In my last post, I wrote about dealing with hard emotions by becoming present in our bodies. Those are great habits to form but they don’t make the hard emotions go away, they simply move our attention away from them. Only moments after your calming breath practice, you have to return to real life. You stand at the sink full of dirty dishes, dropping your hands into the suds, and without realizing, dropping your guard too. Those turbulent feelings you had just stilled come flooding back, threatening to add tears to the dishwater.
Calming ourselves is important for our self-care, but for true growth, we have to go deeper and look at the patterns behind our cyclical emotions. That starts by looking at our thoughts.
That’s where I turn to the tool bag of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). The underlying premise of CBT is the idea that thoughts cause feelings. An event occurs, you have a thought about it, and that thought arouses a feeling. In other words, your interpretation of an event causes your emotions. This is why three different people can have three different responses to the same event. Or even why you can have three different responses to the same event, depending on the day. For example, as another young mother reads this blog, she might have a passing thought: how does she find the time to write? and self-doubt begins brewing. Another reader might relate to parts of this post- that’s exactly how it is for me!- and walk away feeling less alone. And as I’m sure is often the case with any written word, some line in this blog might trigger a thought for another writer about his own craft; inspiration follows.
CBT aims to help people manage their negative feelings by changing their thoughts. Reading the news right now doesn’t automatically make us feel sad or scared; somewhere in between the headlines and our feelings is a thought process. Here’s my quick guide for how to manage those thoughts that lead to negative moods.
1. Pay Attention to Your Automatic Thoughts
We are making constant interpretations of the events around us. Aaron Beck, the American psychiatrist regarded as the father of CBT, called these reflexive interpretations our “automatic thoughts.” It isn’t bad to have these, but can be bad to be controlled by them. The first step to taking back some of this control is to simply notice those automatic thoughts. Start small- maybe for an hour, maybe a day. Do you notice patterns in the ways you think? The assumptions you jump to first?
I have learned that I often go into “blaming” thought patterns, which ultimately leads to feeling anger. If you turn to the “begins blaming” section of my instruction manual, these thoughts usually signal that there is a sadness I need to acknowledge and let myself feel, instead of trying to place it on someone else.
2. Befriend Them
Sometimes the problem with step one, is that the more we pay attentions to our reactions, the less we like what we find. We start having negative thoughts about the emotions we have as responses to events, creating a vicious cycle.
So, before you go down that path of tangled patterns, at the least, try to simply notice your thoughts and let them pass without judgment. If you can manage neutrality, maybe you can even muster friendliness towards your thoughts. Rumi depicts this much more beautifully than I can in his poem The Guesthouse:
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
...treat each guest honorably.
For me, the best way to befriend my “guests” is to give them a name. Like the American lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw says:
“We all know that where there's no name for a problem, you can't see a problem, and when you can't see a problem, you pretty much can't solve it.”
This is part of the power of naming my patterns: to increase awareness and activate change. But the naming also entails a kinship, a kindness to these difficult parts of me. Sometimes I come up with playful names to help keep a lightness and humor about the whole process. (Particularly in dynamics with my husband. Being told I’m “turning into a turtle” instead of selfishly withdrawing help me respond a little better to being called out). Sometimes my name choice is an act of self-compassion, a reminder to reframe what’s happening. There are many moments—in clean homes, around prolific creatives, pretty much any observation of good parenting—where a train of shoulds start steamrolling through my mind. At the end of it, I feel doubt and disappointment with myself. I’ve been trying for a while now, as I soon as I see myself beginning to “should” all over myself, to stop and replace every “I should” with “I feel inspired to.” There’s more of a choice in that.
3. Foster positivity
Once you’ve become more in tune with your patterns, you will be aware of which ones lead you to places you don’t like. In this time where there is so much negativity we could focus on, it is more important than ever to actively choose your positive patterns or intentionally foster more. You could try to focus daily on gratitude, love, self-compassion, laughter. Be gentle on yourself and pick what form of positivity comes most naturally to you and dwell there for a while. This work can be exhausting, though incredibly rewarding, as most good things are.
McKay, M., Davis, M., Fanning, P. (2011). Thoughts & Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods & Your Life. Canada: Raincoast Books.