Photo: Levi Brown
Of my many flaws there's one that really weighs me down. My hair. It's flat, it's lifeless, and I have no clue how to deal with the cowlick. Sometimes I gaze at women on the street with their perfect curls and marvel—why can't I be like them? The rational observer might suggest I get a low-maintenance cut or simply put things in perspective. Unless she were completely vindictive, she would not conclude that my inability to style my hair meant I was a failure as a person.
But I might. While I pride myself on being kind to others, I do not show the same compassion to myself. Instead, I have a gift for letting trivial things suck me into a vortex of self-loathing. A missed workout, a bad piano practice: Anything can churn my mind into an emotional whirlpool that gathers strength by pulling in unrelated failings—say, my difficulty choosing clothes or my lack of a steady paycheck. "Why can't I dress myself? Why did I pick this career?" Eventually, I'm dragged all the way under: "Why am I so pathetic?"
Of course I realize that such thinking is totally irrational, but that only makes me angrier; if I know my thoughts are silly, why can't I stop them?
This self-directed anger, which is thought to be more common among women than men, was part of the reason I started cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is based on the idea that our moods are caused largely by our interpretations of the world around us, and that these interpretations are not factual. In the world of CBT, if you want to change the way you feel, you have to change the way you think.
"You need to evaluate your judgments against yourself until clear thinking is as automatic as the hurtful patterns it's meant to replace," says the therapist who introduced me to the practice, Bruce Hubbard, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York and director of the Cognitive Health Group.
One of CBT's key techniques is called cogni-tive restructuring. It involves identifying a "hot thought"—an emotionally charged idea that breeds negativity—and putting it on trial, calling up evidence for and against your interpretation in order to recognize its flaws. "This helps you separate the facts about who you are from the negative spin you've placed on your experience," says Hubbard. And defusing negative thoughts makes it less likely they'll build to a bigger problem, like depression.
But CBT isn't just about rewiring your thinking; it also includes finding ways to take positive action against perceived failures, and in some cases, developing a level of acceptance: Maybe I'll never be cast in a Pantene ad, and maybe that's okay.
I'm still not immune to my own attacks, but I'm better at disarming situations that trigger them. My hope is that, with practice, I'll be able to take a step back and go easy on myself—cowlick and all.
Next: Try a simple exercise to modify your mood