After the complete dumpster fire of a year 2020 was, I was sure as hell due for a sit-down with a therapist (virtual, luckily). Everything “seemed” to be going just fine in my life, and I really had nothing on the surface to complain about. This year really put into perspective that having a job and housing, being healthy, and having a few close friends and family members are really all you need in life; the rest is just extra. So, why the heck was I so depressed?
For one, I don’t want to downplay the absolute role of ~brain chemicals~ in all of this. I’ve suffered from clinical depression for as long as I can remember; the pendulum suddenly swings opposite my favor every now and then solely because my brain feels like it, and as much as I can try to meditate and journal and do yoga and become a freaking zen master, I’ll still deal with depression. But there are times when my anxiety and depression can stand for a little upgrade, and that’s where talking to a therapist about coping mechanisms comes into play.
I’ve long been aware of the concept of limiting beliefs: those thoughts you believe about yourself to be utterly true even though they’re almost rarely based in facts. I can tell my friends up and down when they’re speaking through a limiting belief or they’re making up ideas assuming them as truths. But when it comes to myself… LOL. I don’t have such a handle on how negative thoughts can be so all-consuming.
I can tell my friends up and down when they’re speaking through a limiting belief or they’re making up ideas assuming them as truths. But when it comes to myself… LOL.
I have limiting beliefs about all kinds of things. “They’ll think I’m weak and unstable” if I open up or get vulnerable with people, or I “can’t meet a partner until I lose weight, because no one would want to be with me as I am now” are examples of really specific ones I have. But they also come up naturally: “I could never start a business,” “I’m not good at that,” “I’m bad at relationships.” I have limiting beliefs about my performance at work, my friendships, my relationship with my family, my habits, my productivity—you name it, and I’ve probably created a false reality about it in my head. Limiting beliefs can even be pretty specious, to the point that you might not even recognize at first that it isn’t actually factual.
After a few sessions, my therapist caught on to a few of them and suggested I start reframing these thoughts. At first, I was like, “Yeah, sure, that’ll work.” In practice, it doesn’t seem like it could be that effective. “I’m bad at everything” becomes “I am open-minded and try everything, which makes it hard for me to become a master at any one thing.” But when we got more specific and took more time to focus on how I could reframe that thought, fireworks went off. Immediately, I noticed that my mood and ability to cope with negative emotions improved.
I have limiting beliefs about my performance at work, my friendships, my relationship with my family, my habits, my productivity—you name it, and I’ve probably created a false reality about it in my head.
Since this has helped me so much the last couple of months, I’m ramping it up in 2021. The positive, healthy, mentally-well me has arrived! Here are a few ways I’ve used thought-reframing to manage my emotions and adjust the self-talk I experience, plus a few tips you can use to make 2021 your healthiest mental year yet:
Keep A Journal
My therapist recommended I dedicate a journal entirely for thought reframing. She said that when I have really negative thoughts that seem to pervade me—or even as time goes on, focusing on the little thoughts that come up throughout the day—to immediately write them down. And don’t judge yourself. If your first thought is that you suck and are the worst person ever, same! The whole point is noticing how often you have these thoughts. It makes sense why we’d feel down or sad if we’re constantly telling ourselves that we do, in fact, suck.
Then, at the end of the day or week, I go through all of the thoughts I’ve compiled and work on how I would reframe them. And when I really need a minute to calm down and regroup, I’ll do it right there, sometimes in the notes app on my phone. This has been a game-changer for me. I slowly am starting to see patterns in my thinking and discovering how I’ve managed let these intrusive thoughts take over for so long.
Some examples of thoughts I’ve reframed:
- “I look so ugly today” → “I’m really proud of how I did my hair and makeup today.”
- “I never have any good ideas” → “I prioritize ideation, and it’s a skill that I’m proud of at work.”
- “I’m a bad employee because I missed a deadline” → “I am working so hard to produce work that is high-quality, and sometimes that is sacrificial.”
- “I’ll never meet someone unless I lose weight” → “I want someone to love me for me as I am right now, not someone who wants a different version of me.”
If your first thought is that you suck and are the worst person ever, same! The whole point is noticing how often you have these thoughts. It makes sense why we’d feel down or sad if we’re constantly telling ourselves that we do, in fact, suck.
Try hot-to-cool thinking
When reframing an entire thought seems a little daunting, hot-to-cool thinking is what my therapist recommended. Basically, instead of going from “I’m the worst” to “I’m the best!” you go from “I’m the worst” to “I’m working on it.” We don’t have to immediately love ourselves; that takes time. And even if you do love yourself, you get tripped up and have negative thoughts, maybe even often. It’s human, unfortunately, to be hard on ourselves and go to a negative place when we want to avoid feeling an emotion we don’t like, such as jealousy, sadness, fear, or anger. So, simply cool down your thoughts.
Some other examples:
- “I’m bad at my job” → “I’m facing a few new challenges right now.”
- “I’ll always be single” → “Being single doesn’t feel great right now. I would like to work on meeting someone.”
- “I’m ugly” → “Everyone has different taste; who I find attractive is not the same as who someone else does. Because of this, looks are so subjective.”
- “I’ll never have enough money to live comfortably” → “I can provide myself the necessities right now, but I’ll have to find another stream of income to have extra spending money.”
It’s human, unfortunately, to be hard on ourselves and go to a negative place when we want to avoid feeling an emotion we don’t like, such as jealousy, sadness, fear, or anger.
Recognize when an intrusive thought is taking over
The second you start to recognize that you’re catastrophizing or getting stuck in a loop of limiting beliefs, simply recognize it. Notice how it feels. Are your palms sweaty? Did you tense up? Is your posture hunched? Do you feel a temperature change? For one, when we can see how our body naturally responds to stress, it’s easier to understand how and why it’s not good for us. When you notice your jaw lock during a particularly stressful day and you move around to try to help it, there’s an immediate release involved.
Notice how it feels. Are your palms sweaty? Did you tense up? Is your posture hunched? Do you feel a temperature change?
But there’s also importance in recognizing the thought so you can give yourself compassion. My therapist is constantly telling me to just stop and place my hand on my heart. Engage in self-compassion and love. Remind yourself that it’s OK to feel negative emotions. This alone has been a game-changer, and it’s so simple and can be done anytime, anywhere.