A friend of mine who recently traveled by train from Mumbai to Bangalore found herself in a face-off experience that is far from uncommon. She had just settled into her seat when a man came up to her and claimed that the seat she was occupying was actually his. She glared at him for a long moment, then let him have an angry mouthful, certain that she was occupying the right seat. The man then approached another passenger, making a claim now on his seat. But this passenger did not turn on the claimant nastily. He retained his good humour, but he was no pushover either and did not meekly surrender his seat. His manner remained friendly yet assertive as he accompanied the man to the reservation chart. It turned out the claimant was mistaken about his seat number. They returned to the compartment in a spirit of bonhomie and occupied their respective seats.
The same situation, two different persons, two different responses. What made the difference? I asked my friend what she was thinking and feeling in that one long moment that she turned a fierce glare upon the man. “I just felt so angry,” she said, “and also so embarrassed because the other passengers were staring. And then I began to feel anxious in case I did have the wrong seat, maybe even the wrong compartment.” Gradually, she elaborated on the stream of thoughts that had rushed through her mind in one wild tumble. Had I misread my seat number? …How dare the fellow imply that I had grabbed his seat! He needs to have his eyes examined! ...I’ll give him a piece of my mind after I show him my ticket…. But, oh God, what if I’m in the wrong seat, how will I run around with my luggage, if I have to change coaches? That *!@? agent! How dare he dupe me!
It seemed to her that her feelings of anger, embarrassment, anxiety, resentment, had brought this rush of thoughts. Actually, it was the other way round. The negative thoughts came first, followed in nano-seconds by those negative feelings, followed in turn by her verbal outrage. The sequence is always a 3-step one: first, we think, then we feel, then we act. But our thoughts speed so swiftly through our minds that often we are not even aware of them, and very often it seems that we just felt – angry, embarrassed, or whatever – and that we “acted without thinking “. But that is never true. Thinking always comes first. In the case of the second passenger approached by the claimant for the seat, we are not privy to his thoughts, but it’s probably a safe bet that they ran somewhat on these lines: I’m sure I’m in the right seat. So, this guy’s the one making a mistake… But it’s a matter that’s easily sorted out… And they go ahead and do exactly that – sort it out.
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So, it’s not the event itself, but how we perceive or interpret it (i.e., our thoughts) that determines how we feel and how we act. And, if we repeatedly perceive the same event or situation in the same way, it sets up a habit of thinking, feeling and acting in a particular way in that situation. For instance, if you have been repeatedly taught from childhood to distrust and dislike a particular community, then the beliefs instilled in you eventually build up into an attitude of prejudice towards that community, so that an encounter with any person from that community brings on those stereotypical beliefs (in the form of thoughts), feelings and reactions. These habits of mind, aka “attitudes”, eventually establish “neural pathways” so that our response to an external event becomes a matter of automatic nerve impulses firing off in micro-seconds – think, feel, act – so rapid that it seems they are happening all at the same time.
Because they happen so fast, we also think that we have no control over them: “This is the way I am”, we say. The unspoken implication: “This is the way I’ll always be.” But thousands of success stories notched up by therapists show that, although this is the way you may be today, this does not have to be the way you stay forever. The way forward is clear: if you want to change the way you act, you must start by working on the way you think.
Change your thinking
The first step in challenging negative thinking is to become consciously aware of those distorted thoughts. You cannot counter thoughts that you are not aware of. The best way to become conscious of these thoughts (and the one that has a proven track record in therapy) is to write them down. Sometimes, a number of different thoughts will have raced through your head in a stream-of-consciousness manner before you begin feeling a particular way. Write down each of those thoughts. “Thought Awareness” is your starting point.
The next step is to challenge the negative thoughts that you wrote down for each situation; and here’s how you do it. Look at every thought you wrote down and rationally challenge it. Do a reality check, thought by thought. Ask yourself whether the thought is reasonable. Is it a rational way of looking at a problem, situation or person? Does it stand up to fair scrutiny? Pose the following questions to yourself:
Also check: Heal Thy Self | Chant away stress!
» What evidence do I have for and against this thought? (E.g., If you’re “sure” – i.e., if you think – that you will have a panic attack during the presentation you’ll be making to an important client, then ask yourself how many presentations you have successfully made and survived without getting anywhere close to a panic attack.)
» Would my friends and mentors agree with the thought or disagree with it? How might they view my situation?
» What alternative views are possible? Might there not be a different, more valid, way of thinking of the situation?
» What thinking error(s) am I making? Here’s a list of the most common types of distortions in thinking that can occur:
Am I thinking in all-or-nothing terms?
Am I condemning myself as a total person on the basis of a single event?
Am I concentrating on my weaknesses and forgetting my strengths?
Am I taking responsibility – or worse, blame - for something which is not my fault?
Am I taking something personally which may have little or nothing to do with me?
Am I expecting myself (or another person) to be perfect?
Am I overestimating the chances of disaster?
Am I assuming that everyone else can cope, when I don’t know how others are thinking and feeling?
Am I exaggerating the importance of what a mistake will imply?
Am I worrying about the way things ought to be instead of accepting and dealing with them as they come?
Am I assuming I can do nothing to change my situation?
Am I predicting the future with certainty when I can only guess about what may happen?
