Shoes, Marshmallows and Dogs: Mental Health 101

Managing Your Thoughts, Emotions and Behavior, Part 1

Posted Feb 27, 2013

What do shoes, marshmallows and dogs have to do with basic mental health? We’ll get to that shortly. But first, a quiz.

Question 1

Think of your car, and say which of the following are true:

A. Without fuel the car will not run.

B. The engine will not operate correctly if it runs out of oil and water.

C. A red traffic light means “stop.”

D. The spare tire is often found in the trunk.

E. You should not drink and drive.

F. A wet road increases the odds of skid.

Question 2

Think of your mind and answer, which of the following statements are true:

A. The reasons for my current distress are found in the events of my childhood.

B. I should succeed and feel good in my life.

C. To fix any problem, it is necessary to understand how and where it started.

D. Better think positively.

E. It’s best to get away from things that arouse scary and unpleasant feelings.

F. Never give up.

G. Relax, it's only in your head.

And now, the answers:

Question 1: All true.

Question 2: All false.

How did you do?

My guess is that you did less well on the second question. If so, it may be worth your while to keep reading and see why, and what you can do about it.

Anyone who buys a car quickly finds it a good idea to learn some basic skills of vehicle operation and maintenance. This may feel like a hassle in the short run, but in the long run--which we all hope is the kind of run we’ll get—it will pay big dividends.

In addition to the car, most of us are called upon to regularly use and maintain our minds. Let’s agree that this analogy, like all others, is a bit off. The mind is not a car. Your mind was not assembled in Japan; you cannot trade it in every seven years for a shiny new model; you don’t wash and wax it on Sundays.

And yet, with regard to the benefits of knowledge, maintenance and correct handling, your mind is in fact very much like your car. The usefulness of both will depend in part on how you manage them. Roughly speaking, our mental “engine” can be divided into three moving parts: thinking, behavior and emotion. Each of them operates according to a number of ground rules that--while not entirely leak-proof (nothing is)--are simple, useful, and easy to learn. Below, I will discuss the basic ground rules for accurate and healthy thinking. In my next column I will discuss the basics of managing behavior and emotion. 

Thinking: The shoe store test

Thoughts are crucial for maintaining mental health, because our behaviors and emotions often emerge from them. The brain is an interpretive machine; it organizes sensations into meaningful patterns of perception. It arranges myriad inputs into coherent understandings to which we can effectively respond in our effort to survive and thrive in the world.

Therefore, if you argue with your husband and feel frustrated, and you’re going to take a frying pan and hit the hapless bastard on the head, your mood and pan wielding behavior arise not from the argument itself, but from the interpretation you’ve settled on, the meaning you chose to attribute to that event. Another couple might interpret a similar argument as proof of the strength of their connection, as an expression of deep caring, or as foreplay, a prelude to passionate lovemaking.

Thoughts, I argue, are like viruses. Letting the wrong one into your system may cause harm. I have argued that, historically, bad thoughts have caused more damage than bad viruses. Racism, for example, is not a virus, but an idea that may infiltrate the brain. Such an idea, a thought, if absorbed, assimilated and accepted as true, will lead in short order to a lot of damage. Thus, those who say: "Relax, it's only in your head," are dead wrong. You should take great care to manage and control which ideas take hold in your mind, just as you take great care to wash your hands after hugging someone with the flu.

Contrary to what you've heard, correct mind management does not involve merely trying to “think positively.” Instead, it’s better to try to think accurately. Good, accurate thinking means comparing different thoughts and selecting those most supported by evidence.

To understand how to think right, you have to know the brain’s two major processes: control and automatic. Control processes are sensitive to interference and require concentration and attention. When you learn to drive, you use control processes. After a while, though, driving becomes an automatic process. As such, it is difficult to disrupt and does not require conscious attention. Today you drove to work while talking on the phone, listening to the radio, eating a sandwich and smoking, and still you got to work without error or accident, as you did the day before and the day before that.

In fact, the more automatic a process becomes, the less information is available to us about how it works. If I ask you to describe how you drive, or what you saw on the way to work, you will not know: you're on automatic, and so, in effect, unconscious.

We all have habits of mind, like we have eating or spending habits. Habits have an important evolutionary role; they free up our attention (conscious awareness) to focus on what is new and hence keep up wth the dynamic reality condtions around us, the better to survive and thrive. Good habits help us. But bad habits will over time bring pain and trouble. So with eating, spending, and also with thinking. Here are some examples of common bad habits of thought:

All or nothing:

False Habit: "If I'm not perfect, I am nobody."

Existential truth: If you're not perfect, you are human.

Mind reading:

False habit: "I know exactly what they think of me."

Existential truth: You do not know exactly what they think about you. They do not think about you. They think about football.


False habit: "It's going to be terrible, end of the world. Life is going down the toilet."

Existential truth: Most likely, you learn to get along with your in-laws over time.


False habit: "The number 60 is divisible without a remainder by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Therefore it’s clear that the number 60 is divisible without remainder by all numbers."

Existential truth: Try 7.

"Should" and "must":

False habit: "I should (must) have, achieve, or do X."

Existential truth: You have choices. Either way, life will go on.

A habit does not have to be inherently bad to merit shedding; rather it may just be dated. Some habits may have served you well in the past, but are no longer useful. Perhaps the world has changed, or your place in it.  You would not continue to wear the same pair of pants at 30 that your mother bought you at the age of three. You should not continue to rely on habits of mind learned in childhood, even if they worked in childhood. If you grew up in the US hearing English, then you learned English as your automatic habit. But once you move to China (or when the Chinese take over the US), English may prove less helpful. You may then benefit from learning Chinese.

Bad thinking habits or those whose usefulness has expired are best discarded and replaced. Change, alas, is a package deal.

The good news: To change a habit, you do not need to know where it comes from and how it began.

The bad news: to learn a new habit you have to practice. One hour per week with a therapist will not suffice. There is work involved in taking care of things--be them cars or minds.

Contrary to popular myth (and yearning), understanding and awareness are also not enough. I can understand why I have to go to Cleveland, and I can learn the way to Cleveland. Yet, alas, I am not in Cleveland. To reach Cleveland, I need to get in my car and sweat out the deathly boring drive. There is no substitute for the task of implementation. If you dream of a cake, you have a dream, not a cake.

Each habit was once a control process (something you had to think about and did consciously), until it became automatic through repeated practice. Habits--the result of so many hours of practice--resist change.

To change faulty thought habits, you’ll need to switch from automatic habit mode back to control, self-aware mode.

So the first step in thinking right is thinking about your thoughts: What do I say to myself?

The second step is to understand that thoughts are not facts but hypotheses. The first thought is just that, the first, and not necessarily the best.

Third, look for possible alternatives and then compare them, choose the thought (hypothesis) that is supported most by facts and evidence. Then repeat that thought to yourself and act on it.

In short, the accurte thinking process can be compared to the process of buying shoes. When you go to buy new shoes, you do not jump to buy the first pair you see. You walk around the store; you compare several pairs on relevant parameters--comfort, usability, price, brand, design and so on. Finally, you choose the most appropriate shoes for your situation and your needs.

The mind (analogy again) is a factory store of thoughts, and as in all shopping, it’s worthwhile to look around and choose consciously. If you get into the habit of thinking accurately, you will spare yourself much unnecessary pain, thus (as Freud pointed out) freeing yourself to deal fully,and better, with the necessary kind. 

Accurate thinking is the first aspect of maintaining healthy mental hygiene. My next column will discuss the other two aspects: behavior and emotion. 

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