Change Your Thinking. Good Advice?

When you find yourself in stressful situations, there are inappropriate actions you can take that can be detrimental to your coping efforts. In fact, these actions are what we might call “deal breakers,” actions that worsen conflict, enhance your stress, and make you vulnerable to damaging emotions like helplessness and depression. Worst-case scenario, these actions can culminate in self-destructive behaviors that threaten both your own, and others’, welfare.

Seth is 18 and just graduated from high school. He doesn’t know if he should apply to college, get a job, or enlist in the military. He’s still living at home and hanging out with his high-school buddies, a group of friends who don’t have much respect for the law, and are always interested in seeing how much they can get away with. One day, at the group’s urging, Seth shoplifted an item and got caught. During the arrest he resisted. He was fined and sentenced to 6 weeks in jail. Upon release, he violated the first rule of how to rid yourself of unwanted behaviors: He put himself right back in the troublesome situation and resumed hanging out with the gang.

Sarah, 28, works as a clerk in a department store. One day she got in a loud argument with a co-worker. The disturbance was upsetting to customers, and both Sarah and the co-worker were put on unpaid leave. Sarah spent her subsequent days immersed in anger and negative emotions toward her co-worker and her boss. She fantasized about how to take revenge. One day she stormed into the store and confronted her boss, yelling obscenities and insults at her. Sarah was fired on the spot and escorted out of the store. In subsequent job interviews, she was unable to provide a positive reference from her previous employment. Sarah let her negative feelings dominate her, making it impossible for her to cope with problem-solving actions.

Seth and Sarah illustrate two common self-defeating ways of dealing with stress using inappropriate actions: (1) Putting yourself in the wrong situations where you are vulnerable to the negative influence of others; (2) Allowing yourself to be dominated and defined by harmful and destructive emotions. Both types of actions increase your stress by bringing on additional frustration, anger, and aggression; both encourage denial and make it almost impossible for you to accept your reality; both rob you of humility and empathy, and leave you with little hope for finding a satisfactory resolution of conflict.

“OK,” you say, “what should Seth and Sarah do?” Therapist Michael Church says that a counselor might suggest they focus on cognitions, their thinking. They need to think more rationally and act more constructively by substituting more appropriate and less self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. They should identify and change specific thoughts and actions that are self-defeating and cause self-destructiveness. Seth: “You need to start acting like an adult, instead of allowing your parents to support you like you’re still a child. Also, you must stop hanging out with the old crowd.” Sarah: “You have anger issues. When stress hits, you strike back at whomever is around. Emotions rule your life and you must stop allowing that.”

“You must stop doing that.” Nice words, but are they really constructive? As Dr. Church says, imagine telling someone with post-traumatic stress that their trauma symptoms are illogical and irrational, or that their panic attacks to triggering events are exaggerated or unnatural. Or, how about telling those who have lost their job, home, or child due to an accident or illness, “You’re not thinking rationally here.” Does it seem reasonable to tell them that they are not thinking straight and should just pick themselves up and stop thinking in such self-defeating fashion? When trying to comfort someone, it helps to remember that they may be showing natural responses to things like loss, fear, abuse, and illness. And, if you are the sufferer, it may help to remember that you may be showing natural responses to your adversity. Merely telling yourself, “I’ve got to stop thinking this way,” may not an appropriate way to proceed.

When facing problems, it helps to remember that working to change your thinking is mostly an emotion-based strategy, and one that usually fails because you are trying to change a natural part of yourself. You also end up screaming at yourself at how irrational and weak you are. A better strategy is a problem-focused one, where the emphasis is not on your thinking but on your actions, things you can do to cope better. When done correctly, you will end up seeing yourself as more competent and worthy because you are doing something that brings you a sense of contentment. When it comes to coping with stress, changing actions speaks much louder than changing thoughts!

In this blog we tend to focus on coping with short-term, situational changes in your life, and specific behavioral problems you may be having. We look at everyday issues that present coping challenges, such as relationships, social anxiety, deficits in social skills, assertiveness, and depression. We also try and provide guidance for changing behaviors like smoking, weight control, and emotional impulsivity. The general model we present is pretty straightforward: Accept the reality of who you are and what is going on around you; be accountable for your actions; set realistic goals and formulate a coping plan of actions based on your values to help you move toward your goals; and, perhaps most importantly, sprinkle your action plan generously with doses of humility and empathy. “I must become a less [anxious/angry/jealous, etc.] person” is a self-absorbed, emotion-based, emotion-focused, denial strategy. “I need to find ways I can be of service to others in need,” is a problem-focused strategy that better connects you with your values, a social conscience, and ways to see yourself as part of a larger picture.

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