Winter Doldrums, Providence Style

Break Your Addiction to Bad Logic

Is it just me, or have things been particularly sordid around here lately? It seems like everywhere I turn there’s a broken heart or surprisingly deep well of self-loathing. It might be that winter is finally here; the extra hour of darkness never fails to bog me down. But there might be something slightly more insidious at play here as well.

This is the time of year when I, for one, start to feel pretty tired and sometimes inordinately and  unpredictably sad. I don’t much like the cold, and I really don’t like the dark. In the face of these natural obstacles, I need all the emotional help I can get. And sometimes, when I’m contemplating my sadness while watching the sun set at 4:38 pm, a cruel part of my brain has the nerve to suggest that I’m always sad or that I’ll always be sad, and that this has nothing to do with the winter at all, I am in fact just a sad person. And then I feel worse.

My friend Nicola recently confessed to me that she’s dealing with some unhealthy eating habits. She’s been struggling with emotional eating, and now, whenever she feels bad about something and starts eating, she feels bad about that too, and then she overeats out of something like self-loathing. Tearfully she admitted to me that she feels hugely fat and completely unlovable. Particularly heartbreaking about this encounter was that Nicola is “the reasonable one,” known among her friends for having a clear head and discerning judgment, and here she was telling me that she was unlovable because she’s gained a few pounds.

Another friend, Sophia, has finally had to accept that the sensitive-but-manly, intelligent-but-humble, exciting, beautiful man (I doubt it, but that’s how she describes him) who’s been flirting with her after class recently has about-turned and is dating some other chick. Sophia has spent the last few years dating one of the gentlest, kindest dudes on the block but has now concluded that all men are untrustworthy and deserve to be treated with scorn and contempt.

On the surface, we all have seemingly disparate problems, and I don’t mean to suggest that I have a magical cure-all. But all three of these examples have one major commonality. We are all guilty of the same species of cognitive distortion: overgeneralization. We see one example of something upsetting as only the most recent demonstration of an endless cycle of failures and defeats. This process begins by taking one instance of an event or experience and resolving that things have always been this way, and that they always will be. And then we draw extravagant conclusions from this fact: I am a sad person. I am unlovable. Men are all assholes.

“Overgeneralization” is a term from in cognitive therapy. I first started noticing that I was a bad-logic-user when someone gave me an embarrassingly yellow book by a man named David D. Burns called “Feeling Good.” It came out in the 1980 and contains a lot of faux-medical wisdom that’s probably not fashionable anymore, but it also contains a list of ways we make ourselves feel bad by using poor reasoning.

Full disclosure: I am not a medical professional, and folk wisdom is not a substitute for real treatment. I also do not mean to insinuate that all of our collective psychological suffering can be alleviated simply by learning how to think better. But I do believe that to some extent many of us are guilty of types of thinking that make our negatively affect our quality of experience. This thinking is woven sneakily into our discourse and can seem kind of charmingly self-deprecating or funny: “I have class at 8 am, my life sucks!” exemplifies the kind of perverse reasoning that can be humorous in its finest moments.

Unfortunately, many of us are guilty of treating this kind of thought process as more legitimate than it is. We think we are being real when we say “he rejected me and no one will ever love me,” because we have been trained to think like that by our friends, our mothers, and characters in films. A few minutes of research found me this clip of Chandler from Friends extrapolating a future of inevitable loneliness from a single failed date. Chandler is kidding, but he’s also really upset. If people on TV do it, why shouldn’t we?

I’ll tell you why, my little flea: because it is a logical fallacy, and if you were in a logic classroom (or computer science, for that matter) and had the gumption to make a universal generalization of an existence claim you’d be forcibly removed from the premises for dangerous thinking. You can’t deduce: “All men are assholes” from “One man treated me badly” any more than you can claim “There is a black swan, therefore all swans are black.” If you’re guilty of this kind of reasoning, chances are you do it a lot. And you might be making yourself feel a heck of a lot worse about unpleasant things than you need to be. There’s no cause to go logically vomiting all over yourself today, or any day.

Make a pledge with me: This winter, we will demand rigorous causal reasoning from our thoughts. College life might throw us some curve balls, but we are strong enough to acknowledge the extent to which something is upsetting and then address it appropriately. Bad logic is a highly addictive, highly toxic substance, and most of us have used it at some period in our lives or others. Quitting is going to be a gnarly process (it is for me) so you’ll want to get started straight away. The next time you find yourself down in the doldrums, ask yourself how you got there, and try to trace your thought-process back, identifying instances of crappy logic. And then apply this simple injunction: If you wouldn’t use it in the classroom, don’t use it in your life. Lets make the philosophy department proud.