Book review
Feeling Good

Feeling great about “Feeling good”

It’s no secret that I love Tom Bilyeu’s Youtube Channel: he always has fascinating people talking about their work (mostly book publications). So, informally, Tom has already been my “book club” for almost a year now. But as things tend to become more organized (or at least I like to think they will), he just started an Instagram Book Club (follow #tbbookblub).

First book? “Feeling Good – the new mood therapy” by David D. Burns. After reading it, I understand why he chose it: the book is a collection of really helpful tools for both depression and anxiety. So the more (who reads it), the merrier (the world will probably be). Literally.

You can enhance your mood by reading this book! Illustration co-created with @andresidarta

“Dr. David Burn’s Feeling Good was rated as the most helpful book on depression – the most frequently recommended by American mental health professionals […] David D. Burns, M.D. is an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at the Standford University School of Medicine and has served as Visiting Scholar at Harvard Medical School”.

I’ve struggled with depression myself, and I know how much we need all the help available when we are in that situation. If you are dwelling with this (or know someone who) is, please refer to this book. Or to my blog post.

“Depression is one of the worst forms of suffering, because of the immense feeling of shame, worthlessness, hopelessness, and demoralization. Depression can seem worse than terminal cancer, because most cancer patients feel loved and they have hope and self-esteem […] depression can kill you. The suicide rate, the studies indicate, has been on a shocking increase in recent years, even among children and adolescents.”

So… let’s have a look at it? I always try to keep the posts as short as I can, but please bear with me until the end of this a little bit longer post. It will be worthy. In the book, he presents tons of research that indicates psychotherapy can be at least as helpful as medicine in the treatment of depression (usually more effective, especially in the long term).

1) The premise

A provoking premise is the base of the book: Depression is not a problem of feeling (sadness) but instead a problem of thought or perception. The author states that “twisted thinking is a major cause of your suffering”. He bases his work on cognitive psychology and believes that you can learn to change the way you think about the things in your life.

“The first principle of cognitive therapy is that all your moods are created by your “cognitions,” or thoughts. A cognition refers to the the way you look at things – your perceptions, mental attitudes and beliefs. […] The second principle is that when you are feeling depressed your thoughts are dominated by a pervasive negativity. […] The third principle is of substantial philosophical and therapeutic importance. Our research has documented that the negative thoughts which cause your emotional turmoil nearly always contain gross distortions”.

Let’s make it simples:

  1. You think something, and you start to feel a determined way;
  2. The way you feel begins to distort your thinking and perception;
  3. You end up thinking about more terrible things.

And suddenly, just like a Brian McKnight song, You will “start back at one”. Except this is not a dream come true. It’s a nightmare. 

Our brains are wired to this feedback loop that reinforces previous thinking and feeling. We’ve talked about that paradox before here on the blog. Dr. David offers tools that will make clear that you are unrealistic in your “emotional reasoning” and stop (or at least weaken) this vicious circle.

“Once you invite depression through an “automatic” series of cognitive distortions, your feelings and actions will reinforce each other in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. Because you believe whatever your depressed brain tells you, you find yourself feeling negative about almost everything. This reaction occurs in milliseconds, too quickly for you even to be aware of it. The negative emotion feels realistic and in turn, lends an aura of credibility to the distorted thought which created it. The cycle goes on and on, and you are eventually trapped. The mental prison is an illusion, a hoax you have inadvertently created, but it seems real because it feels real.” 

2) Set a baseline

Before we start the work, it’s crucial to set a baseline so that you can track your progress. For that purpose, he offers The Burns depression Checklist (BDC) as a “reliable mood-measuring device that detects the presence of depression and accurately rates its severity.

The Burns depression Checklist (BDC), prints from the book

You can download the excel file I prepared for you based on the book here.

“Depression mimics a great number of medical disorders because your mood swings often create a wide variety of puzzling physical symptoms.” So, if you have been feeling unexplained aches, pains, fever, weight loss, etc. it is possible that those symptoms are related to your emotional state. Still, it is always good to discard other possibilities: take all the physical and health exams with a trusted doctor. “Keep in mind that many treatable illnesses may initially masquerade as Depression and a medical examination could reveal an early (and life-saving) diagnosis of a reversible organic disorder.”

