Toxic Habits of the Mind
Thanks to Martin Seligman (founder of the movement called Positive Psychology), therapists have a much better understanding of three of the most common self-defeating habits/patterns of the mind. In response to challenging situations in our lives, we often fall into habits/patterns of thinking that are excessively:
To illustrate, let’s take a look at toxic versus healthy ways of thinking about a universally difficult situation: getting fired from a job due to budget cuts. Before we do that, however, it’s important that we normalize the FEELINGS that losing a job triggers in us: fear, disorientation, anger, embarrassment, shame, etc. Such emotional experiences are universal aspects of the human condition. We all experience them at one time or another. But for some of us, the onset of such feelings produce automatic thinking patterns that are highly toxic. The development of these patterns occurs over time, often originating in childhood. Understanding the roots of our habitual thinking can be very useful—but for now, let’s just take a look at a concrete example of what the patterns themselves can look like when we lose a job:
of the mind
of the mind
“I must be cursed or something. I cannot believe this is happening to me. Why does everything fall apart in my life? Is there something wrong with me? It’s like I’m defective, or that my fate is to be miserable. Why did they have to let me go, instead of that other guy? It’s probably because I speak my mind. They’ve probably wanted me out for a while.”
“This is likely to be an emotional rollercoaster, and so I need to keep reminding myself that I’m not alone in this situation. Budgets are being cut all over the place, and I’m just one of the unlucky ones for now. I know my tendency is to get down on myself and fall into self-pity, but that’s not going to help me. The truth is that people get fired every day. It sucks but that is part of life. What matters most is that I get the support I need, avoid isolating and stay focused and positive. I will get a job because I refuse to give up.”
“Everything I work towards just falls apart. I’m just an all-around failure. This is just another example of how everything goes down the drain no matter what I do. Whatever I try turns to sh** and I’m just sick of trying. What’s the use when nothing ever works out anyway?”
“This is so stressful, and I hate the idea of going further into debt. Thank goodness other parts of my life are going well. I need to lean on these other areas to support me through this. I’m grateful for my health, my friends, my family and my spirituality. I will not let this job loss ruin my life or define who I am. I have a lot to be grateful for, and I need to remember this as I work on finding a job.”
“Financial stress is just my fate. I’ll never find a secure job, and even if I do, it won’t be enough to get by. This is just going to keep happening, I know it, I can feel it. I’m going to be either unemployed or just flat broke forever, and it’s not fair. Why should I even try if this is what’s always going to happen?”
“These next few months might be really hard. It sucks, but I need to stay focused on the fact that this is temporary and that I will not be in this place forever. The harder I work on finding a job, the less time I’ll spend in this difficult place. I’m committed to building financial security into my life and this is just a short-term learning experience that I’ll look back on someday and be grateful for because it forced me to dig deep into myself.”
On paper, examples such as these can seem superficial, but in experience, the differences that can be created by altering our habits/patterns of thinking are quite profound. Life changing, actually, if we make this a daily practice. Toxic habits of the mind lead to increased pain, worry, depression, anxiety and dysfunction in our lives—while healthier habits of the mind support the development of resilience, positive emotions and constructive action.
deciding to live more creatively
It is a fundamentally creative act to think about your own thinking, and to choose more constructive and life-enhancing patterns. It’s an enormously valuable use of your own personal power.
Teaching people to recognize and reframe their self-abusive, distorted and self-defeating patterns of thinking is a core aspect of what I do in my NYC therapy practice. I see over and over again that when people are given the opportunity, guidance and support to slow down, reflect on their internal dialogue and make more conscious/creative decisions about what they tell themselves—they begin to feel a new sense of confidence, calmness and clarity in their lives.
Relationships are also fundamentally creative endeavors and what we say to ourselves about our romantic partners has a profound impact on how we see and relate to them. Uncreative relationships, sooner or later, become stagnant and frustrating, and partners often fall into fault-finding—focusing on everything that is wrong with the relationship. Once we habituate ourselves into seeing the glass (or the relationship) as half-empty, the downward slope becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Like learning piano, or learning a new language, identifying and influencing your own internal dialogue takes practice, repetition and time. But once the momentum starts to shift, once constructive/creative thinking starts to become the new norm, it literally changes everything. Of course life will always be stressful and there will be relentless challenges and difficulties to face—but having increased influence over the workings of your own mind helps you to see yourself less as a victim and more as a creative agent of change in your moods, in your relationships, in your life and in the world.