What we think about ourselves, over time, becomes our reality. This is a good enough reason to identify thinking errors left running in the background and to seek out strategies for healthier thinking.
It’s pretty easy to weave our own story about what is happening to us, every time things go off the course we want them to go on, says psychologist Beth Kurland. She illustrates her claim with an incident she personally experienced. While nervously waiting for an important call where she was supposed to be offered a professional opportunity, Kurland started having increasing feelings of frustration when, at the agreed hour, the phone did not ring. She had scheduled her whole morning around this call, therefore, a quarter of an hour later, her mind already started thinking of reasons for this delay. Half an hour later, these stories had become even more elaborate. They all centred on the lack of credibility of the person that was about to call, but also on personal shortcomings that would have dissuaded the caller from reaching out to her.
Finally, Kurland took her courage in both hands and called to see what had happened, just to discover that neither she nor the person she was about to talk to had taken into account the 3-hour time difference when they scheduled the conversation. This is a story we can easily relate to because we often make thinking errors when looking from a narrow, subjective angle at what is happening to us and by interpreting the facts according to our own narrative. We thus facilitate the occurrence of negative judgement of ourselves and others.
Experts say that, although the way we think is important, since it is a catalyst for our feelings and behaviours, most of us take very little time to analyse our thought patterns.
Writing gives us a new perspective on the way we think
When you start to analyse a negative feeling, you will most probably get to the negative thought that generated it, says psychologist Jeffrey Nevid, emphasising the need to reflect on our thoughts.
If they want to substantially change their perspective on life and themselves, most people will need to put their thoughts on paper, says psychologist Barbara Markway.
We need to scan our thoughts, especially recurrent ones, by writing them down in a journal, Nevid says. He explains that ignoring them is merely a way to facilitate their re-emergence. On the other hand, if we have a record of our distorted thoughts, it’s easier for us to identify the exaggerated, illogical, or destructive ones. This can help us make easier connections between disquieting emotions and inappropriate thoughts and to identify thought patterns that betray a certain conception about us and the world.
If they want to substantially change their perspective on life and themselves, most people will need to put their thoughts on paper, says psychologist Barbara Markway, in an article that stresses the importance of keeping a daily journal to fight anxiety. Some will object that they do not have the necessary time to write down the thoughts that disturb them but the psychologist assures them that they will not need to do this forever. Even keeping a journal for or one or two weeks will bring relevant information to light, and once the habit of analysing negative thoughts takes root, they will not always need to be written down.
Some people are embarrassed when they see their thoughts written down, even if no one else has access to them. This reaction is proof that we have already gained a broader perspective on the way we think, Markway says.
A journal brings unquestionable benefits, believes psychologist Richard Ragnarson. When we write them down, our thoughts and emotions are no longer absolute, they no longer fully reflect reality and we are no longer overwhelmed by them. We are able to observe them. Thus, writing becomes a way of slowing our thoughts down, giving us the opportunity to see patterns we wouldn’t normally notice.
Although he believes that any form of journaling can prove useful in sorting out and checking thoughts, Ragnarson thinks that major benefits can only be obtained when using the ABC journaling method. Initially introduced by Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavioural therapy, and developed by psychologist Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioural therapy, the model consists of three elements: A is the activating element (any external or internal stimulus), B represents a person’s convictions and beliefs about what is happening to them, and C refers to the consequences of the way in which we interpret reality (emotions and behaviours). The ABC model starts from the hypothesis that behind dysfunctional emotions are our irrational convictions, and suggests identifying and modifying faulty thought patterns as a strategy to get healthy emotional responses.
Fulfilled needs and life traps
We can change our lives by changing the way we think. This is the message of the book Reinventing Your Life, written by psychologists Jeffery Young and Janet Klosko. Young is the founder of a therapy based on cognitive schemes, and the book is based on the principles of this therapy to identify and offer solutions for negative thought patterns.
At the root of behavioural and personality problems lie certain cognitive schemes or beliefs that the authors call “life traps”. These cognitive schemes are developed during childhood and later influence a person’s entire life—the way they think, feel, behave and relate to those around them.
Young and Klosko explain that these schemes are difficult to change because they “represent deeply-rooted convictions about ourselves and the world”, acquired early on, in a destructive environment. These thought patterns have become key elements of our identity, offering us comfort, certainty, and predictability. Therefore, giving them up, even when we are aware of their harmfulness, is like giving up on ourselves, on what makes us feel at home.
To become balanced adults we do not need a perfect childhood. We only need one where our basic needs are met. This means having a good enough childhood—if we were to paraphrase Donald Winnicott, the paediatrician who, in 1953, introduced the concept of the “good enough mother” who learns to adapt to her child’s needs, while also dealing with failures throughout this process.
Life traps deal precisely with those basic needs that have not been fulfilled in our childhood (security, autonomy, relations with others, self-esteem, self-expression, and the need for realistic boundaries), say Young and Klosko.
For instance, if his self-esteem was not developed during childhood, an adult can be predisposed to fall into the deficiency trap (a person’s conviction that they have serious flaws and that no one will love them should those flaws be exposed) or the failure trap (a person’s conviction that they are not good enough, that they’ve failed when compared to their colleagues or other people they measure themselves up against).
