Loving life isn’t so much about what we have, but what we think about what we have. That and the people we have around us. One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to make sure we have a strong handle on the way our mind influences our behaviour. First though, we need to be aware of what’s going on upstairs, and the kind of thinking that’s cozying up and positioning itself to frame our feelings and our behaviour.
There’s a powerful connection between thoughts, feelings and behavior, and one will influence the others. We can work this to our great advantage – if we change one, the others will eventually follow.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you want to start an exercise plan. Every cell in your body might feel like resisting. And as for how you feel? Well, more than likely you won’t really ‘feel like it’, because if you did, you probably would have done it before now. So if your behavior is resisting and your feelings aren’t feeling the love for your new plan, how do you change? By changing your thinking. Out of the three – thoughts, actions, feelings – sometimes (not always) thoughts will be the easiest to modify and will lead to the greatest change.
Aaron Beck was the first person to come up with the concept of ‘cognitive distortions’ and David Burns extended the idea.
Of course, it’s not for anyone else to tell you whether or not your thinking is distorted. The way you view reality is shaped by a lifetime of experience and sometimes the way you see the world is exactly the way the world is for you. The idea is to challenge whether or not the way you’re thinking is working for or against you. If it’s working well, keep it. If it’s not, experiment with changing it. There is always another way to think about something, and if you don’t like the new way you can always change back, but you never know where a small shift could lead.
Here are some of the common thought patterns that can get in our way:
All or nothing (black and white) thinking. (Trust me, the grey can be lovely.)
Things either completely are, or they completely aren’t – there’s no grey. If you aren’t perfect, you’re a disaster. If someone doesn’t like you, you’re telling yourself that the whole world probably feels the same. This type of thinking can get in the way of trying new things, having new experiences and meeting new people. Life isn’t all or nothing. Life in the grey zone can be the best part of being human because it’s here that we find our edges and push past them.
Shoulds and shouldn’t. Says who?
These are the little ‘rules’ we make for ourselves and others. Often, they don’t feel like rules because they’re so automatic and so ingrained that they can pass themselves off more as ‘truths’. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes they’d make good kindling. They’re the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’, the ‘musts’ and ‘must nots’, the ‘oughts’ and the ‘have to’s’. Chances are you took them on as you were growing up – probably from parents, teachers or society, swallowing them whole without really thinking about their usefulness. Here are some common ones:
• ‘I should always get it right.’
• ‘Everyone should like me.’
• ‘I should never say no.’
• ‘I shouldn’t make a fuss.’
Any of them familiar? You might have your own gems. When you think in terms of ‘shoulds’, you set them as rules for yourself and others. When others break these rules, your might get judgey, indignant or righteous. (It’s okay – we’ve all been there!) When you break them yourself, you might feel guilty or as though you’ve failed.
Question how useful these rules are for you. Do they motivate you? Restrict you? Open you up? Shut you down? See if you can get a handle on how they influence your behaviour or how they get in the way. When you cut it all away, what are you getting from hanging on to them? Healthy living means being able to respond according to the specifics of a situation not according to a set of rules that have possibly outstayed their usefulness in your life. Life can be pretty wonderful when you colour outside the lines.
Magnification and minimisation. (But we get it the wrong way around!)
Imagine how life would look if you automatically magnified the good and minimised the bad. Pretty special, right? Problems come when you get it the wrong way round – magnifying the bad and minimising the good. Rather than seeing things as a mixture of good, bad, brilliant, completely rubbish, wonderful, not-great and learning opportunities, magnification involves finding that one single thing that’s not great and then dwelling on it. This sort of thinking shuts down the positive. Nothing and nobody is ever perfect. Look hard enough and there’ll always be something to criticise – always. Similarly, nothing is ever all bad, but if you dwell on the bad, and the good won’t get a look in. Look at things for what they are. Focus on the good, learn what you can from the bad and know that you just got a bit better at this human thing we’re all trying to master.
I control everything. I control nothing.
This way of thinking centres around the assumption that you have no control over what happens to you. People who tend towards this way of thinking see themselves as being hopelessly barrelled along by fate. There are some things we can control and some things we can’t. It’s important to know the difference and challenge the idea that there’s nothing we can do to change a situation. Sometimes the change lies in the way the situation is being looked at, or the language used to describe it. Instead of ‘I can’t make this relationship work’, a more empowering way to think is, ‘I won’t make this relationship work’ (because I’m not prepared to change into the person I need to be to make it). Instead of ‘I can’t exercise’, try ‘I won’t exercise’ – You’ll either accept where you’re at (nice), or you’ll become so frustrated you won’t be able to stop change even if you tried (go you!) Either way, it’s a win.
