As you may realize as you read the articles on this site, the underlying core issue for many problems resides with irrational thinking styles. That, of course, is the basic premise of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). We develop styles of thinking based upon our learning experiences, our parents' thinking, and societal/community beliefs and expectations.
Learning Experiences. When we are growing up, we have many experiences and the outcome of these experiences contribute to beliefs or ways of thinking that we develop. For instance, as a child I was very shy and fearful of speaking in public due to fear of making a mistake and being ridiculed. In the 7th grade I had a teacher who encouraged me to attend speech competitions. I was so excited that she thought I could be good at this that I was willing to face my fear and engage in speech competitions which I continued even throughout high school. As a result, I developed the belief "Even though talking in front of people causes anxiety I am capable of doing it." Now, if I had not had that experience and my main experience was being embarrassed in front of my class because I couldn't say the word "peculiar" when I was reading out loud (it sounds different than it looks and I couldn't get my brain to switch from the visual to the auditory because I was so anxious), I may have developed the belief "Talking in front of people leads to embarrassment which I must avoid." The problem that causes this belief to be irrational is that it is black and white--it leaves no room for alternatives. I would be assuming that talking in front of people always leads to embarrassment. Instead, by doing speech competitions I learned that talking in front of people could be enjoyable and could lead to awards.
Trauma is an important subset of learning experiences that severely affects an individual's belief system. For example, an individual who survived a fire has a fear of low probability catastrophes. Due to the fact that a low probability catastrophe occurred to him or her, it is more difficult to challenge the thinking with a statement such as "It is unlikely to occur." Or a person who was raped and then told it was her fault because she left her door unlocked may tend to unreasonably blame herself for things that happen.
Parents' Thinking. Sometimes our parents teach us irrational thinking directly such as "What would the neighbors think?" if they saw a dirty house implying that the neighbors would think we are bad people because the dishes aren't done and the beds aren't made. They may catastrophize about situations and pass their worries onto us "I don't want to fly because the airplane might crash." Often, they don't recognize that their thinking is irrational and so they don't tell us there might be alternative ways to think. For instance, they don't typically say "I have an irrational fear of crashing but airplance travel is actually the safest form of travel.
Even if our parents don't directly tell us how to think, they impart certain ways of thinking based on their behavior and how they handle situations. For instance, I remember my father speeding past a bunch of cars and then coming to a stoplight which caused all the cars he had passed to catch up with him and he slammed his hand on the steering wheel and said "They're all laughing at me." At first I was confused, but then I came to understand what he meant and that others laughing at him was a catastrophe. From this I came to learn that I had to be careful in how I behaved so that people wouldn't have the opportunity to laugh at me.
Societal/Community Beliefs and Expectations. We learn a great deal of thinking based on the culture we grow up in. For instance, a professor of mine once described his experience as a teacher in the Virgin Islands. He said they did not have the same concept of time that we do in the U.S. College students in the U.S. typically arrive to class on time but as soon as the class is over they are out the door even if the instructor is in mid-sentence. However, in the Virgin Islands college students might arrive 20-30 minutes late but they also tended to stay longer and be involved in discussions after class. Neither of these scenarios are right or wrong, they are just different behaviors based upon cultural influences. However, sometimes those societal beliefs and expectations can lead to problematic behaviors. Here in the U.S. the perfectionistic tendencies that are imparted to us as we grow up can lead to being overwhelmed and not trying. I believe much of our problem as a society with obesity can be related to these attitudes: "I can't make myself stay on a diet and exercise daily, so why should I bother trying?" (see Thinking Your Way to a Healthy Weight)
Therefore, due to these various influences we develop our thinking styles, both rational and irrational. You may already recognize some of your irrational thinking styles and how they developed, but you want to know, "How do I change this thinking?" In fact, many times you've probably have had people tell you "Think this way!" But no one tells you how to "Think this way!" So, you still have the question, "How do I think that way?" The answer is that you are already halfway there. Half of the battle is recognizing the thinking that is problematic for you. You can do this by reading other articles on this site as well as the recommended books. The next step however, is the part that requires more active work and that is challenging the thinking, repeatedly and often. This part of therapy is known as "cognitive restructuring."
To learn any new skill, we first have to identify how to complete the skill correctly and then we have to practice the skill repeatedly. So, for instance, if you want to learn how to hit a ball with a bat, you need to learn how to hold the bat and how to stand and when to swing. But, just because you know intellectually how to hit a ball doesn't mean that you will be able to. The next step is to practice swinging the bat at the ball and adjusting your stance until you can hit the ball. However, even then it doesn't mean that you can automatically hit the ball whenever it is thrown to you. At this point you need to practice swinging the bat at the ball again and again until you develop the muscle memory to do it automatically. That way, when you are under the stress of two outs in the ninth inning, you will be able to automatically engage in the behavior you need to hit the ball.
Well, learning a new way of thinking is learning a new thinking skill and the process is the same as learning to hit a ball with a bat. You need to identify the thinking you want to learn and then you need to engage in it repeatedly until it becomes automatically. Just as your body doesn't feel comfortable at first when you are learning to hit a ball, your brain doesn't feel comfortable at first with a new way of thinking. However, the more you engage the new thinking, the more comfortable you will become with it and the more you will believe it and be able to rely on it.
The most difficult part of creating the new way of rational thinking for most people is the repetitive practice. Some people, however, may have difficulty with recognizing how their thinking is irrational. In which case they may need further assistance from a therapist. However, for everyone else, the process at this point is to develop methods of practice. The two main methods I recommend for my clients is listening to the Rational Thinking Improvement and/or Self-Esteem Improvement audio exercises and completing a daily cognitive diary.
Rational Thinking Improvement Audio. This exercise is listening to an audio (download) that focuses on challenging a number of the commom errors in people's thinking including perfectionistic demand, fear of anxiety, catastrophic thinking, and social anxiety. The more you listen to this audio exercise, the more you will be able to think of it during the situations that typically cause irrational thinking for you. I've developed this audio as a way to make it easier for my clients to get the repetition they need to develop a new way of thinking.
Self-Esteem Improvement Audio. The purpose of the this audio (download), as the name suggests, is to improve self-esteem. However, this exercise requires a little more than just listening to the audio. It requires you to know how to challenge your thinking because it just provides opportunities to challenge the thinking but doesn't tell you how to think like the above audio. For example, it has you imagine writing your negative self-talk on a blackboard, erasing it, and replacing it with positive self-talk, but it doesn't tell you exactly what to say. You need to create the self-talk yourself. Again, the more you use this audio, the more it helps you change your thinking.
Cognitive Diary. The second primary method is to write down situations that disturb or distress us in the form of a cognitive diary. In a cognitive diary, not only do we describe the situation, but we write down in detail our self-talk. Then we review the self-talk and identify what is irrational about the self-talk. Finally, we re-write our self-talk in a more rational way and then remind ourselves of the new way as frequently as we can. We may do this by re-reading the cognitive challenges daily and/or even creating our own personalized audio reminders that we can listen to.
Our thinking is very changeable. However, we need to make the commitment to do the work. If you worked on changing your thinking everyday by reading, listening to the audio exercises, and completing a cognitive diary you will find your thinking changing even within a few weeks. This doesn't mean that everything is fine in that time but you can find yourself well on the way to improving your life.
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Dr. Monica Frank