Also, keep in mind that several of those symptoms indicate mental disturbances that require a mental-health professional consultation. In the book, he describes several other signs that might indicate that, but since this post is not meant to replace either the book or a consultation with a health professional, we are not exploring that.

3) The 10 most common cognitive distortions

Also, before getting to the exercises and tools, we must understand what your mind does when you feel depressed. In other words, what are the most common reasoning mistakes your brain tricks you into making. This list is impressive, and I laughed a lot reading it (I don’t mean to make fun of it… it was a nervous “this-is-me” – better yet “this-WAS-me” – laugh).

  1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING
    Whenever you think on “black-or-white” terms. For example, a good student eventually gets a B on a test and decided that “now I’m a total failure.” It is the basis of perfectionism and makes you fear any mistake (because any imperfection will make you a loser).

“This way of evaluating things is unrealistic because life is rarely completely either one way or the other. […] The technical name for this type of perceptual error is “dichotomous thinking.”

  1. OVERGENERALIZATION
    When you overgeneralize, you take that one thing that happened will occur again in all other situations.

“When I was eleven years old, I bought a deck of trick cards […] called the Svengali Deck. […] I show the deck to you—every card is different. You choose a card at random. Let’s assume you pick the Jack of Spades. Without telling me what card it is, you replace it in the deck. Now I exclaim, “Svengali!” As I turn the deck over, every card has turned into the Jack of Spades. When you overgeneralize, this is performing the mental equivalent of Svengali. […] Since what happened is invariably unpleasant, you feel upset.”

  1. MENTAL FILTER
    It is like having a pair of glasses that filter everything you perceive and don’t allow anything positive to be seen. In other words, you pick a negative detail and focus on it exclusively, thus understanding the whole situation ss negative.

“For example, a depressed college student heard some other students making fun of her best friend. She became furious because she was thinking, “That’s what the human race is basically like—cruel and insensitive! […] “Because you are not aware of this “filtering process,” you conclude that everything is negative. The technical name for this process is “selective abstraction.”.”

  1. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE
    Even more incredible than being unable to see positive things is the ability to transform neutral or positive happenings into negative ones.

“You don’t just ignore positive experiences; you cleverly and swiftly turn them into their nightmarish opposite. I call this “reverse alchemy.” […] An everyday example of this would be the way most of us have been conditioned to respond to compliments. When someone praises your appearance or your work, you might automatically tell yourself, “They’re just being nice.”

This disqualification of anything positive is the worst of all distortions because you lose your ability to appreciate when good things happen. To be honest, this one is a major issue for me.

  1. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
    You jump into a negative conclusion even if there no facts to support it.

“Two examples of this are “mind reading” and “the fortune teller error.”
MIND READING: You make the assumption that other people are looking down on you, and you’re so convinced about this that you don’t even bother to check it out. […] “THE FORTUNE TELLER ERROR: It’s as if you had a crystal ball that foretold only misery for you. You imagine that something bad is about to happen, and you take this prediction as a fact even though it is unrealistic.”

  1. MAGNIFICATION AND MINIMIZATION
    You are either blowing errors and negative things out of proportion or shrinking the positive things.

“I like to think of it as the “binocular trick” […] Magnification commonly occurs when you look at your own errors, […]: “My God—I made a mistake. How terrible! How awful! The word will spread like wildfire! My reputation is ruined!” […] that makes them appear gigantic and grotesque. This has also been called “catas-trophizing” because you turn commonplace negative events into nightmarish monsters. When you think about your strengths, you may do the opposite—look through the wrong end of the binoculars so that things look small and unimportant.”

  1. EMOTIONAL REASONING
    This means you take emotions as evidence of truth. I feel, therefore I am.

“This kind of reasoning is misleading because your feelings reflect your thoughts and beliefs. If they are distorted—as is quite often the case—your emotions will have no validity. Examples of emotional reasoning include “I feel guilty. Therefore, I must have done something bad. […] Emotional reasoning plays a role in nearly all your depressions. Because things feel so negative to you, you assume they truly are”.

