Just a quick thought tonight, and possibly a risible one. I’ve been reading up on the work of Aaron Beck, an American psychotherapist who was one of the founders of cognitive behavioural therapy. Beck listened to his patients talking and came to the conclusion that the cause of their unhappiness was not what had happened to them in life, but the way they told stories about it to themselves. Beck identified a number of what he called cognitive distortions, but which we might term here screwy ways of thinking. So powerful are these distortions that Beck proposed that when a person perceived a situation to be threatening they, effectively, cast reason to one side and warmly embraced the madness. Here are the negative ways of thinking he identified:
All or nothing thinking – sometimes called black and white thinking, in which events are either good or bad, right or wrong, terrifying or safe, with nothing in between.
Crystal ball gazing – negatively predicting the future, usually because once in the past something went wrong and the causality has set in concrete.
Emotional reasoning – assuming negative emotions as reality. Assuming, for instance, that because we feel guilty, we really are guilty.
Discounting the positive – dismissing positive experiences. If you did it, anybody can do it, right?
Jumping to conclusions – making a negative assumption with no evidence to support it. Witness Dorothy Parker’s delightful response to the telephone bell: ‘What fresh hell is this?’
Labelling – naming a behaviour as a personality trait. For all you losers out there who made an itsy bitsy mistake today.
Magnification or catastrophizing – blowing things out of proportion, exaggerating, expecting the worst, and my personal favourite.
Mental filter – thinking in a way that blocks reasoning. Also known as sieve ear and jaundiced eye, and instantly recognizable when sentences get punctuated with the words ‘always’ and ‘never’.
Mind reading – thinking we know what others are thinking and not checking it out with them. This is a lovely catch all, in which all previous thought crimes can be combined into sheer, molten paranoia.
Over-generalization – concluding from one negative event that everything is going wrong. Well, we’ve all had days (or weeks, or months) like that.
Personalisation – self-blaming and taking responsibility for things outside our control. Your friend comes into work in a bad mood and your first thought is ‘what have I done?’
‘Should’ and ‘must’ statements – tyrannical demands we make of ourselves, accompanied by the thwack of the inner critic’s whip going down.
Having read through this list and found myself intimate with far too many of them, my thoughts turned (rapidly) to literature, and I began to wonder why we didn’t have a cognitive behavioural critical theory. Literature is stuffed full of negative thinkers. Some of the great modern voices – Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Christa Wolf, Gunther Grass, Elias Canetti, D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, Iris Murdoch – reach us through narrators who have the most extraordinary perspectives on their experience, often melancholy, disturbed or negative ones, and yet the brilliance with which they recount their stories has us transfixed and convinced. There’s a feeling I experience regularly when reading of being trapped within a view that nags at my rational mind, but which fits snugly into the dark side of my heart. Often the thrill of reading is to watch irrational people impose their emotional will on other characters, who must pluckily work to wriggle out from underneath it. Or else we get ringside seats to witness two wrong perspectives clash mightily. After all, literature has the ability to wheel in a deus ex machina, or to kill off characters before their madness starts to irritate. Think of Antigone, for instance, who would have looked a lot different if she hadn’t succumbed to a glorious death, but had grown old nursing her grudge and mumbling menaces into her knitting. Well, it’s been a while since we had a new literary theory to play with, and I shall be looking out in my fiction reading for the catastrophizers, the mind readers and the polarized thinkers. If nothing else, it will take my mind off my own problems.