Reduce Your Suffering by Challenging Your Irrational Thoughts
If you’ve ever wondered what is at the root of so much unnecessary suffering, look no further than your own thoughts. Specifically, look closely at the irrational thoughts you habitually engage in. During times of stress, most of us find ourselves in a familiar pattern of negative self talk which is based on these irrational thoughts. Psychologists have identified two main categories of irrational thoughts that tend to cause people problems.
- Awfulizing thoughts create catastrophic, nightmarish interpretations of your experiences.
- These thoughts always imagine a worst-case scenario.
- You feel an upset stomach and image you must have cancer. Your boss is grumpy and you fear you will be fired. When everything is going well, you assume something terrible will happen to disrupt it.
- Absolutizing thoughts assume you and the world have to always be a certain way.
- These thoughts include words like should, must, ought, always, and never.
- You tend to have unrealistically high standards for yourself and the world around you. Any failure to live up to this standard is considered an absolute failure.
Thoughts that “awfulize” or “absolutize” our world lead to unhelpful self-talk that leaves us feeling worse. It is important to recognize that events don’t directly cause our feelings. Our feelings are influenced by how we choose to interpret the event or situation. When we experience an event, we interpret that event with our thoughts which we hear in our minds as self-talk. The type of self-talk we habitually turn to affects what kind of emotional response we experience.
A) Event → B) Self Talk → C) Emotion
We can feel differently by better understanding our irrational thoughts and changing our self-talk habits.
There are several common irrational thoughts that tend to lead to suffering. These thoughts decrease our well-being and stand in the way of accepting ourselves and the world as it is. See if any of these thoughts sound familiar.
- I should fear and worry about anything unfamiliar.
- Something awful is bound to happen soon.
- It’s better to avoid than face life’s difficulties and responsibilities.
- I am helpless and have no control over my feelings or experiences.
- Being alone is horrible and I can never be happy alone.
- I am such a failure without love, success, or money.
- Life is a series of disappointments.
- I must please all the people in my life all the time.
- I always need to achieve and produce to be worthy.
- I must always be competent and perfect in everything I try.
- When someone disapproves of me, it means I am wrong or bad.
- There is perfect love, a perfect relationship.
- Anger is always bad and destructive.
- It is bad or wrong to be selfish.
You can begin to evaluate and challenge your own self-talk by slowing down the process. Typically people start by noticing they feel worried or upset. We can work backward to identify the event and thought that triggered this feeling. Then you can challenge this irrational thought. Try the following steps.
A) What event just occurred?
I just yelled at my kid.
B) What was my self-talk in response to this event?
I’m a terrible parent.
C) How did my self-talk make me feel?
Guilt, shame, low self-worth
D) Challenge the irrational self-talk with specific questions.
- What is at the core of my irrational thought?
I must always be competent and perfect.
- Is this thought always or invariable true for me?
No. I logically know I cannot always be perfect.
- Does this thought look at the whole picture, taking to account both the positive and negative?
No. I am often a very good parent. This thought doesn’t take into account all my stress and allow me to be human and struggle at times. I may not always be perfectly competent as a parent, but I am always trying to be my best.
- Does this thought promote my well-being or peace of mind?
No. This thought may intend to push me to be my best, it often makes me feel paralyzed or helpless because I can never achieve perfection.
- Is this thought helpful?
No. I end up feeling worthless and unable to change. I beat myself up and want to give up.
Going through this process of recognizing your own irrational thoughts and challenging your patterns of negative self-talk may feel awkward at first. But it’s an essential first step in understanding the thoughts that are so automatic they are unconscious. When you realize your irrational self-talk is neither helpful nor universally true, you free yourself up to choose another more useful way of thinking and speaking to yourself. It is then time to ask yourself…
E) What would be a more helpful self-talk statement?
I am always trying to be the best parent I can be.
I have tough moments but can have compassion for myself and recover.
I forgive others when they struggle, so I can forgive myself too.
Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Linden Blog. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Smith at Linden BP call 440/250-9880.