It may sometimes feel impossible to change your (seemingly ingrained) patterns of thinking. But, practice, patience and consistency will enable you to effectively challenge and alter your unhelpful thoughts and beliefs.
Imagine that you made a mistake at work and you had the thought “I’m a failure at everything I do.” What feelings would arise? Would you feel sadness, shame, frustration or defeat?
Now, imagine that you made a mistake at work and you had the thought “Making mistakes is a part of being human and I’ll learn from this situation so I can do better next time.” What feelings would these thoughts evoke? Maybe there’d still be some frustration or shame, but likely you would not feel as terrible as you would if you believed the thought “I’m a failure at everything I do.”
This example demonstrates how thoughts lead to feelings and why it’s important to challenge them. Not every thought we have is a fact. Many of our thoughts are opinions…and should be subject to further investigation. Yet, out of habit, we often accept the automatic, negative thoughts that occur. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, there are numerous processes that help address this issue. Here, we’ll focus on Cognitive Restructuring and Cognitive Defusion—and provide tools for you to practice each.
Cognitive Restructuring: This process helps you to identify, challenge and modify cognitive distortions, which are biased, unhelpful and/or irrational thoughts that become reinforced over time. (Click here for a list of common cognitive distortions and their definitions).
Begin practicing cognitive restructuring with these two tools:
- Automatic Thought Record: PositivePsychology.com offers this free thought record worksheet to learn to identify and challenge negative thoughts. Try making a commitment to complete2-3 of these per day.
- Facts or Opinions: How well are you able to discern your factual thoughts from opinions? Use this worksheet to find out.
Dr. Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, defines cognitive defusion as “the ability to separate from your thoughts and to let them come and go, instead of getting caught up in them or allowing them to dictate what you do.” This enables you to be more fully present and to live according to your values.
Begin practicing cognitive defusion with these two tools:
- Leaves on a Stream: In this guided meditation, you’ll visualize your thoughts as they flow past on a stream as you learn to allow any and all thoughts to arise and flow away at their own pace.
- Mind Train: For this exercise, visualize yourself standing on a bridge and watching a train as it passes by. Each boxcar has one of your negative thoughts written on it. Practice watching the train go by rather than getting on the train (in this metaphor, you are learning that you are separate from your thoughts).