Automatic Thoughts & Core Beliefs

Therapy is mentally exhausting. I had a really productive session today. I switched therapists in June because I go to a clinic on a university campus, so the clinicians are students and are usually only in the clinic for a year of their program. Starting with a new therapist is always weird. You have to feel each other out a bit. I hadn’t felt like we’d been very productive yet, but I also wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go with her. We hit on something today that feels big and important and like we know where we’re going now.

That said it was the most draining session I’ve had in awhile, and that surprised me. It didn’t feel that way during the session. But I came straight home and wrote the following post about it and immediately fell asleep for a couple of hours. Like I couldn’t stay awake even though I really needed to go to work. Maybe I should do therapy in the evening so it can’t ever mess up my work day. Oof.

Anyway, I’ve been struggling with depression a lot lately. I don’t understand. Or I don’t understand it as well as I understand my anxiety-related struggles. Depression is all thought and emotion. For me at least, it’s not as tangible.

I used to think OCD was the hardest thing I’d ever face, the biggest, scariest monster. But in the last couple of years, I’ve learned that was naïve of me. OCD was the loudest force in my brain for most of my life, but after I was able to turn the volume down on it, suddenly I could hear everything else that OCD had been drowning out. Depression, perfectionism, social anxiety, general anxiety, etc. I knew it was all there in the background, but it hadn’t seemed liked such a big deal while I was battling OCD. At first, it seemed like these various disorders were taking turns running the show in my brain, but it has become clear to me lately that they’re too entwined to take turns. It’s more like one disorder that just manifests differently in different situations. It’s all just my brain, how it’s wired.

This week, I’ve been feeling the depression part more heavily that the others. I think that I should be happy, but I definitely don’t feel happy. I think I should be happy because I have a stable, permanent job situation. I’m not making much money, but I only have to work 40 hours a week between two telecommuting part-time jobs. I get to have evenings and weekends off. I have free time for the first time since starting grad school. This is all a dream compared to the constant work in grad school and then the 70–80 hours per week I was working as an adjunct at community colleges that were 45-minute commutes in opposite directions. I should be overjoyed!

But I’m not happy. Because my brain doesn’t work that way. I need to remember that. It is important to remember my wiring. Most of the time, when I think I should be happy but am not, I get mad at and punish myself for being unhappy. That doesn’t help, and I’m not being fair to myself. Happiness is not so simple when your brain is wired like this.

Therapy today was really illuminating. We talked about core beliefs. I’d done some work on automatic thoughts (links with more info at the end) with my previous therapist, but today my new therapist and I went deeper. We started to look at the beliefs that underlie those automatic thoughts.

Examples of some of my recent automatic thoughts:

  • I should be working harder.
  • I should be doing better (quality) work.
  • I should be better at my job.
  • I should be better at writing.
  • I should be a better writer.

These are all “should” thoughts, and they make up almost half of my usual automatic thoughts. The other half are mostly catastrophising /fortunetelling thoughts (like “I’ll never be successful” or “I’ll never publish again”) but those are for another day. What has messed me up most this week are these thoughts about what I should be doing, how I should be working.

Underlying all of these automatic thoughts is the belief that I am not enough. Why do I believe that? Because my self-worth is tied to my work—whether that’s work for a job, writing, or school. It has been for as long as I can remember. I’m all about doing, needing tangible proof of my self-worth.

This is where it became so clear to me today that depression and perfectionism in particular, for me, are inseparable.

With my work, whatever that work is, anything less than perfect is a failure. So to my brain, I’ve failed a lot. If perfection is the only thing that is “enough,” then I really will never feel like anything is enough because perfection is impossible. How can I be happy about any accomplishment? How I can be happy without any accomplishment? How can I be happy full stop?

Thus starts a new chapter in therapy. We’re about to start challenging my core beliefs like this one. I want to feel hopeful, but I don’t feel that right now. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this idea that I could believe I’m enough, that I can separate my self-worth from my work. I know I’m a good person, but that’s not enough—just being a good person. What good is that if I don’t do something with it? What good is it without accomplishing anything? I’m struggling with these thoughts. The idea is not that I need to learn to be happy with just being a good person and should never try to accomplish anything.. It’s just that being a good person should be where I get my self-worth, not from work. But I’m still struggling with that. It’s gonna take a lot of time and work to get on board. And that’s just the first belief.

(Sorry about not posting for so long. I’m done with grad school and adjuncting—for now—so hopefully I can write on here more often. I’ve really missed it.

Here’s some more info about automatic thoughts and cognitive therapy:

Great 5-minute video about dealing with automatic thoughts – WellCast

History of CBT (very brief) – Beck Institute

Examples and types of automatic thoughts – The Happiness Institute

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