When I get stuck in the rut of those negative, nagging thoughts, there are a few things that help me. Just like others, I find some trains of thought seem nearly irresistible, very hard to not follow. Yet instead of trying obsessively to stop the thoughts altogether, I found that it was more effective to neutralize them by what I call “counter-programming”.
Counter-programming is a bit of a fight. In recognizing that I couldn’t just stop the thoughts, I learned instead to work against their power. This means to challenge the thought running through your mind, refusing to accept it at face value, and undercutting its power by clarifying how irrational the thought really is. It worked to restore some objectivity.
I chose that term because it combined two words – counter, as in oppose, and program, as in something that is set to follow a specified course once it is in motion.
You know that these thinking ruts follow a predictable pattern. You go down the same road, to the same conclusion, and pass through the same territory along the way that you did every time before. It’s an exercise in futility that ends in frustration, despair and pessimism.
So rather than being stuck in the futility, I started paying attention to these thoughts and to challenge them with three different questions: Am I considering all the facts? Am I being balanced and fair? Are my expectations realistic?
So take as an example a man who is worried about a negative evaluation that he just got at work. It would be easy for him to get either defensive or to doubt himself. That evaluation feels like the end of the world to him, as if he’s a bad employee, as if he’s inevitably going to lose his job and suffer all sorts of terrible consequences that would result (this is called catastrophizing).
Let’s counter-program for him.
Is he considering all the facts? Generally, the negative stands out above the positive, so I would draw his attention to his strengths and contributions, considering his whole work performance. He’s less likely to catastrophize if he remembers what he brings to the table, what resources he has of his own, and how these can address his performance limitations. Also, what other helpful resources can he access, and whose assistance is available?
Is he being balanced and fair? Judging the motives of others can be like a minefield with lots of hidden dangers. This man could easily start seeing his boss as an enemy, imagining him or her to be threatening and out to get him, but I would question that. I’d ask what the boss’ goals are in a performance review and to focus on how this can also work for this man, how he can build his skills and make this a win/win situation.
Are his expectations realistic? Projecting into the future is problematic. Just the other day I talked with a client who had convinced herself that all the possible outcomes of her situation were negative. I had to directly challenge her, to point out where she had assumed things that evidence didn’t support.
It would be nice to do a whole tutorial on this topic, because there is so much to it, but it’s necessary to do only a brief introduction here. Yet just these simple steps can make some important changes and save you a lot of worry and stress.