thinking


Albert Ellis was one of the guys who invented cognitive therapy, which began as a kind of wacky-fringe psychotherapy in the 1950s and has grown to be one of the dominant and most-researched forms of therapy today. It’s effective and simple–easy to teach. Ellis’s version of cognitive therapy, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, is alive and well too.

Ellis’s basic tenets were that thoughts or beliefs, not events, cause emotions and that irrational thoughts or beliefs cause our emotional problems. Most people think it’s their situations that are causing their problems, but Ellis said that we feel bad when our situation is in conflict with an irrational belief, and that it is the belief that makes us feel bad. So his style of therapy basically consisted of deconstructing people’s irrational thoughts and beliefs.

I think that he was right in a lot, though not all, cases. There are many other effective forms of therapy that, instead of cognitions, target behavior, emotions, social systems, or some combination of the four. There are also, of course, non-therapy interventions that aim to improve people’s psychological experience by targeting biological systems, like drugs or the prefrontal lobotomy, and interventions that target political systems–various kinds of activism.

But irrational beliefs are as good a place to start as any. Here is Ellis’s list of our major irrational ideas, quoted from Jacobs, Masson, & Harvill’s Group Counseling: Strategies and Skills (pp. 285-6). Keep in mind that these don’t usually exist as overt beliefs–you might have to dig to find them in yourself, running you.

Which few are your main irrational ideas?

1) It is a dire necessity for an adult human being to be loved or approved by virtually every other person in one’s life.

2) One should be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving in all possible respects if one is to consider oneself worthwhile.

3) Certain people are bad, wicked, and villainous and they should be severely blamed or punished for their villainy.

4) It is awful and catastrophic when things are not the way one would very much like them to be.

5) Human unhappiness is externally caused and people have little or no ability to control their sorrows and disturbances.

6) If something is or may be dangerous or fearsome, one should be terribly concerned about it and should keep dwelling on the possibility of its occurring.

7) It is easier to avoid than face certain life difficulties and self-responsibilities.

8) One should be dependent on others and needs someone stronger than oneself on whom to rely.

9) One’s past history is an all-important determiner of one’s present behavior and because something once strongly affected one’s life, it should indefinitely have an effect.

10) There is invariably a right, precise, and perfect solution to human problems and it is catastrophic if this perfect solution is not found.

11) One should become quite upset over other people’s problems and disturbances.

12) The world should be fair and just and if it is not, it is awful and I can’t stand it.

13) One should be comfortable and without pain at all times.

14) One may be going crazy because one is experiencing some anxious feelings.

15) One can achieve maximum human happiness by inertia and inaction or by passively and uncommittedly enjoying oneself.

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What is the sensation of exerting mental effort? It takes energy to think and focus attention, but we can’t directly feel what is going on in our brains. There are no sensory nerve endings in there. I can understand why we feel tired after thinking a lot, but I don’t understand why thinking hard feels effortful in the moment. It really does, though. Some of the thinking I’m doing feels like pushing a boulder up a hill, except more confusing, and my body aches with it–more than I would expect from just sitting and typing and looking at notes. My only idea is that I’m unconsciously flexing muscles when I think, especially in my face, neck, and back, and that produces the sensation of mental effort. What do you think? I’d sure like to be able to apply my brain fully without flexing any extra muscles.

This has been my busiest term of school ever. I’ve got two very challenging classes, Social Psychology and Applied Data Analysis, my honors thesis, and a ten hour a week internship at Stepping Stone, a residential treatment center for adjudicated teenage boys. On top of that, I’m taking the GRE (Graduate Record Exam–a really hard test, like the SAT for getting into graduate schools) during finals week. That’s on the same day as my last final. That’s the point in my story where my classmates’ eyes bug a little. “OK, that’s crazy.”

This is too busy. I don’t like it. I like being in heavy intellectual training. I like being in this kind of shape; I can read and understand a journal article in a couple hours, for example. I enjoy being this productive, too, but I’ve gotten stressed out. About halfway through the term I started skimping on my non-intellectual stuff, to keep on top. My meditation practice is getting the squeeze–I’m rarely sitting for more than 15 minutes a day and often it’s just a token few minutes. That’s when I feel how strong my mind is going the most–when I’m sitting to meditate or lying down to sleep, this clear, powerful thinking, like a force, pushing up to the front of my head, driving my awareness and dominating my experience. I am getting enough sleep, at least. I’ve been strict with myself on that and it makes a big difference. My exercise has been getting the squeeze, though. All I do is bike, and I like biking but I also like to run, lift weights, and swim. I just can’t do them as part of my commute. I ride for transportation 30-90 minutes a day. I bike between classes. Sometimes it feels like all I do with my body is bike, sit, and sleep. Not very much walking, even.  I dance, too, probably four hours a week on average. That’s gotten some squeeze, but not too much. My songwriting and music playing has gotten the squeeze. My emotional support has gotten the squeeze. I’m down to maybe one co-counseling session a week and no phone time with friends. I’m lucky to live with good friends, so I still get supportive conversations. I get almost no physical affection, though. I can’t blame that on my term–I’m just far away from my most affectionate friends and family. Danielle, Maya, Jeannie, Mom, I miss you! I miss the rest of you too. I want to be in your lives more. I want to know how you are and what you’re doing.

