I bounded down the stairs to show my mom my new frilly red dress.
“Oh Kimmi! You look so pretty! That is such a pretty red dress!”
I stopped mid-twirl, put my hands on my four-year-old hips, and looked at her accusingly. “You don’t like my blue dress?” I asked.
Flash-forward 30 years, and that easily hurt, overly dramatic little girl has become an easily hurt, overly dramatic woman. I’m not sure why, but I have always jumped to conclusions and distorted the truth, turning compliments into insults and finding ways to feel slighted in any kind of situation or exchange.
This particular talent swung into high gear three years ago when I broke off my engagement to Eric, a man I had been with for five years. Even though I was the one to end things, I felt rejected and lost, convinced I would never find love again. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t eating. So, I decided to see a therapist who specialized in helping people change their thoughts and behaviors.
“You have to challenge your cognitive distortions,” he instructed me at the end of our first 45-minute session, handing me a piece of paper to track my thoughts for the week.
“I have to challenge my what?” I asked, my eyebrows shooting up, having no idea what the hell he was talking about.
“All or nothing thinking,” he said, scanning my face, realizing I still didn’t know what he meant. “Okay, say someone doesn’t like the salad you made for them. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Just because you feel rejected doesn’t mean you are. That kind of thing.”
Why didn’t he just say that? That I understood. That’s what I had been doing my entire life. I was the Queen of Cognitive Distortions. I just never knew it had such an alienating, pretentious name.
The next morning, getting milk out of the refrigerator, I found myself thinking: Eric didn’t love me enough to stay. If I were more lovable, he would have married me … I bet he’ll get married before I do. Everyone gets married before I do. Everyone is more lovable than I am.
My stomach started to churn and my chin began to quiver, the way it does pre-cry. I wanted to crawl back into bed and go to sleep forever. Instead, I did something radical. I took a deep breath and challenged my cognitive distortions, like my therapist had told me to do.
Milk carton in hand, I asked myself, Is that true? Is everyone else more lovable?
No! I answered back. I am just as lovable! Just because someone gets married doesn’t mean they’re better than I am. Or even a nice person. I’m a nice person!
I felt very Stuart Smalley, but I had to admit it helped. I poured the milk in my coffee and went on with my day. Just like that.
The next week I told my therapist what happened.
“See, not everything you think is true,” he said, proud of my self-talk-back. “I have a question though, and you may not like it.”
“Okayyyyy,” I said, crossing my hands over my chest.
“What if Eric didn’t love you enough? What if he never loved you? Would that make you unlovable?”
Hmmmm. He was right. I did not like that question.
“No. It would just mean that he didn’t love me. Lots of people aren’t going to love me.” I couldn’t believe what I was saying. I sounded so … healthy. I liked this questioning your thoughts thing.
I liked it so much, in fact, that I started doing it all the time. There was hardly a thought in my head that I didn’t pounce on.
Extreme me: I should tone it down. No one is ever going to want to be with me.
Healthy me: No, you should tone it up! People should love you for who you are, not what you think they want you to be.
Extreme me: I’m too sensitive.
Healthy me: Okay, that might be true, but that sensitivity is what makes you special, what makes you empathetic and artistic.
I was getting good at finding middle ground in my “all or nothing” thinking. But then The Secret threw me off course.
It was early 2007, and everywhere I went someone else was talking about “the power of positive thinking.” You should never say your back is killing you because it might just kill you. You should never say what you don’t want because it will just draw more of it into your life. You should never tell yourself you can’t do something or you’ll never be able to do it. Basically, you should be careful of what you think and say at all times or you’re screwed. I started to panic.
What if I didn’t do a good enough job challenging my thoughts? What if there were thoughts I couldn’t hear? What if I didn’t catch a thought in time and ruined my life?
I became convinced that everything bad that happened to me, like getting a UTI or being stuck in traffic, was my fault because I didn’t do a good enough job managing the jumble in my head. So, I did what any reasonable adult would do: I started knocking on wood. I knew rationally that knocking on wood couldn’t ward off a cold, but I needed to protect myself from my rogue thoughts. Challenging my cognitive distortions had become an obsession with positive thinking and it was now veering into superstition. I didn’t know what to do.
My therapist told me to stop knocking on wood and to address the fears that were coming up. But I was tired. I was tired of policing my head and monitoring every single word that came out of my mouth. I wanted a break.
Then something interesting happened. I ran into a friend who, when I asked him how he was feeling, bent down like an old man, and said, “Oy. My back is giving me Hep C.”
I laughed out loud, knowing his back couldn’t possibly give him Hepatitis C. Yeah, maybe his back hurt, but he was clearly kidding. I realized that making jokes wasn’t too far off from what my therapist had been trying to teach me all along. “Just because you say something or think something doesn’t make it true.” I had somehow missed the point, confusing it with new-agey scare tactics. It had never been about positive or negative thinking. It was simply about noticing the lies and exaggerations you tell yourself on a regular basis and acknowledging them as just that, lies and exaggerations. They say don’t believe everything you read—the lesson I learned is don’t believe everything you think.
These days I’m choosing to have more fun with that crazy head of mine. I’m seeing a new therapist who gives me space to think and feel and say whatever I want, and I am dating a comedy writer, who not only loves me enough to stay—he makes me laugh at myself. The other day he told me he liked the way my hair looked blown out straight.
“You don’t like it wavy?” I accused.
He smiled, knowing my childhood story, and said, “I like your blue dress too.”
Kimberlee Auerbach is the author of The Devil, The Lovers, and Me: My Life In Tarot. Check out her website here.