Thought and feeling affect each other
How we think, how we see the world, and how we relate to other people are all very much influenced by how we feel. If you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, your thoughts won’t simply reflect the way things really are: it’s likely you will have negative thoughts about yourself and others. So the way you see the world then becomes part of the problem.
When we are under pressure or over-tired, we all tend to get hold of the wrong end of the stick, be more thoughtless and careless, act irrationally, get anxious about events and relationships, make a crisis out of a drama and mistake a molehill for a mountain.
It’s also true that feelings are triggered by the way we think. Naturally enough, negative thoughts are likely to trigger uncomfortable feelings. Say, for instance, someone at work passes you in the corridor and doesn’t smile. Do you think ‘they must be angry with me’; or ‘how rude and unfriendly’; or ‘she looked fed up, I wonder what’s wrong’? These three different thoughts are going to trigger quite different feelings and moods.
Our minds and bodies are interconnected.
If you always tend to see the downside and expect problems, you may have inherited a tendency to be anxious or pessimistic. Perhaps you were brought up with these attitudes; or your past experiences may have given you good reasons to expect the worst. Whatever the reasons, it all adds up to another kind of vicious circle: people with an anxious, pessimistic view of life develop habits of thinking and feeling that are more likely to make problems happen. It’s also true that when problems do happen anxious, pessimistic people find stress harder to deal with, and be more likely to respond in negative ways to life-events and daily hassles. Generally, optimists handle stress better and they are, on the whole, healthier.
Habits of thought
These habits of looking at things in negative ways come about partly because the mind learns to do complex tasks automatically.
For example, when you learn to drive at first it takes a huge amount of concentration to coordinate the skills involved, but after a while you don’t even have to think about it. In the same way, as we grow up, we learn what’s safe and what isn’t, how we fit into family and society, how to get our needs met, and how to relate to others. Some people have great difficulty with these things. But, just as we learn to drive without thinking, we develop habits of thought, which our minds and feelings eventually follow automatically.
By the time we have grown up, we don’t question these habits, even though they shape the way we see the world and live our lives. This is why for some people the glass is always half-full, while for others it’s always half-empty.
Learning to use more rational thinking can help reduce negative feelings. First of all, though, you need to become aware of a kind of internal chatter called self-talk. There are many kinds of negative self-talk and you can give particular labels to some of them. Just as recognising a particular bird is easy, once you know its colours and song, you will find yourself catching sight of all sorts of negative self-talk once you have a name for it. When you become conscious of negative self-talk, you can start putting more reasonable thoughts in its place. When you’re good at this, many irrational, inappropriate feelings triggered by old negative thought patterns will become much less powerful. Once you’re in the driving seat, you can decide how you want to feel, rather than being at the mercy of your emotions.
Common types of negative self-talk
Some ways of thinking set up mental and emotional road-blocks and stop you finding more creative solutions. Here’s a list – see how many you recognise:
Rigid ‘have-to’ thinking changes choices or desires into absolute needs. This sort of thinking usually involves words like ‘got to’, ‘should,’ ‘must,’ ‘ought’ and ‘have to.’ For instance ‘The system has got to be just’, ‘People have to play fair’, ‘I absolutely mustn’t be late’, ‘ I’ve got to get top grades’, ‘I must be successful’.
Impossible-ising is when you turn a choice, desires, a decision or a preference into a fact. The word ‘can’t’ features strongly in this sort of thinking. ‘I can’t speak in public’ really means ‘I don’t like to (want to) speak in public’; ‘I can’t control my impulses’ really means ‘I don’t choose to control my impulses’
Black and white thinking puts personal inclinations, characteristics and events into extreme, all-or-nothing boxes. Such absolute words as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ need careful reflection before they are made the basis of absolute rules or judgements. For example, someone disagrees with you, and you think ‘It’s wrong to believe/feel/think that’; a toddler accidentally breaks a cup and his mother says ‘Why are you such a bad boy?’
Sweeping statement thinking turns a difficult event into a universal blueprint for loss or disaster. Words such as ‘always’, ‘never’ and ‘every’ get used a lot in sweeping statement thinking, as in ‘Why do I always mess things up?’ or ‘I’m never going to be able to do this’ or ‘I get this wrong every time.’
Tagging slaps a negative label on you, or the way you do things, and so magnifies the limitation or slip-up: ‘What a nerd’, ‘I’m such a failure’ or ‘I’m so weak.’
Exaggeration and discounting makes things much bigger or far smaller than they really are. Personal imperfections, minor difficulties and other people’s talents or errors can be either blown out of proportion or minimised. A common form of exaggeration is catastrophising, which takes a thought and spins it into the worst-case scenario: a headache must mean a brain tumour; the boss not returning a call must mean you’ll soon be clearing your desk; your partner’s grumpiness is bound to lead to divorce. You get the picture.
Personalising involves feeling responsible or taking the blame for something when there’s no good reason for doing so. This can lead to a continuing urge to make other people feel better, or to feel that other people’s feelings or misfortunes are your fault.