We all get caught up in unhelpful thinking at times – thinking about how mean the traffic warden was who could have let us off with the ticket but didn’t, beating ourselves up over and over for the stupid answer we gave in the job interview or worrying that the weather might disrupt the event we have planned for the weekend.
Although this type of thinking is unproductive and serves no purpose other than to dampen our mood in the moment, it has no significant impact on our overall happiness.
There is another form of unhelpful thinking pattern, however, that plays a much more significant role in determining how happy or unhappy we are. I am talking about habitual patterns such as:
• looking at life through ‘gloomy lenses’: "My life sucks. What is the point in anything?”
• indulging in self-critical thoughts: “ I’m so stupid. I am useless”
• predicting the future: “What’s the point? I know it is not going to work”
• making assumptions about what others are thinking: “ I know she thinks I am stupid.”
• comparing ourselves unfavourably with others:“ i will never be as successful as Mike.”
• making mountains out of molehills: “ I am so embarrassed. I will never be able to face him again”
• black and white thinking: “ He is not interested in my proposal. I am a complete failure”
Unhelpful thinking habits are just that …unhelpful and generally untrue. If you were, for example, to share some of the above thoughts with a close friend or relative, what would their likely response be?
They would probably tell you none of the thoughts are true and that they think you are great and loveable just as you are.
When we truly believe that we are useless or that nobody likes us, however, it can make our lives miserable. It can prevent us from trying new things, meeting up with friends, speaking up at meetings or making positive changes in our lives.
So,what can we do to free ourselves from the clutches of these often deeply entrenched types of addictive thinking pattern?
Label The Pattern
Many of our unhelpful thinking patterns, for example the tendency to jump to the worst conclusions, are old entrenched habits that run on autopilot. They are often so deeply ingrained that we are not even aware we are doing it. So, an important first step is to recognise the pattern.
A good way to do this is to take a step back and name the pattern …"jumping to the worst conclusion, being your own worst critic, predicting a gloomy outcome."
When you step back and label the thought, it loses some of it’s power. When you notice: “Aha, that’s another one of those beating myself up thoughts” , you create a distance between yourself and the thought and , in doing so, it loses some of it’s power over you. You begin to break the autopilot reaction.
Question The Truth
After realising that the thought is just another one of those habitual thoughts you are prone to, you can pose the question: “Do I know for certain that it is true?” This immediately creates more distance between you and the thought and further reduces the thought’s power over you. You are no longer identified with the thought itself but with the one that is aware of the thought.
Let’s, for example, take a thought like “ Nothing I do ever works.” Ask yourself whether this is really true. Look for evidence to support the opposite. Is there anything you have done in the past that has been successful? Of course there has. When you see that the belief supporting the thought is simply untrue, you become free of it. Do this with all your other beliefs too. Is it really true that nobody likes you? Or that everyone thinks badly of you? Ask a friend if any of these things are true.
Drop Your Resistance
The main reason that these unhelpful thinking patterns cause us to suffer, isn’t so much because of thoughts themselves but because of our resistance to them.
When we judge the thoughts, reject the thoughts, fight against the thoughts or try to push them away, we give them power over us and make them stronger.
What happens if you simply acknowledge that the thought is there and realise that you don’t have to believe it or engage with it at all?
In the Japanese Zen tradition, they say that the best way to tame an angry bull is to give him a huge field to run around in. If you try to tie him up or enclose him, he just gets more angry. If he meets no resistance, his anger quickly diffuses. Let your thoughts be there ...without bothering about them.
Be Present In The Moment
Thinking pulls our attention away from the present moment into the past and future, The simplest way to break free of unhelpful thinking patterns is to develop the habit of keeping your attention fixed on the present moment.
Mindfulness meditation is a great tool for establishing this habit.
As the mind can only focus on one thing at a time, we can either be present or we can be lost in running mental mind movies. When you notice you are lost in your unhelpful thinking habits, pause and without judgement, simply shift your attention to your breathing or to your feet. Experiment for yourself. You will find that if you are fully focused on the present moment, there is no room in your awareness for thinking to happen. In the present moment, there is no thinking and therefore no problems.
What Advice Would You Give?
Consider what you might say to a good friend who was entertaining thoughts such as: “I am no good. Nobody likes me. Nothing I do ever goes right”
Would you believe them?
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