  1. SHOULD STATEMENTS
    Prestons Smiles told us that people “should themselves to death”. This is precisely what he was talking about.

“You try to motivate yourself by saying, “I should do this” or “I must do that.” These statements cause you to feel pressured and resentful. Paradoxically, you end up feeling apathetic and unmotivated. Albert Ellis calls this “musturbation.” I call it the “shouldy” approach to life. […] Should statements generate a lot of unnecessary emotional turmoil in your daily life. When the reality of your own behavior falls short of your standards, your shoulds and shouldn’ts create self-loathing, shame, and guilt”

  1. LABELING AND MISLABELING
    This is when, based on your flaws, you create completely negative a self-image. It’s an extreme generalization (number 2).

“There is a good chance you are involved in a personal labeling whenever you describe your mistakes with sentences beginning with “I’m a …” For example, when you miss your putt on the eighteenth hole, you might say, “I’m a born loser” instead of “I goofed up on my putt.” […]
Labeling yourself is not only self-defeating, it is irrational. Your self cannot be equated with any one thing you do. Your life is a complex and ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions, and actions. […] Stop trying to define yourself with negative labels—they are overly simplistic and wrong. Would you think of yourself exclusively as an “eater” just because you eat, or a “breather” just because you breathe? “

  1. PERSONALIZATION
    This is – I think – my personal number 1. I think it’s like mixing depression with a really egocentric world view. You take responsibility for a negative event when there is absolutely no reason to do so.

“This distortion is the mother of guilt! […] You arbitrarily conclude that what happened was your fault or reflects your inadequacy, even when you were not responsible for it. For example, when a patient didn’t do a self-help assignment I had suggested, I felt guilty because of my thought, “I must be a lousy therapist. It’s my fault that she isn’t working harder to help herself. It’s my responsibility to make sure she gets well.” […] Personalization causes you to feel crippling guilt. You suffer from a paralyzing and burdensome sense of responsibility that forces you to carry the whole world on your shoulders. You have confused influence with control over others. […] What the other person does is ultimately his or her responsibility, not yours.”

4) Work, work, work

Okay. Time to work. Are you ready?

I’m about to showcase some of the tools so you can get started TODAY, but if any of those make sense to you, I strongly recommend that you buy the book and get the full list of suggestions, the examples, and everything else that is not contained here. Again, the book does not intend (and surely neither do I) to replace professional treatment, but it does offer itself as a fantastic complement to the sessions.

Some of the tools may seem silly, but I can assure you that they are not. If you are willing to spend time daily on them, you will experience an improvement in the way you feel.

A) CHANGING HOW YOU THINK

Dr. David criticizes the conviction that some psychotherapists share that your feelings represent a higher reality (emotions as a truth beyond question, the real personal integrity) and that emotional maturity is being aware of your feelings and expressing them openly.

The author states that feelings are not a special entity. Since we learned that feelings are influenced by thought and your cognition is completely taken by mental distortions, they are actually not trustable at all as your “real self.”

Dr. David does not suggest we get rid of all emotions, just the ones “based on mental distortions, because they are neither valid nor desirable.”

>> THE TRIPLE COLUMN TECHNIQUE AND DAILY RECORD OF DYSFUNCTIONAL THOUGHTS

Both tools are variations of the same principle: by writing down your thoughts you are able to analyze your mental distortion and develop a more realistic self-evaluation system.

“Simply draw two lines down the center of a piece of paper to divide it into thirds […]. Label the left-hand column “Automatic Thoughts (Self-Criticism),” the middle column “Cognitive Distortion,” and the right-hand column “Rational Response (Self-Defense).” In the left-hand column write down all those hurtful self-criticisms you make when you are feeling worthless and down on yourself. […] Using the list of ten cognitive distortions […] identify the thinking errors in each of your negative automatic thoughts. […] You are now ready for […] substituting a more rational, less upsetting thought in the right-hand column”.

