“You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you”. — Brian Tracy, US author
I’ve learnt that thoughts and feelings can be irrational if they aren’t based on evidence, reality or a rational analysis of a situation.
This can be a problem for many people but it is worse for those who suffer the obsessive thoughts associated with an anxiety disorder, low self esteem or the issues of self-worth experienced by those suffering from depression.
How do you know if your thoughts are irrational?
The thing is, many people don’t realise that the way we think can, if left unchecked, cause us untold problems.
For many years I was what psychologists would call ‘cognitively inflexible’; I found it difficult to separate my irrational thoughts from my rational thoughts. My way of thinking held me back throughout the early part of my life, until I began to read about and study various methods which helped me deal with my rigid thinking and distorted thinking patterns.
What I’ve learned has helped me to develop an ability to coach myself. I now know how to separate my thoughts. I’ve embraced this knowledge and it has helped me enormously with the task of challenging my previously unhelpful way of thinking.
Psychologists have identified a number of common, recurring errors in the way we think; errors that most people make some of the time (and some people make all of the time).
According to experts, irrational thoughts have certain core identifiable characteristics, and those thoughts come in one or more of these thinking distortions:
I used to constantly expect the ‘worst” to happen. I would regularly encounter a problem and start asking, “What if?” — What if tragedy happens? What if it were to happen to me?
I would regularly focus on the negative details and I was very good at ignoring all the positive aspects.
I used to see things in terms of ‘black & white’, good or bad. If I wasn’t perfect then I was a failure. There used to be no grey areas or middle ground with me.
I would constantly reach a general conclusion about things, based on a single event or piece of evidence. I was adept at exaggerating the frequency of problems and would assign to them global negative labels.
Without anyone ever saying a word, I believed I knew what people were thinking and feeling, and, why they behave the way they do. In particular I was convinced that I knew what people were thinking and feeling about me.
I used to constantly exaggerate the degree or the intensity of a problem. I would ‘turn up the volume’ on anything bad, blowing it out of all proportions; making it seem overwhelming.
I would assume that everything people did or said was as a result of a reaction to me.
Dr. Albert Ellis (1913–2007), the great behaviourist, employed this word to describe how we needlessly confer on ourselves unrealistic psychological obligation.
I was adept at ‘musterbating’: I used to operate under a list of inflexible and immovable rules which screamed obligation. I would constantly use the words: I must, I should and I have to. Anyone who would break those rules would frustrate and annoy me. If I violated my ‘rules’ I would experience intense guilt.
I’m still a work in progress
Over many years, I have, at one time or another experienced each one of these distorted thinking patterns.
I’ve come to accept that much of the distress that I experienced, through the early part of my life, came from thinking this way.
That said, I believe the way we think can be habitual. The good news is that we don’t have to continue to suffer. By using self-coaching or cognitive behavioural coaching techniques, we can successfully change the way we think.