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“Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits….” (Winnie the Pooh)
We all have weird thoughts from time to time. I definitely do and when the neurons are really firing, anything goes in the little grey cells. Some random thoughts turn out to be good ones that boost creativity and others whoosh by like cars on a highway because frankly, they’re nonsense!
So it’s probably a good thing we can’t read each other’s minds like Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men. If we could, I suspect we would all run howling from each other before the sun sets.
Seriously though, have you ever thought about your thinking? Sounds strange but the way we think on a consistent basis has a profound effect on how we feel and act. The big word for this is Metacognition. Sounds like a superhero doesn’t it? More mundanely though, it means having an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.
This is the basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The highly effective practice focuses on identifying people’s unhelpful thinking patterns and the problems these cause in their lives. Becoming aware of these scripts in our heads means we could potentially interrupt them when they show up and begin replacing them with more positive ones.
Therefore, it’s worth reflecting on whether our musings make us feel better or worse about ourselves and the world around us. This doesn’t mean we should always feel good in a pollyannaish kind of way, as sometimes experiencing negative emotions is useful for personal growth. However, if our thoughts are consistently negative this will produce uncomfortable responses that are not good for us in the long term.
Many people are unaware that their mental processes influence their perceptions and emotions, and therefore how they behave. They view any idea that pops up as a thing that must be true and real. Yes, perhaps it is a valid thought but it could also be untrue, a misfiring of a neuron, a garbled message from the subconscious, a sugar low, lack of sleep etc. For this reason, we should treat our own thoughts with the same circumspection we do other people’s and stay curious about any long-standing patterns.What to do?
One of the methods that can be used to try and shift negative thinking is called a pattern interrupt. The technique is simple and effective if practiced over time. It can be applied in many situations and is a powerful intervention that requires no special skills other than a level of awareness.
Simply put, if you notice the same old routine ways of thinking bubbling up repeatedly and they cause you discomfort, interrupt them. On the other hand, if they don’t bother you, let them be, allow them to come and go as they please.
Let’s say you have a friend who seems to be going down a well-worn path of self-destructive ruminating, try an unexpected response – change the subject, ask a silly question, clap your hands, point out something in the distance, make a joke. Anything that guides the brain in a different direction in the moment will work. Even better, try it on yourself. Practice will eventually make it automatic.
It should be a positive intervention though so don’t startle yourself or a poor unsuspecting friend! You’re not trying to traumatise anyone, rather encourage a different way of thinking. Asking questions challenges negative thoughts and gets the brain looking for other answers. As our brains like to take the path of least resistance, pushing pause is quite an effective approach to shifting thinking.
Cleaning up self-defeating thought processes can have a remarkable effect on wellbeing and mental health, so it pays to do a little reflection in this area. Here are a few examples of unhelpful thinking.1. Why do I always mess up?
This kind of self-flagellating thinking can have a profound effect on how you feel about yourself. In many cases it’s a mental habit that’s developed over a long time and most people are unaware that it erodes self-confidence.
It’s a type of negative filtering that focuses only on the negative aspects of a situation or one’s performance on a task.
For example, you do an amazing job on a piece of work but spot a small mistake that is hardly noticeable. The realisation causes you to beat yourself up even though overall the work was good. This unfortunate tendency is closely related to perfectionism which is just self-cruelty disguised as something laudable. If you don’t do everything perfectly it can make you very unhappy. This mindset is often a result of past shame and is toxic for mental health.
To challenge the distorted thinking, examine the evidence. Become your own social scientist and ask if the way you are seeing things is actually true? Would other people come to the same conclusions as you? Have there been times when you’ve done a great job? Are there examples when things have worked out? Asking yourself sensible questions like these and reflecting on the answers encourages a more nuanced way of viewing situations, which leads us to……..2. A lack of nuance
This involves seeing things as all good or all bad with no shades of grey. Unhelpfully, other people may be perceived in this way too – not as normal humans with both positive and negative qualities. This kind of black and white thinking is a form of cognitive glitch and taken to extremes is a symptom of a personality disorder.
On some level it can be easier to see life like this, as it makes one feel they have all the answers but it’s a simplistic way of viewing the world. The downside is you miss all the complexity that makes life rich and interesting. It also plays havoc with your relationships, as one day you think someone is the bee’s knees and the next, the devil!
It’s more pragmatic to see life and people as neither all good nor all bad but made up of both parts at different times. Sometimes things go well and sometimes they don’t. People behave like we’d prefer them to, and then they don’t, grrr… If we can resist the urge to simplify stuff that is gritty and ambiguous, a more authentic picture of the world will unfold. We’ll also feel better about a life that is both fascinating and ever-evolving even when it’s challenging. Most importantly, we’ll be easier on ourselves as we accept both the light and shadow in our own personalities.3. One plus one equals 100
Who hasn’t jumped to the wrong conclusions about things? I’ve done it a lot! This tendency refers to being sure about something without any evidence at all or to guess the facts with incomplete information. The problem is that the conclusion is almost always something negative about ourselves. Hello Self-Absorption 101.
It pays to be aware that with our flawed decision-making processes and our tendency to take mental short cuts (heuristics) to save time and brain power, there’s a fair to middling chance we are wrong about many assumptions we make.
For example, a colleague fails to greet you at work and you presume they are angry about something you’ve done. Yes, they could be upset with you but more than likely it has nothing to do with your actions. Isn’t it better to take a chill pill till you know more? Why jump to an interpretation that could be wrong but might upset you for the rest of the day. Your present emotional state also influences your decision-making so if there’s a previous upset about something else, it could cloud your perceptions.
It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that very little of what people do is really about you. It might feel like it is but it’s humbling to realise that it’s always never about you.4. Fallacy of fairness
This is the belief that life should be fair, that good people should be rewarded and bad people not so much. In reality, unfortunately, this is not how life pans out for most of us.
As the saying goes: “You have to accept the fact that sometimes you are the pigeon and sometimes you are the statue.” (Claude Chabrol)
If people struggle to accept the vagaries of life they can get angry and upset when it seems unjust and capricious. With this mindset, we might even be tempted to break the rules to even the odds out in our favour, so all kinds of personal difficulties arise with this type of distorted thinking. It’s better to take the hand you are dealt and turn it into something good and meaningful. It helps nothing to be bitter about what comes your way. Try and roll with life’s punches and get up when knocked down.5. Playing the same old song
So we know that the way we talk to ourselves and think about the world around us profoundly affects how we feel and behave. Equally important are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives.
What’s your story, the narratives you spin about your history and the things that have happened to you or your family? If sharing the tale of your life, how would it go – a tragedy, a moral fable or cautionary message about what not to do?
Everyone has an interesting story to tell no matter what has happened to them. Some of it would be happy and positive, and some not, that’s the truth. What we want to watch out for are stories that disempower us on a regular basis and make us feel like victims.
Why? Well, it’s not good for our mental wellbeing and our ability to move forward positively with enthusiasm. We like our main characters to end up in a good place, even if they have to wade through sludge to get there! An entertaining story often has lots of ups and downs for our protagonists, much like our own narratives. So, it’s ok to share the bad things that have happened but always in the back of our minds we know we will land on our feet because we are the main character in our own story.
So reflect on the stories you tell about your life. Do you make yourself the victim or the hero, the plucky battler or the black sheep who can never get things right? Do you blame other people for anything bad that has happened or do you take responsibility for the way things have gone? Yes, there are villains and sometimes events happen that are definitely out of our control but striving to create a positive narrative focuses on lessons learnt and obstacles overcome. This mindset will have a profound effect on the way you feel about yourself.
Take care and be kind to each other