Am I overlooking solutions to problems on the assumption that they won’t work?
If you’re finding it difficult, in some cases, to challenge your own negative thoughts, try this: Imagine the negative thoughts are not your own, but were written by someone else (say, a friend or family member) to whom you were giving objective advice; think how you would challenge these thoughts, and what you would say to your friend or family member.
After you have used rational assessments to identify incorrect, negative thinking, the third step is to replace irrational thinking with accurate, Rational Thinking.
It's important not to get this confused with the ever-popular practice of “Positive Thinking.” Your goal is accurate and rational thinking, the kind that is based as much as possible on logic and the available facts. Most of the time this does result in a more positive outlook, but there are also times when its value lies in correcting an undesirably rosy view of things. In fact, in the process of challenging negative thinking, you may find that some of your negative thoughts do in fact have some substance to them. Where there is substance in the negative thoughts, take appropriate action. In these cases, negative thinking has been an early warning system for you, showing where you need to direct your attention.
Let’s see how someone might take these three A-B-C steps, using an imaginary example of negative thinking. Let’s say that one of the items in your recorded entries runs like this:
Now let’s look at Column 2 again, and the toxic load of negative thoughts it contains, which is what leads to the consequences listed in Column 3.
The negative thoughts in Column 2 fall into the following kind of categories:
Feelings of inadequacy (e.g.“I would rather die than speak in public”).
A preoccupation with the symptoms of stress (dry throat, wobbly legs).
Fear about the quality of your performance, or of problems that may interfere with it (e.g., mind going blank; inability to answer a difficult question).
Worry about how the audience may react to you (“They’ll think I’m stupid”; “They’ll laugh”).
Foretelling disaster (“I know I’ll fail”; “I may even have a full-blown panic attack”).
And now, let’s subject those negative thoughts to the challenge of whether they are, in fact, accurate and rational.
Quality of performance: “I have worked hard on this presentation. I have done my research thoroughly, I know my subject well. I have anticipated the kind of questions that can be put to me, including the difficult and tricky ones. I have organized my speaking notes, I have rehearsed before a mock audience. I am well prepared to give an excellent performance.”
A preoccupation with the symptoms of stress: “Let me think back to one of my previous presentations when I felt extremely nervous. Did a single audience member come up to me and comment on how loudly my heart was beating? Or how sweaty my hands appeared? Or how dry my voice sounded? Or what an interesting sound my knocking knees made? Come to think of it, didn’t all these symptoms simply disappear once I’d actually got started on the presentation?
“And have I ever had a panic attack when I’ve made a presentation before? Never! So why should I imagine it will happen today?”
Worry that the audience will know I’m nervous: “Even if I do feel a little nervous (and I know that the best of speakers do), there’s no way the audience is going to know that unless I give myself away. So what I need to do is to avoid the kind of things that will communicate my nervousness: things like gripping the mike or the speaker’s podium, or standing with my arms tensely crossed, or worst of all, standing rigid and motionless.
“To quell my nervousness once I’m on stage, I’ll seek out the friendliest faces in the audience, and establish meaningful eye contact with them (but not a fixed stare!). I’ll also avoid staring fixedly at the opposite wall or reading non-stop from my notes.”
Worry about negative reactions or feedback from the audience: “Fair people will respond well to a good performance. If people are not fair, then this is something outside my control, and the best thing to do is to ignore and rise above any unfair comments. I will do this in a mature and professional way, relying on the facts and keeping my emotions out of the picture.”
Worry about making a mistake: “I don’t need to sweat the small stuff. So, if it’s a minor mistake, I’ll ignore it. If I forget to say something important that I intended to, and I remember it later, I’ll inform the audience about it and apologize for the oversight. Everybody makes an occasional mistake, and it’s really no big deal.”
Time for a re-think: “I’ve done as much as I possibly can to give a good presentation. Now all I need to do is go out there and do exactly that – give a great presentation.”
This example illustrates the systematic and thorough way in which you need to challenge each of the negative thoughts you have recorded in your diary. The two main challenges are: What’s the evidence that this is so? And, secondly, Isn’t there an alternative way of looking at this? (It’s no wonder that one of the psychology books that discusses this approach to behaviour change is called, “Talk Sense to Yourself”. Ouch).
This is not a quick-fix method. There’s no magic wand you can wave to make negative thoughts disappear forever. But, as you keep challenging those negative thoughts, and replacing them with more rational affirmations, you will, in fact, notice something magical happening. You’ll find that your feelings also undergo a change. And so does the way you act in the situation. In other words, Column C gets magically transformed – even without your having “worked on” your feelings and actions. What you worked on were your thoughts – and your feelings and actions took care of themselves.
What’s more, you will find as you keep practicing this approach, that not only are you beginning to think differently about the events / situations / people listed in your diary, but also that something is happening at the very core of your being. As you let go of negative thoughts more and more, you’ll begin to perceive the world as less and less threatening. And, as you feel less threatened by other people, you’ll shed more and more of your hostile stance towards them. As you begin to look at alternative ways of perceiving the situations you’re in, you won’t need to act defensively (or offensively) towards others all the time, and you’ll be able to interact with people on a more rational, less impulsive basis. You are, in fact, well on your way to changing your life!
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)