The Mental Muscle Marathon - Challenge #3: WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE

It’s Day 3 Mental Marathoners! And today it’s time to get really mental. With our minds! We’re going to try and watch our thoughts. Our unhelpful ones.

But before we do that – let’s do a quick recap of the basic ABCs of CBT.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) involves the challenging and changing of our thoughts and behaviours in an attempt to feel differently. The ABC Model of CBT is how situations, thoughts and emotions interact.

Often we think we can go from A to C with nothing in between, but CBT would argue that there is ALWAYS a B or an automatic thought in between!

This is in a ways a very simplified explanation of our thought-process. This is how we think and how we respond to circumstances. When we choose to think in optimal ways, we can often get the best out of our abilities. However, when we think in limiting ways we often end up making the situation far worse than it should be. You therefore have both helpful and unhelpful thoughts that direct your behaviors, decisions and actions throughout the day.

Us humans are forever describing our world to ourselves, giving each experience a label or evaluating each experience with a judgment. We automatically make interpretations of everything we see, hear, touch and feel. These are the automatic thoughts that we perceive as if by reflex – without any prior reflection or reasoning and they impress upon us as plausible and valid.

More often than not we are creatures of habitual thinking with our brains on auto-pilot. We typically reach for our old habits unconsciously, relaxing into the ease of our familiar and safe routine. The idea with CBT is not to try and expel the old behavioural habits away, but instead develop new thinking habits that we can deliberately ingrain into our minds. This can create corresponding pathways in the brain bypassing the old ones. Isn’t this amazeballs?

Our automatic thoughts are learned. Since childhood, people and the world around us tell us what to think. We become conditioned by family, friends and the media to interpret events in certain ways. Over the years, we have learned and practiced habitual patterns of automatic thoughts that are really difficult to detect, let alone change. But, we were not born with automatic thoughts already wired in our brains, we learned them somewhere. And whatever is learned can be unlearned.

So, for Day 3 Marathoners, we’re going to attempt a CBT challenge! We’re going to become aware of one of the most common of the automatic thought processes that people often use which can often be unhelpful – the “shoulds”.

Should statements are a common type of unhelpful thought.

It’s quite common in everyday language to hear people use “I should” and “I must” statements. It is not necessarily unhelpful to think, “I should get my work in on time” or “I should keep to the sleep limit”, but it can become unhelpful when we use “should” and “must” statements to put unreasonable demands or pressure on ourselves.

When we believe ironclad should, ought or must automatic thoughts we can really torture ourselves. Thoughts such as “I should be happy, I should be more energetic, I should get things right or I must never get upset with my partner”. Each of these ‘shoulds’ usually brings about the consequence of guilt. Or disappointment. Or a loss of self-esteem. And they come so automatically that we don’t have time to evaluate them and they’re so rigid we can’t modify them.

Sometimes we use should statements when we talk about or to other people. “She should know better than that”. “People should always keep their promises”. “You should finish what you started.” Often the emotional consequence here is anger, frustration, and resentment.

In short, should statements are generally unhelpful.

The challenge today is to try and notice if you are an unhelpful should-er. Try and become aware of any unhelpful thoughts involving the word “should” or “must” and stop and reflect on the statement.

If you notice some shoulding, the next step is to evaluate and challenge the helpfulness.

Try and ask yourself these questions about the should statement:

  • What evidence do I have for thinking this way?
  • Is this always true? Has this always been true in the past?
  • What would I tell a friend in this situation?
  • What choice do I have in this situation?

Good luck Marathoners!

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