In my previous two posts, I discussed Automatic Thoughts and Cognitive Distortions. The first step in dealing with both of these common categories of life-sabotaging problem is to identify them. This can be extremely helpful on its own. By bringing our awareness to insidious unconscious processes, we invite our critical mind to get involved. Once our repetitive undermining self-talk and our default patterns of dysfunctional reasoning are brought into the light of day, they can then be recognized and stopped each time they arise. Here are some options for what to do next (based on '15 Ways to Untwist Your Thinking' from the Citizens' Counselling Centre training manual. Thanks GVCCC!).
- Examine the Evidence: Subject your thoughts or thought processes to a thorough and objective examination. Do they stand up to close scrutiny?
- The Experimental Technique: Do an experiment to test the validity of your negative thought or distorted way of thinking. Is it true of false (or somewhere in between?)
- The Survey Method: Ask other people if they think your thoughts, attitudes and thought patterns are realistic and truthful.
- The Cost Benefit Analysis: List the advantages and disadvantages of a negative feeling, thought, belief, behaviour or way of thinking. In this way you'll see exactly how much it is (or isn't) working for you.
- Gentle Reminders: Get into the habit of giving yourself little pre-established reminders to balance out your distorted thinking habits. For example:
- All or Nothing Thinking: Where are the shades of grey?
- Filtering: What is the whole picture?
- Discounting the positive: For every negative, name at least one positive.
- Catastrophizing: Deal with the event, not what you think it symbolizes.
- Personalization: It's not all about you.
- Mind reading: Stay in your own head
- Emotional reasoning: Don't believe everything you feel.
- Substitution: Substitute your repetitive negative thoughts or thought processes with others that are more positive and more realistic.
- The Double-Standard Technique: Talk to yourself with the same level of compassion and reasonableness that you would offer to someone you love.
- Re-attribution: Instead of entirely blaming yourself for a problem, think about all the factors that may have contributed to it.
- The Acceptance Paradox: Instead of defending yourself against your own self-criticisms, find truth in those that are realistic, and learn to accept them without giving them excessive power.
- The Vertical Arrow Technique: Consider each negative thought, and ask yourself why it would be so upsetting if it were true, ie because it would mean... Once you have the answer, ask yourself why that would be so upsetting if it were true, and so on. This is a difficult one to do by yourself, but I use it a lot with clients. The deeper you go – the more layers you peel back – the more you get down to the root of the problem, your core belief. This might be something like 'I am unwanted', 'I am unloved', or even 'I am unlovable.' This foundational belief can then be undermined using the strategies above; and when it crumbles, the thoughts and distortions that are built on top of it will eventually fall apart like a house of cards.
In his book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, Steven Hayes discusses a method of undermining automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions, which he calls Cognitive Defusion. 'The point,' he explains, 'is to break through the illusion of language, so that you can notice the process of thinking as it happens rather than only noticing the products of that process,' ie the negative thoughts that lead to negative feelings and probably to self-destructive behaviours. 'It would be as if you always wore yellow sunglasses and forgot you were wearing them. Defusion is like taking off your glasses and holding them out, several inches away from your face; then you can see how they make the world appear to be yellow, instead of seeing only the yellow world.'
Essentially what these techniques do is to strip thoughts of the power they hold over us by undermining the words of which those thoughts consist. To illustrate the point, Hayes asks us to think hard about milk. What does it look like, feel like, smell like and taste like? Most of us can conjure up these attributes pretty well. Now try saying the word 'milk' as loud and fast as you can for 20 to 45 seconds, then see what has happened to that clear image you had. Chances are, the word 'milk' has been reduced to a mere sound, stripped of its associations and meaning.
Once we have identified our own personal automatic thoughts or cognitive distortions and the words through which they are habitually expressed, we can strip those words of their impact in exactly the same way. Say your repetitive thought is 'I'm such a loser.' You could divest those words of their power in several playful ways:
- Say 'I'm such a loser' as loud and fast as you can for 20-45 seconds.
- Distance yourself from the thought by labelling it, saying “I am having the thought that I am such a loser.” It's the same for feelings: “I am having a feeling of sadness, because I think everyone sees me as a loser.”
- Try saying 'I'm such a loser' as slowly as you can, like a tape that's been slowed down.
- Say 'I'm such a loser' in a different, perhaps silly, voice: Mickey Mouse, Marge Simpson, Winston Churchill, whatever impressions you do best.
- Create a song out of the words 'I'm such a loser' and any other thoughts that accompany it. Use a familiar melody, or make one up.
- Imagine that your negative mind is a radio station, then say in your best smooth DJ voice something like: 'Good evening and welcome to bad news radio, broadcasting 24/7. All bad news. All the time. Tonight's top story: Matt Gardner is such a loser!' and so on.
- Treat your mind as a separate person. 'Well, there goes my mind again, telling me what a loser I am.'
- Show some aesthetic appreciation for your mind. 'You're doing a great job putting me down today, mind. The way you managed to turn a slip of the tongue into grounds for complete character assassination, that was truly inspiring!'
- Imagine that your negative chatter is like Internet pop-up ads. What would they look like? How much attention would you pay them?
- Imagine that your negative chatter is like a cell phone you can't turn off, or an unsolicited caller trying to sell you something. 'Hello. This is an automated messaging system from your mind. Do you realize that you're such a loser?'
- Imagine that you wear your negative self-evaluation – 'loser' – written in bold letters on a name-tag, or even a T-shirt. Better still, print that T-shirt: give yourself, and other people, a laugh.
Needless to say, the success of any of these techniques depends on practice. In the words of Funkadelic (or was it Parliament?): Free your mind, and your arse will follow!