How many of us truly spend time focusing on or planning our thoughts? It is amazing what can be understood if we begin to focus attention on the things that we say to ourselves about other people, about situations, and especially the things we tell ourselves. The words that we speak about ourselves and other people and how we behave are driven by the thoughts that are constantly swirling around inside of our minds. The average person thinks something like 64,000 things in any given day…64,000! That means that thinking is a largely unconscious process. Thinking is automatic, it happens without us putting in any effort or really doing anything at all. This doesn’t mean, however, that thoughts are out of our control or that we are a slave to the things we think. We have the ability to understand where those thoughts come from and to challenge them in order to create positive changes in our behavior.
Analyzing and assessing the way we think about ourselves and others is not something that the majority of us focus on in our daily lives. Yet the majority of us engage in behaviors, both positive and destructive, based on nothing more than what we think about ourselves and events that we encounter throughout our day. These automatic thoughts and beliefs have developed over time as we have been exposed to events, people, conversations, successes, and failures, and are a core part of what we understand to be our identity. The interactions beginning from the moment that you are born and continuing throughout your life, shape and mold these beliefs and thoughts. But what happens when these thoughts are destructive and when they lead us to engage in behaviors or perseverate on beliefs that ruin our lives, our relationships, our jobs, and our sense of safety and well-being? Where do we begin to intervene, to begin the process of believing that maybe, we should not believe everything that we think?
This is the aspect of cognitive-behavioral therapy, one of the most validated and utilized mental health treatments, that begins the process of changing unhealthy and destructive behaviors. In order to change the way you act, the way you respond to others and to your own successes and failures, and in order to change the way you perceive the world around you, you have to first address the faulty thinking that is driving the undesirable behavior. The reality is that you can struggle indefinitely by “trying to do better,” and get nowhere. You will inevitably relapse in whatever behavior you are trying to change because you have not addressed the reasons behind why you are behaving in that manner. The only way to truly change your behavior goes far beyond creating a healthy habit to replace an unhealthy habit, or just trying harder…the only way to change your behavior for good is to change the way you think.
People tend to ignore or dismiss the way their thoughts about themselves and the world influences their behavior. This is either a protective mechanism because behind every automatic thought is a core belief that we have turned into part of our identity, or an inability to be introspective for the fear of what you will find. The issue is that these core beliefs generally do not allow us to live happy and fulfilling lives free of negativity or emotional pain. Core beliefs typically involve beliefs such as “I am unlovable, I am worthless, I have to be perfect or else, No one will every love me if they get to know me, People Must do things in this way, and The World is unsafe or chaotic.” These core beliefs drive the emotions behind depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, and all of the personality disorders. When we truly believe something about ourselves or others, we will seek validation that those beliefs are true and ignore the preponderance of evidence that contradicts that core belief. With the exception of experiencing trauma, which can create a core belief in an instant, these beliefs have developed and morphed throughout your life, with hundreds of thousands of instances where you have perceived information that validates these beliefs instead of allowing other alternatives to change those beliefs.
Ingrained behavior patterns such as anger, chronic suicidality, and mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and personality disorders, are all subject to being influenced by these core beliefs. Imagine how easily it would be to become depressed if you had a core belief that said you are unworthy, unlovable, unimportant, or worthless. Imagine how easy it would be to develop anxiety disorders when you have a core belief that the world is unsafe, chaotic, or that you have to be perfect or else. These core beliefs and the automatic thoughts that manifest during interactions with others or in the responses you have to successes or failures (either yours or others’) can create a perfect storm, allowing you to feel out of control and hopeless to change the behaviors that you do not like. The beautiful part about beginning to understand our thoughts and beliefs is that we are in control of our own thoughts and ultimately are in control of our behaviors. The process of changing the way you think about yourself, understanding how and why you began to develop those core beliefs, challenging those thoughts with truth and reality, and intentionally addressing the automatic thoughts, will lead to a change in behavior.
Oftentimes, once you have a success with challenging and changing these automatic thoughts, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, for example, will begin to remit because you are able to begin to believe that there is hope for a different future than the one you had been imagining. Being able to hope for a different and positive outcome is really when you will begin to see the success of treatment. Choose to challenge the thoughts, choose to pay attention to how often you have negative thoughts and the content of your thoughts. Look at your deeply held beliefs, those core beliefs, without shame or fear, and begin to hope that there is a way out of the darkness and chaos that you are experiencing.
*If you are experiencing thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, the best thing to do is to immediately seek help through the suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255), VA hotline (https://www.veteranscrisisline.net), or 911. When you are suicidal, it is important to get immediate help, because you will not be able to go through this process alone.
**If you are suffering from depression, anxiety, anger/rage, OCD, PTSD, or any other feelings or behaviors that you do not want to continue to experience, or if you have a loved one who is experiencing this, reach out. Do not be afraid to ask for help, oftentimes treatment can be accomplished in 6-10 sessions. Make the choice to change your life for the positive, and to have the future you can hope for.