Fighting irrational thinking

Coping with stress requires you to accept life rather than try and manage it. The first step in acceptance is to challenge negative and irrational thoughts you carry around with you. Everyone has such thoughts now and then, but trouble begins if you have them most of the time. Here are some examples:

Making mountains out of molehills. Frank made a mistake at work and thought he was going to be fired. Not only was he not fired, his “mistake” uncovered a flaw in the company work manual.

Taking everything personally. Is the slightest criticism from others as a challenge to your self-esteem? Remember, you can’t control what others say. Marian felt that whenever her husband decided to do something with the guys, it meant he felt she was a lousy wife.

It’s not a black-white world so don’t force others into one. “You either trust me or you don’t.” “I am always correct and he is always wrong.” This style of thinking overlooks a basic truth: there are two sides to every story, and the truth often lies somewhere in the middle!

Do you over-generalize and reach crazy conclusions from a single unrelated incident? “I gave a lousy presentation. I’m obviously a complete failure in everything I do.” “I got a lousy grade in my Economics course. I may as well quit school.” “I was turned down for a date, so I’m obviously a worthless individual no one wants or cares about.”

How often do you get caught up in irrational thinking? “I must succeed in everything I do or I’m a failure”; “I must be admired and respected by everyone or I’m worthless”; “I struck out three times in our game today. That does it. I’m batting .268 but it’s clear I’m a burden to the team and I’m quitting”; “The boss gave the project to my colleague. She obviously thinks I’m incompetent.”

Irrational thinking can impair day-to-day functioning as your life becomes organized around the central themes of those thoughts. Such thoughts are demoralizing, interfere with effective coping, and make you vulnerable to psychological dysfunctions like Personality Disorders, Depression, and, very frequently, Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In this last condition your mind entertains a big package of irrational thoughts, and you are constantly adding thoughts to the box. The result is that you worry about a variety of different things, and at an intensity far above what is normal concern and worry.

The repetition of irrational thoughts in your mind will dispose you to focus on them more and more. As you do so, your actions will be modified around those thoughts, and you will develop dangerous habits of withdrawal and denial. We regularly point out that finding satisfying actions for yourself is central to effective coping. Actions that service irrational thoughts do not bring satisfaction because they are difficult to resolve and tend to isolate you from situations that need to be challenged.

For instance, a woman in counseling confessed that she avoided social situations as much as possible because, “I’m afraid I will faint.”

Counselor:      “Afraid you’ll faint? Has that ever happened?”

Woman:           “No, but it’s possible.”

Counselor:      “Yes, that’s true. But can you accept that it’s highly unlikely?”

Woman:           “Yeh, I can go with that.”

Counselor:      “Besides, what if you did faint? What’s the big deal?”

Woman:           “Are you kidding? Everybody would laugh at me and think I was worthless.”

Counselor:      “Worthless? Laugh at you? Would you react that way if you saw someone faint?”

Woman:           “No, I would think they were sick or needed help. I wouldn’t…Oh, I see what you mean. No, I guess they wouldn’t make fun of me.”

“OK,” you ask, “how do I deal with irrational thoughts?” One thing for sure, simply telling yourself, “I’ve got to stop thinking this way” is futile. Your best bet is to accept the reality of your irrational thinking, identify those thoughts, and focus on rational actions you can take that will help you think more realistically.

Look again at our earlier examples. Instead of carrying around that irrational baggage, how about considering strategies that involve self-talk like the following: “I need to talk to my supervisor about how I can guard against making a mistake like that in the future”; “That pitcher really fooled me with his curve ball. I need to study the tapes plus take more batting practice against that kind of pitch”; “I need to let my colleague know I’m available to help should she need it”; “I need to share with the boss some ideas I have for other projects.”

When you react to failure by developing proactive actions to take, you are learning how to fail. Many people are crushed by failure and unable to cope with the resulting anxiety, frustration, and other disheartening emotions. When you learn how to fail, however, you see failure as a learning opportunity, and you accept the challenges imposed by failure. Then you are coping effectively.

The first step in the process is to become aware of your irrational thoughts. Write them down when they occur. Enlist the help of friends, acquaintances, and even professionals to help you identify them. In this way, you will be able to focus more on rational courses of action to help you cope with the everyday challenges you face.

There’s never any guarantee you will succeed. But by focusing on positive actions, at least you’re teaching yourself to persevere even when frustrated; you’re showing yourself that you are self-sufficient enough to engage in some proactive actions; and you’re doing things that give you a chance to feel good about yourself. Such positive possibilities certainly outweigh marching in your personal pity parade.

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