Imagine yourself at a business meeting. You are introduced to a business associate named Mark. When you shake Mark’s hand, you notice him look away. What you say to yourself about Mark’s behavior will be automatic, and will determine how you feel about the encounter. If you say to yourself, “Mark is rude. He insulted me by not looking at me,” you may feel angry. If you say to yourself, “Mark could tell I am uninteresting,” you will feel dejected. If you say to yourself, “Mark must be nervous because it is his first day,” you may feel compassion. How you act toward Mark will directly follow your thoughts and feelings. If you thought he was rude or he labeled you as boring, you might avoid him. If you thought he was feeling nervous, you might try to make him feel welcome.
Many Opportunities to Create Meaning
Life provides us with an endless supply of opportunities to create meaning. Things happen around us, to us and within us. Some things seem unique to us, such as an injury, job loss, promotion, retirement or divorce. Others are a universal condition of life, such as aging, health concerns and death. It is not what happens or doesn’t happen to us that determine our mood and life satisfaction. Rather it is how we interpret those events, and what we decide they mean about ourselves and the world. These internal decisions determine whether we are “rich” or “poor,” happy or sad, angry or joyful, appreciative or resentful. Then we act on how we feel.
Unfortunately, we give our automatic thoughts too much power. We rarely notice, evaluate or challenge them, yet we let them create our experience in the world. Often, they are inaccurate, only part of the story, unhelpful or just one of many possible interpretations. Anyone who has been in a relationship knows there are often at least two different interpretations of the same event. Have you ever had a conversation that went something like this?
“But that is not what happened.”
“Yes it was.”
“But I didn’t say that!”
“Yes you did.”
The Gift of an Alternative Perspective
In these circumstances, we are convinced that our way of seeing things is the correct way and that the other person must be crazy for not recognizing the “truth.” Even though we participated in the same experience, two entirely different interpretations resulted, often with equal merit to an outside observer. Thus, actually, in this moment we are being given the “gift” of an alternative perspective. With the running dialogue between our ears and the misplaced trust we give to our own thoughts we do not realize the benefit of someone challenging our thinking. This can lead us to automatically believing what we think, without examining sometimes more accurate or helpful alternatives. When we naively accept our thoughts as “reality,” we can become vulnerable to developing a way of looking at the world that is limiting or downright unhealthy. We can miss opportunities, become overly pessimistic, excessively fearful, rigid or unreasonably angry.
What we say to ourselves about ourselves, about what has happened to us, about others and about the world will determine our experience of the world. Research has shown consistent and predictable patterns of thinking in people suffering from anxiety and depression. For example, when our thoughts are chronically focused on self-criticism, negativity about the world and hopelessness about the future, we will become depressed and we will be more vulnerable to relationship problems, sickness and premature death.
Thinking About Your Thinking
Are your thoughts serving you well? If you suspect that your automatic thinking may be having a negative impact on your mood, relationships, financial health or quality of life, consider spending some time thinking about your thinking. The next time you notice you are feeling anxious or down, ask yourself, “What is going through my mind right now?” Identify your self-talk and ask yourself:
1) What evidence is there to support this thought?
2) What evidence is there to refute it?
3) Is this way of thinking helping me get what I want?
4) Is there a more helpful way to look at this?
5) What is the worst thing that could happen?
6) What is most likely to happen?
7) If my friend had this thought, what would I tell him or her?
To a large degree, our thoughts determine our feelings, behaviors and outcomes. By becoming aware of our thoughts, evaluating them, and changing those thoughts that are inaccurate or unhelpful, we can improve the quality of our lives.
Brad Klontz, Psy.D., CFP®, is a financial psychologist, Associate Professor at Kansas State University, an Investment Advisor at Personal Financial Consultants, Inc. and co-author of four books on the psychology of money, including Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health.You can follow Dr. Klontz on Twitter at @DrBradKlontz