To think, to stop, perchance to rethink.
Posted July 25, 2018
I first heard the word “cogito” in college and it remains one of the few Latin words imprinted in my vocabulary. Literally meaning, “I think,” the term is most often associated with the famous dictum of 17th century French philosopher René Descartes, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). To Descartes, we humans are thinking things. Descartes was obsessed with the question of doubt, wondering if there was anything we could possibly know with certainty. We may come to doubt everything, even the existence of reality itself, as devotees of films like the Matrix might contend. Is it possible that what we take to be real is merely an illusion or a dream implanted in our heads by a malicious evil-doer? (Nah.)
Descartes sought certainty, and the only certain thing he could envision was that doubting requires a doubter, namely a thinking thing that doubts, namely himself or “I." So, “I think, therefore I am.” So we exist. Thank you René, but like most people, I don’t breathlessly await validation from a famous philosopher to know that I exist, but it’s nice to know René has us covered.
Let me offer a modification of “the cogito” in the form of cogito interruptus , a term I use in the hope of getting your attention. Sorry if I disappoint you, but it has nothing to do with an exotic sex act. Rather, the term refers to the process of interrupting a train of thought that is riding off the rails and causing emotional distress.
Your Mind Is Not Always Your Friend
Sometimes our mind is not our friend.
Sometimes we need to doubt even our own thoughts.
At those times we need to step outside ourselves and challenge ideas rummaging around in our mind, ideas (not facts) like those listed below.
No, sometimes our mind is not our friend. And no, we can’t always trust that our beliefs accurately reflect the reality of the situation. The problem is that many people find it difficult to challenge their own thoughts. Thinking becomes believing. Thinking something makes it seem to be so.
Taking Stock of Your Thoughts to Take Stock of Your life
How often have you had thoughts like these–very often, somewhat often, occasionally, rarely, never? What effects do these thoughts have on your moods, your outlook, your general disposition toward life?
- Thinking you are entirely at fault when bad things happen.
- Thinking you are helpless because it feels that way.
- Thinking you are incapable of achieving what you set your mind to accomplish.
- Thinking that you failed because you are a failure.
- Thinking that you lost because you are a loser.
- Thinking you can’t possibly feel good about yourself because no one ever made you feel good about yourself.
- Thinking that a partial success is just another failure.
- Thinking you have no right to credit yourself for anything you accomplish because it can never make up for being a loser all these years, and so on.
You’ll know when your thoughts are working against you when they lead to dead ends rather than forward-looking actions. Repeating old negative thoughts in your mind gives them a new life while stifling your current life. They change your mental focus from what you can do today to what you “coulda, woulda, or shoulda” done in so many yesterdays.
Step back from disturbing thoughts by practicing cogito interruptus . I suggest to patients that whenever they become aware of a negative thought festering in their mind, it's best not to try to fight it off. (Like spitting in the wind, trying to fight it off might backfire, only making it stronger).
Stopping the thought is the first step in a three-step process I refer to as STS method: Stop, think, and substitute.
- Stop: Catch the troubling thought bouncing around in your head. Don’t just let it linger in your mind, untouched and unexamined.
- Think: Examine the thought rationally. Is it an accurate representation of things as they are or is it distorted or magnified in importance? Does the thought touch upon underlying negative beliefs about yourself, the world, or your future? Pose challenge questions to yourself such as these:
Challenge 1: Why must it be so?
Challenge 2: Who says it must be so?
Challenge 3: Is there any evidence that it must be so?
Challenge 4: Whose voice is talking in my head when I think this way? Whose words does it sound like?
Challenge 5: Is there an alternative way of viewing this situation?
- Substitute: The sixth challenge may be the hardest: What rational thoughts can I substitute for disturbing thoughts? In other postings on the Minute Therapist blog I have shared many examples of countermanding self-statements my patients have used to talk back to their distorted thoughts. These types of statements may be helpful, but it may work better to come up with countermanding self-statements of your own in your own words. Working with a cognitive-behavioral (CBT) therapist may help you generate self-statements and also identify your thought triggers—the underlying negative beliefs that give rise to automatic negative thoughts.
Once you stop a disturbing thought, remind yourself that thinking something doesn’t make it so. A thought has no power over you other than the power you imbue it with. Practice talking back to yourself. Allow yourself to get angry at the disturbing thought (but not at yourself). Talk back to the thought by saying to yourself or thinking, “Stop. You’ve made me suffer enough. Go find someone else to punish. You’re not the boss of me.” Then substitute an alternative thought: “Yes, I made mistakes, but I can’t fix the past. I can only change what I do here and now, in the present, today, now.” Then do something this very day, even two somethings, to make the day more fulfilling. At the end of the day, remind yourself what you accomplished. When tomorrow comes, rinse and repeat.
In Your Mind’s Eye
I recently suggested to a patient that rather than try to fight the negative thought, he might picture in his mind’s eye an emergency stop cord, like the one you might find on a subway car. Once he had the image fixed in his mind, I asked him to imagine pulling on the cord, stopping his own “train” of thoughts dead in its tracks. Whenever he found himself thinking angering thoughts, depressing thoughts, or anxious or worrisome thoughts, he visualized pulling on the emergency cord to stop his runaway thought train. Other patients visualized pulling down on a window shade to the same effect. Find a word, phrase, or visual image to interrupt the flow of negative thoughts. Words such as “stop” or “enough,” or a phrase like “There you go again,” may suffice. Some people use the time-tested rubber band technique, putting a rubber band around their wrist and snapping it to interrupt a disturbing thought.
A patient once asked me if he would ever get rid of the nagging thoughts in the back of his head. The fact is that no one can predict the future with certainty, not even Descartes. Though some people are able to send those thoughts on a permanent vacation, most report that nagging negative thoughts return from time to time. Becoming mindful of them when they occur, then interrupting them and talking back to them, can help move them from the foreground to the background of your mind.
(c) 2018 Jeffrey S. Nevid