Imagine you’re back in high school and one of your good friends is giving an important presentation in front of the whole class. Knowing your friend, you notice that they’re visibly nervous, tripping over their words and stumbling through the presentation. As you watch, what are your thoughts? Are you thinking that your friend who was up all night prepping for this difficult task is a total loser? Do you lose respect for your friend because of this one, poor performance? Are you ashamed of them? Or, does your heart go out to them, pulling for them, feeling their pain? When it’s over, do you comfort them and tell them how much you admire them for giving it their best shot? I bet you would.
Now, imagine you’re that friend, stumbling through the presentation. What would you say to yourself? Would you give yourself the same compassion that an outside observer would give you? Unfortunately, if you’re one of the many people who suffer from anxiety and depression, chances are you’ll find yourself saying some pretty ugly things to yourself. In fact, many of us who suffer with anxiety endure this monumental self-shaming regularly in everyday situations.
The culprit is what we refer to as “automatic thoughts.” These automatically-generated thoughts are often painful, critical and rooted in untruths, exaggerations, or fears. When faced with the situation above, we might experience what we see as failure and think things like:
“Oh, man, I’m such an idiot.”
I totally blew that entire thing.
I always screw everything up
They all probably think I’m a moron”
Pretty rough, right?
These thoughts are cognitive distortions- thoughts that simply aren’t true, but they reflect our deepest beliefs and fears about who we really are. The evidence for this is if we ask ourselves a very difficult question: what would it mean about me if all of those things are actually TRUE? What if I AM an idiot? What if I DO screw everything up? What if they DO all think I’m a moron? What would that say about me? What would it mean?
Many times, for people with depression and anxiety, the answer is profound.
It means I’m not good enough.
It means I’m worthless
It means I’m not worthy of being loved.
These core beliefs are just not fair. They hurt us. And we deserve a gentler belief system about ourselves.
If you find yourself suffering with anxiety or depression, a first step in recovery is to start to pay attention to your thoughts. Are you having those automatic critical thoughts? Try keeping a log, maybe in the notes on your phone, over the course of a week or so.
When you find yourself getting anxious or down, tune into your thoughts. What are you telling yourself in those moments of pain? Write them down. Then, look for patterns in your thoughts. Are you self-critical? Are you labeling yourself with names like “loser” or “failure?” Inept? Incompetent? Stupid? Some of the things we say to ourselves are simply heartbreaking. But write them down.
Challenging those thoughts can be as simple as stepping away from yourself for a moment. What would you say to your best friend if they were experiencing this? What would you say to your child? What would you say to your loved one experiencing this kind of stressful event? Chances are you would be really kind to someone you love. You’d tell them something soothing and TRUE about themselves. You’d encourage them to be kind to themselves and to give themselves a break, right? And to keep trying, because they’re worth it. That’s the kind of thing we can do for ourselves. We can develop a practice of listening to those things we say to ourselves-- listening closely-- and challenging the negative thoughts with positive, true statements.
If you need help with negative self-talk, reach out to a counselor who can help to show you some tools to practice crushing those negative automatic thoughts. You CAN feel better.
Chicken or the Egg?
I was recently remembering a conversation I had with a professor of mine in college. He was a very serious, matter-of-fact guy who constantly talked about how our thoughts create our feelings. Everything stemmed from how we think. Events don’t cause us to feel or behave in certain ways, but rather, it was our THOUGHTS about the events that cause us to feel & act. At the time, I thought he was crazy. What if you have a death in the family? Or some other trauma? We’re human and of course that would make us sad, right?
I have to admit after having lived several decades now, that my old professor was right. It’s our thoughts, not events or experiences in and of themselves, that shape our feelings and behaviors.
Here’s an example: let’s say that two people on the same day get laid off from their jobs. Person A is crushed. They wonder how they’re going to survive. They think that they are a failure or a loser because they weren’t good enough to keep the job. They tell themselves that everyone at work is looking down on them for losing the job. And maybe they think they’ll never be able to hold a job because they’ll just get fired again since they’re incompetent. The person spirals into self loathing, anxiety, depression and retreats to their bed. Maybe they start drinking to dull the pain. They isolate from their friends and family out of self-hate or embarrassment. They’re truly suffering.
Now take Person B. They get laid off from the same job on the same day. Sure, they’re sad because they lost their job. They’ll miss their friends. They’re disappointed. But instead of the negative self-defeating thoughts that Person A suffered from, Person B might tell themselves more positive and TRUE things like, “You know...I never really liked that job that much anyway” or “Well, that was a learning experience and now I can move on and use it for the future.” Or- “It just wasn’t a good fit. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me as a person!”
Person B, suffering no anxiety or self-loathing might then take the opportunity to rest a while and have some fun. Or they might be ready to get out there and find a job that they really will enjoy because it’s a better fit for them.
Can you see the difference our thoughts make in how we feel and how we behave? It’s natural to have emotions. But when our self-talk is negative and defeating, our emotions follow, leading to issues like anxiety and depression. We don’t have to go down that path. ❤️
So which came first: the feelings or the thoughts? I think you know what my answer would be.