
- You make negative
“I am never going to reach fluency in French. I am going to speak broken French forever.”
⑥ Magnification and Minimization
Dr. Burns refers to this distortion as
“Scheiße! I used the wrong noun gender in my presentation to a German client yesterday and made a total ass of myself. My reputation is ruined and I will never work with another German company again!”
“Yes, I may have pitched the client in German for a full two hours, but lots of people can do that. It’s no big deal.”
⑦ Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning can be particularly insidious because our thoughts directly influence our feelings, and our feelings influence our thoughts. Once stuck in a negative loop, it can be hard to see things objectively and work one’s way out of bouts of depression or anxiety. Moreover, many of us have been taught to “honor our feelings” and “listen to our intuition,” seeing feelings as a direct conduit to “Truth,” “God,” etc. While there can be great power in intuition (i.e. the subconscious often solves problems and sees patterns before the conscious mind does), it is all too easy to mistake faulty feelings for honest insights.
Dr. Burns shares the following examples of emotional reasoning in Feeling Good:
One of the most common products of emotional reasoning is procrastination. We feel that a task (e.g. speaking with a tutor on iTalki) will be extremely difficult and painful so we put it off and put it off even if we know it will be good for us.
⑧ Should Statements
The little word “should” can wreak all sorts of havoc. When we tell ourselves, “I should study more” or “I must finish this book,” we often subconsciously resist completing the tasks. We think that these “shoulds” will kick our ass into gear, but on the contrary, it often leads to apathy and procrastination. Nobody likes feeling pressured, even from their own minds!
Incidentally, there are some great puns around this distortion:
- I’ve heard that one therapist tells her patients, “I’d prefer if you didn’t should all over my couch. I just got it reupholstered.”
Since I’ve started reading Feeling Good and completing my daily Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tasks, I’ve caught myself saying “I should…” dozens and dozens of times a day. Just being aware of this has helped, but I’ve gotten even more benefit from consciously replacing the word “should” with “like to” or “get to.” Try it; it really works!
⑨ Labeling and Mislabeling
You can see the labeling cognitive distortion weaved throughout many of the others. Anytime you say to yourself, “I’m a . . .” followed by a negative noun or adjective, you are engaging in labeling. For example:
“I’m a bad language learner.”
To combat such labels, write them down on paper, identify the other cognitive distortions wrapped up within the label, and talk back to your negative self-talk. For example:
“Nonsense! I learned my first language perfectly. How did I do that? Lots and lots of exposure and practice. I can do the same for foreign languages. But as an adult, I can learn even faster since I already have a massive vocabulary and already understand advanced concepts. I just have to learn the equivalents of these words and ideas in the new language. I am not the problem; my previous language study methods were.”
Another simple trick for addressing this distortion is changing the copula am to an action verb. This takes the focus away from an all-or-nothing identity to an isolated incident. For example:
“I’m such an idiot.” → “I made a mistake.”
Last but not least is personalization, the cognitive distortion that lies at the root of most guilt and self-blame. When under its sway, we take responsibility for the actions of others and events outside of our control. Like the Greek story of Atlas, we try to bear the weight of the entire world on our shoulders, and then beat ourselves up when balls drop and things don’t go how we want. While developing an internal locus of control** is important, the key is learning to differentiate between what one can control and what one can’t.
As the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said:
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”
How to Neutralize Cognitive Distortions
Learning about these ten self-critical thinking errors is a great first step, but the most important piece of the depression puzzle is actively identifying them as they occur and then taking action to neutralize them through logic, love, and honesty.
While talking with a therapist or psychologist trained in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can be extremely helpful, the good news is that you can make a significant amount of progress right at home using the “Triple-Column Technique.” All you need is a pen and paper.
Here’s what to do:
- Draw two lines down a piece of paper, separating the page into three columns.
- Label the left column Automatic Thoughts (Self-Criticism), the middle column Cognitive Distortion, and the right column Rational Response (Self-Defense).
- As negative thoughts arise throughout the day, write them down in the left column.
- Go through each negative thought and write down which cognitive distortion or distortions it represents (three or more distortions are often behind one instance of negative, self-defeating thoughts).
- Honestly evaluate the thought and talk back to the distortion in the right-hand column. The key here is to write down a rebuttal that you actually believe. If you are struggling to come up with a valid defense for your cognitively distorted thoughts, ask a trusted friend, family member, or therapist.
And that’s it!
The technique is as powerful as it is simple. The first time I tried the Three-Column Technique, I identified a host of cognitive distortions that had been making me feel depressed, anxious, and unmotivated. Just one single session made me feel significantly better, boosted my productivity, and unleashed a series of positive realizations that further enhanced my mood and mental outlook. And each additional session since then—I try to do at least 10 minutes each day as per Dr. Burns’ advice— has helped me maintain a much happier, healthier outlook on the world and empowered me to pursue my passions without one foot on the brake.
Life doesn’t have to be so damn dark. We have the power to change our lives by changing our minds. When we learn to identify and talk back to our cognitive distortions, our self-created clouds begin to dissolve and we can at last see the bright sun that’s been hidden behind them all along.
* If you ever have suicidal thoughts or intend to harm or kill yourself, please seek professional help immediately. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or a licensed therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).
** In the 1950s, the American psychologist Julian B. Rotter developed the locus of control theory, a cornerstone of personality psychology. Julian divided individuals into two main groups based on the degree to which they believed they had control over what happened in their lives:
- External Locus of Control: Those with a strong external locus of control believe they have little power over much of what happens in their life. They attribute success and failure to external factors such as luck, fate, privilege, God, one’s environment, the economy, etc. They tend to blame the outside world instead of taking personal responsibility to change their lives.
- Internal Locus of Control: Those with a strong internal locus of control believe they have power over much of what happens in their life. They attribute success and failure to internal factors such as personal effort and choice. They take responsibility for their decisions and take action to improve their circumstances.