If you feel confident to take the next step, you can do a more elaborate exercise called the Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts. Besides recording the upsetting thoughts, you get to record how you felt and what events might have triggered those distortions.

Triple column technique and daily record of dysfunctional thoughts, prints from the book

You can download an excel version that I prepared for you here.

B) CHANGING HOW YOU ACT

Besides changing your thinking, a great way to battle bad feelings is by changing the way you act. The only caveat is: you don’t feel like doing much when you are depressed. Oops. This is one of the worst things about depression: it destroys your will power, and procrastination hug you like a warm fluffy blanket.

The consequence is, again, a vicious cycle: you don’t accomplish much, you feel worst. More self-hatred, you start to feel overwhelmed, and little by little (in a sneaky way you don’t get to realize at first), it appears to be colder (and colder and colder) outside of that blanket. And this lethargy cycle can go on for an extended period.

Lethargy cycle, prints from the book

“Your inactivity will be all the more frustrating if you once took pride in the energy you had for life. Your do-nothingism can also affect your family and friends, who, like yourself, cannot understand your behavior. They may say that you must want to be depressed or else you’d “get off your behind.” Such a comment only worsens your anguish and paralysis.”

And the surprising thing is that – patient after patient – all of them reveal to feel better doing almost ANYTHING. Is other words, if you make an effort to do anything, even the most simple task, you are most likely to feel better.

“I know your procrastination is probably less severe and only deals with minor things, like paying bills, a trip to the dentist, etc. Or maybe you’ve had trouble finishing a relatively straightforward report that is crucial to your career. But the perplexing question is the same—why do we frequently behave in ways that are not in our self-interest? […] How can you find the real cause of motivational paralysis? Simply ask yourself, “When I think about that undone task, what thoughts immediately come to mind?” Then write those thoughts down on a piece of paper. What you write will reflect a number of maladaptive attitudes, misconceptions, and faulty assumptions. You will learn that the feelings that impede your motivation, such as apathy, anxiety, or the sense of being overwhelmed, are the result of distortions in your thinking.”

A suggested tool is the Antiprocrastination sheet: Take notes of activities and confront the expected and actual of both difficulty and pleasure. With that in hand, you can start to questions your assumptions and discover there is no need to be overwhelmed by everything and also that there is a lot of fun things expecting for you in life!

Antiprocrastination sheet, prints from the book

The other killer suggestion is to reason yourself out of procrastination with “The But-Rebuttal Method”. It is super important to write down everything and do this exercise until you have no way out.

But rebuttal, prints from the book

You can download an excel for both tools that I prepared for you here.

The author also reinforces some simples and well know techniques such as breaking bigger tasks down into smaller ones, listing benefits, visualizing positive outcomes, and testing out your “cant’s” (self-defeating predictions you make about your performance and abilities).

Also, the book has many more exercises for you to try, and I selected a few so you can begin practicing after you finish this post. Remember: an important part is to #dothework and take at least 15 minutes a day to reflect and write.

Here is one of my favorite excerpts on that:

“I’ll bet you still may not know for sure where motivation comes from. What, in your opinion, comes first—motivation or action?
If you said motivation, you made an excellent, logical choice. Unfortunately, you’re wrong. Motivation does not come first, action does! You have to prime the pump. Then you will begin to get motivated, and the fluids will flow spontaneously.
Individuals who procrastinate frequently confuse motivation and action. You foolishly wait until you feel in the mood to do something. Since you don’t feel like doing it, you automatically put it off.
Your error is your belief that motivation comes first, and then leads to activation and success. But it is usually the other way around; action must come first, and the motivation comes later on.”

It’s funny because he gives the writing of the book as an example (according to him the first draft was hideous) and I can tell you that it looks a lot like my process for the blog – from the creation of the site per se up to how I feel every post. Act. No matter how small. No matter how simples. I’m sure Nike will give me no money for this brand awareness I’m about to give them, but… Just do it! 🙂 Here is how he puts it:

Action cycle, prints from the book

C) LEARNING TO DEAL WITH CRITICISM

Besides your ongoing self-criticism, you have to deal with life and other people. Some depressive episodes might start with external criticism so it is fundamental to learn how to handle verbal abuse and disapproval effectively: nondefensively and keeping your self-esteem high.

