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Imagine not being able to experience the joy of holding your baby, or that feeling of confidence over a job well done, or the excitement you feel cheering your favorite sports team. Life would be dull and robotic if it weren’t for those wonderful moments of joy and excitement and contentment.
Every day we experience emotions enabling us to enjoy life.
Emotions help us respond appropriately. They warn us of danger as well as bringing us incredible joy. There is a large body of research, such as RET (Rational Emotive Theory) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Theory) that help us understand how emotions and thinking affect our life.
The research indicates it’s not situations themselves that create our responses so much as it is our interpretations of what is happening.
Interpretations >> Core beliefs >> Habits >> Rules & Expectations
Throughout life, starting in childhood, we are ascribing meaning to life. These interpretations become the core beliefs that we live by.
They become habits used in thinking and making judgments about everything.
From those early interpretations we establish rules, expectations, assumptions, and attitudes that we live by and insist others live by as well.
Unless examined and assessed, these beliefs can become rigid and uncompromising, global in scope and over-generalized.
In the example below, I have combined the stories of many people into the person of Suzie. Suzie illustrates how early core beliefs about her ability to do anything well enough keeps her from recognizing her qualifications, abilities, and successes.
Susie was taunted at school because she was bright and was more interested in learning than following the crowd. She had few friends, was overweight and the other girls called her geek, fatty and ugly.
She longed to have pretty clothes, but her family was poor. Her dad drank and her mom didn’t give her encouragement.
As she grew up, she worked harder and harder, but believed that she was stupid and worthless. When things went wrong, the labels leveled at her as a kid rang in her ears as confirmation.
Her core beliefs became global – she believed she had no worth or value – and those beliefs applied to everything she did. Even when she tried to believe otherwise, old thoughts reminded her that she would never be any different no matter how hard she tried.
Deep down she believed the labels were true. Only when she went into counseling did she understand that those core beliefs were biased and false.
Automatic thoughts occur quickly, usually without our awareness. In the blink of an eye, circumstances trigger a habitual response and emotional reaction. When our reactions are based on faulty beliefs and perceptions from the past, the outcomes, while predictable, will not always serve us.
Think back to a time when you were in a new situation, given a promotion, got your dream job, or held a management position.
- How did you feel overall? Did you feel confident or apprehensive?
- What were your thoughts about your capabilities?
- Were feelings of insecurity replaced with confidence over time or did you continue to struggle to feel good about your abilities?
- When things went wrong, did you immediately blame yourself?
- When things went well, did you congratulate yourself or give the credit to others?
Identify, Challenge and Replace
The following exercise will help you identify patterns of emotional thinking and responses that might be working against you.
To challenge the logic and reliability of your automatic thoughts, you must first recognize them.
Emotions based on biased or inaccurate thinking often include excessive feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, helplessness, and hopelessness.
While we are aware of the emotions, the thoughts associated with them often remain obscured until we deliberately look for them. To alter our emotional responses, we must recognize and challenge the thoughts and beliefs connected to them.
To identify your patterns, make three columns on a piece of paper or on an electronic device with these headings:
Situation (Who, what, when, where)
Emotions (What you felt)
Automatic Thoughts (What thoughts or beliefs went through your mind)
For one week, record events that trigger repetitive, habitual, or upsetting emotions.
On your tracking sheet, “Situations” refer to whatever circumstances you find yourself in that trigger a stressful emotion. Jot down what is happening: who, what, when and where.
In the next column, “Emotions,” note all the feelings you had, how strong or intense they were, and how they affected you physically as well as emotionally.
Under “Automatic Thoughts,” record what you were thinking when feeling these emotions. It may have been a stream of thoughts, beliefs, or recollections… even images.
Here are some typical automatic thoughts you might experience:
- There I go again.
- I always say something stupid.
- Won’t I ever learn.
- Nothing I do is ever good enough
After recording all the information for a week, go back and evaluate your thoughts.
- What thoughts did you have that you were unaware of at first?
- How accurate or rational were your thoughts in relation to what was happening in the moment?
- What messages from the past might be generating these thoughts or beliefs?
You will begin to see an emerging pattern. You can then challenge the validity and accuracy of those thoughts as they correspond to the situation and replace them with more rational and realistic thinking.
Remember, emotions are neither good nor bad.
They give us valuable and important information so we can respond appropriately to situations.
That first instantaneous reaction might not be helpful. Understanding that those initial reactionary reactions can be altered puts you in charge.
You are responsible for all your responses and have a great deal of influence over what you feel and think.
Next week, I will take you through the steps to challenge automatic thoughts.