IDENTIFYING UNHELPFUL THOUGHTS
We all get ‘caught up’ in our thoughts sometimes, especially now that we’re spending a lot of time in isolation. You may have caught yourself or a friend saying – “I’m having a bit of an existential crisis right now” – referring to a moment where we get stuck in a certain pattern of self-talk and beliefs, which during an anxiety-prone period can have detrimental effects on our health.
Why is this important?
When going through a high-stress period, full of worries and anxieties, we’re vulnerable to falling into a cycle of specific thought patterns. We begin assuming that our thoughts are automatically true, which isn’t always the case.
Does that mean we shouldn’t trust ourselves?
No, it’s nothing like that – generally, our brains help us solve problems, alert us to danger or attract us towards a beneficial situation. We all carry our own beliefs, assumptions and experiences which influence how we interact with the world. Any meanings we ‘find’ in our surroundings, are based on what we feel and what’s going on inside.
However, overtime we may have developed unhelpful connections, that require some de-bunking. These thoughts can range from believing hurtful things about ourselves, assuming what someone thinks of us or always expecting a worst-case outcome. We unknowingly reinforce these thoughts, and accept them as absolute truths.
Such beliefs keep us from reaching our full-potential, from doing the things we want to do. We end up focusing on what could or should be instead of what is.
Recognizing when we may be playing into these beliefs – the what and why behind them – will help us effectively deal with any stress, instead of letting it intrude and dominate our space.
How can I identify these thoughts?
First, let’s look at what these thoughts can look like:
- Dwelling: replaying an experience in your head, unable to escape from it, and re-living how you felt.
- Overgeneralizing: judging yourself or an environment, based off a one-time experience – “I got a bad grade – I’m stupid and I’m going to fail.” This leads to labelling ourselves, someone else or an environment and then being unable to ‘remove’ this label.
- All-Or-Nothing: everything is either black or white. A failure or a success. Awful or incredible. There is no room for gray-thinking here.
- Filtering: by focusing on a single negative aspect, you may adopt a constantly pessimistic view. Even when something positive happens, you reject it as a one-off moment. “Oh, they complimented me because they wanted to be nice, they didn’t mean it.” Or “I won by a fluke, I’m still a mediocre player – I was just lucky”.
- Mind Reading & Fortune Telling: Jumping to conclusions about what someone else is thinking or what will happen in a situation. You may be right in some instances, however, considering any negative interpretation as an absolute truth is detrimental. “They made a face, that means they’re judging me” or “I haven’t found a career path or true love yet, that means I never will.”
- Emotional Reasoning: This one may take a minute to wrap your head around – accepting our emotions as fact. “I feel this way, so it must be true”.
- Should: This is a big one – holding yourself to what you should be like and what you have to do. This results in disappointment if we’re unable to meet our ‘should’ expectations. When believing ‘should’ statements about someone else, we may experience anger or resentment if they fail to meet our expectations.
- Personalization: Taking things personally or blaming yourself without any logical reason. “She didn’t enjoy our day out, it was probably because of me.”
- Control: Believing that we either have no control or absolute control – when in fact, neither are truly accurate. Even when we seemingly may not have control over what happens, we do still have control on how we approach situations.
- Others Changing: Expecting others to change, so that you can be happy. “If she could just stop being irritating, I could be a better person.”
When reading the above examples, you may think “That’s so obvious, I wouldn’t think that!” or “Yeah, I’ve done that before, but it’s not a problem”. These patterns are often subtle, and therefore difficult to recognize if they’re a part of our day-to-day thinking. Identifying such thoughts may seem difficult, however, it is the first step to learning how to deal with them.
So what now?
After identifying these thoughts and their effects, the next step would be to challenge them. However, before doing so, it is important to note that what works for you, may not work for someone else. More so, what works in one situation, may not work in another. Trial-and-error is a natural part of the process.
You may be inclined to think there’s something wrong with you and that the negative voice in your head is an enemy that needs to be defeated. Remind yourself that these thoughts are a part of being human – forgiveness, compassion and kindness play a big role here.
Our inner ‘negative’ voice often has a ‘positive’ root behind it – it may have been a coping mechanism from a past trauma that we really have no use for anymore. By finding that positive root, you can re-direct and work with your inner-voice. It may be easy to slap a “just think pretty thoughts” bandage over this but focusing on realistic not positive is more practical long term.
Ask yourself: “how can I look at this differently?” By finding a new meaning for something, you’re better able to change your feelings and experience. This technique is called reframing, and will be discussed in detail in our next article.