Isn't it time to change a few burned-out light bulbs in your head?
Posted Sep 01, 2020
Scratch any negative feeling and you’re likely to find an underlying negative thought. As a cognitive behavior therapist, I work with clients to help them correct faulty thinking. You may remember the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb. The answer is one, but the light bulb must really want to change. I can guide clients to help them identify their thought triggers and restructure their thinking, but at the end of the day, they need to do the work to make changes in their daily lives. Isn't time for you to change a few burned-out light bulbs in your head? Here’s a snapshot of steps involved in rethinking your thoughts to change your life:
Scan Your Thoughts
The near-constant chattering in your mind—your self- talk—creates a seamless stream of consciousness during your waking experiences. These self-statements are like wild horses on the range, left to roam around freely until they are corralled. Much of the running dialogue in your mind is goal-directed and focused on daily tasks. What concerns us here, however, is self-talk that creates unpleasant emotional states by harping on disturbing thoughts bouncing around in your head.
Make a mental note of disturbing thoughts whenever they float into awareness. If you're feeling anxious, for example, scan for troubling thoughts that might be lurking in your mind. Take a mental health moment to stop and ask yourself questions such as these:
- What am I saying to myself that brings me down?
- What disturbing thoughts pop into my head?
- What self-doubts cross my mind?
- What thoughts can't I seem to shake off?
- What nasty thoughts am I repeating to myself under my breath?
- What thought was on my mind the moment before I began to feel anxious (or sad or angry or worried or panicky)?
Jot down any troubling thoughts in a notebook or electronic diary to keep a running record of the thought patterns connected to your negative emotional states.
Capture a Disturbing Thought
Whenever a disturbing thought intrudes into consciousness, nab it. Hold it in mind by focusing attention on it. Keep it long enough in mind to repeat the thought to yourself and then write it down in a thought diary or record. It may try to squirm away but be prepared: Jot it down the instant you become aware of it floating around in your mind.
Encounter and Then Counter Disturbing Thoughts
You might wonder why you shouldn't let a disturbing thought sort of drift away, leaving you in peace. The answer is that disturbing thoughts tend to repeat themselves, especially when they touch upon deeper feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. They keep coming back again and again, dampening your mood and twisting your perceptions of yourself. When you write them down, you give yourself time to expose their logical flaws and inconsistencies and to think of substitute, countering thoughts the next time the disturbing thought intrudes. So be prepared to encounter and then counter disturbing thoughts.
Say you're troubled by a particular disturbing thought involving fear of social rejection or embarrassment (e.g., "What will they think of me?” or, “They’re going to think I’m a jerk.”). The thought might pop into your head so quickly you may be unprepared for it. But each time you interact socially with others, the thought returns, unwelcomed as it might be. Suddenly you’re feeling anxious and tongue-tied. As long the disruptive thought remains unexamined and unchallenged, it is left to play havoc with your feeling states.
One way of tracking down these thoughts is to be on the lookout for them. Like an undercover detective waiting patiently on a stakeout to capture a wanted fugitive, prepare yourself to snare disruptive thoughts whenever they occur. Imagine your brain is equipped with a mental filter that siphons off disruptive thoughts. Whenever you encounter a disruptive thought, imagine it becoming trapped in the filter and sounding an alarm (“Intruder Alert!”) so you can muster your defenses to challenge its validity ("Why must it be so? ... Who says it must be so?") and replace it with a countermanding thought.
Keep a Record of Your Thoughts
Capturing a disturbing thought in real time requires the ability to scan your thoughts as though you were observing yourself at a distance. It is often helpful to log these thoughts in a thought diary, or use standard index cards or a note-keeping app on your phone to jot them down. Try to capture one or two disruptive thoughts a day.
As soon as you become aware of a distorted or faulty thought knocking around in your head, write it down in your diary. Thoughts can become lost in the recesses of memory if you wait until the end of the day to record them. Connect each disturbing thought in your diary or thought log to the situation or activating event that triggered it and the consequences or outcomes that followed (how you felt and what you did afterwards.
Jotting down disturbing thoughts can help you siphon off those that don't measure up to reality because they are illogical, exaggerated, distorted, and just plain unfair (especially to yourself)—thoughts which make mountains out of molehills, which belittle yourself, and which magnify the significance of minor setbacks or disappointments.
