Some days, everything is going well and I think I’m a great psychology PhD. Some days I think I am indeed awesome, lol.
But, there are moments when it pops into my head that “I’m useless”.
I’m sharing this example to show how you can use two different approaches for dealing with these types of thoughts.
Option 1: The traditional cognitive therapy approach: “Disconfirming evidence” Asking yourself what’s the evidence the thought isn’t true/isn’t completely true/isn’t true all the time.
I could ask myself “what’s the evidence that I’m not a useless psychology PhD?”
There is, in fact, lots of evidence of this!
I reach the conclusion that the thought isn’t a logical thought.
Option 2: That’s great but… the thought keeps annoyingly popping up, even though logically I don’t believe the thought. So, here’s what I actually do.
One of the biggest shifts in psychology in the last 15 years has been that the focus has shifted from helping people “change their thoughts” to helping people “change their relationship with their thoughts”.
– Thoughts are just thoughts.
– Having a thought doesn’t make the thought true
– Having a thought doesn’t mean you have to do anything with the thought. You can have the thought without acting based on the thought.
– Being able to observe your own thoughts with a sense of having psychological distance from the thoughts. You are not your thoughts.
– Learning how to experience difficult thoughts without becoming overwhelmed by them and having the sense that you need to immediately “get rid of” the thought. This is important because attempting to block out your difficult thoughts or fight with your thoughts, will only lead to them fighting back.
Back to the example – over time I’ve learned how to not buy into either type of thought. When the “You’re a great psychology PhD” thought comes, I can experience it but – observe it, let it pass, and not get attached to it. That way I don’t get caught up in trying to keep hold of the thought (trying to keep hold of any thought is hopeless!), I don’t worry when I’m not having the thought, and I don’t feel a sense of desperately craving the thought (and associated feelings of confidence) .
When the “You’re a useless psychology PhD” thought shows up, I’m able to do the same. I keep going in my normal way WITH the thought. I let it sit there in my mind and after some time passes, the thought passes. The calmness of having this skill is a very nice feeling.
There are a few tips for doing all this:
– I’ve had lots of experience observing the relationship between situation triggers and my thoughts. I know the types of triggers that disproportionately trigger both types of thoughts. I know that the triggers come and go, so I know that the thoughts will also come and go. I know that “I’m useless” thoughts sometimes get triggered by small disappointments but that my brain sometimes takes me straight from “small disappointment” to “useless”!
– I’ve previously put in the work of logically evaluating the negative thought (using Option 1) so I have the memory of deciding that “I’m useless” is not, in fact, true.
– Lately I’ve been trying out an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) technique. This one sounds a bit lunatic but I’ve found it very interesting and lots of clients have told me its been helpful for their thoughts.
I repeat the word “useless” out loud for a couple of minutes. Doing this causes all of the meanings, memories, associations etc linked to the word “useless” to fall away and “useless” becomes just a sound. You can do this with any highly negatively emotional word e.g. overwhelmed, terrified. Next time a distressing negative thought pops into your mind, pick out the most negatively emotional word and try saying the word for a couple of minutes, out loud, as quickly as you can while still pronouncing the word correctly.
Getting rescued from thoughts
If any clients read this, please know I don’t need you to rescue me from my thoughts in any way! In fact the whole point of this is that people don’t need rescuing from thoughts and rescuing is more unhelpful than helpful in the long run because it perpetuates the mistaken belief that the thought is intolerable, when its just a sneaky thought!