There are many things I’ve had to work on and address as part of my self-improvement journey, but one of the main things was being able to spot and change my negative thinking. For as long as I can remember I suffered from chronic negative emotions such as anger and fear. As a result of this I unintentionally ended up hurting people I loved with my words and actions. I wanted to change these negative patterns of behavior but I didn’t know how to go about it. At one point I came across a book by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning called “Thoughts and Feelings – Taking Control of Your Moods & Your Life.” This book helped me tremendously and was an excellent tool for what I wanted to accomplish.
One of the first things I learned was that thoughts and thought patterns, rather than people, circumstances or events, were the cause behind my negative emotions. As easy as it would be to blame my anger, fear, frustration, sadness, irritation, or whatever it was on a person or situation, it was always a thought or a series of thoughts that would precede and give birth to my emotions, and subsequently to my behavior.
I learned that situations in and of themselves are neutral and have no emotional content; but it is our interpretation of those situations that causes our emotions. This was a little bit difficult for me to accept and process at first. Surely if something appeared to me to be negative, it had to be! Looking at a situation and judging it for what it was, it was clear to me that the situation was the trigger behind my negative emotions. But I quickly learned that that was my black-and-white mentality speaking, and a little bit of logic proved me wrong.
If in fact it the situation was the cause behind my negative emotions, absolutely everyone experiencing that situation would also experience the same negative emotions, isn’t that so? Allow me to illustrate. Let’s say that my teenage son has a 10 PM curfew, and he has broken the curfew several times in the past; the last time he did this I let him off with a stern warning. Today he decided that he would not respect the curfew yet again, and came home well after midnight. When he walked in I reacted by getting upset and irritated at him for disrespecting me and being careless and dismissive of the household rules.
But let’s say that a stranger was walking by the house just as my son was returning home, well after midnight. Would the stranger have reacted in the same manner? It would be weird if he had. The stranger is not emotionally involved with my son or the situation, so he would have no emotional reaction even though he observed the exact same situation I observed. Although very simplistic, this is a good example that demonstrates that the situation itself was not the cause of my angry outburst.
What then, was the real cause behind my anger and irritation about this situation? The answer? My interpretation of it; the meaning that this situation had to me, or put another way, my thoughts about the situation, regardless of how fleeting or unnoticed those thoughts were.
Here’s where I learned that if I changed my thoughts, it would logically follow that I would also change my emotions. The tricky part was being able to identify the thoughts because they seemed to happen so quick and almost unnoticed, as if my brain was bypassed altogether and my emotions spontaneously expressed themselves.
But cognitive therapy tells us that that doesn’t happen. There is always a thought behind every feeling, and being able to spot those thoughts is the first step towards changing behavioral patterns. This is a skill I would recommend to anyone looking to improve their lives. And it is indeed a skill, for it takes dedication and practice.
The situation->thoughts->emotions->behavior sequence is not always as clear as in the example I described above. Sometimes, our own emotions and behaviors join the cycle and create yet another situation which is followed by additional thoughts which then give birth to additional emotions and behavior, which then become another situation….and the cycle goes on and on.
For instance, imagine that you are on your way to work, but your car doesn’t start. What is a possible emotional cycle that may result from this?
- Situation: Car does not start.
- Thought: “I can’t believe this. I’ll be late for work again! And my boss warned me that I’d be fired if I came in late again.”
- Emotions: anxiety, fear, irritation; sweaty palms, heart beating fast.
- Thought: “If I lose my job we won’t be able to pay the bills. It will be very difficult for me to find another job, especially these days. We will lose the house!
- Emotions: more anxiety, more fear; feeling sick to your stomach, dizziness.
- Thought: “We’ll be homeless. We’ll have to move to my in-laws and they don’t like me already. They’ll blame this entire situation on me. My mother-in-law will drive me crazy!”
- Emotions: sheer panic.
You can see how easy it is to get carried away by these cycles. We’re constantly making interpretations and assigning meaning to the situations that we encounter in our lives. We judge events as good or bad, pleasurable or painful, relaxing or stressful. These judgments and labels are the result of the constant chatter going on in our minds, and this is why these thoughts are very subtle and rarely noticeable.
Since childhood we have practiced habitual patterns of thinking and have been conditioned to interpret our lives’ circumstances and events a certain way. There will always be situations and events which will have some level of negative meaning to us; and unless we learn to identify the cycle and put into practice some techniques to break it, we’ll be in a highly stressful state most of our lives.
In my next post I will share with you some of the most common characteristics of these automatic negative thought patterns to which most of us fall prey to one degree or another, and then we’ll start looking at some techniques that we can implement right away to help us get out of the cycle. In the meantime share with us! Do you believe you’ve fallen into the automatic negative thinking trap? When does it usually happen? What have you done to get out of it?
I’d love to hear from you!