The base for that is understanding that NO ONE in the world has the power to make you sad other than yourself.

“In the first place, you must realize that it is not other people, or the critical comments they make, that upset you. To repeat, there has never been a single time in your life when the critical comments of some other person upset you—even to a small extent. No matter how vicious, heartless, or cruel these comments may be, they have no power to disturb you or to create even a little bit of discomfort.”

The problem with criticism is that it sets in motion all that mechanism we’ve been talking about… the mental distortions and the on going vicious cycle.

“Here’s how it works. When another person criticizes you, certain negative thoughts are automatically triggered in your head. Your emotional reaction will be created by these thoughts and not by what the other person says. The thoughts which upset you will invariably contain the same types of mental errors described in Chapter 3: overgeneralization, all-or-nothing thinking, the mental filter, labeling, etc.”

In a similar manner, you should be able to write down the feelings and thoughts related to that criticism and their rational responses like we did for our own self-criticism.

However, we both know that this tool is only useful after the fact. What to say when someone is attacking in a way you keep your self-confidence? To deal with it at the moment they happen, though, the author suggests a few verbal techniques:

I. Empathy – instead of playing the right or wrong game, ask questions and try to understand in a really specific manner what is the other person dislike.

“Try to avoid being judgmental or defensive as you ask the questions. Constantly ask for more and more specific information. Attempt to see the world through the critic’s eyes. “If the person attacks you with vague, insulting labels, ask him or her to be more specific and to point out exactly what it is about you the person dislikes. This initial maneuver can itself go a long way to getting the critic off your back, and will help transform an attack-defense interaction into one of collaboration and mutual respect.”

When you ask specific questions two things happen: you avoid being rejected completely (only specific parts of you will be discussed, not you as a whole), and you put yourself in a position to listen and develop a more problem-solving approach.

II – Disarm the critic – If someone shoots at you, you have 3 options: shoot back, run or let them run out of bullets. The third option is far more effective, and we will run by it.

“When you take the wind out of the other person’s sails, you end up the winner, and your opponent more often than not will also feel like a winner. How is this accomplished? It’s simple: Whether your critic is right or wrong, initially find some way to agree with him or her.”

To do that, you must try to find any grain of truth – a principle or at least an acknowledgment that the person was hurt by you.

“Because I do not fight back but instead find a way to agree with my opponent, the person quickly seems to run out of ammunition, having been successfully disarmed. You might think of this as winning by avoiding battle. As the critic begins to calm down, he or she will be in a better mood to communicate.”

III – Feeback and negotiation – Let’s recap: first, you listen (empathy), then you agree (disarming), and finally, you are in a situation to explain your position and negotiate the differences you and your interlocutor have about the matter. You will do it in an assertive but tactfully way by starting with the possibility that you might be wrong (even if you are sure you are not). That opens the opportunity for the other person to keep her self-respect even if they are wrong, allowing a more relaxed attitude.

“How can you express this in a nondestructive manner? This is simple: You can express your point of view objectively with an acknowledgment you might be wrong. Make the conflict one based on fact rather than personality or pride. Avoid directing destructive labels at your critic. Remember, his error does not make him stupid, worthless, or inferior.”

After recognizing that you both can be wrong, start stating facts in a polite and respectful way. Here is an example for you to fill in the blanks: “I seem to recall that […] , but I might be confused on this point. I hope you’ll allow for the possibility that you or I will make errors at times. Then we can be more relaxed with each other. Why not see if […]”

You might feel like you are not defending yourself enough, but Dr. David states that being more or less directly confrontational is just a matter of how and not of what you are saying. You can assert all your opinions and feelings in a relaxed manner.

