Unhelpful thinking styles
We have evolved to think. From the moment we wake up in the morning - off our thoughts go. We think, think, think about the future and think, think, think about the past. But why is it that our thoughts are the way they are? Evolution provides an explanation.
The main drive of evolution is for us to survive. Do you think, therefore, that your brain would prefer it if you were thinking happy thoughts all of the time and never worrying. Is this a better way to survive? Or, is it better for us to be aware of all that might go wrong both by looking at our mistakes from the past and trying to learn from them, and by looking at everything that could go wrong in the future and planning to avoid potential pitfalls? Well, of course, our brains have evolved to be aware of all of the negatives because that way we are more likely to survive. Your brain does not care if you are happy or sad or whether you have an enjoyable life or not…it just cares if you survive. In this day and age, however, we are not faced with the dangers that hunter-gatherers faced and it would be much better if our brains were more focused on positives. Unfortunately, this does not come naturally to our brains and a lot of the time we have to create our own happiness.
Of course, the above is just one of the influences on how we think…human are vastly complex. Our environment also plays a huge role in how we look at the world. If we grow up in an environment where both of our parents are depressed and constantly point out everything that is negative, then it might be that we begin to see the negatives as well.
Psychologists call the process of thinking about thinking – metacognition. Generally, we do not think about the types of thoughts we are having, well at least not in any detail. One of the main areas of CBT is the process of looking at the types of thoughts that individuals have. One of the things that you could do is to start to write down your thoughts. Sometimes, it is useful to do this when we experience a particular emotion strongly. This might be when we are feeling particularly sad or frightened. We may feel embarrassed or self-conscious. At such time, try to remember the content of the thoughts and write them down. There are lots of apps nowadays that can help you. Or, you could just write them down on your notes section of your phone, on your computers or on paper. Then, at a later time, when you are experiencing the emotion less intensely, go back to the thoughts and see where you may have been making unhelpful assumptions. Please read on to see what types of assumptions we make.
In my opinion, if a thought makes us feel good about ourselves and if that thought is not going to hurt us or others in any way, then I think those thoughts are just fine and we can leave them well alone…even if we don’t have the evidence for them. Examples of such thoughts are: ‘It is going to be a wonderful day!...My haircut is fabulous!....My boy/girlfriend thinks I am the most wonderful person in the whole world! Or just….Maybe I have got this right. Maybe I am good enough…Maybe I don’t need to be liked by everyone or maybe I can make mistakes sometimes and it doesn’t mean I am a complete failure. (You will hopefully have picked up that I am a huge fan of these last few).
On the other hand, if a thought makes us feel bad about ourselves and we have no evidence for that thought then that is really unhelpful.
What follows is what psychologists call ‘Unhelpful Thinking Styles’. There has been a lot of research looking at the way we think. There are types or groups of thoughts that have been shown time and time again in individuals and not just those who are suffering from depression or severe anxiety. I am going to go through them one by one.
Mental Filter or Confirmation Bias is a term used by psychologists relating to that we develop beliefs about ourselves, others and the world and then hold on strongly to them, even if they make us feel rubbish. One example is if we think we are not good enough then we will dismiss all compliments no matter how many compliments we get. Also, if we tell ourselves we are rubbish enough times then this can also feel like information that confirms how bad we are. A useful way of thinking about this is to think what a friend would think of us or say….if you do not think that your friend is a liar then surely they see something that we can not. And, if they see that then maybe others will too. Maybe it is just us that see ourselves in a negative light. Try to notice the compliments and accept them as something that might actually be the truth.
Mind Reading is where we assume we know what someone is thinking about us. If we are feeling self-conscious, anxious or low, we generally think that what others are thinking of us is negative. But, do you believe in telepathy? If not, then why try to mind read? Now, of course, if we think that someone thinks we are great and that boosts our self-esteem, I am all for that…but the negative bit just makes us feel bad and with NO EVIDENCE! Research suggests people who have been in relationships for decades can not predict exactly what their partner is thinking so how on earth do we expect to know what a stranger is thinking? Someone may be thinking badly of us but then again, they may not.