How can we identify thinking errors?
A first step to correcting our way of thinking consists of being aware of the relation between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. As long we fail to understand this relationship, we will not manage to stop the cycle from being repeated, says psychologist Amy Morin. If you consider yourself a loser, you will also feel like one, you will put less effort into what you do, and, in the end, you will fail at different things which will enforce the initial conviction. Morin says she frequently witnesses how these faulty convictions reverberate in her clients’ feelings and behaviour. They are confirmed and reconfirmed until the person identifies the pitfall inside this spiral.
Being aware of the fact that negative thoughts are an activating element of unhealthy behaviours is key, Ragnarson points out. It is sometimes possible for the change in behaviours to attract the change in thoughts and emotions, but, in general, we risk returning to our old behaviours if we do not update our beliefs. The reason our willpower often fails us is precisely because we try to change the consequences instead of being concerned with the causes, the psychiatrist says.
Testing the beliefs we have about ourselves is another step towards the desired change. We can modify our self-perception by looking at evidence (and exceptions) which shows that a conviction we have is not always true and making experiments that test the validity of our thoughts, Morin says. For instance, if we consider ourselves too shy, we can try to do something that would get us out of our comfort zone, thus training the brain to gradually give up self-limiting convictions.
We all have an internal storyteller, who tirelessly weaves interpretations of real facts.
Broadening our perspective by separating facts from their interpretation is another way to escape the narratives we create about ourselves. We all have an internal storyteller, who tirelessly weaves interpretations of real facts. Although it is neither desirable nor even possible to silence his voice, we can still place a certain distance between his interpretation and the absolute truth, says psychologist Beth Kurland. Facts are facts (perhaps we did not get our dream job or the partner did not do what we asked them to), but the way we interpret them (“I’m not good enough”, “My partner ignores my needs”) does not necessarily coincide with reality. To separate facts from the narrative we weave around them, we can use certain questions as a filter to clarify the respective situation, Kurland says: Does my interpretation include distortions of reality? Is it possible that there are other explanations for this event than the one I have in mind? What would this story look like through the eyes of someone who hasn’t been involved in it? Do I prefer this interpretation because it’s real or because it’s useful/familiar/comfortable?
By examining things from as many angles as possible, we might come to notice whether we used to play the same part in different events or if a certain event activates convictions and emotions that concern incidents in the past instead of the present one.
It takes a lot of practice to replace an irrational thought with a rational one. At least this is what psychologist Jeffery Nevid says to those who cross his doorstep. It is not enough to be convinced by the harmfulness and untruthfulness of the thoughts that harass us. After all, these were engraved in our minds over years and decades. We therefore need time and practice replacing them with rational thoughts, and for the new way of thinking to become stronger.
Thinking errors: the fix
Starting from the analysis of a common thought trap (black and white thinking), psychologist Jade Wu says that the process of changing the way we think does not imply replacing all our negative thoughts with positive ones. This would not even be desirable, says Wu, explaining that we could not make the right decisions if we were to exclusively guide ourselves by our positive thoughts.
Black and white thinking operates precisely on the assumption that thoughts, just like reality, can fit in just two categories. Have you ever believed that one tiny mistake destroyed your entire presentation or that you are not as good as your friends because they got married and you didn’t? It would be almost impossible not to resort to such comparisons and contrasts, says Wu, underlining our mind’s temptation of placing things either in bright or dark boxes. There’s always a middle way, there are nuances, details, exceptions, and unexplored options. In conclusion, the solution to fight these life traps is identifying all data and nuances rather than the effort to turn negative thoughts into positive ones. The first option always requires a curious, exploring mind, Wu concludes.
In the case of mental traps built in childhood, in dysfunctional environments, the process of healing requires time, effort and patience and can prove to be as arduous as giving up an addiction, Jeffery Young and Janet Klosko say. In this case, the change process includes returning to the past and forgiving loved ones who have been guilty of abuse, carelessness, or failing to meet their child’s basic needs. When people do not succeed, despite their best efforts, in making the change on their own, the authors advise them to seek specialized help from a psychotherapist, or a support group.
There is no singular technique or method to rebuild our thinking, but there are instruments that can smooth the road to that objective, Young and Klosko say. Honesty and empathic self-confrontation are two of them. We need to relate compassionately to ourselves when we fail, when we are faced with our flaws and limitations or make too little progress. At the same time, we need the sharpest honesty when we analyse our responsibility in perpetuating harmful thought patterns. Perhaps today’s suffering is the fruit of bad choices others have made for us, a long time ago. This truth explains how difficult change is, but is not an explanation for our choice of remaining trapped in these harmful patterns.
In the shadowy world of distorted thinking there is a ray of light that stems from the very source of the problem, psychologist Leon Seltzer says. We cannot change anything about the mistakes we made in the past and we can change even less about other people’s mistakes. We cannot change the misguided messages that were given to us in our childhood, but we can change our distorted interpretation and the feedback we offer each time an event triggers old but erroneous beliefs. It is a long but freeing journey, in which we strip the past of its power to control our future.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.