Part 2 of a Two-Part Series On Challenging Your Negative Thoughts
When you walk through a museum, you reflect on art through your own life experience and perspective. Take Lee Bontecou’s “Untitled” from 1961, which is currently on display at the Modern Museum of Art. For one reviewer, this piece resembles “The terror of the yawning mouths of cannons”, to others, the eyepiece of a gas mask. When I look at this painting, I think of Elmer Fudd’s costume in the infamous “Kill the Rabbit” Opera. I’m really not sure why. This is just the image that this piece of art evokes in my mind. Perhaps it’s because I recently watched a documentary on PBS about opera stars who’s career choices were influenced by “Kill the Rabbit” and this awakened my own memories of seeing this cartoon when I was young. I didn’t live through WW II, but I did traumatically witness Elmer Fudd in war costume, killing Bugs Bunny, and this is the image Bontecou’s “Untitled” evokes in my imagination.
In our first post of this series, we covered how the concepts we form about ourselves are shaped by messages we receive from important people in our lives. Our experiences in life also shape our beliefs about others and the world. Our inner and outer voices affirm our thinking and our thoughts and become etched in our minds. We are also hard-wired to protect ourselves, constantly scanning our environment to check for danger and safety. Our bodies and minds in this way have not kept up with our otherwise more progressive evolution as a species. Traumatic experiences and hardships can harden hearts further and make us self-protective, helping us prepare for the worst. If you believe that “Men are pigs” because the men in your life have been unfaithful, you may not bother the risk of opening yourself up to someone else. You may be protecting yourself from a broken heart.
Thinking negatively about others often means that we make assumptions about people’s intentions. For example, we may think we’re being taken advantage of or overlooked, which leads us to misjudge and miscalculate. When we systematically make these kinds of assumptions, it influences what we do. Our action then reinforces our own ideas about the assumptive behavior, and also affects the behaviors of the perpetrators of the action. A vicious cycle ensues.
Let’s take Jenna for example. Jenna finds herself thinking that her friends don’t really like her for who she is and just hang around her for her generosity. Come to think of it, when was the last time someone returned one of her “favors?” Jenna becomes defensive around her friends, and when they have brunch, she tells the waiter that she wants her bill to be separate from the rest of the check. Her friends take notice. She then begins to withhold some of her generous gestures, like preparing a friend for a job interview. When her friend asks to borrow a dress for a wedding, she demurs with an elaborate excuse. This feeds into a downward spiral of mutual mistrust between her and her friends. Her friends are consequently less generous towards her in return. Were Jenna’s thoughts about her friends true, or were they part of an elaborate internal narrative? Either way, the actions she has taken as a result of her thoughts have weakened her friendships.
Tools to help you change your frame of mind
Identify The Unrealistic Thought Pattern
When negative thoughts are far out of proportion with the actual gravity of a situation, it is called “catastrophising”. Negative thoughts often involve black and white thinking, and the focus on the absolute worst-case scenario. If we can identify when we are “catastrophising,” we are better able to take a step back and gain self-perspective. The true perspective of the situation at hand is more likely to fall somewhere in the middle rather than the most dire possibility or the most positive outcome. There are likely many other probable scenarios beyond the worst case. Catastrophising leaves you and the others around you feeling dejected and hopeless. It can leave you feeling that there are no solutions and hamper your ability to think flexibly, an absolute requirement to finding a solution. For more on this topic, please see this previous post on loving your imperfect self.
No one gives me a chance.
I will never meet my soul mate and I will die alone.
Everyone at this party is boring and has nothing interesting to say.
Things are worse now than they’ve ever been in history!
Do any of theses statements above sound familiar? If so, you could benefit from noticing these thoughts when they happen, and before they color your mood. Look at the thought statement from another perspective, or consider an "outsider view". Weigh the evidence for and against your assumption or thought, and then break down the probabilities.
Assume People Are Doing Their Best
Try a positive assumption for once! In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown asks, “when you encounter someone, do you generally think they are doing their best?” If this is a “hell no” for you, then maybe it’s because you’ve been hurt in the past or have been taken advantage of in some way. You may believe that assuming the worst about others, even those closest to you, is the safest bet. Your first assumption is that you are being wronged, ignored, or neglected in some way.
