Our minds are amazingly complex. One of the most curious things about them, identified by psychologists like Albert Ellis last century, is the ways that we all tend to fall into recognisable forms of unhelpful, because unnecessarily negative ways of thinking.
We “catastrophise”, for instance: telling ourselves that the very worst things are going to happen (I’m going to mess up/fail/disappoint, as usual …), just as if we were a kind of fortune teller who could predict the future; or we act as if we could “mind read” (imagining, say, that we “know” that people think badly about us (they all hate me …), which they often don’t); we overgeneralise, telling ourselves that “no one likes me … this never works … I always do this”, filtering out counter-evidence which would allow us to form a more positive, realistic take on things; and, worst of all, we fall into negatively labelling ourselves, as a whole, in our own minds—I’m such an idiot … fool … sissy …—in ways that make us feel worse, and can over time be very debilitating.
Why we think in these ways is a huge question. It starts early in life, and everyone is prone to these cognitive patterns, especially in times of stress. What we can do about it practically?
We can adapt what Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) calls techniques to “defuse” ourselves from these ways of thinking. When we are caught up in these negative ways of thinking, it is as if we are “fused” into them, like a welded piece of metal. We see the world through our negative thoughts, respond to others in their light, think about ourselves in their perspective. But these thoughts are only passing ideas in our heads about the world, not unchangeable facts about it—and they do not need to define and control us as people, if we can notice, name, and neutralise them.
The Stoic Epictetus says in his handbook, that when a thought distresses us, we should learn to speak to it as if it were something that came from outside of ourselves, saying: “you are only an impression, and not at all what you appear to be”. What Epictetus was recognising was how important it is to learn to de-fuse or “un-hook” ourselves from the negative thinking that can drag us around, and drag us down.
It’s about creating, through practice, a kind of virtual distance from this kind of potentially harmful cognition. Then, once we’ve got that distance, we can ask ourselves questions like: “even if this thought about how bad I am were true, is it helpful? Does it make me more able to go better in the world, or does it make me feel worse? When I accept it as true, how does it make me feel? Does it lead me towards, or away from, the kind of person I want to be? So, do I really need to accept this way of thinking, or can I just let it go?”
Once we start asking questions like these about our own negative thinking, the practical point is that we can begin to open up new ways of appreciating ourselves and the world, enabling us to live and act more flexibly and freely.