Crazy Making Thoughts and Rewiring the Patterns That Create Them
I’ve come to realize I’m a great catastrophizer. I can go from a sneeze means “uh, oh, I’m catching a cold” to I’m going to get sick and have to cancel clients to I’m going to lose clients to I’m going to lose my business…all in less than three seconds flat.
Catastrophizing may have a survival purpose – pay attention! Take care of yourself. But it also short-circuits my capacities to be resilient, blocking any flexibility for seeing alternative perspective.
We can use the powerful tool of Changing Thoughts from Negative to Positive to rewire individual crazy making thoughts. Our reflective intelligence helps us catch those crazy making thoughts and rewire the underlying mental processes that crease, install, and preserve them.
Here’s a list of common thought processes that human beings use to filter (and sometimes distort) their perceptions.
1. Assumptions: We learn from past experience, and based on that experience we sometimes think we know more than we know. We filter our perceptions of reality through those assumptions rather than seeing clearly what is actually true or needed now.
2. Projections: We assume that what we have learned is true for ourselves is true for other people as well. We project our assumptions onto them, usually without their knowledge or permission, abandoning theory of mind – You are you and I am I; we’re different and that’s okay.
3. Objectification: We lose the sense of ourselves or another person as an active agent of changing experience. Instead we see ourselves (and others) as an object, a thing, an “It” at the mercy of external events and other people’s choices, powerless to change our experience (or our responses to it).
4. Mind reading: We presume we know what another person is thinking, feeling, or needing without empathically checking with them. Or we may presume that the other person already knows what we think or need without bothering to tell them directly: “If you loved me, you would know how I feel.”
5. Discounting the positive: We fail to register positive traits in ourselves or in others, belittling ourselves, devaluing others, and deflecting or neglecting appreciation in either direction.
6. Overgeneralizing: We may exaggerate attributes of an experience, perceiving things as global and pervasive, applying to everything and everybody; we see things as “always” or “never.” We may take things personally whether or not that’s true or relevant, seeing things as permanent and unchanging. (This overgeneralizing is known as the three Ps: pervasive, personal, permanent.)
7. Catastrophizing: We may immediately assume the worst: if we sneeze, we assume we’re catching a cold, which means missing work for three weeks, which means losing the job, which means losing our home — from sniffle to disaster in less than three seconds.
8. Black-and-white thinking: We see everything in categorical terms, with no shades of gray, few options, and no possibilities of compromise. This rigidity in thinking, which can lead to a serious derailing of response flexibility, is also known as neural cement.
9. Inability to change our mind: We are so rigid in our opinions that no new information can change them. No learning can happen. Flexibility can be completely derailed.
You may recognize one or more of these common patterns in yourself or in people you know. Use “Change Every Should to a Could” to move away from any judgement or shaming yourself for that, then try the exercise below to begin to rewire the pattern.
Exercise: Rewire Common Thought Patterns That Derail Resilience
1. Identify one pattern of the patterns above relevant to you that you’re willing to investigate; it need not be the one that is most difficult for you.
2. Track this pattern in your thinking for a week. Notice when this pattern is operating in your thinking – mindful awareness – noticing what you’re experiencing while you’re experiencing it. Notice when it’s not intruding – Whew!
3. Practice looking for clues that you are engaging in this particular thought process.
Here we’ll use three of the most common as examples: discounting the positive, overgeneralizing, catastrophizing
Discounting the positive: “Wait a minute. Did I just miss a positive moment here? Did I not take in something that could have been a compliment? Was I so focused on nearly tripping over the tricycle in the driveway that I missed my daughter running to give me a hug?”
Overgeneralizing: “I just heard myself say ‘never’ for the third time in five minutes.” Or “I notice I’m taking things personally, feeling singled out, losing the big picture.”
Catastrophizing: “Geez, as soon as I noticed another ‘senior moment,’ forgetting what I walked into the kitchen for, I went right to wondering if I’m getting Alzheimer’s already.”
4. Identify an antidote to this pattern of thinking.
Discounting the positive: “Let me notice five positives in this moment or in memory. One, I’m alive in my body. Whatever I’m dealing with, I get to deal with it. Two, I can take in the love of my family and their good intentions toward me right now. Three, I can stop and notice the sun, the clouds, the trees, the birdsong. Four, I can remember positives — oh yeah, Shirly said I looked good in this shirt, and I didn’t even register that. Five, actually I was enjoying my own good thoughts just earlier this morning.”
Overgeneralizing: “Let me check the three P’s right now. Did I see things as pervasive? Yup, I went global. Not everybody in the world is rude just because that customer service rep was. As personal? Yes, he may have been rude to other people besides me this morning. As permanent? Well, that call is over, and the problem got solved. I’ll probably get a different rep the next time I call.”
Catastrophizing: “Whoa! Back up! Let me focus on what’s actually happening. I forgot what I walked into the kitchen for because I was thinking about something else. When I walked back into the kitchen again, I remembered. And I’m making the lifestyle choices that will help me prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. I can relax and trust I’m okay.”
5. Write down several antidotes for the pattern you are choosing to work on. The more antidotes, the more flexible your thinking can become, and more quickly.
6. Similar to Changing Thoughts from Negative to Positive, practice pairing any habitual negative pattern with several of your new more flexible patterns. Even say these pairs out loud to hear yourself doing the juxtaposition that will do the rewiring.
7. Then drop practicing the pair but continue to rehearse the new more flexible pattern.
8. Here’s the crucial step – when you notice the habitual pattern hijacking your thoughts again, notice if the more flexible pattern arises, too, to give you some choices, some alternatives. That’s the rewiring.
9. Over time, you may notice the old pattern simply does not come up as often of stick around as along as it used to.
10. Acknowledge your efforts in noticing and rewiring habitual mental thought processes. You strengthen your response flexibility by both practicing it and noticing it. Noticing that you are rewiring your thought process may itself be a new process. It is still reconditioning your brain.
(You will find this practice and similar exercises in Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster forthcoming in October 2, 2018.)