bhapte14 88-149 January 20, 1990

Consider some dimension of your life on which you frequently compare yourself negatively. Let's say that you have not found a way to improve your numerator - your perceived actual state of affairs. And you are not prepared to sweeten the denominator - the benchmark state to which you compare youself. This leaves you with a Mood Ratio which causes you to suffer sadness and depression. The best strategy may be to replace that entire Rotten Ratio with another one - that is, to turn away from that entire dimension of comparison.

There are two related sets of tactics for changing the dimension: a) changing your priorities about the various aspects of your life, and b) focusing your attention on the good things in your life rather than the bad things. Both of these sets of tactics are staples of folk wisdom. And they both call upon our capacity to direct our attention toward some dimensions of our lives and away from others.


The device of "counting your blessings" can be used to change your denominator, by changing the benchmark comparison that you make, as discussed in Chapter 13. Much the same device is used to shift to a more positive dimension for self- comparison. Instead of brooding on lack of job success, you make yourself remember your family's good health. When you lose your money in the stock market, you try to keep in mind your wonderful children.

Literature and folklore are full of stories of people whose brushes with catastrophe turned their lives around by making them realize how well off they were. And others have come to the same conclusion by simply reflecting on this aspect of their lives, and they have overcome depression in that fashion. But counting your blessings is not always enough by itself, as discussed in Chapter 13 on sweetening your denominator. And a great deal of effort often is required to keep the blessings at the center of your attention - sometimes so much effort that the cost seems greater than the benefit.

Counting your blessings can be like a curse when someone else tells you how well off you really are, and that you have no cause to be depressed. Unless you are able to accept the advice to count your blessings - and usually you are not - then the suggestion that you do so simply makes you more miserable, because it seems to show how little the other person understands your situation and your feelings. The specifics of the blessings to be counted must come from you.


Re-arranging your priorities is a second device for changing Mood Ratio dimensions. A frequent and important example is the person whose actual occupational achievements do not measure up to the person's aspirations, yet is unwilling to scale down his or her aspirations so as to keep the denominator from dominating the numerator. The person may then prevent negative self- comparisons by focusing attention on another related ratio-- perhaps the person's courage in persisting against obstacles, or the person's success in helping co-workers achieve important successes in their work.

Bert F. is a poet who has struggled for years to win readers and respect for his poetry, with only occasional small success and never a really big success. Whether it is his ideas or his unconventionally simple style that keep him from succeeding, he does not know. He continues to believe that his poetry is fine and exciting work, but the overwhelming lack of interest in his work on the part of critics finally wore him down and left him depressed. After months of deep sadness, however, he decided that he could at least give himself high marks for courage and fortitude. And now when his mind turns to the failure of his poems, he consciously directs his mind to his courage. This lifts his spirits. There are also many physically-disabled persons who struggle to learn and work against tough odds, and who keep up their spirits with much the same device.

The non-depressive healthy-minded person usually is quite flexible about choosing dimensions on which to compare himself or herself -- often, more flexible than friends and associates would like. The man who doesn't support his family because he seldom has a job tells himself and his family that he is a good father because he spends so much of his time with his children. And the university professor who does no research takes pride in his teaching, and insists that teaching is more important than research for the purpose of deciding salaries; the professor who does lots of good research but teaches badly argues exactly the opposite. But depressive personalities usually do not use this escape hatch.

You can go beyond changing the dimensions you focus on, and actually shift your life goals. Instead of aiming for financial success, you may decide to concentrate on the number of people you help get a start in life. Instead of aiming for popular- ity, you may aim at moral purity.

This anecdote--in answer to a question put to former astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. who suffered much mental pain-- shows how a person may shift to new dimensions of life to find happiness:

Question: "What was your most positive experience as an astronaut, and how has it helped you in your life today?"-- S.D., Santa Fe, N.M.

Aldrin: "The aftermath of Apollo II made me realize that I had no idea what I was looking for in my life. It took hospitalization for psychiatric treatment and the acceptance of myself as an alcoholic to make me see that faith, hope and love for people are infinitely better goals than indi- vidual achievement."1

Some people, however, are not flexible in their choice of dimensions on which to compare themselves; they now cannot choose at will the best "product line" for them to carry. For some people this is a matter of basic values: they refuse to accord importance to characteristics simply because it is psychologically convenient to do so.

