How our mind can work against us, and how to take back control.

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Finish the sentence – “Keeping up with the…”

Whether you are a fan of the Kardashians or not, you probably completed that sentence with their name instinctively.

This isn’t surprising as the family seem to be everywhere. Your brain has learnt to associate that sentence with the name “Kardashian”. 

Associations are powerful because they seem natural.

Before the Kardashians were a thing, you most likely would have ended that sentence with “Joneses”.  As “keeping up with the Joneses” was a well-known phrase.

If you were familiar with the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”, your replacement of “Joneses” with “Kardashians” probably occurred without you noticing.

That’s because most of the time we don’t analyse every thought we have, we just accept it for what it is and allow associations and connections to strengthen over time unconsciously.

For the most part, we also unquestioningly accept these instinctual thoughts as correct. So, although keeping up with the Kardashians may not be an association you chose to make consciously, your mind thought it anyway and it went unchallenged. This allows the association to grow and to strengthen in legitimacy. “Kardashians” may increasingly seem like a more natural ending to that sentence than “Joneses” as time goes on.

When some instinctual thoughts go unchallenged, they can make you feel unjustifiably bad about yourself.

What’s the point of all this talk about Kardashians? Well, it demonstrates how our minds will learn to reproduce what we have absorbed. This can have negative implications if the messages we have absorbed are hurtful or critical.

Let’s say you were made to feel that you were a loser and that you didn’t fit in in social situations as a child or teen. Your mind may automatically repeat the message that you are a loser when you are in similar situations as an adult. So, parties, work meetings, or just generally hanging out with friends could trigger the same kinds of thoughts (even if these people LOVE being around you).

Your mind may also be more likely to run on auto pilot and repeat hurtful messages if you are in a similar state of mind to when you first experienced them. So, if you are feeling nervous or anxious, low or depressed, you may find that these kinds of negative thoughts come to you more easily than when you are happy. 

Not acknowledging these thoughts for what they are (thoughts rather than facts) will make it more likely they are accepted as truth. This gives them more power and makes it more likely they will re-appear.

How our mind can work against us, and how to take back control. 1

“When did you first feel this way?” Is a question often asked by counsellors, but it’s one you can ask yourself too.

If you’ve had counselling, you may have been asked the question “When did you first feel this way?”. This is because the counsellor is trying to get you to identify the root of your current way of thinking.

If you have recurring bouts of depression or anxiety coupled with negative thoughts sometimes the answer can be a lot further back than you think. The first time you felt the way you do was likely several episodes ago, not at the beginning of the most recent (or even the previous) episode.

Thinking about what triggered it recently is helpful (because understanding triggers can help you deal with them). But often the root of recurring issues tracks back many years and it is this root which needs examining to stop the thoughts from recurring.

You can reclaim some power over negative thoughts by questioning how truthful they are.

Knowing when you first started having these kinds of thoughts can help you separate what happened in the past from what is happening in the present. You can then apply this understanding to examine how truthful the thoughts are.

Let’s consider this example:

  • There is a person in their mid 30s,
  • They are seeing a counsellor for repeated bouts of depression,
  • When they were young, they struggled to concentrate at school,
  • They were often told off for misbehaving by their teachers,
  • They were scolded for their low-test scores by their parents,
  • Even their friends joked that they were “a bit thick”,
  • In their 20’s this person discovered they had ADHD,
  • By their early 30’s they were a successful artist,
  • They now make decent money and receive a lot of praise for their artwork,
  • They still have repetitive thoughts which say; “I am useless”, “I am a failure” and “I am thick”.

When we think about the situations that led to these negative thoughts first appearing, it is easy to understand why they did. Although those thoughts wouldn’t have been accurate at the time, its easy to see why a child or teenager may negatively internalise the messages they were receiving.

With age and the newfound information about the individual’s mental health and successful career, you may now expect the person to dismiss the negative thoughts they have as untrue.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen, because the mind has already had years of exposure to them without challenge. They will have become very powerful thoughts as a result.

In order to change their thought pattern, this person will need to acknowledge their thoughts and question their truth. Doing this can take some of their power away.

Depression and anxiety can make challenging negative thoughts hard.

Questioning the truth of negative thoughts is not easy. Often, challenging a negative thought can result in your mind finding a counter-challenge and you can feel as though you are fighting against yourself. 

For example, a challenge to the above negative thoughts (“I am useless”, “I am a failure” and “I am thick”) could be:

“I can’t be a failure because people love my art”.

But this could then be dismissed by the thought:

“Yes, but I can’t even do my own taxes for my business, so I must be stupid”.

Going through this process can be hard, especially if your mind comes up with more arguments for the original thought being true than arguments against.

Writing down your arguments for and against negative thoughts being true and sharing them with someone you trust to support you can help. They could ask you questions about your arguments such as:

  • “Is that a fair statement?”
  • “If I were to do “X”, would you say the same thing about me?”

When you are asked questions like these, you are likely to realise that you are being harder on yourself than you would be on others. You may also begin to notice that your arguments for believing negative thoughts about yourself are not as strong as you first thought.

Consider asking a counsellor to help you challenge negative thoughts.

You may want to consider asking a counsellor to help you challenge negative thoughts if there isn’t anyone in your life who you feel comfortable asking for help.

You may also want to consider using a counsellor even if you do have supportive loved ones, as this kind of exercise can bring up a lot of difficult past experiences.

Counsellors have years of training, knowledge and experience helping people work through difficult memories. They will never judge you for becoming upset or try to supress your emotions.

If you are considering counselling for negative thoughts linked to anxiety or depression, I am here to help. You can reach me at: sophie@sbcounselling.co.uk or 07588 117305 .

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