Predicting and Catastrophising: Do you believe in future telling? If not, please don’t assume that something in the future is going to go horribly wrong or be an awful time when we have no idea what the future has in store for us, apart from that we will all die one day. The situation may go badly but it might be unexpectedly enjoyable. Assuming something is going to go badly just makes us feel bad in the moment.
Personalisation: This is where we take full responsibility for a conversation or event when others are involved. If the conversation or event goes badly then we blame ourselves. An interesting point here is about silence. Different people have different levels of toleration for silence. For some, silence is fine. For others, the briefest silence can feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we feel we are the ones responsible for the silence and to make the event amazing, fun, animated. This puts pressure on us and actually makes the event far less enjoyable.
Mountains and Molehills: You will have heard the saying, ‘Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill’. Sometimes we look at a situation and think it was a complete disaster. It is useful for us to think about whether the event will be something that affects us in 6 months’ time…or in one year. If it will not then it might be okay to just let it go. We have all done things we feel embarrassed of, it is just we generally don’t remember others’ embarrassing moments but do our own.
Comparisons: We often compare ourselves unfavourably to others. If we think we are fat or ugly we may compare ourselves to models. If we feel we are not intelligent we may compare ourselves to a person we think is very bright. There are always people in the world who are brighter/better looking/ have a better job/etc etc than us. But also, there will always be people where we have those qualities and they do not. When making comparisons, compare yourself to every fourth person you see…this is a much better example of the general population.
Emotional reasoning is a term used by psychologists relating to where we make assumptions about things based on how we feel. Our feelings or emotions can get it very wrong. A good example here is that a person suffering with anorexia will feel fat! Equally so, when we feel anxious our brain is telling us that we are in imminent danger, when actually maybe we are perfectly safe. Be careful when listening to your emotions…instincts can be right but can also be wrong.
Should and Must statements should be avoided (this is the only should I agree with here). I should be better at my job! I should be able to give 100% all of the time. I should have been more successful! I should be slimmer/fitter/healthier! I should have stayed calm! I should know how to deal with my emotions! I should be a perfect mother/father/daughter/
son/partner etc etc! I must always do better in the future! Goodness me how exhausting. Maybe it is better to accept that we are human and to be human is to be imperfect and make mistakes.
Have you ever found yourself going over an event and feeling mortified at what you said or how you behaved? Don’t worry, we have all been there. This is called Post event analysis and involves us going over in our minds what we said in a conversation and feeling embarrassed. Or we may wish we had said something better/funnier/more intelligent/etc. DON’T DO IT! It is unlikely that whomever you were speaking to will remember what you were saying. In fact, research suggests that people generally do not remember what we said but they do remember how we made them feel.
If you are someone who gets anxious in social situations and feel you want to plan exactly what you are going to say, this can actually make us feel less relaxed and is something psychologists call ‘pre-event analysis’. You can have some ideas but those ideas may or may not work. Imagine instead that you are going to meet and speak to a good friend. What ever you might say to that good friend is okay to say. What makes us feel more anxious is if we start to think that we should find something witty/intelligent/meaningful to say when we may not be feeling very witty or intelligent. It does not mean that we are not witty or intelligent. Are you always at your best with your friends? Probably not and that is okay. If your friend likes you just for who you are then maybe others will too.
Critical thoughts: We should be very careful of criticising ourselves. If you imagine that you told a friend that you had a boyfriend/girlfriend who criticised you in the way you criticise yourself…what would they say? They would probably suggest that you dump them. However, it is much easier to dump a boyfriend or girlfriend than to dump ourselves. Try to notice the critical thoughts and ask yourself what your friend would say about that. Listen to your friend’s voice…they are generally a much better mirror to ourselves than we are.
There is a lot of information to take in here. I have, below, put a handy print out sheet for you to keep close by and to help you to make less assumptions and lead a more fulfilled life. Good luck!