This post is the third in a series that accompanies each week in my book, Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks. Week 3 begins on page 84 in the print edition.
There’s a story I sometimes tell about a young man who had very unfriendly thoughts toward himself. Almost any situation could trigger these self-hating thoughts. For example, one time he opened the refrigerator to get something to eat and was disappointed to see that there was very little food in it—a little bit of milk, some condiments, a few lemons and onions….
He sighed inwardly with a sense of disappointment—not just about the lack of food but disappointment with himself. I’m such a loser, he thought. And then he heard what he was telling himself—that if he weren’t such a loser, there would be more food in the refrigerator.
As he realized what he’d thought he actually smiled a little as he shook his head. The refrigerator’s not empty because I’m a loser, he thought. It’s empty because it’s Friday, and Saturday is always our grocery shopping day. It was a relief to drop the unnecessary self-criticism. Many times in the past he’d had a similar feeling, but hadn’t recognized the story he was telling himself that led to that feeling.
For more than a year he’d had similar thoughts countless times, all of them centered around the idea of “being a loser”—that in some way he was inadequate (his Core Belief). He hadn’t recognized the thoughts before because they didn’t feel like things he was telling himself, they just felt like the truth. “I’m a loser” felt as fact-based as “the sky is blue today,” a simple observation of reality.
It took a pretty outlandish idea—The fridge is empty because I’m a loser—to reveal the thought processes that were at work. Once he became aware of what he’d been telling himself, he began to notice countless negative assumptions he’d made about himself.
I know this story well because it’s my own. About 10 years ago I was going through a challenging period in my life and I didn’t realize that I’d started to buy into a very negative way of seeing myself. The episode with the refrigerator revealed how easily my thoughts would turn to “loser.”
I share this story here because one might think that of all people, someone who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy would be good at recognizing his thoughts. At that point in my life I’d been practicing CBT for a few years, so in principle I had the tools I needed to know what my mind was doing. I was as surprised as anyone that I could be so blind to what I’d been telling myself on a regular basis.
Like most of us, I took for granted that my thoughts were true. I believed I was seeing the world (including myself) as it was, not interpreting things through my own biases. So if you’re not in the habit of noticing the things you’re telling yourself that may or may not be true, take heart—you’re not alone.
This week as you work on identifying your thought patterns, you might foster a sense of curiosity about what your mind is up to. In a way you’ll take on the role of scientist as you study the landscape of your thoughts. In the process you’ll learn about the associations between:
- Certain situations and the emotions they lead to (Event → Emotion)
- Thoughts that come up in these situations (Event → Thought)
- The emotions that follow different thoughts (Thought → Emotion)
For example, if you struggle with social anxiety you might notice that (1) you tend to feel anxious before entering a room full of friends and acquaintances; (2) that you often think things like “I hope I don’t come across as awkward” in these kinds of settings; and (3) that the thoughts about looking awkward are what really lead to anxiety.
You might notice that these three connections are captured in the diagram shown on page 92 and elsewhere in this chapter. They summarize the crucial components of the cognitive approach: Events, Thoughts, Emotions, and the associations among them.
If you struggle to notice your thoughts, it might be helpful to quiet the mind to hear what it’s up to. For example, if something happens and you start to feel extremely down on yourself, you might create more mental space by:
- pausing for a moment and acknowledging that something is getting you down
- moving to a quiet place if you can
- taking a moment to breathe
- writing down what’s happening and how you feel.
Once you’ve found the space you need to notice your thoughts you can ask, Now what’s going through my mind?
Be as open as you can to hearing what your thoughts are. Sometimes we half hear a thought and then dismiss it before we really have a chance to examine it. For example, we might have the thought, “I’m not good enough,” which is a painful thought to see in ourselves. At times we might deny even having that thought because we don’t want to have it, or we know on some level that it’s not really true.
However, it’s important to capture even (maybe especially) the painful thoughts, and the ones we know rationally aren’t true. These automatic negative thoughts can affect our emotions and the way we see ourselves if we leave them unchecked.
This week is about listening—taking the time to open, with curiosity, to what our minds are telling us. Remember to think of yourself as being a scientist or an explorer, setting out on an expedition to map the contours of your thoughts. Next week you’ll start talking back to them.
Please leave any comments or questions below. Have a good week.
I’ll post the next installment on November 21, 2016.