April 22, 2020

2 criteria you can use to expose unhealthy thought patterns

Have you ever heard of Marcus Aurelius? Seneca? Epictetus? Zeno of Citium?

These names belong to Stoic philosophers who lived over 2,000 years ago. They came from almost every imaginable background — one was a slave, another an emperor.

But what they all had in common was the philosophy they lived by.

One basic tenet of the this Stoic philosophy is: people’s conceptions (or misconceptions) of events, rather than the events themselves, are the key to their emotional upsets.

Epictetus said:

[People] are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.

Seneca said:

We suffer more in imagination than in reality.

It’s easy to see this phenomenon in action when you consider the example of two people with two very different thoughts about their work situation:

Knowing that our thoughts and beliefs shape our reality, we must diligently observe the activity of our own mind to look for unhealthy patterns.

2 criteria you can ask to expose unhealthy thought patterns

In order to pass as healthy, a given thought or belief must be BOTH true AND helpful.

It’s important to recognize that even if a thought is true, if it’s not also helpful then it should be considered unhealthy.

What to do with unhealthy thoughts and beliefs

The most important habit to cultivate is the acknowledgement and positive reinforcement of that “aha!” moment when you observe an unhealthy thought or belief in your mind.

It is easy to judge ourselves or put ourselves down when we notice how unproductive a lot of our thinking is, but this form of self-criticism only serves to reinforce the unhealthy thought patterns.

Instead, simply take a moment to enjoy and appreciate becoming aware of the unhealthy mental activity. Savour the sense of being more aware and curious about your self. Celebrate this small epiphany and encourage yourself to have more of them.

By valuing this realization, you’re actually training your mind to be more efficient and effective in the future.

In fact, this is the same approach used by the meditator who trains her mind to notice when it has wandered from the object of meditation.

To become annoyed or self-critical in the “aha!” moment will slow down your progress. You can’t scold the mind into changing, especially when dealing with entrenched mental patterns […] Consistent, immediate positive reinforcement of behaviours we want will be far more effective than punishing behaviours we don’t. — Culadasa (John Yates, Ph.D.)

Practical tips for applying this in your day-to-day life

The next time you notice yourself experiencing a particularly strong negative emotion (for example: stress, anxiety, anger, frustration, etc.), take a few deep breaths and then pause to write down the thought(s) that just crossed your mind before you started feeling this way.

Be sure to write or type, rather than try to work with the thoughts in your own head. Thinking through difficult thoughts without writing them down can often be more difficult and lead to endless rumination about the problem.

Once you have written down your thoughts, you can then ask of each thought:

Oftentimes, simply questioning the validity and value of your beliefs can provide a significant amount of relief. This act can also help reveal healthier ways of looking at your situation.

The next step is to challenge and replace the unhealthy thought with a healthier, more productive one. This process is a life skill, and something that can be strengthened with practice.

Here are some follow up questions that may help spark a new way of seeing your situation:

Take two minutes right now to try it

Recall a recent experience when you felt a particularly strong negative emotion.

Ask yourself: “What was on my mind just before I started feeling that way?

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