One of the best tools we have for living a healthy life is our ability to think. Our world is composed of a large number of events that happen constantly.
Some are positive and some are negative, and most are neutral. We interpret these events as they happen with a series of thoughts that flow continually through our minds. This process is called our internal dialogue. We constantly think about present and past events, and sometimes about things that will happen in the future. And here’s the important point – these thoughts need to be accurate. We need good reality testing in order to live effectively.
Our moods or feelings are created by the thoughts we have, and not by the actual events themselves. We need to think about events and attach a meaning to them before we experience an emotional response. People have different ways of interpreting the same event. Let’s say that our friend, Rhonda, has decided to move to a different part of the country. Some people will congratulate her for making a move that could bring her the happiness she has sought for a long time. Other people might condemn her for running away from the life she has here. Some will call her healthy. Some will call her greedy. Some will call her heartless. How we think about Rhonda will reflect our core beliefs about the world.
We define Rhonda’s actions in terms of how we personally interpret the world – and these interpretations reflect the basic assumptions we have about how the world works. Her move in itself signifies nothing until we think about it and place an interpretation or meaning on it. If we see it as a healthy move on her part, we can have a happy response. If we see her as being selfish, we might have an angry or depressed response to her move. Once we give meaning to an event, we can experience an emotional response to it. In other words, our thoughts can influence how we feel.
If the meaning we give to events is usually negative, we might constantly find ourselves feeling depressed. If the meaning is usually positive, we may find ourselves feeling good much of the time. If we give threatening meanings to events in the world, we might find ourselves living with a lot of anger. If we see the world as a stressful place, we might experience anxiety as a result. Sometimes we give meaning to our own actions that are negative (that is, we judge ourselves in a negative light). This might arise from a negative self-image and our mood will reflect this core belief in a variety of negative ways.
Our emotional health depends on our ability to make good, reality-oriented judgments about what is going on in the world around us.
Sometimes events are positive. We need to interpret them in precisely this way and have an appropriate emotional response to the situation (that is, happiness). At other times, events are negative and we ought to be able to give proper meaning to these events so that we can take correct action to deal with the problem in a reality-based way.
Most of us distort our thoughts to some degree. We all have unique lives, with different experiences, different parents, different friends, different problems to work through – so that throughout the course of our lives we have learned our own ways of interpreting the world. Our interpretations are not always based in reality and are often colored by our unique needs. We develop our own core beliefs about how the world operates, and, when various situations present themselves, these beliefs lead us to automatic thoughts (these are well-learned ways of thinking about situations that are instantaneous and reflect our underlying beliefs about the world). Sometimes these automatic thoughts are distorted. It is important to examine our cognitive distortions so that we make the right decisions in life and increase our chance of experiencing a good mood. Working with a trained therapist in examining these distortions is an especially effective way of dealing with depression.