A related problem is assuming control over things you have absolutely no control over. Common culprits are assuming responsibility for the happiness and emotional well-being of everyone around you. Of course, don’t deliberately do things to bring people down, but you don’t need to twist yourself in knots to keep people happy either. People will be sad, angry, and unhappy sometimes. Unless you’ve done something deliberately awful, none of how they feel is likely to be something you can control.
Right-fighting. Putting ‘right’ above everything else.
Spoiler alert. You won’t always be right. The problem with thinking otherwise is that you’ll go to any lengths to prove yourself right. Make no mistake – you will lose people along the way. You just will. Maybe not in person, but people will just stop listening. Everybody wants to be heard and everybody deserves that. The problem with a desperate quest for ‘rightness’ is that prevents others being heard and validated and it prevents you from opening up to other ways of thinking about things. Respecting another point of view – even if you don’t agree with it – is even more important than being right. It just is.
Personalisation and blame.
People who personalise take things personally. They might blame themselves for things that have nothing to do with them, which means way too much time is spent feeling guilty. Alternatively, they might blame other people without making any attempt to see how they themselves may have contributed to the problem. Both will lead to a static way of responding to the world that’s tied up in guilt or righteousness. Both will also undermine the capacity to respond to people and situations with flexibility.
Jumping to conclusions – 2 ways.
The first is mind reading and, as the name suggests, it’s based around the assumption that you know other people’s feelings and the motivations behind their behaviour – particularly their feelings and behaviour towards you. In this case, your assumption is a negative one and is held even though there’s absolutely no evidence. If you don’t stop to check things out, you tend to act as though what you’re thinking it’s true.
If this is something you tend to do, check out the evidence. Don’t assume that because you think it, it must be true. Over time, we can become fixed on looking at things through a negative filter so it’s important to check things out.
The other way you might jump to conclusions is by fortune telling. Here, you predict things will turn out badly, whether or not there’s any evidence suggesting this. Again, you act as though just because you think it, it must be true. Thinking like this will make sure you half live your life. You’ll be less likely to try things and you’ll diminish the potential of experiences by saturating them in negativity before you’ve even begun. Again, look for the evidence and challenge the validity of your assumptions. There’s some pretty wonderful things waiting for you as soon as you stop convincing yourself that everything will end badly.
Labelling means that let yourself become your shortcomings. Instead of letting yourself off the hook for messing up now and then, you let them become you. A mistake becomes, ‘I’m a jerk/ such a loser / an idiot.’ No actually. You’re not. You made a mistake. We all do. Thank heavens because it’s how we learn. Unless you’re a robot programmed for perfection – which would tend to become dull after a while – your flaws are the things that flourish you. Unless you make mistakes, you can’t learn. Own them. Embrace them. Mistakes are something you do. Not something you are.
If you’re one who tends to label, chances are you don’t just do it to yourself, but you do it to other people too. People who label themselves are also likely to label others when they get it wrong, usually with something dramatic and emotionally loaded. Someone who arrives five minutes late becomes a ‘self-centred jerk who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves.’ Now where’s the good in that, hey?
‘I feel it, so it must be true.’ ‘I’m worried about this. So there must be something to worry about.’ ‘I feel stupid. So I must be stupid.’ Rather than questioning how you feel, you assume there is a sound basis for the feeling. The problem is that you start to respond to the world as though what you’re thinking is true.
One time becomes ‘always’. One mistake becomes ‘totally.’ If you overgeneralise, you’ll view certain situations or people based on a single event or piece of evidence. If something bad happens, you assume it’s going to keep happening. If something you do doesn’t work out as planned, you assume it’s always going to be that way. Things will go wrong sometimes – that’s a given. To base all future situations on one mistake is the best way to stop a bounce-back and to stop yourself from growing and moving towards the best you can be. You can only be the best version of yourself by learning – and you learn from your mistakes. They can flourish you, or fall you, depending on how you look at it. Up to you.
The first step in nurturing a strong mind is to be aware of the thoughts that drive your behavior.
Once you can see the thoughts that are holding you back, you can start to let them go.
Now … go and be amazing.