Events are neutral. Our thoughts create our feelings, our feelings drive our actions and actions create our results. This was the golden nugget from my blog – Thinking on Purpose that I posted last week. I can’t tell you how delighted I was to get an overwhelming response from my readers. Some had the same reaction to what I had when I was first introduced to the concept of awareness of thoughts – are events neutral? Do thoughts really exist and are they driving my emotions and mood? Some of my readers were more aware and had been practicing mindfulness and other tools to help them with thought awareness. Some were intrigued enough to do the exercise I suggested and a lot of my readers were really curious to know more. So my friends, I’ve decided to dance in the moment and go a bit deeper into thoughts.
My first introduction to thoughts – unhealthy and healthy ones came a few years ago when I started working with a professional to help me with change work. I had assigned a lot of my “failures” to events, circumstances and people in my life. It felt easy to be a victim and blame external situations. The society I grew up in attached a stigma to mental health and change work and when I finally gathered the courage to go and seek resources to help myself, I realised it changed my life. My shifts and breakthroughs motivated me to take responsibility for my thoughts, feelings and actions and to do bigger and better things. It brought me closer to my life purpose of creating change. To quote Barrack Obama – “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
My work in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) makes me aware of states and unhealthy thoughts. I practice this everyday in my life and want to share some thoughts on unhealthy thinking patterns so it can help you too. Unhealthy thoughts are cognitive distortions and often are irrational. It makes you feel bad and leads to negative behaviour. Here are some of them. See if you can relate to any.
- Black and White/All or Nothing: This is an extreme style of thinking where we believe its all good or all bad. “I forgot to pack my daughter’s snack so I’m a bad mother.” “I made a typo in my presentation so the whole thing is junk.” “I’m the only mum who made handmade cookies so I’m the only one who cares.”
- Overgeneralisations: These are global sweeping statements and thoughts based on a single event. “I came late today, so I suck at time management.” “I got a poor grade in history, my professor hates me.” “I got a poor review at work and that’s because my colleagues upstage me all the time.”
- Disqualifying Positives: This style of thinking is when we disregard positive evidence by deciding they are unimportant or don’t count. “I got a promotion at work but that doesn’t really count.” “I got invited to her party only because she feels sorry for me.”
- Fortune Telling/Mind Reading: Forecasting the future based on no real evidence. The thought – I know what is going to happen. “If I talk to my husband about this he will freak out.” “What’s the point of applying for this job, I’m not going to get it anyway.” “What’s the point of eating healthy, I’m never going to lose weight anyway.”
- Mental Filtering: This type of thought focuses only on negative evidence discarding all positive aspects. Here’s an example – You volunteer to organise an event at your daughter’s school. The event and organisation is appreciated and praised by 90% of other parents. But you dwell and focus on the 10% who give you feedback that you could have done better or used some more resources. This leaves you convinced that you didn’t do well. So you don’t enjoy the praise of the 90% and you also decide not to participate in other events.
- Name Calling: Verbal abuse towards yourself. “I didn’t have time to cook a meal from scratch so I’m a lazy slob.” “I didn’t get through the interview, I’m such a loser.” “I sent the wrong email, I’m really dumb.”
- Catastrophising: Thinking that the worst-case scenario is going to happen. You send a wrong letter to a client at work and then you think – “I will lose my job, then I won’t be able to pay my bills and I will lose my house.” “I forgot to put a jumper on my baby, she will now fall sick and I will be stuck at home for days.” “I had a massive fight with my husband, he will leave me.”
- Rules/Shoulds/Musts: Setting rules and believing that this is the only way things can be. Anything else is bad. “A good mother must make a balanced meal everyday.” “I should play football because all my siblings do”.
- Personalisation: A person engaging in personalisation will automatically assume responsibility and blame negative events that are not under their control. It’s all about you. For example – “My husband drinks because of me.” “I drink because my life sucks now.” “My daughter is not doing well at school because I’m a working mother.” This style of thinking is also called the mother of guilt because of the feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy it leads to.
If you can relate to any of the unhealthy thoughts I’ve listed above then its useful to check what triggers them. A trigger inflames you to have an unhealthy thought and it’s often very helpful to know what your triggers are.
Next week, I’ll focus on healthy thinking styles. But, for now, I’ll leave you with a small exercise for this week to help you identify your unhealthy thinking styles.
- Step 1: Write down an event that occurs in your life this week. It can be big or small. Observe what your triggers are.
- Step 2: Write down the unhealthy thought.
- Step 3: Identify your type of distortion (was it catastrohising, personalisation, fortune telling or any of the other ones?)
- Step 4: What is your rational response to the unhealthy thought? Write that down.
If you find this helpful, keep a journal and do this thought work daily till the end of the week. You can also work in-depth with a change work professional to create powerful changes in your life.
Author: Poornima Nair, Life Coach at InsideOut