When I'm feeling anxious and stumble across a quote on social media about how I should banish all negative thinking, it makes me feel worse.
What the makers of those adorable quotes don't seem to understand is that when we're in the middle of a negative spiral, we don’t feel like we're in control of what our minds are doing. It feels like it's happening to us.
Getting Back In The Driver's Seat with CBT
Over the past few years, I've come to learn that there are ways we can deal with negative thoughts - practical ways. One of the most powerful has been from cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.
After learning about mindfulness and how it works, the next step is identifying automatic negative thoughts, affectionately referred to as ANTs. There are several different types of ANTS. One of the most pervasive species is the shoulds.
Meet The Shoulds
I had already been working on other ANTs when I started to realize I had a problem with the shoulds. I had a negative voice talking to me almost all of the time. I didn't question it. That voice just seemed like a normal part of who I am. But it's not. After I recognized that voice for what it is, I started calling her "Mean Boss." She berated me constantly and was disappointed no matter how hard I worked.
In the beginning stages of this process, the idea is to just pay attention without trying to change anything. Just notice the negative thoughts - maybe write them down. I did. I was like Jane Goodall, but in stead of apes I was studying Mean Boss.
Mean Boss would say things like:
“You should have written three books by now.”
“You shouldn’t have wasted your time on that job.”
“You shouldn’t be eating this. It’s going to make you obese.”
“You should go to that party. People will think you don’t care about them.”
“You shouldn’t be so opinionated. You’re going to get in trouble.”
I was stunned by the sheer volume of shoulds and musts that governed my inner life. Can you see how reading a well-meaning Pinterest quote telling me I “shouldn’t be thinking negative thoughts” wasn't helpful? It just fueled Mean Boss’ fire.
My Favorite ANT Killing Trick: Replacing "Should" with "Want"
I’m not a therapist or mental health professional, but when it came time, I found a fun way to rescue my heart from under that mountain of shoulds.
Here’s how it works:
- Restate should sentences but replaced “should" with “want.”
- Read the sentence back and decide if the statement is true or false.
- Investigate with the help of my “Wise Advocate”
Mean Boss, Meet Wise Advocate
Before we go further, let me introduce you to The Wise Advocate, my new best friend. I learned about it from Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz in his book, You Are Not Your Brain. The book is filled with input from his patients, like Liz, whose description of the Wise Advocate is really beautiful:
“The best way to think of the Wise Advocate … is to imagine a loving figure, someone who cares about you and wants the best for you. This person is only going to make decisions that are in your best interest and will see the falseness of the deceptive brain messages. There’s no way a loving figure like that would let you believe those negative things your brain is telling you - no way.”
Choose Your Own Wise Advocate
Dr. Schwartz goes on to describe how some people imagine the Wise Advocate as the voice of a beloved family member or religious figure like a god or a saint. Personally, I’ve found that imagining a person or figure I already have strong associations with didn’t work so well.
Over the years, Mean Boss came to feel like my own voice. I wanted to drown her out with a voice I could claim as my own. Over time, I ended up with something that is uniquely mine, but for some reason looks like the Childlike Empress from The Neverending Story. (Whatever works!)
The Childlike Empress, I mean, my Wise Advocate, is that part of myself that loves and accepts all of me. She wants the best for me. I called her forth using exercises like Meditation with R.A.I.N. She comes in at the last step - Nurture. “What would I say to someone I love unconditionally if they were going through the same thing? What would someone who loves ME unconditionally say to me right now?”
Here's How it Works
So now let me give you some examples of how the process works. Let’s start with an easy one.
Step one: Restate the sentence, but replace “should" with “want.”
“You should go to that party.”
“You want to go to that party.”
Step 2: Read back the sentence and decide if the statement is true or false.
I want to go to that party? Wait. No I don’t. So that would be false.
Ok, now I’m getting somewhere. Let’s investigate.
Step 3: Investigate with the help of my “Wise Advocate”
Open up an internal dialogue with your Wise Advocate instead of Mean Boss.
Wise Advocate: Ok, why do you feel like you should go to that party?
Me: Well, I like all of those people. I’m really lucky to have found all of these amazing new friends so late in life and I hardly ever see them. I should go. But I don’t want to go. The thought of walking through a door into a room full of people makes me feel unexplainably uncomfortable right now.
Wise Advocate: It really is great that you made new friends. Just a few years ago, you didn’t think that would happen! But that doesn’t mean you have to go to a party to keep them as friends. It’s time to acknowledge that all these years, you’ve been a lot more introverted than you cared to admit.
Why don’t you take some time tonight working on your craft projects or find a good movie on Netflix. But before you do, make a list of the people you want to see and text them! Ask them to lunch or invite them for dinner. You love one-on-one time with people. So be proactive and nurture those friendships another way!
So there you go. By cracking open that “should” by replacing it with a want, I opened up an internal dialogue that helped instead of harmed me.
When The Shoulds Are More Complicated
The first example was an easy one. What about the others that aren’t so straight forward?
Here are a few brief examples of others I've dealt with along the way:
“You should have written three books by now!”
“You want to have written three books by now.”
Step Two: True!
Wise Advocate: Yes, you have wanted to be a writer for most of your life. You haven’t been prioritizing it. Why? Don’t beat yourself up! Let’s investigate and see if we can change this trajectory to be more in line with your hopes and dreams.
“You shouldn’t be eating this.”
“You don’t want to be eating this.”
Wise Advocate: You do want to eat this. Let’s walk through HALT: Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Ok, you’re hungry and this sounds really yummy right now. Just make sure you pay attention to when you get full so you can stop eating when it feels good. Enjoy your snack!
Now for something a little trickier...
“I shouldn’t call this person a *#&!.”
“I don’t want to call this person a *#&!.”
Wise Advocate: Yes, you do want to call this person a name, but let’s have a little talk about what might be a more constructive way to handle your anger.
“You shouldn’t be so opinionated.”
“I don’t want to be so opinionated.”
Wise Advocate: You’re full of ideas and want to join conversations. But you rarely find yourself swimming in the main stream on a lot of issues. At church, that felt dangerous and it felt safer to stay quiet. Let’s investigate how important these issues are to you. And whether the good of speaking up outweighs any potential negativity that might come into your life because of it.
The dialogue isn’t always simple. Some of these I’ve had to sit with for weeks or months. Especially the last one! When I started, Mean Boss was the dominant voice. I had to really work hard to hear my Wise Advocate.
As time goes on and I continue to do this work, the Wise Advocate voice is becoming the dominant voice. It’s rewiring how I think. It works.
A Few Thoughts on Learning CBT For Yourself
I was formally introduced to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy through a class for people struggling with eating disorders through my health insurance. But before that, I began reading books like You Are Not Your Brain by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. Over the years, I've learned two things about this process that I can't share with enough enthusiasm:
- It's always better with a therapist, either one-on-one or in a group setting.
- It's not an instant fix. You have to do the work.
With health insurance getting more and more expensive and mental health options being laughable if available at all, I know it's not easy.
There are a lot of people like me out there sharing what we've learned. But even better - there are therapists and organizations sharing resources. Dr. Schwartz' book is pretty dense. The teachers of the class I took highly recommended Dr. Daniel Amen's book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.
For more information, check out Amen Clinic's resource page, Where Can You Find Help When You Need to Talk It Out.