In some cases people seem to get stuck with dimensions that cause them sadness because of values implanted in childhood and unexamined since then. For example, that one should get maximum formal education, or that one should not think ungodly thoughts. In some other cases, people seem to purposely focus only on dimensions which make them look bad in their self-comparisons; people who live fine lives but insist on being guilt-ridden because they think they don't do enough, say, for the community or for their aged parents or relatives.

How can you, even if you are the type that doesn't typically change dimensions of evaluation to suit your own psychological convenience, do so anyway? One way is to force yourself to do so in the name of a higher value. This is another example of Values Treatment (see Chapter 18); this tactic cured me of my 13-year- long depression. The higher value was the welfare of my children, which I came to believe was being threatened by my continued depression. In my hierarchy of values, the welfare of my children is most-important.

Another fundamental value for me, I discovered, is that a person enjoy life for the gift that I believe it to be, rather than to live as if life were no better than death. Therefore, I decided that I simply would not allow myself to make comparisons of my actual occupational achievements to the aspirations I have had for my work, or to the achievements of some others whose work has been better received than mine. I determined that whenever such comparisons came into my mind I would either turn my mind toward other comparisons, such as the wonderful health of our family relative to the bad health that luck could have given us, or to the happy home life I mostly have, or to the useful role I play in the lives of some friends and colleagues, or the peacefulness of our community--or else I would make no comparisons at all. (More about this later.)


You may wonder: Is it really possible to alter your own thinking so as to change your ratios of comparison--just by effort and will? Yes, it is. This may be easier to accept if you notice that how we feel and what we think about is influenced by what we pay attention to. And we have some choice about what we pay attention to, just as we choose one television program or another. For example, one year I had annoyed feelings toward the neighbors on our south side, while I was very fond of our neighbors on the north side. Why is it that some weeks I thought more often about the south-side neighbors than in other weeks, while not changing how much I thought about the north-side neighbors? I found I could alter this pattern by deciding to do so. And by doing so I could influence how much of the time I was angry.

Investigating your personal history for the origins of the dimensions on which you evaluate yourself can sometimes help you give up some dimensions that have held you prisoner in depression. Psychotherapy can sometimes discover these origins. And you may then be prepared to acknowledge that you need not be stuck with your old dimensions, but rather are free to choose dimensions that fit your needs for a happy life. Once having made the decision to shift to one or more new dimensions, the various devices of habit formation, as discussed in Chapter 10, help you implement your resolve to turn your back on the old dimensions, and turn your mind toward the new ones.

Over-generalizing one or more specific dimensions of comparison to the dimension of you as a person is very common for depressives, and it is extraordinarily destructive. Instead of saying "I was not able to do what was required to succeed in that job" a depressive says "I'm worthless as a person." Ellis and Harper emphasize this mechanism, referring to it as "rating yourself." They urge you instead to focus on the specifics of your performance on particular dimensions, and upon the specific implications of poor performance where it occurs, rather than generalizing to overall lack of personal worth. I'll quote one of Harper's cases at length, partly because it offers another chance to see their sort of counseling skill in action:

Geraldine [was] a highly intelligent and efficient thirty-three-year-old female client who came to see me (R.A.H.) about six months after she obtained a divorce. Although she had felt decidedly unhappy in her marriage to an irresponsible and dependent husband, she had gotten no happier since her divorce. Her husband had drunk to excess, run around with other women, and lost many jobs. But when she came to see me, she wondered if she had made a mistake in divorcing him. I said:

"Why do you think you made a mistake by divorcing your husband?"

"Because I consider divorce wrong," she replied. "I think when people get married, they should stay married."

"Yet you do not belong to a religious group that takes that position. You do not believe that heaven somehow makes and seals marriages, do you?"

"No, I don't even believe in a heaven. I just feel wrong about getting divorced and I blame myself for having gotten one. I have felt even more miserable since I got it than I felt when living with my husband."

"But look," I asked, "where do you think your feelings about the wrongness of divorce originated? Do you think you had them at birth? Do you think that humans have built-in feelings, like built-in taste buds, that tell them how to distinguish right from wrong? Your buds tell you what tastes salty, sweet, sour, or bitter. Do your feelings tell you what proves right or wrong?"

