“I’ll never get this blog post written”. I actually just thought this whilst staring at my blank screen. Yet here I am typing and, if you’re reading this, I was clearly wrong. But this is typical of the kinds of thoughts that whizz around in our minds, often without us being consciously aware of them.
So where was the mistake in my thought? It felt like a very reasonable prospect when I first sat down with a slightly leaden feeling in my body. I guess the more realistic thought might have been “I might not get this blog post written”. And that could just refer to this sitting rather than ever. Looking at these two alternatives side by side:
I’ll never get this blog post written.
I might not get this blog post written.
Which is the most realistic? Which gives the most freedom and flexibility? Which one is a huge bummer?
In the case of realism “might not” gives voice to the complete range of possible outcomes, and it infers that both real and imagined obstacles could get in the way, or not. I was actually staring success in the face all along, and the even more realistic thought would have been “I will probably get this blog post written”.
On the other hand “never” gets us into very shaky territory from the beginning. Never is absolute and if never has a colour it could well be black. There are unlikely to be shades of grey with never. The complete range of real life possibilities that really exist have been filtered out. All the shades of grey and the most fantastic colours too.
The same goes for always. Always may be the positive side to never, but it can get us in just as much trouble. “I always make a mess of things”. “I always turn up late”. This may sound recognisable to you, resonating with your own words or those of an acquaintance. Again, it is not likely that these thoughts are realistic no matter how true they feel.
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) this falls under the category of black and white thinking, an unhelpful thinking style and often occurs as a negative automatic thought (NAT). I didn’t sit there and make a logical argument, weighing my past experiences against my expectations and abilities summarising with “I’ll never blah blah blah”. It arrived unbidden from within me, and the thought did not arrive alone. It came complete with a heavy feeling in my throat and chest, my head inclined slightly and I found myself staring at “my stupid hands” immobile on the keyboard. And yet more, quieter thoughts came inferred by the first. “I will not get this written because I am lazy and not clever enough”. These too are of an unhelpful thinking style, usually called labelling.
From thoughts to feelings to behaviours to more thoughts, feelings and behaviours. I imagine you may have some personal experience of what I am writing about.
So where do NATs come from? In CBT terminology they are generated by your core beliefs. Core beliefs are a deeply held part of your world view and help you to quickly assess your place in a given situation. You pick up many of your core beliefs at an early age, many being given to you by society and by significant people in your life, and some that you arrived at by yourself whilst needing to make some sense of what you are experiencing.
And why so negative? Core beliefs can also be positive and you may well notice, if you pay attention, that you also have positive automatic thoughts, which are fabulous, and these are not usually the kind of thing that gets you down in the dumps. And one reason we cling on to negative thoughts and experiences is because of negativity bias. I won’t go into too much detail here because negativity bias deserves a whole post to itself. In his completely fantastic and highly recommended book, Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Rick Hanson says:
“Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
You will very easily grow neurons dedicated to negative beliefs, but from an evolutionary standpoint it is not worth the effort or resources to grow so many neurons dedicated to positive beliefs. Or, you turn more food into babies by remembering where the tigers are compared to remembering where all the pretty flowers are. This works in something like a 5:1 ratio. So it can take 5 good experiences to start to undo the work of a single bad experience.
Well what can we do about all this? Back to never and always! I always forget what I’m writing about… To start with we can be mindful of our thoughts and feelings. It is amazing how many of these thoughts go unnoticed consciously, but they do keep on making changes in your emotional state and your body, and your further thinking.
So if you find yourself locked up in the face of some task, or ruminating, pay close attention. What are you believing about yourself, and is it realistic? You don’t have to be over-positive, just realistic. Give yourself a break from never and always and let some shades of possibility back in. When you do this it is called cognitive reframing and it is just amazing.
Think what you mean. When you are confronted by a piece of black and white thinking you have the chance to pull it apart and to consciously decide on a more realistic and helpful alternative, and you can think that instead. This gives your highly adaptive brain a chance to grow in a way that supports new beliefs, and gradually loosens its grip on unhelpful ones.
The great thing about being mindful is that you can also be mindful of how you do it. You could be mindful with cool scrutiny, but I would recommend being mindful with warm, gentle compassion. It is not easy being bombarded by unhelpful thoughts and emotions, and you are just a human, imperfect and miraculous. You can choose to offer yourself healing kindness, and develop a nurturing relationship with yourself, especially if you are not getting this from your current relationships with others.
In summary black and white thinking often happens automatically, and frequently out of awareness. Negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours can reinforce one another left unchecked. They are based on core beliefs you have picked up or had put upon you over the course of your life. There is a good chance that along the way you have picked up some really negative ones because of negativity bias. By paying careful attention during negative situations it is possible to cognitively reframe your thoughts which can interrupt negative cycles and can lead to positive growth. And while you are noticing what is going on, take some time, and learn to treat yourself with kindness.
This is much more of a primer on CBT than I had first intended. The power of the words we use in our thoughts and conversations is incredible. Words like; never, always, should, must, nothing, everything, just, and only can really give insight into one’s ideals and where our thinking becomes inflexible, unrealistic, under-nuanced and unhelpful.
At some point in the future I shall do a more complete rundown of unhelpful thinking styles, and some of the other words listed above. I will also start to look at how we explore more deeply the origins of our problematic beliefs and stuck patterns using techniques from Gestalt and Person Centred Therapy.
If you have found that words like never and always are not only cropping up a lot in your thoughts but that they are really giving you problems too, then you can get in touch to see if some counselling with me would help. I work online and face-to-face in Exeter, Devon.
The plan for the next post is based on a poem by Hafez, A Cushion For Your Head.
All the best.