Emotions or Thoughts?
Before we learn strategies for emotions, we have to understand the relationship between emotions and thoughts. The wildfire of emotion begins with the spark of thoughts. If I think "I love my job and I look forward to going today", we will feel emotions like happiness, fulfillment, joy. If I have the thought "my job is the worst, I hate it", I will feel emotions like dread, anxiety and sadness. When our thoughts are unhelpful and negative, our emotions just follow.
Do you ever feel stuck in your head?
Unhelpful thoughts (and the accompanying emotions) are like deep tire tracks in the mud. The more often they’re traveled, the deeper the tracks get. And the more deeply embedded they get, the more difficult it becomes to steer out of the grooves and into a path of helpful and realistic thoughts.
As a counselor, I hear about unhelpful thoughts all the time. We all do it. We find ourselves sliding down a slippery slope of unhelpful thinking in a way that feels effortless and inevitable. “I am running late for work” leads to “I am going to get in trouble” leads to “I am always messing up” leads to “I am a terrible person”… For example.
The landing thought, “I am a terrible person,” is a deeply unhelpful thought. It is the sort of thought that breeds feelings of shame and, depending on intensity, can characterize debilitating episodes of depression. It is a deeply unhelpful thought, and yet it the train of thought that leads to it feels effortless and inevitable. Let’s unpack that.
Thoughts can become a habit
Often, paths of unhelpful thinking feel so effortless because our brains have been traveling these paths since childhood. As a very young child, we rely entirely on caregivers. Our trust in caregivers (warranted or not) and some level of safety in the world is our lifeline, because we have not yet developed any ability to take care of ourselves.
As children, when something bad happens, the thought (belief) that the bad thing is our fault is actually a protective thought. It allows us to maintain our trust in caregivers and in a safe world. “If it’s my fault, I can prevent it in the future,” says our child brain. And so begin the tracks in the mud that land us in self-blame.
Over time, these tracks in the mud get deeper and deeper. We repeat the thought and embed our neural pathways more deeply in the rut with each pass. As we grow up, we become gradually less dependent on caregivers and more capable of appreciating their fallibility.
Our caregivers are imperfect, the world is imperfect, and many hardships we experience are not our fault at all. And yet we continue to engage in unhelpful and unrealistic thinking because it has become our brain’s default path.
Unhelpful Thought Styles
There are many examples of unhelpful thinking styles. When you are in the midst of unhelpful thinking, it can feel like you are lost in a dark forest and can't see the path out.
Catastrophizing is when we see relatively small problems as insurmountable obstacles: “This traffic light will stay red forever and I’ll be fired from my job and end up homeless.”
Over-generalizing is when we take one event and impose is on all current and future events: “I was rejected back in high school which means I will always be rejected.”
In my experience, the most toxic of the unhelpful thinking styles are those that deprecate the self. Sometimes this is called personalization, blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong even when you are only partly responsible or not responsible at all. But I find that nearly all unhelpful thinking styles have the potential to land us in this territory of self-blame.
Self-deprecating thoughts are toxic for two reasons:
First of all, there’s the problem of their impact on our mood and psyche. Living in shame is a terrible way to live. Repeating the thought “I’m a terrible person” can keep people locked in depression, unable to connect with others, and without a sense of hope about their future.
But perhaps more importantly, the problem with self-deprecating thoughts is that they’re not true! Do you hear me? Yes, you reading these words right now. These thoughts are simply false, an unfortunate carry-over from previous chapters of your life when you weren’t yet able to see clearly.
Don't Believe Everything You Think
When I talk to clients about having a different relationship with their thoughts, sometimes I feel the resistance in the room. I hear, “If it were that easy to simply deal with my thoughts differently, obviously I would have done so by now.” Or I hear, “It’s not just a thought, it is a core belief.” Yes, beliefs feel more deeply embedded than thoughts, and the belief in our own unworthiness can be rooted down in places that are difficult to access.
Sometimes the belief in our unworthiness is rooted in trauma. Sometimes the belief in our unworthiness is reinforced by systemic power inequities in our culture (i.e. racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, weightism, ableism, etc.).
Learning to steer out of the well-worn tracks in the mud of our own thinking is important. Doing the deep work for changing our beliefs about ourselves, and the more superficial work of adjusting how we relate to thoughts – these two projects go hand in hand. Thoughts reflect beliefs and also reinforce them. We can and should take care to work on steering out of the paths that lead to unhelpful thinking.
Here are the steps:
Notice the thoughts. Begin by simply practicing awareness about your internal landscape of thoughts (images, words, messages in your mind) and the paths they travel.
When you hear your thoughts falling into unhelpful territory, just notice it.
Begin to think of your thoughts as something that exists somewhat outside of your self. You are not defined by your thoughts. You can have negative thoughts, and still avoid getting emotionally “hooked” by them.
Getting space from your thoughts using metaphors: Imagine your unhelpful thoughts are coming from an unwelcome passenger in the backseat of the car or the unhelpful thoughts are voices on a radio so that, even if you can’t turn it off, you can turn down the volume.
When you feel ready, begin to practice steering onto a more helpful thought. Remember, this won’t be easy at first because those tire tracks are embedded so deep. But, it will get slightly easier with each attempt.
It may help to use a mantra – a phrase or sentence that is concise and gets to the heart of the redirection you want to achieve. For example, “I am doing the best that I can,” or “I am worthy of love and compassion.”
To excavate to the roots of our beliefs is difficult work. It is work that many people undertake in the context of a trusting therapeutic relationship with a skilled counselor. Everybody deserves help and support in this work.
Completely changing the paths (neural connections in our brain) requires repetition. Don't give up. These strategies will take time and practice to begin helping you steer yourself in a new direction more consistently.
Finding a New Path
Practicing self-compassion is the antidote to self-deprecation. Exercising compassion toward oneself may feel unfamiliar at first, but in my experience it is exceptionally healing. I love the work of Dr. Kristen Neff, who offers exercises and guided meditations on self-compassion for free on her website. Please consider this a personal invitation to try a 5-minute self-compassion break after you finish reading this post.
About the Author
Renee is a transgender-affirming psychotherapist who specializes in helping clients navigate gender transition journeys and offers ongoing support for a broad array of other issues. Using a relational, trauma-informed approach, Renee works with people to gain insight, to practice coping strategies and to experience growth and healing. Renee is passionate about advocacy and empowerment - writing is one way she influences the world to be more inclusive and compassionate - knowledge is power! Renee is an LPC-Intern Supervised by Sara L. Weber, LPC-S, CEDS-S