The young divorcee laughed. "You make it sound pretty silly. No, I don't suppose I have inborn feelings about right or wrong. I had to learn to feel as I do."

Seeing a good opening, I rushed in where less directive and less rational therapists often fear to tread. "Exactly," I said. "You had to learn to feel as you do. Like all humans, you started life with tendencies to learn, including tendencies to learn strong prejudices--such as those about divorce. And what you learned you can unlearn or modify. So even though you don't hold fundamentalist faith in the immorality of divorce, you could have easily picked up this idea--probably from your parents, school- teachers, stories, or movies. And the idea that you picked up, simply stated, says:

"Only bad people get divorces. I got a divorce. So I must qualify as a bad person. Yes, I must acknowledge my real rottenness! Oh, what a no-good, awful, terrible person!"

"Sounds dreadfully familiar," she said with a rather bitter laugh.

"It certainly does," I resumed. "Some such sentences as these probably started going through your mind--other- wise you would not feel as disturbed as you do. Over and over again, you have kept repeating this stuff. And then you have probably gone on to say to yourself:

"'Because I did this horrible thing of getting a divorce, I deserve damnation and punishment for my dreadful act. I deserve to feel even more miserable and unhappy than when I lived with that lousy husband of mine.

She ruefully smiled, "Right again!"

"So of course," I continued, "you have felt unhappy. Anyone who spends a good portion of her waking hours thinking of herself as a terrible person and how much she deserves misery because of her rottenness (notice, if you will, the circular thinking involved in all this)--any such person will almost certainly feel miserable. If I, for example, started telling myself right this minute that I had no value because I never learned to play the violin, to ice-skate, or to win at tiddly-winks--if I kept telling myself this kind of bosh, I could quickly make myself feel depressed.

"Then I could also tell myself, in this kind of se- quence, how much I deserved to feel unhappy because, after all, I had my chance to learn to play the violin or cham- pionship tiddly-winks, and I had messed up these chances. And what a real worthless skunk this made me! Oh, my God, what a real skunk!"

My client, by this time, seemed highly amused, as I satirically kept emphasizing my doom. "I make it sound silly," I said. "But with a purpose--to show you that you act just as foolishly when you start giving yourself the business about your divorce."

"I begin to understand what you mean," she said. "I do say this kind of thing to myself. But how can I stop? Don't you see quite a difference between divorce, on the one hand, and violin-playing or tiddly-winks, on the other hand?"

"Granted. But has your getting a divorce really made you any more horrible, terrible, or worthless than my not learning to play the fiddle?"

"Well, you'll have to admit that I made a serious mis- take when I married such an irresponsible person as my husband. And maybe if I had behaved more maturely and wisely myself, I could have helped him to grow up."

"O.K., agreed. You did make a mistake to marry him in the first place. And, quite probably, you did so because you behaved immaturely at the time of your marriage. All right, so you made a mistake, a neurotic mistake. But does this mean that you deserve punishment the rest of your life by having to live forever with your mistake?"

"No, I guess not. But how about a wife's responsi- bility to her husband? Don't you think that I should have stayed with him and tried to help him get over his severe problems?"

"A very lovely, and sometimes even practical, thought. But didn't you tell me that you tried to help him and he refused even to acknowledge that he had disturbances? And didn't you say that he strongly opposed your going for any kind of therapy during your marriage, let alone his going for help, too?"

"Yes, he did. The mere mention of the word psycho- logist or marriage counselor sent him into a fit of temper. He'd never think of going of even letting me go for help."

"The main thing you could have done, then, would have involved playing psychotherapist to him, and in your state, you'd hardly have proved effective at that. Why beat yourself down? You made a mistake in marrying. You did your best to do something to rectify it after marriage. You got blocked, mainly by your husband, but partly by your own feelings of severe upset, on both counts. So you finally got out of the marriage, as almost any reasonably sane person would have done. Now what crime have you com- mitted? Why do you insist on blaming yourself? You think, erroneously, your unhappy situation makes you miserable. But does the situation--or what you keep telling yourself about this situation?"

