Books That Changed My Life – The Feeling Good Handbook

This post is part of an ongoing series on books that have greatly influenced my life.

Today, I want to be open and honest about a fairly dark period in my life. It’s important that we reflect on these times, so that we may learn from them and make ourselves more resilient. Life has a way of throwing challenges at us when we least expect it, and while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we respond.

During my second and third years in college, I went through what in hindsight was a period of fairly deep clinical depression. I was often melancholy, unmotivated, and (despite being surrounded by a wonderful group of friends) lonely. The cult of macho surrounding my fraternity boy existence demanded strength, so I hid my feelings and pushed them aside. I felt lost, and wondered why everyone else seemed so happy and successful, when I doomed to a life of perpetual failure.

It took some time and a few fairly harsh experiences for me to realize that I could not solve this on my own. I felt ashamed, but knew that I must seek help if I was to break free. Thankfully, I found a wonderful psychologist who helped teach me why I felt the way I did, and importantly, how I could change the way I thought. The connection between thoughts and emotions, while not obvious to me at the time, sparked an intuitive reaction that motivated me to learn more. And the more I read, the more I understood how critical our patterns of thought were to our well being.

Which brings us to the book I’m writing about today, The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns.

By the time I got to this book, I’d already read a number of others on the subject of Cognitive Behavioral therapy, such as Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, so I was fairly well versed in the theory that our thoughts can have a pronounced effect on how we feel. But Burns’ book was by far the most well written and practical of the bunch, and the result was nothing short of amazing. The idea is that by simply applying some reflection and logic to our thoughts, we can generate dramatic changes in our mood and the way we perceive the world around us. Sound like snake oil? I thought so too, until I tried it.

It turns out that we humans tend to think in extremely illogical ways. For example, when we forget to respond to a client e-mail, we might think “I’m such an idiot, I should have responded to that! My boss is upset and I’ll be passed over for that promotion.” In that one stream of thought are three brilliant examples of what Burns calls cognitive distortions. These are ways that we warp our patterns of thought in ways that distort reality, often in ways that make things appear a lot worse than they really are.

  1. “I’m such an idiot, I should have responded to that!” – Ah, the should statement. What a useless word! All it does is create shame and regret. We cannot change what we have done, and hindsight is always perfect, so what good does it do to retroactively criticize ourselves?
  2. My boss is upset…” – So, you can now read minds? Perhaps your boss is upset, but you can’t know until you speak to them.
  3. “…I’ll be passed over for that promotion.” – Now you can predict the future? How do you know for sure that this one incident will knock you out of the competition?

I don’t think that it is possible to describe how powerful the impact of becoming conscious of, and later learning to direct, my thoughts was on my life. Besides affecting a profound change in my emotional well being, it greatly influenced my ultimate choice of college major (psychology), knowledge I (despite being in a totally unrelated field) still make daily use of.

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