What Are You Thinking? How Your Thoughts Create Your Experience
Two mothers are sitting in the waiting room at the pediatrician's office.
Each is there for her 5-year-old daughter's well visit and has been waiting 40 minutes.
One mother perceives the situation as a major inconvenience and thinks, “This is ridiculous. How long do I have to sit here? Tomorrow I'm looking for a different pediatrician.” She's agitated, anxious, and stressed.
The other mother views this waiting time as an opportunity to connect with her daughter. She thinks, “Might as well make the best of the delay.” They pass the time playing “I-Spy” and reading a board book together.
The situation is the same, but the interpretations and thoughts about it create different experiences.
Throughout each day, we're all engaged in constant self-talk. There's a continuous monologue playing in our minds, and the thoughts we have either produce positive or negative energy within us. This self-talk is so automatic and habitual that we usually don't even notice it.
Thoughts that cause us to view our experiences negatively are called cognitive distortions. These thoughts convince us that our perception of reality is accurate when it really isn't.
Negative self-talk and distorted thinking contribute to and perpetuate DRAMA in our lives. They impact our relationships with our kids and often get passed down to them, so that they hear pessimistic and discouraging chatter in their minds, too. Negative self-talk can lead to anxiety, depression, and behavior problems.
Below are four common cognitive distortions and suggestions for how to deal with them.
Jumping to conclusions
You make judgments and decisions without having all the facts because you think you already know them. You assume what other people are thinking or what's going to happen next, and it's usually the worst-case scenario.
Example: Your son's teacher e-mails you to set up a phone conference. You immediately jump to the conclusion that your son is in trouble. You make up all kinds of stories in your mind that lead you to feel furious with him, embarrassed, defensive, etc. You start rehearsing what you're going to tell the teacher and planning your son's punishment.
Change your thinking: Whoa, Nelly. Slow down. The only fact you have is that the teacher wants to talk with you. For all you know, she could be calling to discuss an upcoming event or to actually share something wonderful about your son. Instead of jumping to conclusions, stay positive and wait until you talk to the teacher to find out more.
You focus on the negative aspects of a situation and ignore any positive ones.
Example: Your daughter has been cooperative all afternoon. She finished her homework without any reminders. She cleared her dishes from the table after dinner and played quietly while you were on the phone. As bedtime approaches, you ask her to change into her pajamas and she whines that she doesn't want to. You decide to focus on this, instead of noticing all the positive things that came before.
Change your thinking: When all you notice is the negative, you'll only attract more of it into your life. Start making a point to become aware of the positives — expressing your appreciation for that behavior will help reinforce it.
You believe that because you had a bad experience in a specific situation that you'll always have bad experiences in similar, future circumstances. You often think in absolutes and use words like always, never, all, every, none, nobody, and everybody.
Example: You plan a play date for your daughter and a boy in her class. The boy makes a mess while eating his snack and later grabs a toy away from your daughter, and she starts to cry. You decide never to have play dates with boys again because they all must be aggressive slobs.
Change your thinking: Come now. You know that not all boys are sloppy and rough and that some girls can be! And he's a kid, after all. Think of it as an opportunity for you and your daughter to learn how to manage different situations. If they really don't get along, there are plenty more fish in the sea.
You think the word “should” or “shouldn't” to impose unreasonably high or unrealistic standards on yourself or others.
“My child should turn off the TV and come to dinner when I ask.”
“My children shouldn't fight so much.”
“My child should be out of diapers by now.”
“I should be more patient.”
“I should be able to handle this.”
Change your thinking: When you think this way, you're denying reality. You're rejecting what IS. Accept the situation as it is, and free yourself from the pain associated with how you think it should be. “I should be more patient” becomes “I'm feeling really impatient right now.”
Parenting expert Bonnie Harris also suggests using what she calls the “Of Course” mantra, as in: “Of course my child doesn't want to turn off the TV and come to dinner.” This can help shift your thinking toward more realistic expectations.
If you want to go deeper and explore how your thinking affects your life, I recommend reading Byron Katie's book Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, or check out her website full of free worksheets and resources to get you started.
Start to notice your self-talk and challenge it when you feel angry or upset. With practice, you'll be able to recognize your distorted thoughts as they occur and consciously choose ones that are more accurate and helpful. In the comments below, give us an example of how negative self-talk shows up in your own life.
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