"I begin to see your point. Although my marital sit- uation never has felt good, you seem to say that I don't have to give myself such a hard time about it. Quite a point of view you have there!"

"Yes, I like it myself--and often use it in my own life. But now if we can only help you to make it your point of view, not because I hold it but because you figure out that it really will work better for you, not even a poor marriage and an as yet difficult divorce situation will faze you. In fact, if I can really help you to adopt this viewpoint, I can't imagine anything that will ever bother you too much."

"You really mean that, don't you?"

"Mean it, hell--I believe it!"

And so, to some extent, did this young divorcee, after another few months of rational-emotive therapy. Whereas she previously kept telling herself how far from ideally and how horribly she behaved for not achieving this ideal, she now began to substitute problem-solving, internalized sentences for her old self-beatings. In one of her last conferences with me, she said: "You know, I looked into the mirror yesterday morning and said to myself, 'Geraldine, you behave like a happy, fairly bright, increasingly mature, growingly efficient kid. I keep getting mighty fond of you.' And then I laughed with real joy."

"Fine," I said. "But don't lead yourself up the path of rating you, Geraldine, highly because you act so much better. For then you will have to rate yourself lowly, once again, if and when you act worse. Try to stick to: 'I like behaving so much better' rather than 'I like me for doing this good behavior!"

"Yes, I see what you mean," she replied. "I feel glad you warned me about that. Rating myself I unfortunately do most easily. But I'll fight it!"

This client discovered that her feelings did not derive from her unsuccessful marriage or her divorce but from her evaluations of


in regard to these "failures." When she changed the kinds of thoughts (or internalized sentences) she fed herself, her emotions changed from de- pression and despair to sorrow and regret--and these appro- priate negative feelings helped motivate her to change the conditions of her life. Not all clients, like Geraldine, see so quickly that they cause their own depressed feelings about divorce and decide to accept themselves. Some- times they may require months or years of therapy before they come to this decision. But persistence, on their and their therapist's part, certainly helps!"2

In summary, shifting the dimensions on which you evaluate yourself can be a potent weapon against depression. And even if it is not enough by itself, it is a valuable complement to other tactics.


Now that you know what to do, you need to know how to do it. And as anyone knows who has tried to count blessings when feeling low, it is not easy to keep your mind from drifting away from a rosy dimension to a rotten dimension. Practical tips should therefore be welcome.

Let's review how the "I never do anything right" woman in Chapter 10 changed her dimensions. Upon reflection and argument with herself, she recognized that timeliness at meetings is not the most important dimension of her life, or even an important dimension, because she almost never goes to meetings. And in general she does things well. So instead she decided to focus on the dimension of her overall work performance, for which her firm had given her special awards in two of the last three years.

                                                  Table 14-1

Uninvited thought      Activating Event      Self-Comparison              Analysis                                             Response

"I never do anything   Late for a        I do fewer things right          Dimension:  Is your timeliness                       Of course not
right."                meeting           than do most people.             at meetings an important aspect of your life?.......                                                                                 
                                                                          Even if this meeting was important, am I a           By no means!
                                                                          rotten person for missing part of it? .........

Let's try another example. I frequently criticize myself for conducting my professional life very unwisely. I'll say things to myself like "If you would only stick to one subject, and not keep moving to develop new ideas, you would increase the chances of acceptance of some big idea, and you'd make a bigger contribution that way." So I write that in column 1. In column 2 I write the usual precipitating event. And in column 3 I write who I am comparing myself with, those people who do not leap from one subject to another.

Now I analyse the situation. I realize that there is an important benefit, too, in my not sticking to one subject. If I had stuck to one thing from the beginning, I would have stuck to one of my first two subjects, neither of which was as important or interesting as several things I have worked on since then. And at least two of the subjects that I have worked on have produced positive results beyond my wildest dreams. Therefore, it makes sense for me to accept the bad with the good, and realize that my "vice" of following after new ideas has its virtues, as the French would say, and the good outweighs the bad. It makes sense, then, not to focus on this dimension and make myself unhappy with it. Instead I might focus on the success of some of the things that I have done, or upon the fact that my family is healthy and in good shape, or that (aside from controversial political issues) the world is now in better conditions than ever before in history.

