Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Old Stinkin' Thinkin'

Before you begin changing the old, automatic self-talk that causes more feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, anger, or self-doubt than you would like, it is essential to become great at recognizing when that characteristic thinking gets rolling and the typical words or phrases of the recurrent thoughts (Runaway Mental Semi-trucks). Sometimes people catch it when they notice some of their familiar self-talk popping in their minds, and sometimes people first notice an increase in the emotion that they are working on, and then realize that the automatic thoughts are cranking away.

Either way, pay very close attention to the thoughts that you might often attach to the many situations you get hit with daily. Are there thoughts that would tend to elicit irritation and anger, such as, “People are such idiots; Why is this person always a jerk; Why can’t anybody drive correctly, give proper customer service, or have correct manners etc.” Or is the typical self-talk more stress and anxiety inducing, such as thinking, “I’m so overwhelmed; I have a million things to do; What if _______……and fill in the blank here with any number of alarming things that you imagine could happen in the future”. Is the self-talk eliciting feelings of self-doubt and low confidence, such as, “I can’t do anything right; I’m always screwing up; I’ll never be able to do that; Nobody really likes me; I’m such a loser; I hate how I look, etc”. Or is the self-talk more discouraging and depressing, such as, “I’m so depressed; Nothing ever turns out the way I want; Everything is terrible in my life; It’s all hopeless”.

Then imagine rehearsing these familiar words and phrases countless times over years or decades, and it’s easy to understand how someone could end up feeling a lot more chronically down, anxious, stressed, angry, or insecure and self-doubting than they would like. And again, not because the life situations are making the person feel that way or even that their life is that way. The constant rehearsal of those messages has sunk in over the years, convinced them that things are that way or that they are that person, and it feels true… truly feels that the old, automatic thoughts and resultant feelings are facts that can’t be disputed.

But it isn’t true!!!!! It is so important to believe that it isn‘t true and that with time and practice, it is possible to get proficient at attaching a new set of thoughts to life situations, to change those old thoughts and feelings permanently, and to much more often, talk yourself into feeling more the way that you desire.  At that point when you catch the familiar thoughts or emotions starting to roll, it is essential to mentally put the brakes on the old self-talk in whatever manner works for you. Some people like to mentally tell those old thoughts to STOP and might picture hitting the brakes on the familiar thinking. Other people like to stay with the neutral observer strategy we’ve discussed (Calming Your Emotional Pond) and just notice those old thoughts and think, “hmmm, there is that thought again, ah, my brain is wanting to think that again….oh well, just my old thoughts, they don’t control me”. Try out different ways of halting the old, automatic thinking and see what works best for you.

Remember, even though your brain may automatically think all the usual thoughts when things happen, it is still your brain and you control what direction those thoughts take! The self-talk may head off in the characteristic direction, but with practice, you can get better and better at steering those thoughts in a different direction and begin to look at any situation in a manner that helps create greater feelings of encouragement, peace and happiness. In my next post, I’ll discuss how to do this.

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