Spot and Change unhelpful thinking with these four great tips
#1 Rumination One of the things our minds clearly do is try to solve problems which have already long gone. Take for example thoughts where you are ruminating over a past event or relationship and having thoughts such as: ‘if only I had said… or ‘if only I had done that differently’
These kinds of thoughts can often be unhelpful, we can get stuck on them, playing them over and over again when obviously we can’t actually go back and change the event in question. We can, however, change the way we respond over time by using the brains neuroplasticity to change thought patterns. Take the above rumination example- if I choose to spot that rumination:
‘ahh there I go again ruminating…’ I effectively separate myself a little from the rumination, so one part of my mind is noticing what another part is doing: ‘Rumination is a thing relating to the past and I am not in the past now, I am here, and those ruminations are just thoughts…’
Of course, if I am too locked into the rumination/unhelpful/hurtful thought I am too busy to stop and notice it, I am essentially, too busy thinking, to be able to think about thinking. So, this idea is all about what they describe in Acceptance Commitment Therapy as ‘defusing’ from a thought. Give defusion a try next time you are stuck on an unhelpful thought- don’t try to distract yourself or ignore the thought, notice it is there and say: ‘I notice am having the thought that xxx again’
#2 All or nothing thinking/catastrophising
Do you ever feel like an outcome can only ever be a) perfect or b) a disaster?
I am driving to work (to deliver training to other people) several events are happening 1: roadworks, 2: the weather it is so awful more people are in their cars than ever before in the history of driving, 3: Google maps is being (at best) unclear over whether I am taking the next fork left or going straight on, I go straight on… it is wrong. As I sit with my window wipers on full steam my chimp goes into over-drive ‘why are you always late!’ and ‘you are stupid and all the people waiting for you will also think you are stupid, as clearly you can’t read a map or organise yourself’ ‘this will set the scene for a crap day where things will go from bad to worse’
Any of this familiar to you?
The modern day, logical, human brain needs to intervene here:
‘it is just one of those things- and so you will be a little bit late, apologise and move on with your day…’
The chimp brain will not be happy with this:
‘it looks bad that we burst in late, sloppy unprepared…’
We are designed to worry, as being anxious has kept the species alive in the past, concerned, worried about what is wrong and what might go wrong… but this is not a sabre tooth tiger, a drop of a precipitous cliff, or a dark cave with a loud hissing coming from within- it is a training event with other human beings all of who, at some point in there life, have been late (ok maybe not Jenny in accounts but everyone else has at some point been late). Me talking to the chimp:
‘I understand why you are concerned, its better not to be late and this makes you stressed because of the impression it creates. This training is however, prepared, I have the administrators phone number on hands free, I’ll call to let them know, rain, roadworks, traffic could make anyone late- we will relax and make a good job of the training…'
This process of talking to yourself is natural and happens to everyone- it is important that the chimp is placated not argued with (how often do we call ourselves stupid) it is better to reason by allowing the chimp to rant/express their concerns (do it out loud if you are in a car on your own) and then when the rant is out acknowledge as above: ‘I understand why you are concerned…’ and then finish by soothing and explain what course of logical action you will take to fix this.
# 3 Over-generalising
We can tend to take one piece of ‘data’: ‘he is an obnoxious, selfish person’ let’s pretend this is a tall white man with a beard (sorry) and apply this to anyone else who meets the same characteristics i.e. ‘tall white men with beards are all selfish/obnoxious people’ from a chimp/cavewoman perspective this does make a lot of sense- if we can spot danger via the physical appearance of a certain other ‘tribe’ (the tall beardy tribe in this case) we can avoid them in the future. This is of course again misplaced in the modern context, I know a man who is white, tall and has a beard and is the milk of human kindness.
The example above is simple, but what are our common over-generalisations?
‘I was hurt by her when I got too close, it will happen again this time...’
‘all people who get into a position of power start to act that way...’
‘people can never be trusted when money is at stake...’
Let us look for our own biases and also exceptions to the rule.
# 4 Over-personalising
You were little and your mum and dad argued, fell out/fought etc. And you blame yourself as little people do- but you were little and couldn’t really have been responsible, could you? But still, you blame yourself. The same with ‘why does this always happen to me?!’ is another over-personalisation- it’s kind of like owning a red fiat, I owned a red fiat and I was the only person I knew with a red fiat but all of a sudden there are red Fiats everywhere… just as we have to spot who really was responsible for mum and dad's relationship problems, we need to notice that once we are alert to something and looking for it, there it is! It doesn’t always happen to me, and no one is out to get me, life can be chaos and bad stuff happens but it is not aimed directly at me…
· Let go of unhelpful rumination by ‘defusing’
· Are you using black and white thinking? ‘no!’ ‘oh wait yes I am’
· Spot over-generalisations (stop picking on beardies)
· Am I personalising? (am I/was I really accountable for that?)
Good Reads relating to your thinking
Peters, S. (2013). The chimp paradox: The mind management program to help you achieve success, confidence, and happiness. TarcherPerigee.
Daniel Howell You will get through this night Harper Collins
Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap: Stop struggling, start living. ReadHowYouWant. com.