In my last blog I wrote about being aware of when stress has become an issue. Being aware enables us to do something about the stress versus simply being in ‘coping’ mode. This is not beneficial as we tend to shut down in many ways in order to keep going. On top of that we often feel pretty powerless when we are just reacting and coping versus actually proactively changing things.
Today I would like to focus on the things we can do when we become aware of the stress, in particular being aware of thought, beliefs and self-talk. When we have a reaction following an event it is not the actual situation that caused the reaction, as is commonly believed by many, but is most often your belief about the situation/event. We are meaning-making creatures. We tend to want to understand what everything means so that we can categorise it and compare it to past experiences in order to feel a sense of control and know what to DO. We humans love this DOING thing! Consequently, everything that happens is in fact neutral but we tend to judge, evaluate and give meaning to these events and then experience emotions and display behaviours based on the meaning we attributed to the event. However, one single event can illicit many different reactions from many different people – proof that it is the meaning attributed to the event that causes the reaction.
The evaluation of events is based largely on our past experiences and belief systems. A person who has lived a relatively sheltered life with little to no trauma is going to react very differently to a situation versus a person who has experienced trauma and difficulty as a child. Our ability to trust others, feel safe, calm and confident is largely based on our perception of present circumstances which, in turn is based on the experiences of the past which caused certain core beliefs to be formed.
As children we look to our environment and caregivers to learn about the world, ourselves and others. We listen, watch and model what we experience and at the same time internalise (largely unconscious) belief systems. These may be beliefs like, “I cannot trust men”, “The world is an unsafe place”, “I am not an interesting person”, “I must not make people angry” etc. We tend to be unaware that we hold these beliefs but they shape the automatic thoughts and beliefs we have in relation to everyday experiences. Consider seeing a friend walking towards you on the same side of the road and as they near you they cross to the other side of the road and walk past, not acknowledging your presence. If you hold core beliefs about people being unfriendly or untrustworthy or about the self being unworthy you may well judge this experience as bad and feel bad in turn and possibly even behave negatively towards that person in the future. Furthermore, this could possibly result in a self-fulfilling prophecy happening as the person then responds in a negative way too. However, if you do not hold such beliefs and rather believe that most people tend to be friendly and trustworthy you may well come up with a reason why they crossed the road as they did i.e. they were caught up in thought and never saw you.
While we often are not aware of our core beliefs we can learn to become conscious of our everyday automatic thoughts which are shaped by our core beliefs and we may even begin to notice a pattern. Try keeping a thought diary. Every time you feel a strong emotion consider what you were thinking/saying to yourself that caused you to feel that emotion e.g. “Of course this would happen to me” or “I am so stupid” or “I should have known he would let me down” which could reflect core beliefs like “Only bad things happen to me” or “I am not good enough” or “I cannot trust men”. Then ask yourself why you might have developed such belief systems in the first place to see if you are perhaps generalising to all situations based on experiences you had as a child.
Here is the best part….Knowing that you create your emotional reaction based on what you think about a situation gives you the power to be able to change how you feel or react simply by changing your thoughts/perceptions about the situation. I have a big unconscious belief about not having enough time. I battle to get things done in time, I often run late and I get wound up when I feel like I have too much to do and not enough time. When I realise I am in overwhelm and need to do something about this I first force myself to slow down (live your life like you want it to be because that means you are choosing to believe it is that way and you create your reality). Then I change my thoughts and self-talk by saying things like “I have enough time to do all the things that are important to me” or “If I stay present and focus on one thing at a time I will get this done”.
Knowing that we can choose how to perceive situations and what kind of meaning to give them then why do we so often choose to attribute negative meanings?! Unfortunately, our perceptions are often based on distortions of reality – filtering (seeing only the things we choose to see); minimising the positives maximising the negatives; generalising from one small event to all similar events; using black and white thinking/all-or-nothing thinking (e.g. thinking that you have to be perfect versus being happy with good enough); mind-reading (believing you know what someone else is thinking about); or personalising (thinking that everything is about you). With all of these thought distortions ask yourself if you actually have proof that it is so. You are able to challenge these distortions when you are aware of them and you can start to change your negative and distorted automatic thoughts to more realistic and positive ones, thereby empowering yourself to feel and react differently. The beauty of this is that you then begin to set up positive self-fulfilling prophecies. Perhaps you will find that the next time you see that friend who crossed over to the other side of the road and ask them about that day, they may tell you that it had been a particularly bad day and they didn’t see you at all (lost in thought) and actually wish they had as it would have made their day so much better! Don’t you think those hours lost in a glum mood and angry thoughts would have been such a waste when all you had to do is think “I’m sure there is a good reason why they didn’t see me and it has nothing to do with him/her avoiding me”?
Don’t let your negative thoughts get the better of you – challenge them and know that you can CHOOSE how to interpret a situation so that you feel better (ESPECIALLY when there is no definitive proof regarding why it happened as it did). Why choose to see things negatively when you have this kind of power and choice?!