In our psychological backpack, we all carry around beliefs that shape how we move through our days. They may be about the world, with positive beliefs like “People are generally trustworthy” or not-so-positive ones like “Life isn’t fair.”
We also carry around beliefs about the future. Again, they may be good, like “Things usually work out for me” or not so much, like “Things will never get better.”
But the heaviest weight in our backpack is the beliefs about ourselves. And when it comes to setting the stage for depression, a 2009 study in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research found there are two biggies that are particularly devious.
This week, here are the terrible two, plus, how to empty that backpack and refill it with beliefs that not only are more accurate, but fit you and your life a whole lot better.
BELIEF #1: EVERYONE HAS TO LIKE ME
There are many variations on the theme of “Everyone has to like me”—call it the 31 flavors of people pleasing. Perhaps your version is something more along the lines of “My worth depends on how others see me,” or “What other people think about me is really important.” Whatever way we slice it, this belief sets us up for trouble.
Why? Well, the trouble with this belief is that it puts our happiness in the hands of others. We can’t control how others react, think, or whether or not they’ll judge us.
How to challenge it: The antidote to dependency isn’t to forge onward alone (heck, even the Lone Ranger had Tonto). Isolation also raises the risk for depression, plus it’s just no fun.
So what’s the solution? It’s something called cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is a process in which we shine a bright light on a belief that’s getting in our way, ask “is this really true?” and come up with a new, more accurate belief. Notice I didn’t say happier belief. Our goal isn’t to slap a happy band-aid on our old, unhealthy thought. Instead, the goal is to rework our belief so it rings clear and true and allows us to move forward.
So how to restructure the thought, “Everyone has to like me”? The best ways are to take out the neediness of “has to” and the totality of “everyone.” For example, consider shifting to “Most people probably like most things about me.” There: much less urgent. I can hear the collective sigh of relief already.
You can also take the emphasis off of other people’s opinions entirely. For example, you could try “If I’m generally happy with myself, the right people will find me.” We all crave love and approval—that’s part of being human—but unconditional love and approval from everyone isn’t necessary, or even possible. And for a lot of us, it’s especially not possible from the family we were born into. But that’s OK. Everyone has their people out there—it’s just a matter of finding them.
Belief #2: I Have To Be Perfect
This belief has more varieties than the breakfast cereal aisle. Check out these variations: “If I fail at my work, I’m a failure as a person,” “If I don’t understand completely, it means I’m stupid,” “If I can’t keep up with everyone else, I’m inferior,” and “If I screw up at all, it’s as bad as failing completely.”
See Also: Toxic Habits: Perfectionism
OK, so why does the “I have to be perfect” belief set us up for depression? It’s the all-or-nothing aspect: far from fifty shades of grey, all there is in this kind of thinking is black or white. If we’re not perfect, we’re a failure. And worse, it leaves us thinking that our self-worth is coupled to our performance—if we don’t perform perfectly, we’re worthless.
How to challenge it: The antidote to perfectionism isn’t to adopt mediocre standards—instead, keep your standards high but achievable and allow for some flexibility. And of course, enter cognitive restructuring. Again, the goal isn’t to make the belief more positive, it’s to make it more accurate.
So how to restructure “I have to be perfect”? One way is to make it about the process, not the outcome. For instance, you could say, “I work hard and make a good effort.” Or, “I live in accordance with my values.”
Another way is to reject the idea of perfection altogether. For example, try substituting, “I’m fine the way I am,” or simply “I’m enough.” It’s funny: once we stop trying to be perfect, we stop worrying about our flaws.
One last thing: like unwelcome weeds in a garden, these two big dysfunctional beliefs may have spread throughout your psyche, so it’s important to know they won’t disappear right away. It may take some time to weed them all out, but with some careful attention and pruning, you can shape your beliefs into something much more beautiful.