There is a war being waged in America today – a war spanning the course of American history pitting American against American, and human against human. Disrespect for others has escalated to the point of hatred and become pernicious in its capacity to destroy individuals, families, and social entities. While the judicial system can legislate guidelines governing behavior, it is incapable of controlling human thoughts. According to Judeo-Christian thought, a person’s unfiltered thoughts emanate from the heart and are indicative of personality and behavior. (Proverbs 23:7 NKJV) With this in mind and considering the multiple accounts of discrimination against same sex relationships, discrimination against people of faith, and racial incidences making recent news headlines, it seems apparent people are becoming more intolerant of each other and more convinced their voices are unheard. Recent events such as:
- businesses refusing to provide services for same sex weddings,
- gang violence,
- gender, race, and disability discrimination,
- the continued existence of hate groups such as White supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan, and
- acts of violence perpetrated against anyone who bears any semblance to groups perceived as different or hostile
are reflections of a grievous and troubling problem common across America that has tenaciously persisted despite attempts to effect change through judicial intervention. Prejudice and discrimination will persevere until all Americans examine, challenge, and grow beyond the values, attitudes, beliefs, and fears contributing to its existence. On some level, whether White, Black, gay, straight, able-bodied or not, everyone owns a part of the problem. Granted there are times when it is difficult to identify what that may be, but studies such as that conducted by Kristoff, (2008) indicate lack of awareness, unintended discriminatory acts called microaggressions, and social institutions are partly responsible for the perpetuation of discrimination and perceived disrespect which exacerbates an already acutely sensitive problem.
The Heart of the Matter
There is no written law capable of eradicating a disrespectful attitude just as there is no law capable of legislating morality. Like The War on Terror, eradicating animosity requires a different set of tactics, such as one based on a Cartesian philosophy with every individual and social institution questioning and examining values, beliefs, and thoughts while avoiding judgments based solely on perceptions and untested ideology. This practical application of Cartesian principles developed by René Descartes (1637) would form the basis of changing behavior by changing the thoughts and attitudes that support it. Today, Cartesian philosophy resembles Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, a form of cognitive behavior therapy. In Descartes’ time, the idea of questioning well accepted principles was a revolutionary approach. He established a principle to not accept as true anything he did not know to be such, and to avoid accepting at face value any perceptions, prejudices, or sudden and rash decisions. Instead he chose to rely on what he knew to be true enough to exclude grounds for doubt. His approach allowed him to consider from a fresh and objective perspective what at that time was believed to be fact. Descartes’ approach might hold the key for transforming prejudicial thoughts and beliefs and lay the groundwork for a truly egalitarian schema congruent with American principles of freedom from persecution and the promotion of equality and opportunity for all humans who “are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights” (Mount, 2010).
The Spawning of Beliefs and Values
Thoughts and beliefs about equality are the foundation of the American Constitution. The Founding Fathers were not informed by current social research but by experiences with discrimination. At the heart of discrimination are thoughts and beliefs which are subject to perceptual error. Albert Ellis’s rational emotive theory postulating beliefs influence feelings about situations, which then influence behavior (Eckstein & Ellis, 2011), seems to have relevance with respect to prejudices. In 1994, Ellis and Robb wrote about the relationship between acceptance of others related to a reduction in bigotry (as cited in Williams & Lynn, 2010). In another study, Kordesh, Spanierman,, & Neville (2013) examined attitudes of university students about race and wrote students’ personal experiences with people of color appear to inform students’ attitudes more so than the views of their parents. Similarly, William & Lynn wrote experiential acceptance and the ability to adopt a practice of mindful acceptance are correlated with decreased psychopathology.
At least as far back as Epictetus in the 1200s, the influence of one’s perception and judgment of a situation was associated with feelings about the situation. This is similar to Descartes statement, “I think, therefore I am.” (Descartes, 1637) Individuals tend to assume principles, beliefs, and values passed from generation to generation are true, whether from teacher to student or parent to child. Those assumed beliefs operate on a preconscious level influencing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors until challenged experientially when the beliefs are either judged to be true or inaccurate. The affirmed or revised perspective is made a part of the personal schema and are reflected in self-talk, a person’s internal mental conversation.
The quality of self-talk forms early in life through messages caregivers, including teachers, pass to children about abilities, personal worth, or potential, and reflects one’s beliefs and values about self, others, and individual worldview. Bryan, Wilson, Lewis, & Wills. (2012) wrote about the perpetuation of prejudice through multiple aspects of the school system. The issue of exposing children to policies and attitudes perpetuating inequality is troublesome given children, especially younger children, have minds unable to critically evaluate what they experience, are told, or hear due to their developmentally concrete cognitive processing abilities. This leaves them vulnerable to drawing inaccurate conclusions and distorted beliefs about themselves and others.
Over the passage of time, a pattern of inaccurate interpretations may contaminate the child’s belief system and developing quality of self-talk. This is one example of how prejudice may be perpetuated. Since beliefs and values usually operate outside conscious awareness, children may grow to adulthood without critically exploring and challenging filial beliefs and values until a situation arises encouraging a critical assessment of personal schemas. Adolescence and young adulthood are prime opportunities for the task of individuation and change, yet research indicates some young White adults believe they are now the targets of discrimination and inequality (Wilkins & Kaiser, 2014).
Cognitive Distortions and Self Talk
What then are some of the unhelpful or distorted self-talk patterns traveling the neural circuitry of the mind? The list varies slightly depending on the reference consulted and generally includes:
- All or nothing thinking is evidenced by two extremes (poles) with no middle ground. Everything is perfect or it’s a total failure. People are good or they are bad, mean or nice, lazy or hardworking, etc.
