At the start of the New Year, many people begin to create personal pacts or resolutions to assure that this year would be a better one than 2018. We long for personal growth and improvement, and by the month of December, we look back at our entire year and reflect on whether we made our year one worthwhile to tell, or one we could just scrap and forget about, then hope that we would do a better job the moment the clock strikes twelve on December 31st. Some common New Year’s resolutions include changing our diet, traveling more, going to the gym, becoming more productive, etc. But there is one resolution that I find to be crucial to assure you are not disappointed at the end of the year: being more aware of your negative thinking patterns.
We as human beings can be so hard on ourselves. We are sometimes more likely to believe our negative thoughts than our hopeful ones. Let’s take the resolution of “going to the gym” as an example. An individual may enter the year hyped about the thought of becoming more physically fit and creating healthier habits. But then, things like work, other personal responsibilities, and tiredness creep up on this individual. This individual may become discouraged in meeting their initial goal, and simply surrenders. Thoughts such as “I am such a failure”, “I can’t do anything right”, “Giving up is easier” may run into this individual’s mind, which may then affect how they feel about their self.
In the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach, there is something called the cognitive triangle in which it states that our thoughts, feelings, and actions/behaviors directly impact each other. Let’s take the thought of “I am such a failure”. Repeat these words in your mind and believe it to be true. How does it make you feel? Depressed? Agitated? Angry? Then after recognizing the emotion, how does this impact your actions? Will it likely make you want to keep fighting, or have you settled on giving up?
These triangle impact us on our day to day basis, and thus affects how we see our day, and even our entire year. Pause for a moment and ask yourself this one question: “How many times did I criticize myself just in the past week?” Example of such criticism include “I am such a failure”, “I messed things up again”, “I cannot do anything right”, “I am a terrible friend/mother/daughter/etc”, “I’m never going to find love in my life because I am such a loser”, “Who would want to employ somebody like me?”, etc. After thinking about the different ways that you criticized yourself, refer to the cognitive triangle above and reflect as to whether these thoughts impacted your feelings and behavior. Do you feel like this cognitive triangle is going on a never ending negative loop?
This then brings me to have one advice to everyone (even to myself as this is something I still continue to work on): be nicer to yourself! Just as simple as we can get ourselves stuck in a negative loop, we can also transition ourselves in a positive one. I’m not saying that we should simply ignore our negative feelings and pretend that things are “fine and dandy”. It’s important to give ourselves permission to feel our emotions no matter how negative they are, then after purging them out, picking ourselves up and moving on forward. So how do we create a positive cognitive loop? By looking at our situation in a different way. Here are a few of activities that can be utilized in helping rewire our minds into looking at our situation in a more positive light:
1. Thought recording: One of the most beneficial activities that the cognitive behavioral therapy approach presents is something called thought recording. It is a means of tracking the automatic thoughts that come into our minds, and training ourselves to reframe it in an alternative viewpoint. Other aspects of the recording include noting the emotions felt and action taken before and after finding an alternative viewpoint. The purpose of the activity is to challenge ourselves into seeing our thoughts in a new perspective. Find example below:
2. Small successes: This is an activity that I like to utilize with my clients because it is something so simple, and yet effective in seeing things in a more hopeful way. By the end of our days, we have a tendency to review all the terrible things that happened throughout our day, and may end up stating words such as “I had an awful day today”. But is it really all that bad? Sometimes, we neglect the small things that did go “right”. This activity requires you to take time to identify what you felt were “successful” in your day, or things that brought you joy, no matter how small. Here is an example:
a. I may not have met my productivity at work today, but at least I did better than how I did yesterday.
b. I made it to work on time today.
c. I talked to my parents over the phone.
d. I cooked my meal instead of getting take out.
e. I read a page of my novel.
The point is not getting yourself caught up on having an internal narrative of the things that didn’t go as planned, and instead recognizing that there are things that can be appreciated every day.
3. Find the exception: Sometimes, we tend to have what’s called an “all or nothing” way of looking at our situations. For example “I always get rejected by the opposite sex” or “Nothing ever goes right in my life”. Do you see what’s wrong with these statements? Is it really “always”, “all”, “nothing”, “never”, “nobody”? Every time you catch yourself using such words, always look at the exceptions. You might identify that “nothing” goes right in your life, but you forgot to recognize that you just accomplished finishing an entire marathon just last week, or that you were able to get through another semester of college. Life is not just a black or a white. Also consider that there are different shades in between.
Our minds can be our number one nemesis in life. It has a tendency to make us feel inferior about ourselves, and we just believe the words as real without even assessing first if it really is the truth (and the majority of the time, it isn’t). It’s time to silence these internal voices and stop allowing them to create negative narratives about who we are. You might be saying right now “easier said than done”. I understand that switching your perspective is not something that can happen over night… but just like everything else, it takes practice. If you learn the art of reframing your thoughts, it becomes easier to break yourself away from a negative thinking spiral. And yes, even if you end up not accomplishing your other new year’s resolutions because of unavoidable circumstances, with a new way of looking at things you can transform your thoughts from “I’m such a failure for not accomplishing another resolution” to “I can make positive changes in my life any day I choose anyway, and it doesn’t have to be at the beginning of the new year”.
This new year, why not start by creating a relationship with your self!