Discounting the Positive:
So, we reach episode five of this series on common thinking errors or information processing biases that underlie some of our emotional reactions to the events around us. We are at the half-way stage. And autumn is truly with us. What do you notice most at this time of year? The darker mornings and the early fading of light in the afternoon? Having to wipe the condensation off your car’s windscreen in the morning? The chill in the air, a hint of iciness to come? Dead leaves on the pavements? It does indeed seem a grim time of year.
Of course, there are other aspects of autumn to consider. We have beautiful sunrises and sunsets, an endless changing pattern of clouds making their way across the skies. The changing colours of leaves, the late afternoon sunlight picking out the infinite hues of reds and yellows. We can sense the changes in animal behaviour as they prepare for winter, a restlessness among the birds – those ready to depart to warmer climes, those preparing to stay and awaiting visits from those coming from the arctic regions. Fallen leaves making patterns on the ground.
Discounting the Positive occurs when we either do not notice the positive aspects of a situation or event, or we manage to change it into a negative (also known as reverse alchemy – gold into lead). For example, someone may pay me a compliment and I brush it off – “Oh, it’s nothing!”. Or I might turn it into a negative – “He’s only saying that to get something out of me”.
Discounting the Positive as an habitual way of thinking can have a profound effect on how we feel about ourselves. It is often the case that people with chronic low self-esteem find it almost impossible to identify anything positive about themselves, even though they may be loyal friends, caring family members, accomplished writers, cooks, tailors, etc. .. Similarly, people find it difficult to recall positive events that if remembered could be incorporated into autobiographical memory – that crucial cluster of information about ourselves and our lives, our personal narrative. For example, the narrative could be along the lines of…
“I was always the dunce of the family. I did not do well at school, I had trouble finding a good job, and my choice of partners was a disaster. My mum said I would never amount to much, and she was right.”
As with all thinking errors, the first step in cognitive-behavioral therapy is to help people identify how they operate. The standard practice of keeping Daily Thought Diaries can be helpful here. And as with all thinking errors, it is a question of encouraging people to step back from the situation and re-evaluate their initial thoughts which tend to be immediate and habitual (also known as negative automatic thoughts). First thoughts are not always correct thoughts.
Another useful strategy is to encourage people to keep a Positive Data Log in which they record events and memories that challenge/counteract the negative narratives (once they have also been identified). This can often be very difficult because people are not in the habit of noticing the positives, but habits can change! With encouragement and gentle persuasion, once the first positive has been recorded, there can be a snow-balling effect. The task then is to incorporate this new information into their autobiographical memory. Even before this occurs, they can refer to their written entries at times they are feeling low about themselves so they can develop a more realistic perspective. The PDL acts like an external disk-drive – the challenge is to create a mental folder called “Good Things About Me”. At work, I kept a Feel Good Folder of nice things people had said about my work to help me through the dark days when nothing positive seemed to happen.
Commentary by Professor Eugene Malaberry, B.Sc., M.Phil., Ph.3 [Chair of Cynical Psychology, University of Assidity]
Congratulations Del Boy on another lucid account of thinking errors! Remember you owe me a pint. While we are talking about Discounting the Positive, please note that my Cynical Gift Shop in the university foyer is offering positive discounts on a range of goods – prices are falling like Dr Lee’s autumn leaves!