“You need to choose your attitude” is a regularly thrown away remark that I see being flung around offices throughout the different businesses I work in.
Now I know we all recognise the truth of this statement, but as Shawn Achor puts it –
“Common sense isn’t always common action”
…we don’t always do what we know is good for us.
There is however a simple technique based on a blend of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Positive Psychology that can help here. This technique enables you to challenge and change some of your unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, freeing you up to be able to choose more easily what you focus on and therefore how you feel.
The ability to choose what you focus on is the second of 3 qualities that I introduced in my previous blog as the qualities the most resilient people seem to share.
So how do we challenge and choose what we focus on?
Well, we first need to consider one of the guiding principles of CBT, this is:
Our reactions (and therefore our feelings) are not caused by the events that happen in our lives, but moreover by our thoughts about those events and what we believe them to mean.
In fact CBT is based very much on the principle that our thoughts, feelings
and behaviours are so intrinsically linked with each other, that you can
change one to change the other (see diagram). Here I am just going to focus on how changing your thoughts can change how you feel.
There are 3 steps to this technique:
- Become acutely aware of what you are focusing on and what your thoughts or beliefs are about a situation, event or person.
- Challenge those thoughts and beliefs to find the truth
- Change what you focus on by creating new, more optimistic thoughts and beliefs that will be more helpful in current or future situations
STEP 1: Becoming aware of thoughts and beliefs
John Whitmore said that we have a choice over what we are aware of,
“but what we are unaware of controls us.”
Your thoughts and particularly your beliefs are often so deeply ingrained in you that they live below your consciousness yet still unknowingly play out in your day to day life. When reacting to a situation, your thoughts also tend to appear automatically without you realising it, making what you focus on feel seemingly out of your control. But the more you become aware of your thoughts, the more easily it will be to challenge and change them.
To begin with though, because of the speed at which thoughts happen it can be easier to do some retrospective analysis rather than trying to catch thoughts in the moment.
- Pick a moment from the previous week when you found yourself getting stressed, angry, worried or just unhelpfully hijacked by an emotion. Picture yourself back in that moment, try to recreate it as best you can from where you were, who you were with, the exact words someone said (if it was a person that triggered your rage).
- Then write down all the thoughts you had at that moment. The act of writing thoughts down in itself will help to diffuse the emotion behind them.
If you do this retrospective analysis regularly, what you’ll soon notice is that you have some thinking habits, and that’s all they are – habits – that reoccur for you.
Here are some common thinking habits that you may see in your thoughts you wrote down:
STEP 2: Challenging thoughts and beliefs
So the next step is to challenge some of these unhelpful thinking habits and beliefs. Try to find the truth of the situation; beliefs are after all just beliefs, they are not necessarily facts. Challenging thoughts and beliefs can be done by imagining you are a lawyer in a court of law presenting a case for and against your thoughts and beliefs. The following questions can help you to do this:
- What’s the evidence for and against this?
- Are there any other possible reasons why this might have happened?
- Are there any other possible outcomes to the one I have imagined?
Here are some specific tips for challenging the different types of thinking habits.
After challenging your thoughts you will hopefully come up with a more balanced position. For example:
I had a bad performance review, but that’s only one in 3 years of being here. It actually wasn’t that bad, it just wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be.
The more you do this retrospective analysis of your thoughts the more you’ll be able to spot and challenge the unhelpful thinking habits as they happen in the moment.
STEP 3: Creating new, more optimistic thoughts and beliefs
The final step then is to find alternative thoughts to replace your more regular patterns of thinking that you can remind yourself of mid panic! These often fall out of Step 2 when you have challenged your thinking and found a more balanced position for you to focus on.
Another way to change your focus is to ask yourself questions that help you to take a more optimistic view and to see the positive in a situation. Some good questions to ask include:
- What’s good about this?
- What have I got that can help me?
- Who could help me?
- What’s really important here?
- What can I learn from this?
If you find that optimism doesn’t come that naturally to you, then Martin Seligman’s work on learned optimism might help. He found that people with pessimistic tendencies often focused on problems and adversity as being:
- Pervasive (affecting all areas of their life) and,
- Personal (i.e. that they were personally to blame for causing the problem to happen).
Whereas those with more optimistic tendencies see problems as:
- Local (only affecting one area of their life) and,
- Brought about by many possible different causes.
So when identifying more helpful thoughts, try to apply some of these more optimistic thinking patterns and see how that affects how you feel about the situation.
Using one of the examples above, this is how you might apply this type of thinking:
There is a fourth step in this process, and that is:
PRACTISE PRACTISE PRACTISE
This really is simply about changing thinking habits, and as with any habit-breaking activity, it takes focus, energy and practise. So whilst that might seem like hard work in the short term, longer term you will reap the rewards of being able to choose, at will, how you feel about something.
Choosing how you feel will then help you feel happier and more resilient no matter what life throws at you.
Research from Thompson & Prottas also shows that those people who deal best with set-backs (and who have greater satisfaction in nearly every aspect of life) are those who feel in control.
They feel in control in part due to taking control of their thoughts and beliefs that guide their behaviour.
So, remember, it’s not the events that cause you to feel how you feel, it is the meaning you give those events, you are in control of the meaning you give something, and you are in control of how you feel.
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