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Brief ReCap of This Series
This is the last installment for my series on Cognitive Therapy.
I sure hope it’s been helpful to you. I know it has for me! We all can fall into unhealthy thought patterns from time to time, and it’s helpful to remind ourselves of what they are and how to break them.
Here is the Pinterest version of all ten distorted thought patterns we have covered in this series:
Now, on with the final part of the series.
Let’s meet Jessica.
Jessica’s a high achiever who excels at a lot of things.
But she doesn’t seem to enjoy her success very much. She often rains on her own parade by putting herself or her accomplishments down.
For example, her friends and family praise her last recital performance. “That was so good!” they all say.
But Jessica just brushes them all off. “Yeah, it was okay, I guess. But I should have done better.”
Jessica uses a distorted thought pattern called,
“Discounting the Positive.”
At first glance, it sounds like the negative mental filter distortion we talked about earlier. A negative mental filter is like color blindness: we ignore the positive because we simply can’t see it.
But discounting the positive is worse than blindness. Those with this distortion can still see the positives in their lives, but insidiously turn them into something negative: a mistake, a fluke, an outlier, or a misunderstanding.
It’s often phrased as a “YES-BUT” statement.
Jessica says, “YES, I did okay at the recital, BUT you just didn’t hear all the mistakes I made.”
Here are some others:
- “YES, I got the promotion, BUT only because no one else wanted it.”
- “YES, I was invited, BUT they just felt sorry for me.”
- “YES, I got an A, BUT only because it was an easy test.”
What makes this distortion so tricky is that it hides under a thin veneer of objectivity. “Oh, sure,” we say, “I hear what you’re saying. But if you only understood things as well as I do, you’d see it’s all baloney.”
And there are several variations on this theme:
- “That was really nothing, because…”
- “You are only saying that because….”
- “That doesn’t count because….”
- “They are only being nice to me because….”
Turning Lemonade Back into Lemons
You’ve probably heard the old saying “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
Discounting the positive reverses this process by making us think that anything good must be, at its core, something sour and dour.
Jessica may look confident, but she suffers from social anxiety and depression.
She worries about her mistakes and how others judge her.
Her friends and family try to encourage her by pointing out positives in her life. But she’s already armed herself with an endless supply of “YES-BUT” rebuttals:
“That was a great performance!”
“YES, BUT I should have done better.”
“The audience gave you a standing ovation.”
“YES, BUT most of them are not trained musicians. They don’t know any better.”
“Your teacher thought you did well.”
“YES, BUT that just means she’ll give me something harder for the next recital. Who needs that kind of pressure?”
Psychiatrist David Burns says this distortion is like having a relentless critic running around our brains, just waiting to tear down any positive we or others might say.
When someone tells Jessica, “Don’t be so negative! Can’t you see the silver lining?”
Her inner critic just yells back, “Don’t be so positive! Can’t you see the big, dark cloud? And your stupid silver lining is probably just a mirage, anyway.”
This distorted thought can result in the “most extreme and intractable forms of depression.”
And you can see that piling on more positives just doesn’t work.
So, we have to ambush it from a new and unexpected direction.
Cognitive therapy can help.
In this series, we are applying four principles of cognitive therapy to specific distorted thoughts.
I only had time in my YouTube video for one principle, but here I list all four for discounting the positive.
Principle #1: Do Your RESEARCH.
The first is doing our RESEARCH, asking why we should discount the positives. We can ask questions like,
- What evidence do I have that I should throw away this positive information, or consider it the exception rather than the rule?
- Am I ever wrong when I assume something is an outlier or a fluke?
- How often do my friends and family call me out for downplaying their sincere appreciation or praise?
Principle #2: Be a REALIST.
We also want to learn to view our positives in a more REALISTIC way.
See, the problem isn’t necessarily that we think our positives are bad in an absolute sense, but that they fall short of some perfect standard.
And of course, setting expectations this high will inevitably lead to a let-down.
Think of a positive you feel falls short of your perfect standard. Now ask yourself,
- How much more of this positive do I have than zero?
- How have I benefited from this positive in my life?
- If I were to look at the course of my life, have I gained more of this positive over time?
Principle #3: Find the Right RATIO.
Third, we want to find the right cost-benefit ratio.
Discounting the positive can have a pretty heavy cost: cynicism, anxiety, and despair.
There could be some benefits, like avoiding arrogance and conceit. But are the heavy costs worth this benefit?
The flip side would be to ask myself: What benefits might I gain in enjoying my positives for what they are? Would I feel less stressed or depressed or anxious?
Principle #4: Follow the Golden RULE.
Fourth, we apply the Golden Rule, which means loving and accepting ourselves as well as others.
Let’s focus on one technique that psychiatrists find very powerful in fighting this distortion.
If your negative thoughts often end in feelings of shame and poor self-esteem, this technique is worth trying.
Because it often surprises and stumps our inner critics into silence.
It involves agreeing with them as far as possible, accepting the grains of truth with a sense of humor and inner peace.
We call it the ACCEPTANCE PARADOX.
After her recital, Jessica feels really down on herself. Her inner critic is mad at the mistakes she made in the performance and worried what others think of her. But instead of defending herself against these negative thoughts, Jessica decides to try agreeing with the grains of truth in them, with humor and peace:
Jessica’s Inner Critic (IC) says: “You’ll never make it as a professional musician.”
Jessica says: “I agree and ACCEPT that there are better musicians than I am right now. I admire them.”
IC: “You’ll NEVER be as good as they are. You’re nothing.”
Jessica: “I don’t understand what you mean by ‘nothing.’ What does that term mean when applied to a human being? Maybe you mean that I don’t play as well as others do, which is true. I agree and ACCEPT that I have a lot to learn. My teacher is helping me with that.”
IC: “Your teacher thinks you stink, too.”
Jessica: “My teacher knows what my weaknesses are. That’s what makes her a good teacher.”
IC: “You don’t even deserve a teacher like her. How do you even have the nerve to show up at your lessons?”
Jessica: “It’s pretty easy, actually. I just ACCEPT that it’s okay to make mistakes because that’s how I learn. I would only fail if I gave up.”
Those of us who suffer from depression and anxiety often think we have accepted ourselves in this sense: we agree that we are inferior, pathetic, and worthless human beings.
When our inner critic says, “Face it, you’re nobody,” we say, “Yeah, you’re right, that’s exactly what I am.”
This isn’t what we’re going for.
In fact, this is the essence of discounting the positive, trampling underfoot all that God has given us, stealing our joy and peace.
This unhealthy acceptance destroys self-worth, decreases motivation, and stunts personal growth.
Healthy ACCEPTANCE does the opposite: it protects self-worth, increases motivation, and nurtures growth. It understands that we are still on the journey.
Author Joyce Meyer wrote,
God is on your side, and He wants you to feel good about yourself and the progress you are making. So don’t spend your time frustrated because you haven’t ‘arrived.’ God is not mad at you because you are not perfect — He is only disappointed if you quit running the race!”
 Burns, D. D. (2006) When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy that Can Change Your Life. New York: Harmony Books. 214-220.
 Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. p.35.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.