Thinking: The talking of the soul to itself. – Plato
What we think matters. We are listening even when we are not aware of our thoughts, they are there and we absorb the messages. For optimal mental health, we must be aware of those thoughts and challenge their validity.
In session, I’ve been focusing a lot on Cognitive Distortions (CD’s)– a skewed way of perceiving reality. An inaccurate thought that is used to reinforce negative thinking. There are a lot of them, and we all use them from time to time. However, when we use them continually we end up with perceptions that just are simply – not true.
Learning to identify the CD’s that we use most often and change them so that they stop reinforcing negative beliefs is challenging but –oh so important!! It takes awareness, practice, and discipline.
Let’s start with POLARIZED THINKING:
Polarized thinking is also known as SPLITTING or BLACK AND WHITE THINKING. You can identify it when you hear the words ALL, NONE, ALWAYS, NEVER
To check if it is a true CD, one must ask if the statement is actually TRUE.
“I never have good luck”
“You always come home late”
“It happens all the time”
“No one (none) loves me”
Let’s face it – absolutes do not really exist in terms of behavior. Allowing ourselves to use language that implies absolutes creates very rigid thinking. It becomes detrimental when we don’t allow for any other possibility. Additionally, it fosters perfectionism. To think that “I can never fail” is not only unrealistic but sets me up for failure right from the start.
Even if we don’t ‘mean’ always or never, someone (ourselves included) is listening to the WORDS; when we use them in the context of slang or sarcasm they are interpreted as absolutes. Consequently, we are reinforcing in our own minds and/or to others – something that is simply NOT TRUE!
Pay attention to the words – give someone permission to point out when you use them and immediately ask yourself if this is a TRUE statement!! Has there EVER been a time when this was not the case? Seek evidence for that disproves what you are saying. For example:
“I can’t do anything right”
I completed my last project ahead of schedule.
I pay my bills on time.
I follow recipes well.
I can plan a great party.
I am a good friend.
“You are always grumpy”
I noticed you laughed at Joe’s joke.
You were sweet on my birthday.
You calmly and tenderly consoled Mary when she was hurting.
You encouraged me to try.
I saw a smile on your face while you were sleeping.
In both cases, there are several examples, however mundane or simplistic, that warrant the original statement UNTRUE by definition.
For one day – or for a long period of a day – identify and write down the polarized thinking statements that you have made. Then, for each statement write as many FACTS that you can think of which provide evidence against your polarized thought.
Once you can clearly see that your thought is not true – restate it in a way that conveys your thought in a FACTUAL statement:
“I can’t do anything right.”
“Sometimes, I make mistakes.”
“You are always grumpy.”
“You seem grumpy to me today.”
More often than not – we fail to express the EMOTION associated with these ‘thoughts’ …
This is where the real awareness comes into play.
When we can articulate how we FEEL as we have negative thoughts then we are able to comprehend different FEELINGS that become associated with the more true statements.
The negative feeling which connects to the distortion of “I can’t do anything right” may be despair, hopelessness, helplessness, or despondency.
When we focus on facts: “Sometimes I make mistakes” and become aware that there are times you DO things right, feelings of hopefulness, optimism, positivity, and confidence increase.
Many of us have years, if not decades of cementing negative thoughts via this particular distortion and it will NOT go away without dedicated awareness and practice. Focus first on thoughts about self and then turn your attention to how and what you think about others and environmental situations.
Simply eliminating absolutes from your vocabulary will make a major difference in your self-perception and in your communication!!