The title of this post sounds a little dramatic, but the way we think shapes how we feel, what we do, and what we experience in life. The way we think can bring unhappiness, anxiety and stress, and these can lead to unhelpful behaviours and difficult situations. So, while changing our minds won’t change the people around us, or change what has happened, or change the physical limitations the world places on us, changing unhelpful thoughts can help us process and deal with situations, make us feel better, help us cope, and ultimately lead to more satisfying life experiences. In this blog post–the fourth and final post introducing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy–I will be talking to you about three ways you can challenge and change the way you think to help you improve your life.
Think Outside The Box
We’re all explainers. We can’t help but try and categorise and label people, events and experiences. Understanding can be important to us, it helps us process our experiences, recognise when an event requires a response, and determine whether we can trust in the people around us. However, whether we want to admit it or not, we can be quick to judge when we don’t have possession of all the facts, our thinking can be prejudiced by previous experiences, we can have go to explanations we rely on too often, and the labels we use might well be unfair black or white generalisations that stick faster than if they were superglued. This wouldn’t be so much an issue if it wasn’t for how influential our thoughts can be on our feelings, actions and our relationships with others.
A quick and dirty approach to changing how our thoughts affect us is to think outside of our regular explanations. If you have the time, think about the situation you’re in and think up 5 explanations (or as many as you can) for what has happened, and what you’ve experienced. Rate them for how disturbing they are, and then pick the one that is the least disturbing until you have more evidence to come up with a better explanation. Instead of explaining mistakes to yourself as being because ‘I’m useless’, we could try a completely opposite thought like ‘I’m amazing’–but that will most likely be rejected as it doesn’t ‘fit’ the explanation for why we’ve made a mistake. Positive thinking is usually unsatisfying and uncomfortable and easy to dismiss. Instead, come up with actual explanations, like ‘I overlooked those figures’, ‘I must have pressed the wrong key’, ‘It’s because I didn’t check my work’, or simply ‘I made an error’. Any one of these could explain the situation, and nearly all of them are easier to use as explanations over the all encompassing self-writing off of explaining the mistake as being because we’re useless…
Even if you can’t make an alternative thought stick because your go to explanations have been relied on too often to be so quickly dismissed and replaced, it’s still good practice and serves as a welcome reminder that things aren’t as black and white and clear cut as you might think. Or, we could try explaining things less and learning to live with ambiguity. Not everything has to have a reason for being. Does a typo need to have some person defining all-encompassing explanation beyond the moment it is made or noticed?
Weigh The Evidence Of Your Thinking
We usually cling to our go to explanations as at one point in a certain situation that explanation served us well. It may well have prevented a repeat occurrence of unwelcome experiences. At some point the way we think has been tried and tested. No matter that the situations might be different, or that the evidence might be skewed, we trust in that explanation. However, once we recognise that the way we think is behind the uncomfortable things we feel, and the difficult situations we find ourselves in, then we need to challenge the way we think.
The best way to challenge a thought is to pull it apart in a mental court. Take a thought like ‘I’m useless’–possibly one of the most debilitating thoughts to have, and in a sense one of the easiest to pull apart. No one is completely useless. Everyone has skills and capabilities. If someone was useless, we wouldn’t expect them to be able to complete basic tasks, to have any achievements, to be able to help someone else, to earn a certificate, hold down a job, maintain a relationship, To challenge a thought like ‘I’m useless’ we simply need to write up all the evidence for and against that thought being an accurate generalisation. And if we’re going to trawl through our experiences and pull up wetting the bed at 7, being horrible to a school friend in high school, making a socially embarrassing mistake at a party and not getting that job, then we need to pull up all the times we’ve been drunk and managed to make it to the bathroom, all the nice things we’ve done for friends from kind words to kind gifts, all the times we’ve made someone laugh, and all the interviews we’ve managed to get and the jobs we’ve successfully been appointed to.
If you find that the original explanation you had can be challenged in a thought court, then that thought needs to be replaced. Looking at the balance sheet of evidence for and against, come up with other thoughts which the evidence does back up. You’ll soon recognise that one or two words can’t be used to sum up or explain away a situation.
Take Your Thoughts For A Spin
Coming up with new thoughts, and putting old or new thoughts on trial can take pen and paper and time and consideration. It will be time well spent, but thoughts need to be tested in the field to determine how supportive they are to help us feel comfortable in relying upon them as explanations. To get used to these new ideas, why not make them present in your life–a slip of paper in your wallet, add one to a shopping list, set a reminder on your phone to a time in the day you might need to see that thought again, stick it on your calendar. When we see it we’ll be reminded of why it’s there and we can take a time out to reflect on the thought and get acquainted with it.
The chances are, that if we have thought in particular ways–such as ‘I’m useless’– it’s going to be quite rooted in our consciousness because it was likely the result of a life lesson and we would have collected some evidence to support it. However, we usually skew the evidence by only collecting evidence for that idea, and discounting evidence against it. Even when we’ve done a paper exercise to weigh the evidence, we need to be mindful and on the hunt for evidence in the wild. As we go about our day we need to look out for evidence that backs up our new ideas–meeting a deadline, getting the kids off to school, finishing an essay, meeting obligations, or juggling all of the above. If there truly was a ‘useless’ person, that person would surely not achieve any of these. If someone achieved all of these, what word would you use to describe them? I would go with ‘capable’. Not too cheeky. Nice and modest, but still a compliment nonetheless.
It can be helpful to act in line with our new thoughts too. Imagine how the thought ‘I’m useless’ would affect someone. What’s the point trying new things, or persevering with things we struggle with if ultimately we’re going to be ‘useless’ at it? The chances are we would have held ourselves back, limited our exposure, kept what skills we did have to ourselves in case they were found to be lacking. If we allow ourselves to think we’re capable, can draw from past experiences to prove that to ourselves, and from day to day find experiences that remind us of this, then it would be helpful to seek out new experiences to reinforce that thinking.
This post, and the other posts in the series have largely centred around low self-esteem–perhaps one of the most common personal issues experienced–but outside of thoughts like ‘I’m useless’, we have thoughts like ‘Life sucks’, ‘people can’t be trusted’, ‘I can’t trust anyone’, ‘I can’t do xxx’, ‘It would be awful if…’, ‘I need to xxx to get by’, or any number of other limiting, damaging, generalising thoughts. All of which need a good talking to, to be made to earn their place in our lives, and hopefully, find themselves surrounded by all the other explanations from one extreme to another, and all the less disturbing and more likely variations in between. We need to be as diligent in reminding ourselves of our new helpful thoughts and the evidence that backs them up as we have been for a lifetime spent reinforcing our old unhelpful ways of thinking. We can work on understanding ourselves, challenging what we find and making changes for the better. It is conscious work which can be hard and time consuming, but isn’t that better than repeating the same record of damaging thoughts we use to inform us and our actions day in day out?
If you’ve found this blog post interesting, and would like to read more, this is a semi-regular series here, so check back for more self-help posts on specific topics and problems which you might relate to.
For more details about thoughts, including thinking patterns, rules, central beliefs, and a wealth of coping techniques and examples, or perhaps just to show your appreciation of these free posts, then head on over to the Amazon kindle store to buy a copy of my book. You can follow these links for the UK and US stores. Thanks for reading.
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