by Harriet Griffey
My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.
– Mark Twain
You know that negative and persistent voice in your head? That inner critic that can tear you down faster than anyone else you know? Listening to this voice is very unhelpful and self-defeating. Why are you so mean to yourself?! Learning to challenge an automatic negative thought pattern, shift that perspective and counter that inner voice can go a long way towards helping you feel much happier.
It’s actually quite straightforward to challenge these negative thoughts, but it will take some dedicated practice. This is the process that lies at the heart of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is all about how changing your thoughts (cognition) helps change how you feel about things and, as a consequence, has a positive effect on how you respond.
When you catch yourself thinking negatively, stop and consider whether what you think is really true or just an imagined, worst-case scenario. Where’s the actual evidence for what you’re thinking? Use your first reaction as a spur to reassess what might be getting in the way of letting you see what the reality is. This isn’t woolly-brained magical thinking, just an objective look at what the reality of a situation is, without that critical voice in your head telling you otherwise.
The aim here is to use your thinking brain, rather than your feelings, to assess and manage those negative thoughts that are affecting how you feel: to respond rather than react, by thinking differently about a situation. Is it really true?
Start by testing the reality of what you’re thinking. What is the actual evidence for it? Check, too, whether or not you’re jumping to conclusions that could be unhelpfully negative or self-sabotaging. Our default position is often to see the negative or the worst of a situation and so it takes a deliberate and conscious effort to think differently. One immediate step is to keep things in perspective and, rather than automatically assuming the worst, consider instead, will this really matter in a year’s time? Or in a week, a day, or even an hour’s time?
Reinforce the positive, not the negative
If the voice in your head is using very emphatic language, for example, ‘I hate Mondays’, it automatically reinforces the idea that Mondays are something to be hated. You can’t change the fact that Monday comes along every week, but you can change the way you think about it and, at the very least, stop saying you hate it. You could even find something good to like about it. Maybe book a fun exercise class or do something you actively enjoy on a Monday, so that you have something to look forward to. That way, you could actively begin to like Mondays and change not just the voice in your head but the way you think about the start of the working week. Once you’ve learnt this trick with Mondays, you can use it elsewhere until it becomes a habit.
If you have a tendency towards making universal rather than specific statements about life, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel stuck with a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if you say, ‘I’m hopeless at relationships’, this is unhelpful. First of all, it can’t actually be true (all relationships, really?) and actually it is so unspecific it gives you no clue as to what you might be able to do to change the feeling that you’re hopeless.
If, however, you think, ‘I am shy around people, which makes getting close to someone difficult’, then you can look at how it might be possible to become less shy – and that would eventually help make forming a relationship easier. Once you have something specific to work with, change can quickly occur.
Take a look at the situation that’s getting you down – whether it’s a deadline for a piece of work, a tricky conversation you need to have, or a goal you want to set yourself – and then think about turning it into something positive. Thinking of it as a challenge you can overcome, instead of a problem that you can’t solve, immediately makes it more positive.
Reframing it in this way enables you to take a different, more positive standpoint. This may turn out to be the spur you need for a more positive attitude, too, which can only be a good thing if it lifts your mood and makes you happier.
Letting some air in – ventilating a situation – involves being able to talk through a problem or a feeling that’s troubling you. Finding the words to do so isn’t always easy. Identifying exactly what a feeling is – hurt, sadness, guilt, shame – might not be easy either. Sometimes we can confuse pain with anger, for example. Talking to a trusted friend who listens without judgement can enable us to allow light and air into a situation, which helps ventilate it. Through this process, it can be easier to work out what is the root cause of this unhappiness. That, in turn, can help clarify what steps you can take to help alleviate it.
Some feelings and situations that directly get in the way of feeling happy can be helped through seeking advice. We can’t be experts in everything, including some aspects of ourselves, which is why seeking advice can be so helpful. The clue here is to be specific, to find someone who can help identify what the solution to a problem might be, rather than someone with whom you just go over and over a problem. This is when a trained counsellor or therapist can be helpful.
Thia article is an extract from I want to be Happy by Harriet Griffey.