Keep a Record of Your Feeling States
Keep tabs on troubling emotions whenever they occur. Connect them to the underlying thoughts that trigger them. A feelings record can help you connect thoughts and emotional responses, and most importantly, find patterns in the data that point to more deeply held beliefs about yourself and the world, called core beliefs or underlying assumptions.
One case example is of a 23-year-old woman—let’s call her Ann—who felt anxious whenever she entered a crowded department store. It would begin with a feeling of tightness in her stomach and shortness of breath. She would soon feel faint and fear that she was about to pass out. She could only cope with these feelings by hurriedly exiting the store.
Ann began to keep a diary of her anxiety feeling states. Her diary revealed that whenever she felt the least bit queasy, she convinced herself that she was about to lose control. In her mind she saw herself fainting and being revived with all these strange people standing around her, gawking at her, making snide comments about how weak or infirmed she was.
Her feeling diary led her to identify two themes reflected in her disturbing thoughts:
1. Thinking of herself as incapable of coping with stressful situations. Whenever Ann encountered a stressful situation, like entering a department store or boarding a train, she automatically thought to herself, "I’m not going to be able to handle this.”
2. Exaggerating the anticipated consequences of negative events. Ann envisioned the most dire consequences of losing control. She thought to herself, "If I have an attack, everyone will notice me. People would look at me. I'd be publicly humiliated. They'd all laugh at me. I'd wish I were dead."
Once she identified the thought patterns connected to her anxiety attacks, she began to take control by challenging the underlying beliefs that gave rise to these thoughts and replacing them with sensible alternatives. Would people really gawk at her, or would they be more likely to try to help her? Even if they gawked, so what? Wouldn’t that be more telling about their own lack of empathy than it would be about herself? By practicing rational self-talk, her anxiety lessened to the point she no longer felt uncomfortable traveling on a train or shopping in a crowded store.
Being forewarned is forearmed: Knowing the thoughts that trigger anxiety and other troubling emotional states can prepare you to challenge them whenever they occur and replace them with rational alternatives.
Change What You Say to Yourself Under Your Breath
Two basic premises underlie this approach to changing faulty thinking: (1) first, distorted thinking leads to disturbing feeling states; and (2) replacing or correcting distorted or faulty thinking changes the corresponding feeling states. You can correct faulty thinking by taking control of what you say to yourself under your breath. By talking calmly and rationally to yourself, you can prevent faulty, exaggerated thoughts from pushing your emotional buttons.
Here are a few tips that might be helpful:
Practice, Practice, Practice. It may seem that once you've identified an irrational thought (Step 2) it should then be a simple task to replace it with a more rational one. But as I often point out to my own patients, it’s likely you’ve been practicing these same irrational thoughts countless times in your life, perhaps since childhood. Once you identify entrenched troubling thoughts, you need to challenge their validity by exposing their flaws and replacing them with sensible alternative thoughts. But that takes time and practice, becoming a kind of chipping away process. But that's not all. The new thoughts must be stamped into your mind by constant repetition in your self-talk until the habit strength of thinking rationally becomes stronger than the old habit of negative self-talk.
Question Thyself. Think of a defendant in a criminal trial. It's not likely the defendant's testimony would be left unchallenged by the district attorney. By the same token, why should you accept the validity of your troubling thoughts without a sustained and vigorous challenge?
Stop negative thinking in its tracks by asking yourself questions such as these:
- Why must it be so?
- Who says I must think this way?
- Are there other ways to look at this situation?
- Are there alternative explanations which may account for this situation?
- What's the point of thinking this way? What good does it do?
- What alternative thought can I substitute for this troubling thought?
Adopting a self-questioning style of talking to yourself puts your interpretation of daily experiences on hold, allowing you to consider alternative ways of thinking. Rather than talking to yourself in the form of declarative statements (e.g., "I'm a failure") that posit a fixed view of reality, consider alternative viewpoints: “I’ve made mistakes, but it doesn’t mean that I’m a failure,” “Stop labeling yourself and figure out what you need to do next." I remember a speaker who encouraged the audience to think differently about failure by saying, “Failure is not fatal. It is feedback.” Similarly, we have this from Shakespeare, who penned these words in Hamlet: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
If thinking makes it so, then rethinking can make it something else. The more you pick away at the validity of your troubling thoughts, the better able you are to recognize their flaws and replace them with healthier alternatives. You may also benefit from consulting a cognitive behavioral therapist who can help guide you in identifying your thought triggers and changing your inner dialogues with yourself to avoid insinuating negative ways of thinking that infect your mind.
© 2020 Jeffrey S. Nevid.