“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.”
Many of us have grown up being told to use this phrase to fend off insults but how far is it true? Bruises fade, broken bones can heal, but wounds left by words can remain with us because they stay in our mind for a long time. We still remember that bully calling you “a fat slob” when you were six or your mother telling you that you’re useless and stupid at ten. Hear it often enough and such negative talk extends to ourselves as well. And such self-talk can be worse than the words of others.
The way we think about ourselves can have a powerful impact on how we feel. A thought appears real when given enough attention. Research indicates that when we perceive our self and our life negatively, we can consequently regard experiences in a way that confirms that perception. Over time, having such thoughts on repeat in our heads can come to form unhelpful that patterns that can impact our mental health and wellbeing, interfering with our lives and daily functioning.
Here are six unhelpful thinking patterns to avoid for better mental health (and some alternatives we might find more helpful):
1. Shoulds and musts
How many times have we thought to ourselves, “I should stop being lazy” or “I must have more self-control”? Thinking in these ways puts unnecessary pressure on ourselves and sets us up for unrealistic expectations that we feel we have to achieve. Instead, we might consider avoiding the imposition of such rules on ourselves. Notice when such a thought pops up and ask yourself instead, “What would be more realistic?”
Your husband is an hour late coming home, his mobile is switched off and immediately you think he has met with an accident. Before you realise, you find yourself calling every hospital to check. This sort of thinking is termed catastrophising; when we imagine and believe that the worst (often irrational) outcome will happen. To counter this, we might need to identify the worse case scenario first then think, “What is the most likely outcome?” It’s more likely that your husband is caught up with work and his phone battery has died.
You fail one small, inconsequential test and immediately you think, “I’m never going to graduate!” Similar to catastrophising, overgeneralising occurs when we draw overly broad conclusions based on a single event. Once again, ask yourself, “How likely is it that is going to happen?” In the case of failing a minor test, the most likely outcome is that you will study hard enough to ensure you pass the next test.
4. Self-Criticism and Personalisation
“I’m so stupid”, “I’m ugly”, “This is all my fault”. These thoughts tend to creep up whenever we make a mistake or we feel that we cannot achieve a certain prescribed standard. We put ourselves down or blame ourselves for events or situations that are not totally our responsibility. We reprimand ourselves for not doing something “perfectly” or being “perfect/right”. It might be helpful for you to remember Albert Einstein’s wise words at a time like these:
Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.
Practice self-forgiveness. Try telling yourself instead, “Mistakes happen. Am I totally responsible for this?” Ask your family and close friends what they think you. More often than not, they will tell you that they don’t think of you as “stupid” or “ugly”.
5. Jumping to Conclusions
This tends to happen when assume we know what others are thinking (often about us) or we believe we know what’s going to happen in future. In these instances, we jump to conclusions without any justifiable facts of the situation or reality. If possible, check the facts to see if reality matches our negative perception. More often than not, we realise that the facts don’t match our perceptions. Focus on observable facts. Entertain different possibilities and ask yourself, “Is there a more balanced way of thinking of things?”
6. Mental Filter
Ever realised how readily we discount the positives in our lives? Or when we pay attention only to the evidence we want to notice, and we dismiss anything that doesn’t ‘fit’? It’s as if we look through dark glasses or ‘gloomy lenses’, whilst anything more positive or realistic is sieved, ignored, dismissed or we make excuses for. An example would be when we get a good grade for a difficult essay, yet only notice the mistakes that were pointed out. Ask yourself, “Am I only noticing the bad stuff and overlooking the positives?”
A Final Thought…
“People tend to dwell more on negative things than on good things. So the mind then becomes obsessed with negative things, with judgments, guilt and anxiety produced by thoughts about the future and so on,” states Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now.
Remember that negative thoughts only have the power you allow them. Ignore such thoughts by becoming more aware of them and challenging them using the tips mentioned. Try instead using positive self-affirmations that foster feelings of self-worth and personal strength, such as “I forgive myself for my mistakes” or “I am stronger than I think I am”. Spend time doing the things you love and with people who value you.
You have the power to take positive steps right now to improve your resilience and emotional health. But if all else fails, remember, just smile even if it may not be the easiest thing to do. It can help to lower your heart rate and relax you almost immediately.
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