Jonathan Cohen, PsyD
Sara Schwartz-Gluck, LCSW
Ben, an overweight 7th grader, struggled to keep up during gym class. He would stand on the side with his awkward classmate, and they bonded over trying to avoid physical activity. When Ben grew older, he was accepted to a few good colleges, but he kept dropping out of school. He hung out with his old friend from junior high, who was unsuccessfully attempting to get into medical school. The two of them took a look at themselves- college dropouts from a small town on Long Island- and decided that the one thing they excelled at was eating. Especially eating ice cream. Ben Cohen and his friend Jerry Greenfield sent $5 to Penn State University for a correspondence course on ice cream making. They pooled their savings and opened a small ice cream store, and named it Ben and Jerry’s.
Ben and Jerry could just as easily have decided to stay home, drink beer, and wallow in hopelessness, deciding to believe they were worthless. However, they chose a thought process that moved them toward international fame, financial success, and delicious tubs of creatively named ice cream flavors.
How our Thoughts Fool Us
There are moments each day during which we choose the way we think. For those who were too busy preparing for Pesach to read our last article, here’s a brief synopsis: We each have certain core beliefs about ourselves (ex: I’m unsuccessful). We may then use distorted thinking to make sure that we see situations in our lives as proof that our core belief is true. We may interpret things using our dark lenses (ex: she only complimented me because she feels bad for me). Some of the distorted thinking styles we use include: catastrophizing (imagining the worst outcome) black and white thinking (seeing ourselves as good or bad- no in between), using a mental filter to discount positive things, and mind reading (assuming we know what people are thinking about us). Once we have taken the brave step of admitting that we are using biased and inaccurate thinking patterns, we can take an honest look at the thoughts we have about ourselves.
What is Healthy Thinking?
Healthy, balanced thinking occurs when we look at ourselves and other people honestly. This involves:
- Knowing our strengths
- Admitting our weaknesses
- Recognizing that our friends, family and neighbors are doing the best they can most of the time
- Forming beliefs about ourselves and other people that are accurate and demonstrate flexibility.
Ari regretted his late night Amazon purchase as soon as he hit the ‘place order’ button. He thought, “I’m such a loser. I can’t believe I keep wasting my money. This kind of thinking would likely lead to feelings of hopelessness, and more self-loathing. The same mistake could be followed by a thought that would help Ari make better decisions next time, without damaging his self-esteem. A balanced thought might look like this: I know I do impulsive things sometimes, but I also know that I am self aware and willing to change.
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
We often treat the automatic thoughts that go through our minds as if they are facts. When we’re feeling emotionally distressed and a thought flashes through our minds, it is hard for us to evaluate that thought objectively.
6 year-old Dina was afraid of sleeping in her dark bedroom. She heard a rustling noise as she pulled her blanket up to her ears. ‘That’s the monster that lives under my bed!” she panicked, and ran out of the room. To Dina, the presence of a monster under her bed seemed like a fact. In reality, the monster was present only in her thoughts.
We can train ourselves to evaluate our thinking, even if this is not a skill that we have been taught. Using our emotions as signals to explore and evaluate our thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs, we can ask ourselves questions like: What’s the evidence that this thought is true? Is there any evidence that might suggest that this thought is not true?
If we were to perform a hypothetical evaluation and review of Jerry Greenfield’s cognitions, it may look something like this:
Thought: “I have no talents”
|-I failed gym class
-I was not accepted to med school even though I applied several times
|-I’m good at being a friend
-I guess you can say I’m an expert at eating
Balanced thought: I may not have academic talents, but there are other things I’m really good at, like being a good friend and eating.
You can use the same tools to evaluate your own thinking. What is the evidence that you can’t handle your stress/will never succeed/are a terrible person/will never have a relationship? Has anything ever happened that contradicts that?
In order to use cognitive therapy tools, one can practice developing their “metacognitive awareness”-the ability to think about your thoughts in an even, logical manner by asking the single most important question in Cognitive Therapy: What went through my mind right before I felt upset (e.g., sad, angry, anxious, annoyed, etc.)?
Now that you’ve taken the important first step toward changing your thoughts, you may want to reward yourself with a pint of Chocolate Therapy (yes, it’s a real Ben and Jerry’s flavor)!