But not for a couple more weeks. After this post, I’m putting my head down, business only, until the term is over. I’ll start posting again in mid-December. Have a great Thanksgiving and end of fall!

Here are some photographs of my calendar I took when I first conceived of this post, a few weeks ago. They are the first six weeks of my term. I’m a little nostalgic about how much more balanced I felt in those days. (Look at all that blue, red and pink!) Here’s what you’re looking at: I kept track of what I did, as I did it. Anything that I did for at least 15 minutes at a time made it on here. (My week calendars do not look like this ahead of time–they have only firm commitments and deadlines in them, GTD-style.) The columns are days, Sunday to Saturday, from about 8 am to about 11 pm. The purple is school stuff, like classes and studying. The blue is personal stuff, like cooking, eating, cleaning, and talking with friends. Green is office work, blogging, working in the elections office, teaching dance classes or lessons. Orange is dancing. Red is meditation and co-counseling. Pink is exercise. Yellow is Suntop stuff–chores, meetings, and outings.

Week 1

Week 1

Week 2

Week 2

Week 3

Week 3

Week 4

Week 4

Week 5

Week 5

Week 6

Week 6

I documented my day today. It wasn’t an unusual Tuesday, but my days aren’t all like this; I have classes only three days a week and often have a dance practice or something else scheduled. Also, I only wake to an alarm a couple days a week. Still, I think this gives a sense of what I’m working on, the pace, and intensity.

7:45am—Woke to an alarm after more than 8 hours of sleep but kind of groggy and nauseous (not uncommon), and a little dehydrated. Rolled out of bed in about ten minutes. Tamed my bedhead a bit, opened my shades. It’s raining but not hard. I took a photo for the blog and I look grumpy, probably because I am grumpy.

Bedroom Window

Bedroom Window

Grumpy

Grumpy

Breakfast

Breakfast

Made my oatmeal like I usually do, with a lot of cinnamon and ginger, a big handful of raisins, and with butter and agave nectar on top. Delicious!

Said good morning to a couple early-rising housemates, Kyla and Nick.

Packed my computer bag full of school files. Also rain gear, fruit, a salad, workout gear (optimistically), my water bottle, PDA, and camera.My Load For the Day

Rain Gear

Rain Gear

Bike

Bike

8:35—Out the door. I bike fifteen minutes to school, mostly on a trail next to the Willamette River. It’s very pretty. The light is grey, the leaves yellow, and it’s cool, not cold.

Bike Trail 1

Bike Trail 1

Bike Trail 2

Bike Trail 2

Bike Trail 3

Bike Trail 3

Bike Trail 4

Bike Trail 4

Bike Trail 5

Bike Trail 5

Willamette River

Willamette River

Franklin Blvd

Franklin Blvd

Straub Hall

Straub Hall

Computer Lab

Computer Lab

8:50—Lock my bike up at Straub Hall, the psychology building on the University of Oregon campus. I go to the computer lab and start working on a homework assignment for my statistics class (called Applied Data Analysis) that’s due at 3 pm. It’s due every week at 3 pm and usually takes 12-15 hours to complete (and that’s not including the 5-9 hours of reading I have to summarize as part of it, full of sentences like “So, the regression coefficients associated with the contrast-coded categorical predictors in this model that includes their interactions with the covariate tell one about simple mean effects when and only when the covariate equals zero”). I spent 10 hours on the homework, already, over the weekend.

Karyn

Karyn

9:30—I meet with Karyn, the TA for Applied Data Analysis, and grill her with questions about the homework for 40 minutes. She is very smart and patient.

Labmates

Labmates

10:10—Back to work in the computer lab. Now several of my classmates are working alongside me. It’s stressful because of how involved the thinking is, and because of how many elements I have to remember and pull together, but it’s also fun, because we’re all in it together. No one else spent all weekend on it or went to see Karyn, though, so I end up doing a more helping than getting helped. It’s good—I understand things much better after I have to make a case for them. We go straight through with no breaks. Instead of my hoped-for lunch (not to mention workout) I eat the banana and apple I brought and drink a half gallon of water.