            Uninvited thought     Activating Event       Self-Comparison     Analysis               Response               Behavior to change

            I fail to stick to    My profession          Other social        Dimension: What        I would have spent     Focusing on a dimensionone subject           ignores one of         scientists who      would have
happened    my entire profes-     which is not central to my works.              concentrate on      throughout my pro-     sional life on my      my overall life, even
                                                                                one subject and     fessional life if I    first subject,         my professional life.
                                                                                are successful.     had stuck to just      which was not          Learn to take the bad
                                                                                                              one subject.           very exciting.         with the good and see
                                                                                                                                                                                   the virtues of my vices.


Building habits and behavioral feedback patterns offers help in keeping you focused on appropriate dimensions. Imagine that a friend could read your mind, and every time you were dwelling on a rotten dimension, the friend would jab you in the ribs and say "Change that ratio" or "Count your blessings". That assistance would be useful.

The trick is to act like that friend. And indeed, you can read your own mind. The problem is to build the habit of changing it when a rotten dimension comes into your mind. The solution is to "chain" the change-it habit to some cue that can remind you to do so. For example, as I mentioned earlier, my stomach often gets tight when I have a neg-comp in mind. I have trained myself that as soon as I feel my stomach tighten, I force myself to smile and to breathe deeply. And when I get on myself about something I did not do well, and say "You silly shit", I put into action the habit I have built of adding "Now that's damn ridiculous".

Computers use a device called an "interrupt" to break into the current program in order to change what the computer is doing. The trick is to build an interrupt into every "program" in your mind that plays out a Rotten Ratio, and chain to the interrupt an instruction to play out a program with a Rosy Ratio.

Another example from my experience: Fact 1: Thanksgiving is the favorite holiday in my family; Rita, the kids, and I all enjoy it greatly. Fact 2: I heard a young woman remark about writing her parents at Thanksgiving because she could not get home. I immediately felt the jab of pain from a negative emotion, accompanied by the thought of a stack of letters that I had wanted to get out at Thanksgiving but are still delayed; the matter is annoying but not the least bit serious. When I felt the sadness, I half-consciously and half-automatically examined the uninvited thought. And my analysis led to the judgment that the unsent letters are unimportant, and instead I had better turn my mind to the wonderful family Thanksgiving we just had, and the Thanksgiving I could look forward to next year.

The cause of the painful uninvited thoughts is not illogical thinking but rather a set of connections within my brain that habitually lead first to neg-comps rather than to happy thoughts. This means that someone like me must rewire these connections, that is, create a new set of habits. No single insight about the past or present can do this job. Rather, it requires sustained work. But if you at least recognize the nature of the problem, the problem is not insuperable, and you may even get satisfaction at the workmanship and imagination that you evince in your rewiring job.

The bad news is that at first you do not have a set of habits to switch you from Rotten to Rosy Ratios; if you did have them, you would not be depressed. The good news is that the more you work on these habits, and the longer you have them, the more effective they are, and the better they protect you from sadness and depression.


The best anti-depression strategy may be to replace theentire Rotten Ratio with another one - that is, to turn away from that entire dimension of comparison. There are two related sets of tactics for changing the dimension: a) changing your priorities about the various aspects of your life, and b) focusing your attention on the good things in your life rather than the bad things. Both tactics call upon our capacity to direct our attention toward some dimensions of our lives and away from others.

The device of "counting your blessings" constitutes shifting to a more positive dimension for self-comparison. Instead of brooding on lack of job success, you make yourself remember your family's good health. When you lose your money in the stock market, you try to keep in mind your wonderful children.

Re-arranging your priorities is a second device for changing Mood Ratio dimensions. A frequent and important example is the person whose actual occupational achievements do not measure up to the person's aspirations, yet is unwilling to scale down his or her aspirations so as to keep the denominator from dominating the numerator. The person may then prevent negative self- comparisons by focusing attention on another related ratio-- perhaps the person's courage in persisting against obstacles, or the person's success in helping co-workers achieve important successes in their work.

Depressives tend to be less flexible than are other people in altering the dimensions on which they compare themselves. But it is possible to change your ratios of comparison by effort and will.

Behavior you wish to change

Focusing on a dimension which a) you need not attribute importance to, and b) does not reflect well upon you.

Table 14-2