Negative, unhelpful and fearful thinking patterns can breed a host of mental health problems, so why not aim to be a more calm, balanced thinker in 2023? Here are some cognitive tips to get you started.
PRACTICE THE THREE Cs OF COGNITIVE THERAPY
An obvious place to start is by practising the three Cs of cognitive therapy – catching, checking, and changing your thoughts.
Firstly, catch the negative thought; if you’re feeling sad or angry or anxious, try to identify the thought that came before the feeling. Secondly, check the thought by asking: is this accurate? Is it helpful? Am I weighing up all the evidence, like an impartial judge? Thirdly, change or challenge the thought if it is inaccurate or unhelpful.
One final point here – don’t make the mistake of thinking this is about trying to “think positive” or about pretending black is white. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is not about blindly embracing positivity – it is about learning to become a more balanced, reasonable thinker.
If five office colleagues tell you your work is great and one says you could be doing better, what do you focus on? The negative comment, of course. Similarly, if you’re cycling into a strong wind, you will focus on how hard it is being blown back, but do you take the same notice if a tailwind is pushing you forward? Or is the tailwind quickly forgotten?
The negative is generally more powerful than the positive, so it’s easy to notice what’s going wrong and forget about what going right. Actively practising gratitude – for example, by keeping a gratitude journal or by keeping a daily log of positive events – can help you see all the small but important positives in your life. It helps us get in touch with our better selves, helping us appreciate things we often take for granted, retraining the mind so we start to see all the good stuff as well as the bad stuff.
TREAT YOURSELF LIKE YOU WOULD TREAT A FRIEND
“I’m useless, I’ll never get anywhere”; “Look at the size of you, you’re disgusting”; “Messed up again, what a surprise” – many people routinely talk to themselves this way, using language that is cruel, harsh and profoundly counter-productive.
If you’re prone to self-criticism, ask yourself: “Would I talk to a friend this way? Would anyone put up with me if I talked to them the way I talk to myself? If it’s bad to abuse others, then why do I abuse myself? I try to support and encourage my friends, so why don’t I do the same for myself?”
It’s a simple but important piece of advice – in 2023, aim to treat yourself like you would treat a friend.
EXPERIMENT WITH GIVING PEOPLE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT
Someone you know passes you on the street and walks past without saying hello. Is she a stuck-up cow? Or might there be other explanations – for example, she didn’t actually see you, or she did see you but she pretended not to because she was having a bad day, or was in a mad rush, or was completely lost in her own thoughts, or countless other explanations?
In cases like the above, we can’t divine the true explanation. What we do know from research, however, is that people who routinely give others the benefit of the doubt are happier than people who are quick to blame others. This makes sense: being quick to judgment will breed anger, resentment and distrust.
Now, I’m not suggesting you cod yourself – there will be occasions where there is a mountain of evidence indicating it’s unwise to give someone the benefit of the doubt. As a general rule, however, it’s good to be generous in how you think about other people.
CUT BACK ON THE DRAMA AND GIVE UP ON BLACK-AND-WHITE THINKING
I’m nearly out of words, so I’ll be brief here. Try to not see everything as either black or white, brilliant or awful, feast or famine. Cut back on words like “always”, “never” and “definitely” – these are red flags indicative of an absolutist and unhelpful outlook.
Look for the more boring but wiser path – look for the shades of grey.
(First published in Southern Star on 19/1/2023)