Monday, August 31, 2009

Cognitive errors

Recent events - my friends' illnesses, looking back through my journals, and an incident with my sister - reminded me of the list of cognitive errors that I used to keep.

I read a bit about cognitive therapy of depression - including the book by that name by Aaron Beck - when I was diagnosed and trying to straighten out my thinking. The book lists a half-dozen or so errors in thought commonly found in depressives. The one I want to talk about today is "excessive responsibility." It's an idea that depressives often have - that we are responsible for everything negative.

Here's a small example of how it works.

One day I was sitting in the doctor's office crying away about something - probably sheer relief that someone knew what I was dealing with, and could help me - when I realized the tissue box next to my chair was empty. Doc got up to get another one from the closet, and I began to apologize. (Probably profusely, as I was upset to begin with.)

I was focused on the fact that I had interrupted our talk, and I had made him get up out of his chair (he was an older man - not old, but older.) He had to explain to me that, in a psychiatrist's office, people cry - it's apparently quite common - and as a psychiatrist it was his responsibility to keep supplies of tissues on hand, and if anyone needed to be apologizing, it wouldn't be me.

He was rather stern, and finished up by telling me that it was not necessary for me to apologize for living - something, I'm sure, that set me wailing again, as that was precisely what I had been doing for as long as I could remember. I apologized for everything.

Over the years I have gradually grown out of thinking that everything is my fault. I had to start hearing my own apologies, and then paying attention to what I apologized for, and to whether it was really my fault. And I'll give you an example of how that works.

This weekend my sister and I went to a concert, in my car. We left our purses locked in the trunk of the car - I picked up both of them, carried them to the trunk, and set them on the floor.

The next day she called me; she had lost an electronic key; would I go and check the trunk? I checked the trunk, and the floor where she had been sitting; there was nothing. I felt really bad; she had lost her key, and I couldn't find it. The feeling of being responsible for something bad was so familiar; it was only when I re-read the list of cognitive errors that I realized what was going on. I had, after all, picked up her things with care, and placed them in the trunk in the same way. I'd searched the parts of my car where she had been, and I shook out a blanket that had been in the trunk just in case something was caught in it. In the several square miles where her key might be, it was not in the six or so square feet of my car.

Her missing key was not my fault.

Even now, though, having figured out my cognitive error, there is still a tiny part of me that feels guilty...because my sister lost her key, and I couldn't find it.

* * * * * *

While looking the journals I found a remark from Doc - of course I can't find it now but he was warning me against setting artificial hurdles for myself. I used to be very good at that; I think I believed that if I set myself a task and accomplished it, then People Wouldn't Figure it Out. The mask would stay in place.

The first book on the "books I'm reading" box is "Anna Karenina." It's been there for awhile; it's going to stay there for awhile; it's slow going and I have about 350 pages left. I read it long ago but didn't remember much. Why am I reading it now? Because I ordered a novel called "What Happened to Anna K." by Irina Reyn. It's Anna's version of the story.

Why didn't I just sit down and read the new novel? Why am I spending weeks on "Anna Karenina?"

I'm setting myself unnecessary tasks. The good news is that I know it, and if the book wasn't interesting, I'd have put it away by now.

Excessive responsibility. It's a real pain in the ass; if everything is truly your fault then everything you do is wrong, and you are wrong.

My thanks to my gray-braided doc for the fresh box of tissues.

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