Coping with criticism, prints from the book

5) Additional thoughts and resources

We skipped a whole part about anger to try to keep things short and because, in a way or another, the exercises are variations of what we already talked about here (it’s not the world that makes you angry, your thoughts do). But I can’t stress enough that – if you identified with the theory presented and the exercises, you should buy your copy!

We also are not going into the details of dealing with guilt. Again, the process is similar: I feel guilty and worthy of condemnation, then I feel like I’m a bad person and therefore, of course, I deserve to suffer.

“This concept of the “badness” of self is central to guilt. In its absence, your hurtful action might lead to a healthy feeling of remorse but not guilt. Remorse stems from the undistorted awareness that you have willfully and unnecessarily acted in a hurtful manner toward yourself or another person that violates your personal ethical standards. Remorse differs from guilt because there is no implication your transgression indicates you are inherently bad, evil, or immoral. To put it in a nutshell, remorse or regret are aimed at behavior, whereas guilt is targeted toward the “self.””

You should examine your thoughts and, in this case, there is an additional point you should be aware of: what have you learned from in your actions? Putting in another way, if you did act in a way that you don’t agree with, how things can be different moving forward?

I must give you just one more thing to think about: there are depressions there are “endogenous,” meaning they are created out of thin air, in an internal process of distortion. However, you might have depression being triggered by external facts.

But sadness is not depression. If you are suffering in your life (health issues, tragic losses, financial crisis, etc.) you might feel some “healthy sadness,” meaning that feeling is grounded in an undistorted perception of reality. Another important thing is that sadness has a flow, and therefore it fades with time or tends to end with time.

So if your sadness is “frozen” in time and also tends to gravitate toward the 10 distortions we discussed, you might want to look for a professional.

I won’t keep you guys long for his additional considerations and reflections on some emotional addictions, stressful situations, the chemistry, and medicines for depression. That was a deliberate choice to focus on the premise, and the exercises – more useful for quick wins, which I know are CRUCIAL for those trying to take the first steps out of the dark place of depression and anxiety. In Dr. David’s words:

“There are several differences between feeling better and getting better. Feeling better simply indicates that the painful symptoms have temporarily disappeared. Getting better implies:
1. Understanding why you got depressed.
2. Knowing why and how you got better. This involves a mastery of the particular self-help techniques that worked specifically for you so that you can reapply them and make them work again whenever you choose.
3. Acquiring self-confidence and self-esteem. Self-confidence is based on the knowledge that you have a good chance of being reasonably successful in personal relationships and in your career. Self-esteem is the capacity to experience maximal self-love and joy whether or not you are successful at any point in your life.
4. Locating the deeper causes of your depression.
Parts I, II, and III of this book were designed to help you achieve the first two goals. The next several chapters will help you with the third and fourth goals.”

On this post we explored parts I, II, and just a little bit of III. I will leave some final quotes of those chapters that I’m not exploring. Click here to download.

Also, you can check his website: https://feelinggood.com

Or watch his TED talk clicking here.

6) My final (and personal) comments

This subject is sensitive to me. Even though I find that the book only covers a part of our being (we’ll be talking more about that in our next post), as I crawl my way out of a depression, I can’t stress enough how EVERYTHING COUNTS. Every action, every new thought, every loving attitude we can have towards ourselves, life, and even others are not only a spark of joy but also very therapeutic.

So here are 5 things you could do:

  • Take the BDC test and check your current situation.
  • Say out loud right now that you are okay, and that things will only get better.
  • Text a friend you trust and ask if they can talk. Take the time to enjoy the conversation.
  • Plan something that you want to accomplish, dividing it into small tasks and deciding which of them you can accomplish today (or tomorrow if it’s too late when you read this).
  • Comment on this post and externalize how you feel. Not only it might make you feel better, but it will also make my day.

THANK YOU! 🙂 See you on the next post!

p.s.: All quotes are excerpts from: Burns M.D., David D. “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.”

Author : Fernanda Sarmento

Fernanda Sarmento is the owner of @mindingwithin, a self-development addicted, writer and digital marketer. With a bachelor in Social Communication and Media Studies and a master in Production Engineering she regards herself as both a meditation and ice cream junkie.

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