- Overgeneralizing occurs when the outcome of one experience is assumed to be true across all similar experiences. Example: “The steak I bought at 685 grocers was tough. They don’t sell good steaks.” “People in wheelchairs can’t play sports.”
- Labeling is similar to overgeneralizing except it involves emotionally charged descriptors or negative judgments regarding a person or group of people. Example: “I did not pass my geometry quiz. I’m stupid.” “Greedy jerk, he’s only in it for the money!” Emotionally-charged jargon falls into this category.
- Minimizing/Maximizing occurs when a situation or feelings about a situation are downplayed or exaggerated. An example of minimizing would be responding to recognition for an exemplary act of kindness by saying “Oh, it was nothing.” An exaggerated response would the proverbial making a mountain out of a molehill. “That ant bed was as big as Mt. Everest!”
- Catastrophizing is similar to exaggeration except it involves a mindset that sees disaster around every corner. An example of this would be “I can’t go to the store because I might get in an accident and die.”
- Mindreading happens when one person assumes she knows what another person is thinking or feeling based on observed nonverbal cues without seeking clarification. For example, “He did not eat the food I cooked because he doesn’t like my cooking.” The reality may be he does not like Brussels sprouts regardless of who cooked them or how they are cooked.
- Fortune-telling is a prediction about the outcome of a future event regardless of one’s preparations. The distortion may look like, “I’m going to fail the test tomorrow no matter how hard I study.”
- Jumping to Conclusions is a pitfall most people have experienced at some point in life. It occurs when the outcome is assumed prior to evaluating sufficient information about a situation. Example: Jonny is getting a drink of water in the kitchen when his mother walks in and sees the carton of melting ice cream on the counter. She assumes Jonny left it out even though the other siblings are home, too.
- Personalizing occurs when someone blames herself for a problem, i.e. “It’s my fault he hits me.”
- Blaming happens when people believe others are responsible for their happiness, pain, or problems. In reality, each person controls or gives up control of feelings and power to choose. Blaming relates to an external locus of control. A therapist once remarked to the group she was facilitating, “Your power to choose is your greatest strength. Do not give it away or allow others to take it from you.”
- Shoulds, musts, and oughts are key words used by advice givers, often unsolicited. These three words tend to keep people stuck in the rut of intention (a powerless state) rather than manifesting action (engaging one’s power of choice). Statements like “I should have picked up milk while I was out” does nothing to resolve the problem of having no milk.
- Emotional reasoning occurs when decisions and behaviors are based on how one feels. The path of reasoning follows the line “If it feels good, it is good” and vice versa. Emotions are meant to guide, not decide, a course of action. “I don’t feel like going to work today” may result in undesirable consequences.
- Gotta be right means having to “win” an argument or dispute at all costs because the belief of being wrong is unacceptable even when faced with incontrovertible evidence. This is a sure fire way to alienate others in the quest to prove oneself right or worthy.
- Expectations of Fairness set up the field for a hard fall. Bevere (2004) wrote the higher one’s expectation, the greater the fall because people are human and part of being human is making mistakes and poor choices.
- Entitlement is a mindset leading to envy, bitterness, and disempowerment. It involves a mental system of keeping score of what is owed and due, a mentality of “I deserve…” This pattern of thinking resembles that of someone with an external locus of control. An example might be, “You owe me because I didn’t ask to be born.” When recompense is not forthcoming, resentment and bitterness and may result in feelings of unfairness and victimization. This distortion has been linked to beliefs of racism among White males who believe they are being shortchanged due to perceived institutional favoritism towards minority groups. (Kordesh & Spanierman, 2013)
Recognizing these cognitive distortions helps improve awareness of the thought processes and self-talk occurring in daily exchanges. Many of the distortions contribute to the perpetuation of animosity and allegations of discrimination which, as Kristof (2008) noted, occur within homogenous groups as well as those that are not.
Those who continue to perpetuate prejudices may do so from fear of what they believe they will lose. These fear-based schemas may be maintained through a self-talk characterized by cognitive distortions of generalization, labelling, dichotomous thinking, fortune-telling, etc. Rationalizations contributing to discriminatory animus may include beliefs about superiority without accounting for differences in opportunity; perceived displacement of personal status; perceived threat to job or educational opportunities; or feeling entitled to maintain the status quo. Each perception or belief may be true or partially true with the capacity for generating anxiety or fear which becomes fertile ground for the continuation of misinformation, similar to the dynamics of self-fulfilling prophecies. Relinquishing any pattern of thoughts, beliefs, and values, however misguided, requires a revision of one’s personal identity and could be perceived as too risky an endeavor. The process of change involves loss (Dye, 2012), and those involved in a process of change and growth are familiar with the risks and benefits involved in change, even when change is desirable.
Fortunately, cognitive distortions and negative self-talk can be transformed providing hope that hostility between people and discrimination against different lifestyles can be overcome. Although the process requires an ongoing commitment to develop an awareness of self-talk, challenging the accuracy of prejudicial thoughts and beliefs, and then restructuring those thoughts into accurate and less emotionally charged thoughts. Those who teach and practice dialectical and cognitive behavior therapy skills realize that even though the mechanics of the thought-changing process are easy enough to understand, the consistent application of skills tends to be more challenging (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007). Like any unwanted habit, changing patterns of thought takes time and requires consistent practice. It is a process best approached with patience and kindness toward self and others. The long term results are well worth the effort towards achieving better management of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors regardless of the situation or environment.
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