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6 Flaws of the Mind That Can Lead to Misery

Avoid the trap of convincing yourself of everything that feels true.

Key points

  • Humans are both rational and irrational.
  • We have a relationship with our thoughts, and this gives them power over how we feel and behave.
  • Recognizing the flaws of the mind is a powerful exercise that helps diffuse emotional distress and maintain mental health.
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

It is unsettling to experience, but people sometimes exchange their emotional stability for chaos. When it happens to our loved ones, it seems inexplicable; we watch helplessly as their careers, relationships, and health get completely upended as a result.

Where did their mental health go?

Even relatively stable people can become unbalanced when the unhelpful mind is activated. Knowing the six flaws of the normal mind helps us to put the pieces of the human puzzle back together—or better yet, keeps us on the path of emotional health in the first place.

Humans Are Both Rational and Irrational

When I first began to study psychology, I came across the observations of Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). His contention that humans are both rational and irrational resonated with my experience of how my own mind seemed to operate. Whenever I undertook something of consequence, the battle between rational and irrational thoughts played out in my mind.

Ellis’s cognitive approach to behavioral change centers on disputing irrational thoughts vigorously and forcefully. Following his precepts, I worked hard to identify my irrational thoughts in an effort to actively change them.

My approach, however, was problematic: When it didn't work, I only blamed myself for not working harder. I attributed any failure to dispute my dysfunctional beliefs to personal failure.

Since then, I have learned a different approach.

How We Relate to Our Thoughts

My perspective on how the mind works changed significantly while attending an intensive mental health workshop in Germany. The training, led by a noted professional, was full of good information and practical examples.

Halfway through a session one afternoon, the presenter abruptly turned on the audience. Seething with hostility and anger, he appeared incensed that the audience was not fully invested in the training. The participants—myself included—were in shock. What exactly was happening to explain this presenter's sudden, unstable emotional state?

I imagine that a relatively simple “what if” question popped up in his unhelpful mind. It probably went something like this: “What if the audience dislikes what I am teaching?” Yet the key point here is how this person then related to that thought. He reacted as though the thought was completely valid, rather than just a normal, unhelpful thought bubbling up.

This example demonstrates an important differentiation: It is not what we think, but how we relate to what we think that gives thoughts their power over us.

Getting Hooked by Thoughts

What cognitive theory often misses is that thoughts are not just rational or irrational static entities; thoughts are something with which we have a dynamic relationship. And when we perceive our thoughts to be valid and important, we get hooked.

Sometimes getting hooked is a good thing: Getting lost in the scenes of a well-performed stage play, for example, is a fun way to get hooked on thoughts and emotions.

But there is a dark side to getting hooked. When we believe every thought and feeling to be real and representative of who we are, we end up easily overwhelmed. The unhelpful self-concepts, explanations of life, and predictions of the future can lead directly to depression and anxiety. (Learn more about how we get trapped by anxiety and depression.)

We cannot change what we cannot see.

We cannot tame what we cannot name.

When we are hooked by our thoughts and emotions, help begins by recognizing six flaws of the normal mind:

  1. Attention. We disconnect from the present moment. When we ruminate on the past and worry about the future, we bypass the relative calm of the present moment.
  2. Self-Concept. We believe in and defend inflexible, unhelpful self-concepts. Our unhelpful minds are amazing at creating multiple narratives about who we once were, who we are, and who we will soon become. We fail to stand back and see this for what it is—just stories.
  3. Thinking. We regard our unhelpful thoughts as truly valid. Our unhelpful mind loves “what if” questions, rigid rules, comparisons, binary labeling, judgments, and predictions. Fortunately, our helpful mind recognizes this as the cognitive noise that it is.
  4. Perspective. We view our distressing thoughts and emotions as something to be avoided or controlled. We assume that distress is best pushed away rather than accepted or simply noticed.
  5. Direction. We lose sight of what is important to us. Our struggle with thoughts and feelings fogs our values and purpose. The desire for a rich and rewarding life becomes nothing more than a faded dream of our past.
  6. Behavior. We attempt to control and avoid our distress, making things worse in the long run. We distract ourselves, turn away from discomfort, and endlessly analyze our distress. We use substances or self-harm to relieve our unease, at least for a moment.

Next Steps

Using the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), we can begin to stabilize our emotional health. Moving forward contains three elements: showing up, letting go, and moving on.

Showing up means staying connected to the present moment and engaging our ability to notice things from a distance. Letting go of our struggle with unhelpful thoughts and feelings releases them to float in and out of our lives, leaving a less destructive wake. And finally, clarifying what is important and taking even the smallest step in that direction while bringing our messy minds with us makes the effort to move on achievable.

If you struggle to believe this approach would help, just thank your unhelpful mind for doing what it does best. Glimmers of hope will always be met by a noisy mind predicting the worst. But if nothing else, remember this: Becoming aware of the flaws in our mind where unhelpful thoughts typically show up allows us to capture a powerful truth: Thoughts are something that we have, not who we are.

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