Review – Feeling Good

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy

by David Burns, published 1980, 2008

This post is less a review of the book and more an exploration of its major philosophical principles and techniques.

Major Principles

All your moods are created by your cognitions, or thoughts, including:

  • perceptions
  • mental attitudes
  • beliefs
  • interpretations

When you are feeling depressed, your thoughts are dominated by pervasive negativity which infect all of your experiences, including:

  • reflections on the past
  • experience of the present
  • projections/expectations of the future

Negative thoughts at the heart of emotional turmoil almost always contain gross distortions, therefore:

  1. gains in objectivity of thoughts translate to elevated mood
  2. the most crucial predictor of recovery is a persistent willingness to exert some effort to help yourself
  3. it is a part of the human experience to be periodically upset, “getting better” means systematically employing CBT methods to master thoughts and moods over the course of a lifetime

Diagnosing Your Moods

You can use the Burns Depression Checklist (the author’s proprietary list of indicators of depressive thinking) weekly to chart the progress of your depression’s severity. This is important because it introduces objective data into your self-experience. By seeing the change in data over time as a result of specific action, you can break the allure common to all depressive episodes that the present experience is likely to continue on indefinitely, or only get worse.

Understanding Your Moods

Depression is not an emotional disorder, it is a disorder of thoughts.

Practice noticing the negative thought you had just prior to your negative feeling. This will help you generate awareness about the specific “triggers” that instigate a depressive mood. You will begin to notice that right before you feel downcast, you have made a critical or despairing assumption about yourself or other people.

One argument depressed people make is that their depressive mood is an accurate reflection of a depressing reality. However, emotions do not happen automatically based upon experiences, but rather experiences are processed in the mind and filtered through pre-existing thoughts before being translated into an emotional state. Therefore, if your understanding of reality is normal, your resulting mood will be normal; if your understanding of reality is distorted, your mood will be distorted as well.

Thinking you are the one “hopeless”, truly flawed person in the world is a sign of distorted thinking. This is a belief based upon fallacious logical thinking rather than an objective, existent fact about reality knowable to all.

In its essence, depression is a highly credible form of faulty faith in a reality that doesn’t exist. Truly, the cure for long-lasting depression is a “scientific mind” determined to observe and examine reality using sound logical principles.

The 10 Major Cognitive Distortions

Depressive episodes are triggered by one of ten common cognitive distortions, or fundamental logical fallacies embedded in the assumptions and thinking of the depressed individual:

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking, a form of perfectionism
  2. Overgeneralization, believing a single instance is an inevitable pattern
  3. Mental Filter, focusing on the negatives, ignoring the positives
  4. Disqualifying the Positive, turning positive experiences into negative ones by rationalizing why it was luck, a mistake or otherwise unrepeatable or undeserved
  5. Jumping to Conclusions,
    1. mind reading, convincing yourself others harbor negative thoughts or evaluations without checking it out
    2. fortune-telling, imagining something bad will happen without evidence or probability
  6. Magnification and Minimization, creating a sense of inferiority by catastrophic thinking about flaws and mistakes, while downplaying strengths or achievements
  7. Emotional Reasoning, confusing a negative feeling with a factual truth about reality
  8. Should Statements, frustrating yourself by comparing yourself and others to a perceived ideal rather than accepting reality as it is
  9. Labeling and Mislabeling, confusing your identity with a single action or perpetual state of being
  10. Personalization, taking responsibility for things that have nothing to do with you, or are outside your control

Sometimes people experiencing depression worry that if they do not experience the grief and upset feelings of depression, they will not be living authentically. Getting in touch with and expressing valid emotions based upon valid thinking, is a form of emotional maturity; expressing invalid emotions based on invalid thinking is a personal and sometimes social problem that is not at all desirable. Emotional growth and development involves ridding yourself of invalid thinking and the harmful, deluded and invalid emotions that come with it.

Defeating Do-Nothingism

In a depressive state of mind, it can be difficult to summon the determination, motivation and interest in moving one’s goals and life plans forward. Using the major principle mentioned earlier, it is important to consider what kind of self-critical triggering thoughts precede this unwillingness to act. When you are suffering “do-nothingism”, consider the following as a new mental habit:

When I think about an undone task, what thoughts immediately come to mind?

You are likely to find that these thoughts are filled with the logic of futility, hopelessness and general nihilism and discouragement.

Common Mindsets that Yield Action to Inaction

Here are some common cognitive distortions that precede do-nothingism:

  1. Hopelessness, the present pain is overwhelming and obstructs your ability to imagine an improved future
  2. Helplessness, something other than your own actions stands between you and achievement
  3. Overwhelming Yourself, you must do the whole tasks all at once, making it impossible
  4. Jumping to Conclusions, assuming without testing to find out
  5. Self-labeling, convincing yourself you’re fundamentally incapable by labeling yourself as such
  6. Undervaluing the Rewards, the payoff is so small, why bother?
  7. Perfectionism, preferring no progress to some progress
  8. Fear of Failure, it isn’t worth an attempt if the potential to succeed lies in doubt
  9. Fear of Success, you won’t be able to continue after your initial “luck”, so you don’t bother
  10. Fear of Disapproval or Criticism, you will be judged harshly by others for your attempt
  11. Coercion and Resentment, you are being forced to do something rather than choosing to do it for yourself
  12. Low Frustration Tolerance, or Entitlement Syndrome, it should be easy to succeed, if it’s not easy, you must not be made out for success
  13. Guilt and Self-Blame, punishing yourself over past perceived mistakes

You may notice that many of these cognitive distortions are simply “inaction-specific” versions of the earlier list from above.

