If our responses to people and events are based on old, outdated and inappropriate past reactions, it will be more difficult to become proactive.
Identify, Challenge and Replace
My last three posts have dealt with emotions and how patterns of thinking and feeling are established. Understanding how and why we feel the way we do can help us take advantage of opportunities. When anxiety, fear, or anger constantly overwhelm us, we will have difficulty finding the solutions we need.
How do we know if our emotional responses are based on the here and now instead of past experiences? We do that by becoming aware of our patterns of behavior and challenging the logic and reliability of the automatic thoughts and beliefs associated with them.
Recognizing Automatic Thoughts
To challenge automatic thoughts, we need to first recognize them. If our first response to events is usually fear, anxiety, anger, helplessness and hopelessness, we will want to know what triggers these. We are seldom aware of the underlying thoughts and beliefs.
Take a piece of paper and make 3 columns with headings entitled Situation, Emotions and Automatic Thoughts. Here is an example of what that might look like.
Situation Emotions Automatic Thoughts
Who, what, when, where? What did you feel? Thoughts going through your mind?
For a week, keep a record of situations that trigger intense and repetitive emotional responses. What thoughts were going through your head at the time? What mental images did you have that amplified those thoughts?
Then, take each situation and evaluate the thinking associated with your emotional response. How accurate or rational is it in relation to what is actually happening? Are messages from the past intensifying these thoughts or beliefs?
Here is an example of what the process might look like:
Situation: The firm is downsizing
Emotions: Fearful, anxious, and worried about my future
Automatic Thoughts: I will be the next one fired. I can’t survive without this job. I won’t be considered good enough to be kept.
Challenging Automatic Thoughts
Challenging our thoughts and beliefs is making a scientific premise and testing its validity through objective analysis.
- How accurate is my thinking?
- How can I prove or disprove it?
- Can my thoughts be modified or expanded?
- What are the underlying beliefs?
Using the example I have given, here is how I might challenge and expand my thinking.
I know I have excellent skills and am a good and valued employee. If I am laid off, I will be able to find another job or use my skills in other ways.
It might be rough, but I know I can make it. I will continue to do my job well and do some preparation in case I do get laid off, such as reducing the debt on my credit cards, putting money into a savings account, and sticking to a budget.
Businesses do downsize – it is a reality of today.
Unchallenged, our first automatic thoughts about a potential catastrophe can keep us in a fear, anxiety or panic mode.
Challenging those thoughts takes us out of the fear cycle and affirms our ability to be flexible, roll with the punches and believe in ourselves. It doesn’t say crises or disasters won’t happen; instead, it allows us to prepare through proactive measures.
Here are some ways to challenge your thinking:
- Were these rational thoughts appropriate and applicable to what is happening?
- Were the thoughts negative and limiting only?
- How could I reframe the situation to allow a more measured response?
- What beliefs do I have about myself that influence my thinking?
- Do these beliefs serve me or hurt me? Do they help me improve or remain in fear?
- What is the evidence in favor of my interpretation? Contrary to my interpretation?
Old messages from the past can dominate our thinking and reduce our ability to feel competent to make choices that are right for us in the here and now.
It is important to stop and evaluate what your emotions are telling you. Before reacting, ask yourself, is this something I legitimately should be concerned about? If so, what proactive steps can I take to resolve any problems associated with it?
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Beck, Judith S, Cognitive Therapy, Basics and Beyond, forward by Aaron T. Beck, The Guilford Press, New York, 1995
Ellis, Albert, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings and Behaviors, Penguin Random House Publisher, 2010