Caroline was not a happy woman. She saw herself as a victim of circumstances. She blamed her unhappiness on a long list of external factors (other people, the economy, the weather, the government, her employer...), never dreaming that her own perceptions were primarily behind her miserable feelings.
The widespread tendency to attribute unhappiness to external sources is one of the most serious psychological mistakes. People say: "His remark upset me!" "Her comments hurt me!" "It made me unhappy when he snubbed me!"
In reality, it is not remarks, comments and statements that cause hurt or upset. People upset themselves over these statements or incidents. The age-old saying (like most age-old sayings) remains profoundly true: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me!"
Though we utter these ideas as children, we do not take them seriously as adults. If we did, we would then say, correctly, "I upset myself over his remark," in place of the psychologically inaccurate version, "His remark upset me!" We would say: "I hurt myself over her comments," "I made myself unhappy when he snubbed me."
• As long as we incorrectly blame outside sources for our miseries, we cannot do much about them. However, if we realize that we upset ourselves over the things that happen to us, we can work at changing.
For example, a young man was extremely distressed because his girlfriend refused to stop dating other men. "Her behavior really upsets me," he said. "No," we replied, "you are upsetting yourself over her behavior." And then we asked: "How are you managing to upset yourself so deeply?"
It didn't take long to piece together the fact that he was upsetting himself by engaging in a whole series of faulty ideas, or irrational self-talk. We were then able to show him how to stop making himself so unhappy over his girlfriend's lack of ardor.
• By recognizing that the way you think about events determines how you feel, you'll be able to take control instead of being controlled.
If you make yourself unhappy when your in-laws visit you, or when someone puts you down, first discover how you go about inducing this unhappiness. What are you telling yourself? Then you can decide to do something about it. You can disarm faulty reasoning and find yourself indifferent instead of making yourself miserable.
Indeed, in addition to the various irrational beliefs and other toxic ideas we've discussed in previous posts lurks a particularly common and especially self-defeating form of faulty reasoning, namely perfectionism as illustrated by the case of Harry:
Harry wanted the perfect wife, the perfect job, and the perfect home. At age thirty-nine he was still unmarried, unemployed, and living in a tenement. His quest for perfection had made it virtually impossible for Harry to be satisfied with the offerings of the real world.
Perfectionists are unrealistic. Few things and no people are perfect. To expect perfection from yourself or from others only creates an impossible standard and can result in a downward spiral of negative thinking that leads to self-criticism, dissatisfaction, frustration, resentment and a "why bother" attitude.
At a recent social gathering, one of the guests proudly stated: "I'm perfectionist!" He was rather taken aback when we said: "We're sorry to hear it. You have our sympathy."
• If you push yourself to perform perfectly, you may find that your efforts are counter-productive.
Forcing yourself to meet unrealistic expectations invites undue stress, anxiety, and burnout. In fact, perfectionism often encourages unhealthy competition and may even promote unethical behavior (cheating exams, taking credit for others' work or falsely claiming job qualifications.)
• Learn to give yourself permission not to perform at optimum speed every minute of the day.
Instead, strive to be competent, to perform extremely well at times but not perfectly, to realize that there are days when you feel under the weather, you are preoccupied with a personal problem, or you feel that the task at hand just does not seem that important. Freed from the pressure to perform perfectly, you will enjoy the work much more, and the result will be good, often excellent work.
• It's most important to accept the fact that some things only need to be "good enough."
It's also important to realize that if you aim too high, you will miss the mark. Wise people learn to derive enjoyment from a task instead of dwelling on the outcome.
If you fail to achieve a perfect (impossible) standard or goal, you are not a failure. The failure is due to the fact that the goal was impossible in the first place.
Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.
Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!