Dealing With Anger

Anger is a common aspect of many depressive episodes. As depressed people tend not to carry out the values of their lives into action, they often experience frustration, resentment and anger about the seeming futility and malaise of their life, particularly when they are in touch with or aware of their latent talents and abilities. Anger is often directed outward at others as an expression of the pain within.

When you label someone, you tend to apply a mental filter that results in disqualifying the positive as you emphasize their poor traits and ignore their good ones. Labeling gives way to blame, blame leads to vengeance. Ironically, you can not enhance your self-esteem by attacking someone else’s, so this act of labeling and attacking the character of others in anger proves doubly harmful.

Mind-reading also leads to anger as you will tend to attribute false ideas and motivations to the other person’s behavior.

Magnification of the original negative event will cause greater than necessary pain and cause the pain to linger longer than it must.

Should/should not statements generate entitled beliefs and entitled thinking leads to resentment and frustration with other people as well as the self.

The perception of unfairness or injustice is the ultimate cause of anger. It is the emotion that corresponds 1:1 to your belief that you are being treated unfairly. Significantly, there is no universal standard for fairness or justice, only different ethical systems based upon tradition, circumstances and logical rationalization of self-interest and specific harmony.

Arguments over who is “right” are fruitless and unresolvable.

Some anger is healthy in motivating change. But to determine if your anger is motivational or de-motivational and depressive, consider these two criteria for anger:

  • is it directed at someone who knowingly, intentionally and unnecessarily acted in a hurtful manner?
  • is my anger useful? Does it help me achieve a desired goal or simply defeat me?

Techniques for managing anger:

  • use the double-column technique to explore advantages and disadvantages of feeling angry and engaging in retaliation
  • one you’re ready to calm down, use two column “hot thoughts” versus “cool thoughts” to explore angry versus rational thinking
  • rewrite your “should” rules to break free of entitled thinking
  • change your expectations of others, allow yourself the opportunity to see their behavior as predictable and not surprising
  • try empathy, see the world from your oppressor’s eyes and understand how what they did made sense and wasn’t personal

Examing Depressive Thinking

Some people are so depressed, all they can do is carry their whining and complaining with them everywhere they go. How do you deal with a whiner? Try the Anti-Whiner Technique– when someone complains, agree and compliment, don’t try to help. People who whine never want help solving their problems, they are looking for validation and security from others that their pain is real. By offering solutions, you unwittingly end up sending the message to the whiner that they’re incapable of helping themselves, are being victimized by reality and thus should continue whining!

There is no such thing as a “realistic” depression, although there are realistic reasons for temporarily feeling sad. Consider these two ideas about “realistic” depression:

  • sadness follows real loss or failure, is temporary and never impacts self-esteem negatively; this is a “realistic” depression
  • depression follows flawed or distorted thinking, is recurring and stems from/causes a loss of self-esteem; this is an “unrealistic” depression

Preventing future depressions:

  1. understand why you got depressed (many people never graduate beyond this step because they spend their entire lives in some form of depression!)
  2. know how and why you got better; what techniques were effective?
  3. acquire self-confidence and self-esteem
  4. locate the deeper causes of your depression (many people suffer recurring depression because they never bother to understand what kind of life experiences have made them vulnerable to depression, so they can be on guard against repeating these experiences or the harm of taking the wrong lessons from them)

Downward Arrow Technique, used to mine automatic thoughts for “logical consequences” of silent assumptions, the residue of recurring depressive episodes; then “talk-back” is used the challenge these beliefs.

Taking Action Against Depression

What problems do you face? How are you solving them? This is where the action is, not “worth” or “true self”.

People can spend their whole lives trying to get beneath their depression to an authentic understanding of self when really the difference between a depressed person and a non-depressed person, ultimately, is a willingness to take action to solve one’s own problems.

Why treat yourself in ways it would be rude or uncomfortable to treat others? Encourage yourself to identify your problems and create strategies for resolving them. In taking action, you’ll find your own capability and begin to let the depression go.

Fighting perfectionism:

  • make a list of pros and cons
  • ask yourself if the standard could ever be realized
  • use response-prevention technique and ride the discomfort of not checking
  • become process-oriented, which is in your control, rather than goal-oriented, which is not
  • unwillingness to make mistakes leads to lack of risk-taking; write yourself a note on the value of making mistakes
  • take ownership of your mistakes and assert your right and necessity to make them to keep growing, to yourself and to others