You shoo away someone asking you for directions to the nearest subway because you think they are asking you for a handout. Your wife agreed to plans with mutual friends, forgetting a conflict in your schedule, and you assume she prefers their company above yours. You don’t hear from a friend in a couple days and assume they must have something better to do then hang out with you. I like how Brené Brown summarizes her husband’s response to this question “All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”
We know our own scars and insecurities all too well but we don’t know what another person is going through. It may be more helpful to invest in this perspective, to hold off on our judgments for a while. Reserve your judgment long enough to calmly assess the situation. This will inevitably improve the outcome of many situations.
Don’t Take It Personally
This is one of the key tenets in Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic, ‘The Four agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom," which has served as a personal safety plan and manifesto for me during my most trying times. The axiom "don't take things personally" helped me manage my own emotions, which made handling difficult situations much easier. We don't always realize that the ways we interpret situations and cope with stress can be damaging. Be gentle with yourself.
Sometimes my clients come to me with stories about how they have been bad-mouthed or maligned. I often ask them, what does this say about you exactly? Often your critics are just projecting their own greatest insecurities on to you. Next time you feel slighted, think about what that insult says about the other person who is making the accusation. What exactly does it say about them? You may find that the only thing you can control is your emotional response to it.
I had an ongoing grievance with United Airlines flight attendants for what I perceived as their rude and disrespectful behavior. Before a UA flight, I found myself lamenting that I wasn’t on a Virgin America flight. I greeted the flight attendants with the same surly attitude I felt they were exhibiting, and balked at the rules every chance I got. The seat belt didn’t fasten and the tray table didn’t go up before they insisted and when I complied I would roll my eyes and sigh. Since marrying my husband, a loyal UA flier, I’ve had to change my perspective and attitude. I worked to be outwardly friendly and cooperative, greet the attendants and make eye contact, and do a better job of packing my bags (meaning packing two carry-ons instead of three). When I encounter rudeness, I respond with polite civility. After all, I am not the one working a grueling flight schedule and having to handle rude, cranky passengers like myself all day! The other day, when going above and beyond with this strategy, I actually got out of my seat to help move luggage around for some other passengers. The flight attendant was so pleased that he offered me a chardonnay on the house!
Trying to not take things personally, not only involves avoiding negative assumptions, but also accepting personal responsibility for your opinion and feelings. In these situations, there is usually a way you could soften the situation, or ask yourself, what could I have done to make it better?
Use Assertive Communication
So much of our communication is laden with hidden meaning. To show others what we really want and need exposes our vulnerabilities. We don’t risk showing our vulnerability for fear of getting hurt. The situation spirals out of control and then your false beliefs actually become the reality of the situation. Direct communication can not only prevent the downward spiral, but also help you get what you want.
To get into the practice of communicating assertively, try the following steps:
1) Observe your thoughts. Are you thinking in black and white, making an assumption, or jumping to conclusions?
2.) State what you want and expect.
3) Ask the other person if this is possible.
If we practice the above steps intentionally, we are giving those around us the benefit of the doubt. We are making an effort to come up with a solution to get what we need, instead of seething with resentment based on our fears and assumptions.
We might have a mental game of chess going on in our head when it comes to our significant relationships. The patterns of assumptions we make conveniently contribute to the plot of the story of our victimization. This stacks the game in favor of faulty assumptions; the participants in this game of chess cannot win. For more on assertive communication, this past series dives deeper into this subject.
Think in Terms of Abundance
My personal Twitter account bio states, “there’s enough for every1”.” This neatly sums up my worldview, political leanings, and perspective on human rights. A belief in abundance drives open-mindedness, desire for the success of others, and generosity. Meanwhile, the scarcity mindset can be found in all spheres of life, from systemic oppression and inequality in the world, down to our personal feelings of greed and jealousy. The scarcity mindset is driven by fear; abundance is driven by opportunity and possibility.
The idea that there isn’t enough to go around really brings out the worst in our humanity. It leads people to lie, cheat, swindle, and steal. It leaves us with an icky taste of bitterness and resentment. When we think in terms of scarcity, it triggers hostile thoughts towards others we view as a threat to a scare resource. If we consider that there is enough, and we have patience, we will find what we need. If we aren’t instantly gratified, having a flexible mind and a fresh perspective will allow us to come up with solutions. One proven strategy in striving for abundance is to try to give more. Give to get. Be generous of spirit, offer directions to confused tourists, give sincere compliments, and offer heartfelt advice to those who need it. You will be rewarded.
Kerrie Thompson, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private Practice downtown NYC. To get in touch with her, click here.