Changing Killer Thoughts

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Two weeks ago, I went to a social event with people I hardly knew. For personal and business reasons, I wanted to make a good impression. But near the end of the evening, I tripped and fell. With my multiple sclerosis (MS), this happens fairly often, but I “knew,” “Everyone will think I’m a loser because I fell. I’ve blown the whole evening.”

That’s an example of an unbalanced thought. There’s a grain of truth in it, but I was exaggerating it until it became a problem. I was afraid to follow up on the contacts I had made because I was worried about what people thought.

Fortunately, there was an MS support group meeting a few days later, and I brought up my concerns. People in the group gave me some good advice.

“You’re worrying about what people think,” said one. “The fact is, nobody is thinking about you at all. They’re thinking about themselves. They probably noticed you for a second, and when they saw you didn’t need help, they went back to their own problems.”

Another woman added, “You have no way of knowing what people are thinking. You’re assuming you lost them, but some of them surely didn’t care, and others might even have found it endearing.”

I had to admit they were right. It was my own thoughts that were causing me harm, not other people’s! When you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, MS, or one of hundreds of others, negative thoughts like those can be crippling.

Fortunately, there are ways to change killer thoughts. These techniques are often placed under the umbrella term “cognitive-behavioral therapy” (CBT), and you can use them without a therapist. See if any of the following approaches work for you.

Are your thoughts realistic?
Some people think that healthy thinking means staying positive all the time. Actually, being 100% positive would be kind of crazy and is not really possible. What we want are realistic thoughts.

Most of us walk around thinking unrealistically negative things about ourselves and our lives. We might overgeneralize — “Nobody will think I’m attractive unless I lose 20 pounds.” “Nobody,” “never,” “everybody,” and “always” thoughts are not realistic. The truth is that some people won’t find you attractive and others will. That’s true whether or not you wear an insulin pump and no matter what your weight is.

We might exaggerate or reduce the importance of events. “She said she can’t come to my party. She must hate me” would be an exaggeration. “He said he really likes me, but he probably says that to everyone” is a reduction. Neither is realistic.

Some of us think we can predict the future or read minds. “My diabetes is going to progress and I’ll probably die from it” is an example. How do you know? Nobody can truthfully predict the future.

There are several other categories of thought distortions. This article describes most of them.

We want to replace unrealistically negative thoughts with realistically positive ones. I described the process for doing this in an article called “Get a Better Mirror”:

First, identify your distorted thoughts. What thought keeps reflexively running through your head? Some extreme examples are thoughts such as “I’m useless” or “I’m lazy.”

Then test the thought for accuracy. If the thought is “I’m useless,” is it true you never do anything useful? Probably not. Perhaps you can find a counterexample that disproves it.

If you’re predicting the future — “He’ll never give me that promotion” — how do you know? What’s your evidence?

If you can disprove the negative thought — and it’s OK to ask a friend for help with this — you can replace it with something more accurate, like changing “I don’t do anything worthwhile anymore”, to “I do as much as I can, and that is all anyone can do.” (It’s more than a lot of people do!)

We might also ask ourselves if having the distorted thought gives us any benefits. For example, “I’m ugly” is a painful (and distorted) thought, but it might serve to explain everything that has gone wrong in our lives, so we don’t have to try to change anything else.

Thought-changing can be difficult, and you may want to get some help from a cognitive-behavioral therapist who specializes in this kind of work. You can also use a self-help program like the one in my book, The Art of Getting Well.

Some good books on thought-changing are Mind over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think, by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky, and The Feeling Good Handbook, by David D. Burns.

Additionally, here’s a good government Web site on thought-changing, and here’s another one on building self-esteem.

Oh, I almost forgot: I took my group’s advice and contacted the two people I connected with at the party. One hasn’t gotten back to me yet, but the other one did, and we are working together already! So don’t let your thoughts hold you back.

What has been your experience with negative thoughts? Do they bother you, and have you been able to change them? Please let us know.

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