2:40pm—I email in my homework, 13 pages, 15 hours and 40 minutes long (I’ll post it for fun under ‘writing’), and ride to the local Whole-Foods clone for lunch: a chicken thigh and two bagels. I’m feeling hyped up and pretty good.

Lunch

Lunch

3:00—Back to the computer lab, I eat them, along with the salad I brought, as I write a weekly update for my practicum: I’m interning 10 hours a week at a residential treatment center for adjudicated youth. I wrote about a “Responsible Decision Making” class I sat in on with them, about homophobia, and how it related to a article I’m reading, called “Prejudice as Self-Image Maintenance: Affirming the Self Through Derogating Others.” It’s about some experiments that found people (successfully) use prejudice to feel better about themselves when they are put down.

Gerlinger Hall

Gerlinger Hall

3:35—I ride to Gerlinger Hall, where my first class is, and finish eating while I read for my Social Psychology class (the paper I mentioned above) and swap homework war stories with another stats student.

4:00—Applied Data Analysis, taught by Dr. Holly Arrow. The lecture is on factorial ANOVAs, which is a method of analyzing data from experiments with multiple independent or quasi-independent variables. I understand most of it. It’s a graduate level class, mostly for undergrads doing honors theses, like I am. It’s really difficult and often confusing but also fun and exciting because it’s such a challenge, and because my classmates are so smart—it’s (exactly) like being in a class that consists of only the one or two other smartest and hardest-working people from all of my other classes. There’s a sense of camaraderie—we can just look at each other and shake our heads, laughing, knowing what we are all going through.

Applied Data Analysis 1

Applied Data Analysis 1

Applied Data Analysis 2

Applied Data Analysis 2

5:20—Ride down the hill to Lillis Hall. It’s dark now, and raining pretty hard. Still not cold, though. It’s been a beautiful day.

5:30—Social Psychology, taught by Sean Laurent, who is also my honors thesis advisor. He’s an entertaining lecturer and the material is all of this counterintuitive stuff about how people are (usually without knowing it) shaped by their situation. For the first time in the term I haven’t done all of the reading for a class (didn’t finish the paper I mentioned above) but it didn’t hurt me. We covered it in a hurry at the end and I have a slightly slower day tomorrow, so I can catch up. We talk first about attitude change and how emotional and intellectual persuasion work best together: Someone is more likely to quite smoking when shown a photo of a diseased lung along with information on how to quit smoking than with neither or just one of those, for example. Then we talked about research on stereotyping and how it relates to death sentences (pretty shocking stuff—worse even than I thought), prejudice, and self-esteem boosting. A classmate, Annalisa, brought a bunch of leftover Halloween candy and I eat a few gummy creatures and body parts. Not great.

Social Psychology - Class

Social Psychology - Class

Social Psychology - Sean

Social Psychology - Sean

6:50—Class is over but I hang out, asking Sean a few more questions about the stereotyping research.

7:15—Ride back to Straub, go upstairs to a lab and work on my honors thesis. I finalize my new measures and manipulations, compose a modification document for the Institutional Review Board, and send it all to Sean to go over before I send it in. These are the final changes to my experiment—ideas I got from my lab when I did my project presentation a couple weeks ago. I’m strengthening the manipulation and adding a couple of measures, like one that asks how much you like your name. Did you know that how much you like your name is a reliable measure of self-esteem? During this process, I see that Patrick Johnston, an old friend of mine from high school, has friended me on Facebook. I’m pretty excited about that. He was one of my favorite people at Yucca Valley High and I haven’t talked to him in almost two decades. No time to make contact now, though.

8:50—I pack up and leave campus. It’s not raining anymore and it’s a really nice ride home. My mind is going strong, thinking, thinking, thinking. Thinking about writing this, partly.

Dinner

Dinner

9:10—Make and eat a light dinner, salad and a couple cheddar-in-corn-tortilla quesadillas. (Oh, and my current supplements, calcium/magnesium/D and fish oil.) The house is dark. My housemates are either gone or sleeping already.

9:30—Begin writing this, listening to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, my favorite album of my year, so far. In my enthusiasm for the post, I forget that it’s my night to clean the kitchen, leaving it for the third time this term for Kyla to clean tomorrow. (Sorry, Kyla!)

Desk

Desk

Stretching Out Space

Stretching Out Space

10:40—Time to chill out and get ready for bed: clean my teeth, stretch, meditate, go over my choreography a couple times, sing a song, and do my daily chart, journal entry, and gratitude prayer. In bed by 11:30.

Bed

Bed