Studies show that we have an average of around 50,000 thoughts per day. Wow, we really are in constant dialogue with ourselves. Those thoughts can be positive, negative, or neutral. Many, if not most of those thoughts go unnoticed. As we drift along in our busy lives, we certainly are not consciously aware of every single thought. Think about this… during times when life seems to slow down a bit, have you noticed that you are more aware of your thought process? We can create that awareness. We do have that ability. Becoming more aware of our thoughts increase our ability to alter them.
Why would that be important, you ask? It’s important because, your thought process highly influences your moods and your behaviors. According to Gary John Bishop, “the language you use to describe your circumstances determines how you see, experience, and participate in them and dramatically affects how you deal with your life and confront problems both big and small.” We have the ability to direct our emotions by shifting our thoughts and shaping them into something that is helpful rather than harmful.
There are a few obstacles that may pop up along your journey to healthier thinking. Core beliefs are an individual’s most central ideas about themselves, others, and the world around them. These beliefs stem from childhood experiences as well as stressful or traumatic periods in adulthood and are the lens in which we view our current life experiences.
Examples of Negative Core Beliefs
- I’m weak.
- I’m unlovable.
- I will end up alone.
- I’m not worthy.
- People can’t be trusted.
- I am ugly.
- I’m not enough.
- No one likes me.
- I’m boring.
The good news is core beliefs can be changed. Creating awareness is key. Once you have created that awareness, you then have the ability to challenge or disprove those beliefs. Yes, it will take time and work, but it can be done.
When becoming more aware of your thought process, you may notice that some of your thoughts are distorted or simply inaccurate. These cognitive distortions are irrational thoughts that no longer reflect the reality of your situation. Although cognitive distortions are a normal part of being human, they can be harmful if they are too frequent or extreme.
Examples of Cognitive Distortions
- Catastrophizing – When the importance of an issue is exaggerated, and you assume the worst possible outcome.
- All or Nothing/Black-and-White Thinking – Everything has to be perfect or it is considered a failure. There is no middle ground.
- Personalization/Self-Blame – Seeing yourself as the cause for anything that goes wrong around you, even if you were not primarily responsible.
- Ignoring the Good/Filtering – Focusing on the negative aspects of a situation and ignoring the positive ones.
- Shoulds – Believing that something or someone, including yourself, should be a certain way.
- Blaming – Holding other people accountable for your pain.
- Jumping to Conclusions – When you believe something to be true, without having any evidence to back it up.
- Emotional Reasoning – When you feel a certain way and assume that the feeling is a fact.
Recognizing cognitive distortions is important. As you notice your own distorted ways of thinking, refrain from judging yourself for it. Creating the awareness alone will afford you the opportunity to make changes.
Most of the day we are on autopilot. Think about the last time you traveled in your car to a location you have been to many times. No conscious thought is necessary. There may be times when you think back once you arrive and realize that you really do not remember getting there. The brain is an amazing organ and works so well that we can float along on autopilot for a good portion of the day. Now is the time to pause and pay attention to what thoughts are tumbling around in your head. Create that awareness. When you feel anxious or nervous, what are you currently thinking? When you start to feel frustrated or upset, what does that internal dialogue sound like? When you start to feel any negative emotion, pay attention to your thought process. Again, do not judge yourself for those negative thoughts, simply become aware of them.
Once you are aware of your thought patterns, you can start to challenge them. Ask yourself questions like…
- What is the evidence for this thought?
- Am I basing this thought on facts, or feelings?
- If I look at this situation in a positive way, how would it be different?
- Is this thought helping me right now?
- What would I tell a friend in this situation?
- Could this thought be an exaggeration of what is true?
- Is my thought a likely scenario, or is it the worst-case scenario?
Another way to cope with negative thoughts is to push other thoughts in. You do not necessarily have control over what thoughts pop into your head, but you can use coping statements to fill that space with something different. There are many coping statements that may be useful, depending on the situation you are struggling with but here are a few examples to get you started.
- This situation won’t last forever.
- I am strong enough to handle this.
- I have survived other difficult situations, I’ll survive this one too.
- My thoughts don’t control my life, I do.
- This situation sucks, but it’s only temporary.
- I make mistakes… nobody’s perfect.
- I’m becoming a better person every day.
- My past does not define who I am today.
- I can’t change what has already happened.
- The present is the only moment I have control over.
- It is what it is.
One additional thing to consider on your journey to healthier thinking is your ability to shift your thinking to something more positive or neutral. I know that life is not always rainbows and roses. It is pretty much guaranteed that you will have challenges along the way. As you recognize negative thoughts, attempt to see if there can be a more positive or neutral way of looking at the situation. If there is… make the change. Speak to yourself in more of a positive and kind manner.
How It All Comes Together
Once you are aware of your thoughts and have begun the process of altering those negative thoughts, you will most likely notice a difference in your moods and your behaviors. When discussing this with my clients, I like to use an example of two cars getting into a fender-bender. They safely move over to the side of the road and get out of their cars. One individual aggressively gets out of the car and storms over to the other driver. Their thought process goes something like this: “I can’t believe this is happening to me today, now I’m going to be late to my meeting!” “This stupid guy probably thinks it’s my fault!” “Now my insurance will probably be canceled!” Lots of negative thoughts swimming around in his head. He is angry (emotion/feeling) and is yelling at the other driver (behavior.) The driver of the other car gets out and thinks… “I am so glad that no one is hurt!” “This is exactly why I pay my insurance every month.” “This stinks, but at least there isn’t a lot of damage to my vehicle.” This driver is calm (emotion/feeling) and is able to discuss the accident with the police officer when they arrive (behavior). Two very different responses to the same situation and it all wraps back around to their thought process.
Right now, this will be work. You will have to be consciously aware of your negative thoughts as they happen and then work hard to make changes. Just like learning to drive a car… as you are learning, you need to pay attention to EVERYTHING. Checking your mirrors, looking for your blinker, remembering to use your blinker, etc. Gradually, you begin to do these things automatically. A similar thing happens with negative thought patterns. As you work to pay attention to and alter your negative thinking, it becomes more natural and automatic.
Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed with your negative thoughts? Give me a call at 832-352-1600 to make an appointment.
I look forward to helping you along your journey to healthier thinking.